Figure Skating

Skate America: 5 things to know about first Grand Prix of 2020-21 season

Two-time and reigning world champ Nathan Chen headlines the figure skating in Las Vegas, where competition will happen behind closed doors and with a field of mostly Americans. 

By Nick McCarvel ·

For the second consecutive year, Skate America heads to Las Vegas, but 12 months later, the first Grand Prix event of the figure skating season looks much different than a year ago.

COVID-19 protocols will take centre stage along with the skating itself, as no fans will be allowed inside the Orleans Arena to watch the action.

Changes have been aplenty leading up to the Series this year, with the ISU assigning skaters to a lone Grand Prix versus the usual two. The assignments were also made with limited travel in mind: Forty-eight of the 56 athletes in Vegas are Americans; the eight others have their training bases in the U.S.

Two-time and reigning world champion Nathan Chen leads the athlete list, but he’ll have tough challengers in the men’s event with 2019 world bronze medallist Vincent Zhou, as well as Canada’s Keegan Messing, 2019 world junior champ Tomoki Hiwatashi and more all set to skate.

Here, we break down five things to know about Skate America, including where and how you can watch as a truncated figure skating season gets underway.

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Safety protocols provide different atmosphere

As we’ve seen across the sporting world, the feeling will be much different inside the venue for Skate America, where strict COVID-19 protocols are in place. Most notably, there will be no crowd, though event organisers have placed cardboard cutouts of some fans in various seats (see below).

“From an athlete’s perspective, not having the opportunity to harness the energy of the audience in those really exhilarating, competitive moments is a big challenge,” said Olympic ice dance champion Meryl Davis in a recent interview with Olympic Channel. “Figure skating… is so performance based. Not having that (energy) in the arena is going to be a very different experience for the athletes.”

“From an athlete’s perspective, not having the opportunity to harness the energy of the audience in those really exhilarating, competitive moments is a big challenge." - Meryl Davis to Olympic Channel

The athletes have entered into a “bubble” of sorts, with regular testing being done on site at the Orleans, the hotel that the competitors stay in and where the arena is attached to. Masks and social-distancing rules are also in place, and the event has shrunk from its normal three-day schedule to two, meaning all skaters compete on back-to-back days.

Action gets underway on Friday at 4:10pm PDT (7:10pm EDT/1:10am CET [Sat.]) and runs continuously through the evening. Free skates start at 11am PDT (2pm/8pm) on Saturday with the ladies. American viewers can watch via the Peacock Premium streaming service from NBC, or check their local listings. International viewers can check the ISU’s TV broadcast rights page.

Men: Chen, Zhou lead the field

Chen is the three-time and reigning Skate America champion, going for a record-tying fourth in a row. American Todd Eldredge won four straight from 1994 to 1997.

The 21-year-old American has two new programs choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne and looked in fine form in the virtual ISP Points Challenge event a few weeks ago, winning by 47 points over second-place finisher Jason Brown.

But that field did not include Zhou, the 19-year-old who has switched back to training in Colorado Springs, Colo., after a stint in Toronto earlier this year. Zhou told NBC Sports this week he has lofty goals for Beijing 2022: “I’m hungry for an Olympic medal. I know I’m capable.”

Those two will bring quad-laden programs to the ice, as will Canada’s Messing, who trains in Alaska.

Others to watch: up-and-coming Americans Hiwatashi, Camden Pulkinen and Alex Krasnozhon, each who have quad jumps in their respective repertoires. Israel’s Daniel Samohin and Alexei Bychenko will also factor into the men’s event.

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Women: Bell and Tennell face off for bragging rights

For the first time since the U.S. Championships in January, Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell will go head-to-head for American bragging rights. Two-time and reigning U.S. champ Alysa Liu is still not eligible for senior international competition due to age, but the race between Bell and Tennell is friendly yet fierce. The two will look to help the U.S. gain a third spot for the Olympics this coming March at the world championships.

Tennell made a coaching change to Tom Zakrajsek over the off-season, and has been working on a triple Axel with him. She will not try it this weekend, however, meaning the two women will go head-to-head and see who can deliver the better programs for the judges.

Other competitors include Tennell’s 2018 Olympic teammate Karen Chen, 2014 Olympian Gracie Gold – who continues on her comeback trail – Amber Glenn (who’s been working on a triple Axel herself) and Starr Andrews.

Skate America will look to have its first American ladies’ champ since 2016, when Ashley Wagner won in Chicago. Bell was second that year.

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Dance: Hubbell and Donohue look to defend crown

Like all four disciplines, the dance field is American heavy, with two-time and reigning Skate America champs Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue leading the charge. Their training mates and fellow Olympians Madison Chock and Evan Bates have not made the trip from Montreal, however, opting out of competition due to not feeling fully ready after missing key training time because of COVID.

It presents the opportunity for other American teams, notably Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, as well as Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko and Caroline Green and Michael Parsons.

Should they win, Hubbell/Donohue will be the first team to three-peat in dance at Skate America since Davis and her partner Charlie White won four in a row from 2010 to 2013.

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Pairs: Open field features new duo of Knierim/Frazier

Perhaps the most unknown of the four disciplines is pairs, as reigning U.S. national champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim are no more, with Chris retiring at the end of last season. Alexa is now with Brandon Frazier, himself a former U.S. champ with previous partner Haven Denney.

They train in Irvine, Calif., alongside Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who won the aforementioned virtual Points Challenge a few weeks ago and are carrying momentum from a second-place finish at U.S. nationals in January, where they were first in the free skate with a stirring performance.

Other former U.S. champs will look to contend for podium spots as well, including Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, as well as Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea.

No U.S. team has won pairs at Skate America since 2006 when Rena Inoue and John Baldwin captured the title.

With Skate Canada cancelled next weekend, Grand Prix action will return 6-8 November for Cup of China. The Internationaux de France has also been cut, meaning the Series will close out in November with Rostelecom Cup (Russia) and NHK Trophy (Japan).