New champions were crowned in all four disciplines in the junior ranks at the U.S. Championships in Kansas City, some laying down performances that would have rivalled their senior counterparts.
Aleksei Krasnozhon, 16, claimed the junior men’s title, but the road to victory was not without its challenges. Technically, he salvaged his “Rodeo” program, which saw two falls — one on a downgraded quad loop attempt — with seven solid triple jumping passes, two of which were Axels.
But it was his execution of the western-style choreography that made him the star of the show in Kansas City. “I started training this season like every day was a competition day,” Krasnozhon said. “When I started, I would fall like five times, but I would still do the spins and choreography. I think that pushing and doing programs like that every day for like three weeks…all of the sudden everything becomes so easy and things just come. It definitely was amazing. I think that’s what helped me to get to the Junior Grand Prix Final and to win here.”
Krasnozhon inspired giggles from the audience as he slapped his buttocks at the beginning of a step sequence, showing that he is developing skills as an entertainer. “At first, when I started doing the program, I didn’t want it to be too much,” he said. “I didn’t want the judges to be like, ‘What is he doing?’ But when I got to the Final and I had to spank myself in front of those Olympic judges, I realized that this is figure skating, and it has to be entertaining.”
His combined point total of 211.05 was the fourth highest score for a junior man at the U.S. Championships.
The leader after the short program, Camden Pulkinen, fell twice in his “Sarabande Suite” free skate, but hung on to win the silver medal 197.65 points. The 16-year-old landed five triple jumps — including an opening triple Axel. He was happy with his performance despite the errors.
“To go from 11th to second in a year is a big accomplishment for me, but more than that — placements aside — I’m so happy with how much my skating has improved,” he said. “I learned the triple Axel and how to do triple-triple combinations. Now I’m excited to use this year as a springboard and start working on quads.”
Ryan Dunk, fifth in novice a year ago, earned the bronze medal with a clean performance but with lesser technical content than Krasnozhon and Pulkinen. “I took one element at a time, and I think that I just kept breathing throughout the program,” Dunk explained. “I made one or two little mistakes, but I didn’t let it turn into something more.”
The bronze medalist landed five triple jumps in all, but did not attempt a triple Axel or a triple-triple combination in his “Samson and Dalilah” free skate. “I think that I exceeded my own expectations because I didn’t expect to be on the podium,” he said. “It’s really exciting to say that I am the bronze medalist in my first year in juniors. Next year I will be a junior again, and I will work to keep improving.” Dunk, 16, finished with 172.22 points.
Kaitlyn Nguyen, 13, who trains in Torrance, Calif., moved up from third place after the short program to win the ladies title in front of a robust early morning crowd with a score of 170.16.
The dynamo landed seven triple jumps — including a triple Lutz-half loop-triple Salchow combination, in her “Chess” program, outscoring the silver medalist by more than 15 points. “It feels amazing,” Nguyen said. “I am really happy with my performance today because one of my main goals was to do two clean programs and have fun, and I did that.”
Nguyen withdrew from last year’s Championships after coming down with a fever just before the competition. “I was withdrawn, but it was against my will. I really wanted to compete,” she explained with a laugh.
She feels, however, that it all worked out in the end. “I’ve worked very hard since then,” she said. “Even though I have had some bumps, I was prepared here and I did it.”
Maintaining her position after the short program, Starr Andrews captured the silver medal in her first year in juniors with 155.14 points overall. The 15-year-old was sixth at the novice level last season.
Skating to music from “Black Swan,” Andrews opened with a triple Salchow-triple toe loop-double toe loop combination, and landed four more triple jumps in her program. “It feels a lot better than last year when I didn’t win a medal,” Andrews said. “I am very proud of myself because of how much I have improved since last season.
“Even though I made some mistakes, I am still very proud of myself,” she added in reference to an edge call on her triple Lutz attempt. “I fought for everything, and I didn’t give up. I tried to get as many points as I could even though I messed up.”
Ashley Lin, the 2016 novice ladies pewter medalist moved up from fifth place after the short program to capture the bronze medal. The 13-year-old nailed a triple flip-half loop-triple Salchow combination and four other triples in her “Sandstorm” program and finished with 153.34 points.
“I feel really good. It was like a practice, and is very much like how I train,” she said. “I am proud of what I did today. I think that it was one of my best performances. There were some things that I could have done better, but I am still proud of what I did.”
In first after the short program, Emmy Ma, 16, struggled in her “Phantom of the Opera” free skate, and had to settle for fourth place with 149.88 points.
The ice dance field was perhaps the most competitive in Kansas City, boasting the top two teams from the 2016 World Junior Championships and a third team that joined them at the Junior Grand Prix Final last month in Marseilles, France.
In the end, it was the sibling team of Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons who came out on top, earning their first title in six seasons at the junior level with a score of 176.33. “It’s a really big confidence builder,” Michael, 20, said of the win. “Looking ahead to Junior Worlds, I think that we need this confidence to skate as well as we can. We need to make sure that our best performances this year are at Junior Worlds.”
The Parsons were precise and sure in the execution of each of their technical elements, and performed with the maturity of a senior level team in their contemporary “Singing in the Rain” free dance.
“I feel like this program is about those moments that really get you down in life and everything is just falling apart,” Rachel, 19, explained. “It’s about finding the beauty in that — embracing it, and getting yourself out of that dark place. There is beauty in that.”
After chasing the gold and bronze medalists for the past couple of seasons, Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko moved up to the silver medal position with a strong performance to “Exogenesis Symphony No. 3,” earning a combined total of 165.06 points overall.
“It’s a very nice surprise,” said Carreira, 16. “We’re really happy about it. We’ve worked really hard.”
Ponomarenko, 16, was happy that the footwork sequences were both level four. “I think that really helped us today.”
This team plans to compete at the junior level again next season, and are looking forward to their first World Junior Championships in March. “We need to work on bigger elements — overall speed and maturity,” Ponomarenko said of being competitive in Taipei. “We will keep working to stay in an upward direction.”
After winning the World Junior Championships last season, it was expected that two-time and defending champions Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter would make the leap into the senior ranks. But McNamara and Carpenter are spending another season on the junior level — with less impressive results.
They finished in third place in Kansas City — continuing what has thus far been a disappointing season — with 163.63 points.
“There is pressure when you are trying to defend a title,” said 17-year-old McNamara. “But I don’t think that really had anything to do with where we ended up. We don’t ever really focus on placement going into a competition, and our goal was to push our skating, push the programs as much as possible without being careful or thinking too hard. I think that’s what we accomplished. Yes, we had a mistake, but that only came from the aggression that we were working with.”
Second after the short program, McNamara and Carpenter were performing well in their program to a David Garrett medley until Carpenter fell in the middle of the diagonal step sequence. “I’m sure that there was something technical to it,” Carpenter said of the fall. “But from my perspective it was just a fluke. I have never fallen on it before, and it will probably never happen again now that I know that it can happen.
“Progress is gradual and does not move at a steady rate. Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move forward. Sometimes a placement doesn’t reflect our goals or what we are trying to accomplish, so I think that in moving forward, there will be lots more of that to come. We’ve seen lots of ups and downs in our career already, and that’s to be expected.”
McNamara said she and Carpenter do not regret their decision to stay in the junior ranks. “It’s given us the opportunity to skate a style of program that we have never done before, and I think that we’ve already done a good job of adding another type of program to our repertoire. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, and yes, it’s difficult, but I think that we’ve done a really good job at managing it.”
After taking the lead in the short program, Nica Digerness and Danny Neudecker maintained their standing in the free to win the junior pairs title in Kansas City, albeit with errors in their performance to Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum.”
Digerness fell on both throw attempts, but they made up points with superior presentation and skating skills, earning a combined total of 153.35 points. “With the mistakes, I thought it was going to be pretty close,” 20-year-old Neudecker said. “I wasn’t sure if our program components would help us, but in the end they did.”
Digerness and Neudecker, seventh in novice a year ago, worked with a team of coaches and professionals to help them prepare for the leap to the junior level. “We’ve had them work with Larry (Ibarra) and have added Ben Agosto and Ryan Jahnke to the team recently,” said coach Dalilah Sappenfield. “They also work with Drew Meekins on choreography, and we had Tamara Moskvina work with our teams in the off-season. She helped them to understand the importance of quality of skating, no matter if the elements are good or bad.”
Digerness said it was a slow and steady progression. “We began to work a lot harder, and things started coming together. We’re really proud to have won the title, and it’s a reward for that hard work.”
Elli Kopmar and Jonah Barrett finished in second place with 147.90 points, executing a throw triple Salchow and side-by-side double Axels in their “Flying” long program. This team had a cleaner performance than the winners, but lost ground on the program components score. “We took our elements one at a time,” said Barrett, 20. “It felt great, and I don’t think that we felt any pressure.”
Kopmar, 13, said they need to work on their skating skills in the off-season. “We need to improve things like what comes in between and how we push through the programs.”
The duo trains with Jim Peterson and Amanda Evora in Florida.
Alexandria Yao and Austin Hale captured the bronze medal with 144.64 points. This first-year team was pleased with their performance and placement after skating together for just five months. “The tricks are going to come with time,” said 20-year-old Hale. “We need to really work on our basics so that we can get that senior look.”
Yao struggled with the solo jumps in the program, but was satisfied with their “Somewhere in Time” program, nonetheless. “The combination is usually consistent for me,” the 16-year-old said. “The double Axel is tough, but it’s something that I will continue to work on. For now, I am just really happy to be in the position that we are.”’
2017 U.S. CHAMPIONSHIPS