Ice Network

Americans enter Grand Prix Final with high hopes

Wagner not focused on age; Chock, Bates have sights set on dance title
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Ashley Wagner scoffed at the notion that she is getting too old to keep up with the younger Russian ladies. -Getty Images

Ashley Wagner has a message for anyone who says she's not good enough, or young enough, to compete at the top of the sport: Get used to me, because I'm sticking around.

"Anybody who looks down on some old gal going after her dream, I have many things to say to them, but I will just say: 'Watch me do it,'" the 23-year-old said during a media teleconference Thursday.

The two-time U.S. champion, who competes in her third consecutive Grand Prix Final in Barcelona this week, is already thinking ahead to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. There, she will be 26, a bit younger than Italy's Carolina Kostner was when she won bronze at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.

"I was a skater who was always adjusting; I always had a new coach," she said. "Now, I'm finally in an environment where I'm starting to settle down, getting used to working with one person (Rafael Arutunian) and getting that technique down."

"I feel I am going to be a late bloomer in this sport," she added. "So what? I'm going to be 26 at the next Olympics. That's not old. I will probably be in my physical prime around then."

From the perspective of the United States, it's hard to argue with Wagner's logic. No American lady has competed in three straight Grand Prix Finals since Michelle Kwan, and with Gracie Gold's withdrawal from the event, Wagner will be the lone U.S. singles skater in Barcelona. She earned her way there, with a silver medal at Skate Canada and bronze at Trophée Eric Bompard.

"To have my name in the same sentence as one of my idols (Kwan) is an incredible accomplishment," she said.

With trademark honesty, Wagner admits the path to the podium in Barcelona will be tough. Three of the Russian ladies entered -- Anna Pogorilaya, Elena Radionova and Julia Lipnitskaia -- have defeated her head to head in the Grand Prix this season. They and the two other entrants, Russia's Elizaveta Tuktamisheva and Japan's Rika Hongo, have landed clean triple-triple combinations this season, something that has eluded the American.

"I will make sure the triple-triple is there, because I need it. There is no other way of saying it," Wagner said, adding that she plans a triple flip-triple toe combination in both her short program and free skate. 

So far this season, Wagner has made good attempts at the combination in her short to Spartacus, staying on her feet but having the triple toe loop judged under-rotated. She has also lost points due to under-rotation calls on one of her favorite jumps, the triple loop.

She and Arutunian, who trains his skaters in Artesia, California, are stepping up their efforts heading into Barcelona.

"When I am in the moment and competing, I am not focusing on whether one jump was cheated or clean; I'm kind of focused on staying up and going through the program," she said. "I think it might be kind of a nervous habit. Instead of reaching the full height of the jump, I pull in too fast and it gets kind of squeaky."

"For me, the biggest challenge is going into competitions calm and getting my jumps up in the air and hitting that high point," she continued. "If I do that, I can get the full rotations, no problem." 

Occasional crowded conditions in Artesia have prompted Arutunian, who also trains U.S. skaters Nathan Chen and Adam Rippon, to seek additional ice time at other rinks. On her teleconference, Wagner refused to use limited ice time as an excuse.

"If I have two hours on the ice and it's not exactly perfect training conditions, that's fine -- that's what I am getting that day, and I have to work with it," she said. "It's not something that affects me all that much, (though) it would be nice to live a day in the Russians' shoes and have everything perfectly set up so I can focus on my training."

If Wagner is an admitted underdog to bring home gold in the ladies event, Madison Chock and Evan Bates are co-favorites to win the ice dance title.

The U.S. silver medalists qualified for their first Grand Prix Final by handily winning Skate America and posting the highest total score of the season (174.28 points), at Rostelecom Cup. With five-time champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White sitting out the season, new Grand Prix Final champions will be crowned for the first time since 2009. The field is open: Just one couple set to compete in Barcelona -- Canadian world silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje -- participated in last season's Final. 

"The first half of the season has gone well, but this is probably the most important competition we've ever done," Bates, 25, said. "We just want to have better skates than at any time this year. Training has been going really well."

Both skaters like their chances for gold. At the Nebelhorn Trophy in September, the top Canadians edged them by just 1.59 points.

"The last time we competed against Weaver and Poje, we actually won the free dance at Nebelhorn, so we have a really good shot," Chock, 22, said. "We're really happy with the way training has been going, and it definitely has built our confidence, but it's going to be a different competition, a different panel. We're up against some really good skaters."

"As far as the competitive landscape, things have changed a lot for everyone in the sport," Bates said. "The throne is vacant, so we're going to try to take it."

Since returning home from Rostelecom Cup in mid-November, the skaters and their coach, Igor Shpilband, have pored through the team's protocols, seeking to earn as many Level 4 elements as they can.

"No matter where you sit, you never want to get complacent, because that's the moment you start to slide," Bates said. "I think the reason we've improved so much this season is because we've been hungry and working hard. We're just going to keep doing that."

Bates cited speed as an area they're seeking to strengthen, while Chock pointed to the paso doble sections in their short dance.

"Different (technical) callers sometimes look for different things (when assigning levels)," she said. "We want to make our key points as clean as they possibly can be, so the callers can see we are doing them and we can get Level 4's."

Chock and Bates' teammates and top U.S. rivals, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, qualified for their second Grand Prix Final and first since 2011.

The siblings won silver medals at Skate America and Cup of China, and posted victories at two Challenger Series events: the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in early October and Ice Challenge in mid-November. Competing four times in less than eight weeks has spiked their confidence.

"Across the board, the feedback we have received on our programs has been overwhelmingly positive," Alex, 23, said. "We have been really trying to develop our programs in the time we've had since our competitions have ended, leading us to the Final. We're just not settling for anything right now."

While audiences have especially embraced the Shibutanis' elegant free dance to lilting Strauss waltzes, their primary coach, Marina Zoueva, hasn't always been satisfied with their technical scores. 

"It was brilliant, no mistakes; it had high-level energy," Zoueva said after the free dance at Skate America, where the team placed about 11 points behind Chock and Bates. "And I'm really, really confused about the points they got. It just makes our sport look bad."

The siblings brushed aside any concerns about the judging, saying it was beyond their control.

"We're very open-minded, and we really try to take all the feedback we can get from a competition in terms of the score sheet or anything else," Alex said. "We have been losing some levels, but I think that's a natural part of the progression as you begin to get comfortable with your choreography and the performance."

"The audiences have really been responding to our programs," Maia, 20, said. "We felt that. We've really been able to connect with the audience and just focus on the performance."

Like Chock and Bates, the Shibutanis have targeted their footwork sequences, including the two paso doble sections in the short dance, to improve their scores. 

"We're constantly trying to look for ways to add light to the program and keep things fresh and exciting, so that the next time we perform we are able to improve the quality of our performance," Alex said. "There have been a few changes we were able to make. ... The compulsory paso pattern and then the partial step sequence feel really, really good right now."

Zoueva has made some changes to the siblings' free dance to Johann Strauss' waltzes.

"The first part of the music ("Roses from the South") is longer, and there are small changes to the transitions," she said. "I think it is even better now."

The trend may be working in the Shibutanis' favor: They earned a personal-best score of 166.34 at Ice Challenge.

In addition to Weaver and Poje, who won Skate Canada and NHK Trophy, the U.S. teams will square off against Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, winners of Cup of China and Trophée Bompard. The young French couple, who placed 15th in Europe last season and were left off the French Olympic squad in Sochi, have had a remarkable rise this fall.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier and the new Russian team of Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin will also challenge for the podium.