Ice Network

Olympic rookies Chen, Rippon ready for team event

Ice dance selection likely to cause controversy; Knierims up for challenge
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Training mates Nathan Chen (right) and Adam Rippon will compete for Team USA in the Olympic team event, which begins Friday morning in PyeongChang. -Jay Adeff

When it came to announcing its participants for the Olympic team figure skating event, U.S. Figure Skating tried to delay the suspense for as long as possible.

But there's no controlling Rafael Arutunian when he has an eager audience in the mixed zone. On Wednesday, the exuberant Armenian-born coach confirmed what many long assumed: His students would split the assignments, with Nathan Chen doing the short program and Adam Rippon the free skate.

"I asked them (their) choice (of programs), and then I gave them my choice," Arutunian said. "I gave them ideas, and they both agreed with me."

After word got out, Arutunian's skaters confirmed their preferences.

"I think the free is sort of my secret weapon," Rippon said. "My game plan is a lot different than a lot of the other guys: It's get as many points on each element as possible and then sneak in there. … The free is where I make my attack, so I feel I will be most beneficial there."

"I just wanted an opportunity to have as many skates as possible on the Olympic ice," Chen said. "For the short program, it's less taxing than the long, obviously. Having that, plus a week, will definitely have me in pretty good condition for the individual event."

Scott Hamilton agrees with Chen. Had the team event been around in Sarajevo in 1984, he would have offered to skate both programs but would have settled for the short.

"When I competed my Olympic short, my adrenaline was through the roof. I was a mess," he said. "The team event takes a little of that away; it's kind of a dress rehearsal. If I had gotten to do a short program in the team event, it would have been a lot easier."

The team event, which debuted in Sochi in 2014, allows countries to use different skaters or teams for the short program and free skate (or free dance, as it were) in up to two discplines. With the U.S. splitting up the men's event between Chen and Rippon, and only one pair, Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, qualifying to compete in PyeongChang, that leaves ladies and dance as the only other options for the U.S. to break up.

Like Arutunian, Marie-France Dubreuil spilled the beans on Team USA's strategy in dance at practice Wednesday.

"The Shibutanis are doing the short dance, and there might be a decision on the free dance, but so far I think it was (decided) the Shibutanis would do both," Dubreuil said.

If that holds true, it means that Dubreuil's charges, U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, would be left out in the cold, a decision that could be hotly debated.

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are the reigning world bronze medalists, and they won bronze at the Grand Prix Final earlier this season. But Hubbell and Donohue bested the siblings by several points in the free dance at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose last month en route to capturing the title. To further stir the pot, U.S. bronze medalists and two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates defeated both teams in the free dance both in San Jose and at the Grand Prix Final.

"They (U.S. Figure Skating) have more than one event in the team (event) to think about," Dubreuil said. "I questioned it, but I'm trusting it's the best thing for them. We will know after the short (dance) what will happen. That is why Madi and Zach arrive (Wednesday), so they will train and they are here, and if they have to jump into free dance, they will."

With the Shibutanis looking like they will skate the short and the free, the U.S. would likely use its second substitution in the ladies event, with U.S. champion Bradie Tennell and U.S. silver medalist Mirai Nagasu each taking a program.

If things don't run to form in the short, and U.S. Figure Skating officials think they need to change its lineup for the free -- swap in a more consistent skater, say -- they can. International Skating Union rules state that countries must declare participants for the men, ladies and ice dance free programs (which will be competed Monday) after the pairs free skate Sunday.

"I think the Shibutanis internationally have a stronger résumé, but with Hubbell and Donohue winning nationals, it's going to be controversial," Hamilton said. "The other option would be to have Bradie do both programs. Of course, no matter what, you are going to have an argument."

Most everyone agrees that Scimeca-Knierim and Knierim have the toughest job: The couple competes a short in the team event Friday and follows that with a free skate Sunday. The individual pairs event is held a few days later, on Feb. 14 and 15.

"For the Knierims, they are doing short-long, short-long just a few days apart," Hamilton said. "It's just another run-through, but something about competitive skating is another layer of exhaustion. So, to go through all that emotion and then do it again two days later, that's a lot to ask."

With only one pair in PyeongChang, U.S. Figure Skating had first alternates Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea remain in Asia after winning the 2018 Four Continents Championships in Chinese Taipei. Currently, they are training in Chuncheon, Korea, in the event they are needed.

But there are no indications the Knierims are anything other than fit and ready.

"We're both really excited being in the team event," Chris said. "Even if there was another pair team, we would still (want to do) both of the events. ... We have the opportunity to compete two more times in front of the world."

The battle for team gold: Canada vs. OAR

Canada and Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) will likely battle for team gold. To defeat OAR, Canada needs two wins from Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and the 2010 Olympic champions stand ready.

"That is our focus right now," Moir said. "We think Canada can take home gold, we think Canada can win, and that will be a great start for us. It will be our job to be sure we have strong ice dance performances to lead the way."

The duo tweaked major portions of their free dance after the Grand Prix Final and the 2018 Canadian Figure Skating Championships, and Virtue looks forward to getting feedback after the team event free dance.

"It helps us with those changes, to make sure we are getting the calls," she said. "But also, taking the ice at the Olympics is filled with pressure and every different kind of emotion you can imagine, and for us to have an extra opportunity to practice the mindset we need to get into can only help us. We also are those competitors who never pass up an opportunity."

Canada also needs points from two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, who will likely square off against two-time European champions Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov on the OAR side.

OAR certainly has the edge in the ladies event, with a possible tandem of two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva and European gold medalist Alina Zagitova taking on the capable but less consistent Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman.

The battle for the title may come down to whether three-time world champion Patrick Chan can capitalize on his last chance for Olympic gold, skate two stellar performances and fend off rising Russians Dmitri Aliev and Mikhail Kolyada.