Ice Network

Sjoberg realizes dream, takes novice men's crown

Liu overcomes early-season hip injury to win silver; Naumov earns bronze
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Short program leader Eric Sjoberg completely outclassed the field in the free skate, winning the segment by more than 17 points and taking the title by almost 20. With the victory, he adds a gold medal to the silver he captured in this event in 2014. -Jay Adeff

When he won the 2014 U.S. novice silver medal, Eric Sjoberg was 12 years old, barely 5 feet tall and the youngest skater in the event. But then he grew up -- fast.

Last year, a growth spurt contributed to a disappointing 11th-place finish in novice. As late as last summer, Sjoberg wasn't sure about his 2015-16 campaign.

"I didn't know if I was going to compete this year," he said. "There had been so much growth, more than eight inches. I didn't start really training programs and jumping until maybe July or August."

Coach Rafael Arutunian encouraged him to give the novice ranks a third try.

"Last year was not successful, because (in 2014) he was second, and basically he wanted to win," said Arutunian, who trains Sjoberg in Artesia, California. "But he grew up a lot. Two years ago, he was a very tiny guy. This year we hired a very nice guy from Russia, Denis Petrov, and he helped us with off-ice training and strength, for (better) rotation on the ice."

So Sjoberg decided -- belatedly -- to compete at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Good thing: At the Xcel Energy Center on Monday, the Maryland native hit every jump in his free skate and won the novice title by nearly 20 points.

Skating with fine speed and flow to a dramatic piano concerto by the late Leonard Pennario, Sjoberg reeled off seven triples, including a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination and another triple lutz. The sparkling program earned 117.15 points and, when combined with his first-place short program, gave him 171.68 points total.

"It was like what I do every day in practice," Sjoberg said. "I didn't feel like there was pressure. I think the only pressure is what I put on myself."

Sjoberg was so tuned in, not even an unscheduled 15-minute break to clean the ice ruffled his composure. That happened when Jun-Hong Chen, skating fourth in the last warmup group, cut his right hand and bled on the ice. (Chen, who placed eighth, received several stitches from on-site medical staff.)

"I was kind of used to it because at regionals somebody's music didn't work and they took 30 minutes just fixing the music and then gave us another warmup," Sjoberg said. "It was kind of like that again, except with blood. I think I did well, considering everything. This win means a lot to me."

The delay didn't hurt Peter Liu, either. The skater from Wilmington, Delaware, showed fine musicality and attractive landing positions in his free skate to music from the Frida soundtrack, hitting five clean triple jumps, three in combination. He earned 99.67 points and ended with 151.90.

"I was really nervous before (the break); I was shaking and everything," Liu, 15, said. "When they announced the ice cut, the pressure was taken away. I could do my stuff again."

Liu's coach, Viktor Pfeifer, credits his skater with working extra hard to make up for lost training time following a hip injury earlier this season.

"He had a bad fall, and it took three months to recover," Pfeifer said. "We couldn't train the way we wanted to for (Eastern) Sectionals, but now we're here and he did it."

The bronze medal went to Maxim Naumov, who landed four clean triples in his free to Jorge Quintero's "300 Violin Orchestra." The 14-year-old son of 1994 world pairs champion Vadim Naumov and Evgenia Shishkova skated with musicality and flair, but fell on his opening triple lutz and ended with 148.73 points.

"If you do mess up, it's OK -- it's not the end," Naumov said. "No matter what, you keep pushing and go for the rest. The rest of my jumps, and especially the expression, I was focusing as hard as I could to make up for the loss of the lutz."

William Hubbart landed a triple flip-triple toe combination in his free skate to finish fourth with 142.83 points. Ryan Dunk landed five triples, including a triple lutz-double toe combination, to place third in the free skate and climb from ninth place after the short program to fifth overall.