Ice Network

Fresh faces: Arutunian set to welcome new pupils

Honda, Lim to join Chen, Bell in training under renowned skating coach
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Rafael Arutunian, who helped guide Nathan Chen to the 2018 world title, will receive a new crop of students next season, including Marin Honda and Eunsoo Lim. -Getty Images

LAKEWOOD, Calif. -- In an upstairs locker room at Lakewood ICE, a skating facility with three rinks 21 miles south of Los Angeles, each dressing stall has a plate above it with the name of a figure skater or coach who regularly trains or teaches there.

On a recent afternoon early in what passes for the (brief) off-season in figure skating, odds and ends of clothing lay in the dressing stalls assigned to Team USA members Nathan Chen, Ashley Wagner, Adam Rippon and Mariah Bell. Michal Březina of the Czech Republic and Romain Ponsart of France have their fair share of personal belongings in the locker room as well, as do their coaches, Rafael Arutunian and Nadia Kanaeva.

Which of those skaters will be using the stalls next season remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: there definitely will be some new ones.

Japan's Marin Honda, 16, the 2016 world junior champion and a highly touted athlete who had a subpar 2018 season after a strong senior debut last fall, already has left Japan to begin training with Arutunian. She spent last week getting choreography done with Lori Nichol in Canada.

Arutunian said he expects South Korea's Eunsoo Lim, 15, fifth at the 2018 World Junior Championships, to arrive by the end of April. He has also been in discussions with the Chinese Skating Association about their sending two young male singles skaters to train with him in preparation for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Bell, a two-time world team member who turns 22 on Wednesday, plans to keep training with Arutunian next season. Březina and Ponsart also are expected to return.

New world champion Chen, 18, fifth at the 2018 Olympics and U.S. champion the past two seasons, recently was admitted to Yale University. In a recent interview, Chen told icenetwork he hopes to matriculate for the fall semester and find a way not only to continue competitive skating but also to keep working with Arutunian, who is based 2,875 miles from Yale.

Arutunian said he and Chen, who have worked together seven years, discussed some possibilities during the three days Chen skated in Lakewood last week during a break in the Stars on Ice tour.

"It looks like he wants to do both (study and skate), and he's smart enough, (so) if he understands it won't work, he will do something," Arutunian said. "He doesn't want to look bad at competitions.

"Summer time, he definitely wants to spend with me, and that will give us three months of hard work. He asked if I might be able to go there (to the Yale area) before competitions, maybe (for) six or 10 days."

Arutunian said he has not spoken to Wagner or Rippon about the future.

"They are enjoying life now, and I don't want to interrupt that," Arutunian said. "I want to give them some time. I would say I need to know around the middle of May."

Like everyone else, the coach presumes Rippon, 28, will retire from his competitive skating career now that he has immeasurably raised his profile by using his Olympic debut to introduce himself as a captivating performer and personality to a public far wider than just the skating world. He is competing on the four-week, all-athlete version of Dancing With The Stars that premieres April 30.

By her own admission on social media, Wagner has struggled to get past the shock and disappointment of not making the 2018 U.S. Olympic team after finishing fourth at the U.S. championships in January.

Arutunian believes Wagner, 27 next month, would definitely remain in the very elite of U.S. women's skating if she continued, especially given the U.S. women's performances at the 2018 Olympics (they finished 9-10-11, worst ever at a Winter Games in which the U.S. had three women's entries) and the paucity of other talented skaters currently at the U.S. senior level.

Bradie Tennell, 20, ninth at the Olympics, improved to place sixth at worlds. Mirai Nagasu matched her Olympic finish (10th), while Bell -- who replaced 11th-place Olympic finisher Karen Chen at the world championships -- was 12th for the second straight year.

"The Olympics showed us we don't have anything real…we don't have any girls," Arutunian said.

Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion, was a strong contender for each of the last three Olympic teams but gave underwhelming performances at nationals each of those years. She made the 2014 Olympic team despite finishing fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships.

Trying for the 2022 Olympics could create a redemption narrative for Wagner like that of Nagasu in 2018.

Nagasu endured bitter disappointment when she was controversially -- but justifiably -- passed over in the 2014 Olympic team selection, coincidentally for Wagner. But she made Olympic women's figure skating history with an eight-clean-triple-jump free skate in the team event in South Korea and U.S. Olympic women's figure skating history when one of those jumps was a triple axel.

Nagasu, who turned 25 on Monday, also is headed for April's Dancing With The Stars. She has not announced her future skating plans, but no one would be surprised if she retired from competition.

Skaters who have not retired remain in the drug testing pool. An athlete who retires and wants to come back must wait six months after re-entering the testing pool to compete.

"I don't think she (Wagner) could survive another four years, but one or two, she could if she wants to," Arutunian said. "But I am not going to force anybody.

"With her, it is not that easy. I always had to push her to get ready."