American skaters head to Boston with eye on Sochi

U.S. Figure Skating Championships Winter Olympics Sochi

Gracie Gold has been working with new coach. We'll see if it pays off in Boston.

Koki Nagahama / Getty Images AsiaPac

Michelle Kwan knows a thing or two about the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, having won a record nine of them during her storied career. Two of those wins were precursors to a medal-winning performance in the Winter Games, so she’s also quite familiar with how a strong showing at nationals can bolster a skater’s Olympic aspirations. On the eve of the 2014 U.S. Championships, she looks ahead at what to expect during competition this week in Boston … and what it all means for Sochi.

It’s exciting. I remember it was a good feeling the week leading up to Nationals. If there’s one thing I could share from my experiences, it’s that sense of anticipation and the thrill that came with it. I remember when I was training, what got me through all those practices throughout the year would be me thinking ‘well, I don’t want to be on the ice at Nationals or Worlds and say I wasn’t ready … I don’t want to feel tired in my program – so how am I going to get there?’

This week will be exciting because we’ll be able to see the ‘finished product’ that these skaters have been working on for so many months; to see their creativity, choreographically and technically. Every skater has a different game plan. Now we get to witness what everybody has.

How do you deal with the added pressure of Nationals helping to decide the Olympic team?

The only way to ease pressure and nervousness is to be well trained. And from what I’ve seen, the skaters are ready for what’s ahead. It’s not a surprise that sneaks up on the competitors. They have mentally been counting down the days to Nationals. These competitors have been waiting for it and hope that the work they’ve put in has them prepared and feeling like they are in the best shape possible. They should be in a good place-both mentally and physically-where they don’t have to worry about anything at all except going on the ice and doing their best. That’s the only way to ease pressure. It’ll always be there.

These skaters, especially the top 10, know that, as they’ve been through it all in previous national and international competitions. The top-ranked skaters already understand what they have to deal with and know what they have to do - listening to music, talking to friends, whatever it is – to get in the right frame of mind. For me, meditation was the key to finding a sense of calmness, especially the week before Nationals.

How do you train for Nationals, particularly in an Olympic year?

Many people don’t realize how training for Nationals works.  A lot of people assume you do your hardest, most intense training in the days leading up to an event. That’s not how it worked for me the final weeks before an event, I would coast the first several days, push a little bit halfway through, then ease off again in the last few days before I left for the National Championships. I don’t know if every skater trains like that, but that was the approach that worked best for me. I see some young skaters now, who are not well trained, trying to cram to get programs done; like a student who has missed most of the classes and then tries to learn everything the night before the exam. If you do it that way, you may get the big kinks out, run through the program with no problems and not be tired at the end of a four-minute program when your lactic acids is burning. But you don’t get the opportunity to fine tune the program. And at Nationals, where a tenth of a point can make a huge difference, every little imprecision hurts.

I have not run a marathon, but I have a lot of friends who have and their training format is similar to what mine was. You don’t run 26.3 miles every day. You work up to it and hopefully peak when the big race comes up. The difference for figure skaters is that if they do peak at the right time and earn an Olympic spot, they have a little time to fine tune before the Games begin.

There is something to be said about heading into the Olympics as a US National champion, no?

There is. There definitely is an added bonus of going to the Olympics as the National champion, but at the same time you just want to make the team. For the top skaters, the difference between first and second is one mistake. Make more than that and you may be watching the Olympics from home. When competition begins on Thursday for the senior members, what you are watching for is who can complete their performance the cleanest and outperforms everybody else.

There’s so much to see this week at Nationals and for those fighting for Olympic spots, it’ll start Wednesday with practices when we’ll be able to see where they are. How do they run through their program? Do they have noticeable jitters? Watching practice will give a sense of who’s looking good and who’s skating a bit on their toe pick. This is a time when you have to get acclimated to the new ice rink and surroundings and not be overwhelmed by the fact that these are the National Championships and the Olympics team will be decided here.

For some skaters, like Jeremy Abbott who has said he is retiring after the Sochi Olympics, this is their last shot. So what are skaters in that position thinking? There’s a lot we can see in practice that will foretell what’s to come.

What performances are you looking forward to seeing?

People often come up to me and tell me that figure skating is so much different in person compared to on television, and it’s true. So I’m looking forward to seeing performances in person

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to see Charlie White and Meryl Davis. They’ve talked about their program with me, and I’m excited to see in person the performances that I’ve only seen on YouTube.

Another competitor I’m looking forward to seeing is Gracie Gold. With the tutelage of Frank Carroll, it should be interesting to see if she’s now a different skater. I know how Frank trains skaters and how much he has probably done with Gracie in the last few months.


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