Ice Network

Hersh: Takeaways from U.S. International Classic

Chen chooses non-traditional music; Honda impressive to watch in person
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Nathan Chen gave his choreographers the freedom to venture outside the box in picking program music for him this season. -Melissa Majchrzak

SALT LAKE CITY - Here are six takeaways from the 2017 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, which marked the real start of the Olympic season.

1. Nathan Chen stood out last season, not only for succeeding on history-making quadruple jumps but also for accepting the risk to attempt them.

He stood out in his first competition of this Olympic season, the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, by taking some musical risk while most singles skaters are playing it safe with old warhorses like Turandot, Carmen, Phantom of the Opera, et al., ad nauseam.

Chen let his choreographers -- Shae-Lynn Bourne (who did his short program to the Benjamin Clementine version of "Nemesis") and Lori Nichol (who used the score from the film Mao's Last Dancer, with its powerful passage from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, to craft his free skate) -- pick the music.

"I love both programs," his coach, Rafael Arutunian, said.

Both programs have sections of music -- most notably in the Stravinsky -- that are angular and rough, with some syncopation. Movement in figure skating is mainly fluid (legato), curved and graceful rather than staccato and accented. That means interpreting the music choreographically is a challenge that Chen, 18, knows will take more time this season to meet.

"My goals are building the (free skate) program as a piece of performance and building back to where I was technically," Chen said.

Chen attempted just three quads in the free skate (it is amazing to qualify three quads with "just," but it is necessary in his case), landing two.

2. There is no need to continue the discussion about whether Chen's costumes in Salt Lake City -- red shirt and black pants for the short, all black for the free -- enhanced his programs.

A member of Team Chen told me they are only temporary, chosen because there was not enough time to get the costumes he will wear later in the season. He likely will stick with these through at least his next two competitions, October's Japan Open and the Rostelecom Cup.

3. In his old hometown, Chen is figure skating. No Nathan, no coverage of Saturday's dance and ladies finals in the Salt Lake Tribune, which had given big play to the sport in advance of his homecoming and after his Thursday and Friday skates.

4. A video of Marin Honda's free skate at last season's world junior championships left me agape at her brilliance.

Seeing the Japanese phenom live this week was just as impressive.

In her senior debut, at an altitude of 4,682 feet, doing a free skate 30 seconds longer than those she did in juniors, Honda was wobbly on her skates after the finish and collapsed briefly after leaving the ice, so out of breath was she from an utterly breathtaking performance.

Her skating in those four minutes was seamless. Except for turning a planned triple salchow into a double, her 12 elements were virtually flawless. She mixed passion and a lighter-than-air ephemerality. She beat runner-up Mirai Nagasu by nearly 15 points.

No wonder Honda said unreservedly that her dream is to win an Olympic medal -- and she meant this February, not 2022.

Can she do it? It's a long shot against Russians like Evgenia Medvedeva, Anna Pogorilaya and Alina Zagitova, who pile up points with backloaded programs.

"She definitely has a chance," said reigning U.S. champion Karen Chen, a big admirer of Honda's skating, which Chen called "beautiful, elegant, effortless."

5. Both Chen and her U.S. teammate, Mariah Bell, had decidedly underwhelming free skates.

Chen's Carmen, which included a fall and four underrotated jumps, scored some 15 points lower than Honda's Turandot.

"I can say that there were some good things, and there were definitely some things that were disappointing," Chen said. "Accidents happen, and it's still early in the season."

With a fall, an underrotation and a popped triple flip in her West Side Story free skate, Bell scored 23 points less than Honda. Bell also had a fall in the short program.

"I'm really proud of what I did, but the score was super low, so I have to go back and look at the judges sheets," Bell said.

They contained plenty of evidence for the low scores: negative Grades of Execution on three jumping passes, no GOE higher than 0.7, a zero base value on a botched combination spin and only a Level 2 for the step sequence.

"It's only going to get better from here," she insisted.

6. Mirai Nagasu's free skate is to music from Miss Saigon.

She also had the role of Miss Triple Axel, which no U.S. woman has played since 2005.

Nagasu came within a light tap on the ice with her non-landing foot of performing the jump cleanly in the free skate (-0.4 GOE). She got full base value credit for both that one and the one she did in the short program, which had a clunky, two-footed landing (-1.6 GOE).

The triple axel alone, even if clean, could not compensate for later mistakes she made in both programs. And it alone will not be enough to earn the skater a place on the 2018 Olympic team. But it has started a buzz that adds to her image.

That's why Nagasu said after Friday's short program that she has nothing to lose by trying it.

She said, "I feel like I'm getting myself ahead of the game and ahead of my competitors, and that's really important to me going into the Olympic season."