Ice Network

Hersh: Three takeaways from U.S. championships

Tennell shows stunning consistency; Chen finds mojo with five-quad free
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Bradie Tennell and Nathan Chen both had weeks to remember in San Jose. -Getty Images

SAN JOSE, California: Three takeaways from the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships:

1. Bradie Tennell backers would be very rich today if they could have found anyone in Las Vegas willing to make book before this season on her winning the U.S. championships and/or making the Olympic team and then put down a couple hundred dollars on that bet.

Because the odds would have been about 1,000-to-1.

And even Tennell, ninth at the U.S. championships last year, would have had a hard time disputing that probability.

"Coming into this year, my main goal was to stay healthy," Tennell said. "I knew it was an Olympic year, and somebody had to go. I just kind of kept it in the back of my mind."

After missing six months of training over the previous two seasons with lower back injuries, how did she go from a young woman who had never competed at a Grand Prix event until Thanksgiving weekend to the top step of the podium in San Jose?

The answer is stunning consistency, especially on her jumps, where her solid technique carried her once her back had healed.

In her three most significant competitions this season, Tennell did 29 of 30 triple jumps flawlessly. The one with a minor error, a triple loop at the Lombardia Trophy, got full base value with a slightly negative Grade of Execution (-0.56).

Of her aggregate 45 jumps at those three events, just one (a double axel in the free skate here) did not receive full base value.

On her six triple lutz-triple toe combinations, the lowest GOE was 0.7.

She did this when almost no one was watching at Lombardia, before crowds of several thousand at her lone Grand Prix (Skate America) and before some 10,000 fans and a national TV audience in the free skate in San Jose. The increasingly bigger stages have not intimidated her.

"I wouldn't say I was nervous (before the free skate, which she began as the leader)," Tennell said. "I was a little bit anxious on the warmup, and I could feel it. I used the time between the warmup and when I skated to reassure myself that I knew I could do it, I knew what I was doing, and there was no reason for me to be anxious."

That consistency and her mantra of thinking she is just performing at practice, no matter the venue or the stakes, mean the odds now of her making an impact at the Olympics are far shorter than were those for her to make the team.

2. Nathan Chen clearly is back on track.

Yes, Chen made mistakes on those pesky triple axels in both programs at these championships, but he showed a renewed mastery of multiple quadruple jumps in a program that had eluded him previously this season.

"I had frustrations here and there throughout the season," he said. "I know what I'm capable of doing. I'm glad I was able to do what I did here."

Can Chen win the Olympic title? In the hypothetical event that all the top men skate clean, Chen may have a hard time breaking onto the podium ahead of the two Japanese stars, Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno, and Javier Fernández of Spain (presuming Hanyu is healthy next month).

But clean men's programs -- or even ones without big mistakes -- have become increasingly rare, as the skaters pack their routines with more and more quads. Chen now has done clean, five-quad free skates three times in the past 12 months, and he could even add a sixth quad if he and his coach, Rafael Arutunian, think that is needed to win a title or a medal.

The most encouraging part for Chen is that his trajectory is upward in a season when he has won all five of his competitions. And his major event this year, the Olympics, comes six weeks earlier than his major event last year, the world championships, where he stumbled into sixth, clearly worn down by the length and rigors of his first season on the senior international circuit.

He now has a little more than a month to get comfortable again with the quad lutz, having omitted it here. ("I didn't feel it this week," he said. "I just wanted to put out more clean programs, and the flip is a little stronger.") More important, he has answered anyone who wondered if his revolutionary jumping brilliance of last season could be repeated.

3. For the second straight Olympic cycle, there is great debate over a singles spot on the U.S. OIympic team.

This time, it involves the question of whether Ross Miner, second at the U.S. championships, should have been given the place that went to Adam Rippon, who was fourth.

U.S. Figure Skating's decision was justifiable under the criteria in place, but the selection process still is too opaque to prevent questions and angry reactions.

The biggest problem is that the events cited in each tier of the designated criteria are not weighted relative to one another, nor is each tier given a weight relative to the others.

Looking at the three tiers of criteria, Miner and Rippon were closer in general terms than it seemed. In Tier I, for instance, Rippon had an edge from making the Grand Prix Final, and Miner an advantage from his higher finish here. Tier III also had a similar split, with Rippon owning the only podium finish of the two, a third at the Finlandia Trophy, but Miner having a fifth from the 2017 U.S. Championships, an event at which Rippon did not compete because of injury. Tier II is where the biggest difference lay: Rippon's two runner-up finishes in this year's Grand Prix trumped Miner's single Grand Prix result, a sixth at Skate America.

The selection committee wound up using evidence not spelled out in the criteria, such as head-to-head results and comparative scores. U.S. Figure Skating President Samuel Auxier said Sunday that Miner's "amazing, lights-out performance" in the free skate did not convince the committee he had a better chance to win an Olympic medal than Rippon.

The underlying philosophy of the selection process, Auxier had said earlier last week, is to pick skaters with the best potential for medals, even if the likelihood of either Rippon or Miner winning one in PyeongChang would be very small.

Perhaps U.S. Figure Skating would be better served with a mathematical weighting of the tiers and the criteria within each. It could take into consideration scores, results and, most usefully, head-to-head results, since those were determined by the same judging panel.

As an example, Tier I could weight the U.S. championships at 50 percent, the Grand Prix Final at 30 percent and the most recent world championships at 20 percent. Tier I's numbers could be considered as 50 percent of the total, Tier II as 30 and Tier III as 20.

There could then be a category that factored in scores and results, even if those criteria are imperfect because of different judging panels and varying strengths of fields in Grand Prix events.

All these numbers could be turned into a ranking that would let everyone know where each skater stood before the final event impacting selection, that season's U.S. championships. U.S Figure Skating could still have leeway to set aside the ranking after the U.S. championships should injury or illness prevent an obviously superior skater from competing in the championships.

Auxier told me in text messages Monday that he will propose this month that the USFS board review and potentially update the criteria, which could lead to a weighting of the tiers for as soon as next season. He noted any such changes require study and approval by several parties, including athletes and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USOC signed off on the current selection process.

"We will review at least weighting the tiers for next year and look at different models longer term, (including) models based on body of work over 12-to-18 months," Auxier said.

The 2018 selection criteria were the same as those for the 2014 Olympics, with one exception: four years ago, the events from which results would be considered were listed in order of importance but not placed in tiers. USFS decided in December 2016 to begin using the same criteria, in tiers, for the World Figure Skating Championships selection process.

For what it's worth, the International Skating Union already has two sets of rankings based on international results. One, called the world standings, includes results from the current season and the previous two; the other, called the season's world ranking, has results for just the current season.

In the 2017-18 ranking, Rippon is fifth and Miner 26th. In the three-season standings, Rippon is 10th and Miner 38th.