The skating was just as we all remembered. The rest was quite different.
With no fans on site at Skate America and strict COVID-19 protocols being followed by the athletes and officials on site in Las Vegas, figure skating’s Grand Prix Series kicked off in full, though the 2020-21 season has plenty of uncertainties ahead of it.
What is certain is that Nathan Chen, the two-time and reigning world champion, maintains his perfect record at this event, winning it for a fourth consecutive year, something only Todd Eldredge (1994-97) and Michelle Kwan (1999-2002) had done in singles prior.
“I didn’t know that stat,” Chen told Olympic Channel in an Instagram interview. “That’s pretty cool. Those were my idols growing up. It’s pretty amazing to match what they’ve done… not entirely, but at least be on the way.”
While Chen was making history, California training mate Mariah Bell won the first Grand Prix gold of her career, holding off fellow American Bradie Tennell.
Forty-eight of the 56 athletes that competed were Americans, as only U.S. skaters or those that train in the U.S. were invited to the event, part of the restrictions put in place by the ISU to mitigate the risk of spread of COVID-19.
Skate Canada, set for week two, has been cancelled due to COVID restrictions in Canada, as has Four Continents in February. The Grand Prix Final in December is uncertain, as well.
Here are five things we learned from the weekend that was in Las Vegas.
Chen-pion again: Nathan reigns supreme
It wasn’t a perfect outing for Chen, who doubled a planned quadruple jump and then popped a triple Axel in his free skate, but he still won by some 24 points by second-place finisher Vincent Zhou, marking his 10th career Grand Prix gold and 11th consecutive win (including domestic events) since finishing fifth at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games.
“I made a few big mistakes,” an honest Chen said after his win. “At the end of the day I know what my job is and I know what I want to accomplish. With these mistakes… I have things to focus on moving forward.”
Zhou is revitalized having switched his training base back to Colorado Springs, Colo. The 2019 world bronze medallist earned his first-ever Grand Prix medal.
Canada’s Keegan Messing, who trains in Alaska, finished third. He dedicated his performance to the Canadian skating team, most of whom will not to get compete this Grand Prix Series because of the Skate Canada cancellation.
Ringing success: Bell makes her mark
Four years ago, Skate America was where a 20-year-old Bell captured her first Grand Prix medal, and this weekend she went one better, grabbing her first gold despite a fall late in her free skate.
That fall caused Bell to place fourth in the free, but she had been strong enough up to that point to hold off Tennell, her American counterpart, who won the free skate in her first event under new coach Tom Zakrajsek.
“My focus is always on the performance… so that’s left me a little bit disappointed,” Bell told reporters. “I know what I want to work on moving forward. There are going to be more technical elements in (the free skate).”
Bell also didn't let an off-ice problem bother her: Her short program dress didn't fit right, so she decided to wear her free skate dress for both programs. "We're in Vegas!" she said. "Anything goes!"
The U.S. may have found a new star to watch, too, as 16-year-old Audrey Shin took bronze in her senior Grand Prix debut. The teen competed at the Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne earlier this year, placing seventh, and saying the event made her hungry for Beijing 2022.
“It felt like a dream,” she said of the YOG. “It’s my favourite competition so far.”
Pairs: New duo Knierim/Frazier off to hot start
While the U.S. has struggled internationally in the pairs discipline, the new team of Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Brandon Frazier could mark a new era, both skaters being veterans and coming off long-standing relationships with separate partners. The two joined forces in the spring of 2020.
They wasted no time in their first major international event together, outscoring training mates Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson to win by seven points. Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov took the bronze.
"I made a joke to Brandon when we got our scores that this partnership is going to work. But I didn’t have my doubts prior. More than anything inside, we’re pleased with the progress." - Alexa Knierim on new partner Brandon Frazier
Knierim/Frazier won both the short program and free skate, and in the latter displayed a monster triple twist and side-by-side triple Salchows, as well as a throw triple Lutz and triple loop, both of which received positive Grades of Execution (GOEs).
"I made a joke to Brandon when we got our scores that this partnership is going to work," Knierim said in the post-skate press conference. "But I didn’t have my doubts prior. More than anything inside, we’re pleased with the progress. We feel like our hard work is being validated. We’re excited for what’s to come and excited to keep moving.”
Knierim previously skated with her husband Chris Knierim, who retired in February. Frazier skated with Haven Denney.
Hubbell/Donohue dance to a third straight title
Not since Meryl Davis and Charlie White won four consecutive (2010-13) in the lead-up to their Sochi 2014 Olympic gold has a team gone back-to-back-to-back at this event in ice dance, but Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue completed just that, and set their sights on the U.S. Championships in January, where they lost their national crown to Madison Chock and Evan Bates this past year.
"We know that going into nationals we’re hungry for the title again," Hubbell told NBC TV. "We have a lot of work to do back at home."
The duo praised two-time Olympic ice dance champion Scott Moir of Canada, whom they trained with in the lead-up to PyeongChang, for his choreographic work with, while saying he's also helped boost their confidence as a team.
"Getting the chance to see the way his mind works and what he sees inside me… I think he can pull more out of us," Donohue added.
Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker won the silver, marking just their third Grand Prix medal in seven senior seasons. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko of the U.S. skated to their second career Grand Prix medal, capturing the bronze.
What comes next: A season of uncertainty
While Skate America was a bright spot on the calendar for many skating fans, a season of uncertainty awaits, starting with an empty week to come as Skate Canada was cancelled by local officials due to COVID concerns.
In November, Cup of China, Rostelecom Cup (Russia) and NHK Trophy (Japan) are set to move forward, though the French Grand Prix was also cut and the Grand Prix Final – meant for Beijing in December – hangs in the balance.
The ISU has already cancelled February’s Four Contintents Championships (the global answer to the European Championships), as uncertainty awaits the sport in 2021.