U.S. skaters still no singular sensations

Chicago Tribune

Looks as if U.S. singles skating is right where I put it at the start of last month’s national championships.

In the doldrums.

With little chance of getting back a third entry for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

If you need a reminder of the analysis from three weeks ago, click here.

But the outlook is a just as gloomy after the Four Continents Championship that ended Sunday in Osaka, Japan.

(Another refresher: For the U.S. to get three men’s or women’s singles skaters in Sochi, Russia, next year, the finishes of its two entrants at next month’s worlds in London, Ontario, must add up to 13 or fewer.  So, for example, first and 12th, sixth and seventh, etc. -- or better -- would do it.)

The two U.S. men at Four Continents, Max Aaron and Ross Miner, were fourth and ninth.  The two U.S. women, Christina Gao and Gracie Gold, fourth and sixth - which seems promising but is not for a number of reasons.

The Four Continents Championship does not include skaters from Europe.  And this one was missing three of the biggest names from eligible countries – reigning world champion Patrick Chan of Canada, reigning Olympic champion Kim Yuna of South Korea and reigning U.S. champion Ashley Wagner.

Both Aaron and Miner are on the world team, as are Gold and Wagner.  She skipped Four Continents to concentrate on regaining the fine edge(s) that disappeared in her last two competitions, where Wagner fell twice in each free skate.

Gold, 17, left Japan with the same questions about consistency that have followed her all season, even after she rallied from ninth in the short program at the U.S. Championships to finish second with a dazzling free skate.

At Four Continents, she followed a slightly flawed short program with a free skate full of mistakes – a fall, a popped triple lutz, a botched opening combination.  Gold was sixth in the free skate and fifth in the short program.  That put her nearly 40 points overall behind winner Mao Asada of Japan, whose free skate was riddled with sloppy jumps, and some 14 behind third place Kanako Murakami of Japan, who had several jump errors.

What Gold said Sunday, in quotes supplied by U.S. Figure Skating, showed a frank appraisal of her skating and a decided need to play down expectations heading to worlds.

“It wasn’t a very good performance,” Gold said.  “I was nervous for my (free skate) and was shaky on my practices.  I wasn’t at the top of my game.

“I’m going to go home and take it easy for about a week to recover mentally and physically before I start my training for worlds.  I want to be top 10, but mostly it will be a great experience for me.”

Until the Grand Prix Final and the national championships, Wagner looked a good bet to improve on her fourth place from the 2012 worlds.  There is no doubt she still could do that, but there are a lot more questions now about her skating than there had been two months ago.

Gold is in her first year as a senior skater.  So is Aaron for all intents and purposes, since Four Continents was his first top-level international senior competition.

His lack of experience showed in a 10th-place short program.  That Aaron, the surprise winner at nationals, rallied to fourth by finishing second in the free skate was encouraging, but he may be hard-pressed to make the top eight at worlds.  Miner, 11th in his previous appearance at worlds (2011), has yet to show much evidence the result will be much better this time.

It wasn’t all gloom for Team USA at Four Continents.  The brilliant ice dancers, 2011 world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, came back from second in the short dance to beat their main rivals, reigning world and Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.

Forgive me for thinking the judges will make sure the result is different on the Canadians’ home soil next month, especially if Chan does not win a third straight world title the day before.

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