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The Inside Edge: Sectional champions roundup

Several Team USA skaters get through last round of qualifying, move on to Omaha

Max Aaron's early-season showings, including his win at the Midwestern Sectional Championships, has some thinking he could medal in Omaha.
Max Aaron's early-season showings, including his win at the Midwestern Sectional Championships, has some thinking he could medal in Omaha. (Jay Adeff)

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By Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins, special to icenetwork.com
(11/26/2012) - The recent sectional qualifying competitions brought thrills and heartbreak as always -- thrills for the skaters who will be competing at the 2013 Prudentiual U.S. Figure Skating Championships for the first time or returning with big dreams, and heartbreak for skaters who didn't quite make the cut. We tracked down almost all the senior winners by text, email, phone and video chat to find out how they felt about their competitions and what they have planned for Omaha.

The ladies

We talked in last week's column about the extreme challenges Samantha Cesario faced before she won Eastern sectionals. Not only was her family hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, but she had also lost a lot of training time because of an injury. Nevertheless, Cesario delivered a powerful and dramatic free skate (choreographed by Inese Bucevica) to Black Swan and pulled up to first place.

"I had a lot going on, because I pulled my hamstring in Germany [at the Junior Grand Prix in Chemnitz], and I had to withdraw," Cesario reminded us during a phone call. "I only had a week or two of training before sectionals and then Sandy hit, and I missed the beginning of the week of training, the bridges were closed, and I couldn't get to the rink."

Cesario also told us about some challenges with program changes after Chemnitz.

"I had to go to the senior ranks from junior, so we revamped the long and my short, too, because we wanted to get a triple into the second half. Both my programs were new, but I felt happy with how they went."

After missing the last two U.S. championships, Cesario says her main goal for this year's event is to stay injury free. She is also working on adding a triple-triple combination.

"Originally, I was working on triple loop-triple loop, but recently I've been trying to get triple flip-triple toe," she said.

Vanessa Lam posted the highest score of any lady at the three sectional championships, at Pacific Coasts.

"I felt good about the competition," she said by phone. "I felt like I performed as I wanted to, but going into nationals, I'm going to work on improving the performance aspect, working on mostly components but also improving consistency and stamina ... and to have a new personal best."

Lam's goal is to qualify for the 2013 World Junior Championships.

The Midwestern ladies event was won by Ashley Cain, the 2011 U.S. junior pairs champion and 2012 U.S. junior ladies silver medalist.

"I felt really confident all week, and I had been training really hard since regionals," Cain said in an email. "I was happy to put out almost two clean programs and break the 100-point mark in the free skate. I was also really happy to have my triple Lutz back into my long program."

Cain said she had hurt her foot before regionals, which meant she wasn't able to practice Lutzes for a few weeks, but she said her foot has now healed completely.

"I just started training my triple flip and triple loop-triple loop again," she said. "I am very excited to compete against the top ladies in our nation. Doing both pairs and singles was natural for me, so at first it was hard to get used to having so much time to focus on singles. Doing just singles has made me realize how much I love being out there by myself. I feel like my spins and my skating skills have improved since last year because I have had time to work on all the little things. I still love pairs, so you never know -- I could be a pair girl again in the future!"

The men

At Midwesterns, Max Aaron posted the highest score at any of the three sectionals, 233.58. He had competed at the Cup of Nice in France a couple weeks earlier.

"To turn around and perform right away under pressure is good; that's what nationals is: competing under pressure," Aaron told us via Skype.

In the free skate, Aaron landed a quad Salchow-triple toe as well as two triple axels, and doubled a planned second quad.

"I felt it was a great step forward, putting the quad-triple in," Aaron said. "The second quad was planned, and it's definitely going to be in at nationals. I want to put two clean programs out there and be happy with how it goes. That's always been my goal: two clean programs in the same event."

Aaron, who is coached by Tom Zakrajsek, will be working with Pasquale Camerlengo after Thanksgiving, enhancing his components and working on transitions.

"The whole point is to stay with the other guys in components: Jeremy [Abbott], Adam [Rippon], Ross [Miner], Ricky [Dornbush]," Aaron said. "I don't like playing the catch-up game. I know I have the technical mark; if I can stay with them in components, and get close to 100 points in the technical mark, I know I will be with those men. I don't necessarily want to be known for just jumping."

It's possible that only Aaron and Dornbush will be attempting two quads and two triple axels in their free skates in Omaha.

"It's not easy to do the quads and everything else with it," Aaron said. "I feel like these men are starting to realize how difficult it is. You're not going to medal at worlds without quads. It's a process. I applaud the ones that are trying it. Anyone who tries it is a warrior."

Aaron says that, in his second year competing as a senior, he knows what to expect.

"I'm excited for nationals," he said. "That jump from junior to senior, you don't really understand what a jump it is. The atmosphere in the rink, more spectators, more cheers, the cameras following you -- you can't experience it unless you're there. I know what to expect, and I feel like I'm ready to compete. I'm a risk-taker and so is Tom: You win or you lose, and we go for it all. There is no room for error."

There was a lot of buzz about Alexander Johnson, who finished second at Midwesterns with the second-highest score across all three sections, 223.18, and the highest components score of anyone.

"It felt nice to go out there and perform what I had been training," he said in a video chat. "It was a big step in the right direction. I feel like I can develop the program a lot further, and I can also take my skating to another level, technically and components-wise."

Johnson, who trains with Tom Dickson, has been taking several dance classes every week and really working on his skating skills.

"It has allowed my jumping and spinning to improve, as well as the second mark," he said. "If you have a strong basic skating background, it allows more freedom of movement and choreography. A lot of times, people think the component is what you do with your face or your arms, but it's so much more. It's how you move your body; it's the ability to gain flow from one crossover and glide effortlessly across the entire rink."

Keegan Messing, who won the Cup of Nice, also won Pacific Coasts. He landed a quad toe and a triple Axel in the short program and scored a personal-best 80.36 points.

"I was pretty exhausted coming into the competition," he wrote via email. "I managed to hold it together for the short, but it caught up to me in the free skate."

Stephen Carriere won the Eastern section.

"For me, the programs were not good but not bad," he said in an email. "Going into the event, I put a larger amount of pressure on myself than I needed to, so in a way I did not allow myself to skate as well as I was practicing. The quad toe was an example, because the whole week it was pretty solid, but on the warm-up and the practice, I tensed up. I made silly mistakes throughout the competition that I have a lot of time to work on before nationals."

Timothy Dolensky, the 2012 U.S. junior silver medalist who finished fourth at the U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City in September, ended up sixth in a tough field at Easterns and didn't qualify for the U.S. championships.

"Leading up to sectionals, I was having trouble with my left ankle," he told us by phone. "I have a stress fracture in my medial malleolus, which is weird because that's not my landing foot. If it was my right, I wouldn't have been able to jump at all. It got worse and worse; it hurts the most on the jumps where I push off of my left foot: Axel, Sal and toe.

"The two or three weeks leading up to sectionals were not good. I could only do triple loop and triple flip because the Lutz takeoff hurt. I was running my program with all loops and flips. By sectionals, it was finally starting to get better, but I lost a lot of training. That's why I didn't attempt the triple Axel or do a triple-triple because it hurt to pick in on toe loops."

Dolensky said he will wait until the injury is fully healed before he starts jumping again.

"I'm disappointed, but it's nice to have all this time," he said. "I'm definitely going to try and work on my technical content some more as well as my artistic side. I felt like this year I improved a lot over last year, and I want to keep that going. In Salt Lake City, I've never skated that well before. I was really happy."

The pairs

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, who announced their partnership last April, have been putting out some great performances this fall. They won the Cup of Nice and turned around to win Midwestern sectionals less than two weeks later. A week after that, they went to Japan to compete in the NHK Trophy as last-minute replacements. (They finished fourth behind bronze medalists Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir.)

"Our performance at sectionals left us very pleased," they texted. "We felt it was an improvement from our programs in France. Moving toward nationals, we are going to continue working on developing as a team and increasing our personal best."

The team was excited to go to a Grand Prix event so soon in their partnership.

"We found out about NHK on the day we competed the short at sectionals," they said. "We felt that this is a great opportunity to further our growth as a team, especially because we have only been together since April."

Another new team, Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea, won the Eastern section.

"Danny and I are happy with our performances at sectionals," Kayne emailed. "Despite our mistakes, it served as a fantastic learning experience, and we were able to get great feedback from the judges that we plan to use as a tool to help us proceed toward nationals.

"Our goals for nationals include putting out two strong programs that will help establish us as a powerful up-and-coming U.S. team. It will be my first-ever trip to nationals, as well as my first year skating pairs, so I'm thrilled to finally enter the scene as a senior skater with Danny by my side."

The dancers

Isabella Cannuscio and Michael Bramante, yet another new team this year, won the Eastern section. They had previously competed at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships and the Challenge Cup in Ardmore, Pa.

"We went into sectionals having a goal in terms of points," Cannusico said in a conference call. "We were very pleased that our scores were higher than at Challenge Cup."

"This was our third competition together," Bramante went on. "So we were just trying to go out and skate the best that we could, and we feel that we did!

"This year, we were just expecting to work toward nationals, get our names out there. We weren't expecting much. Winning sectionals was fantastic. We never expected it at the beginning of the season."

"We want to work on making everything a little more seamless, coming together as a team," Cannuscio said. "Footwork and levels are our two main goals."

The team has been together only since the end of May. Cannuscio's sister, Anastasia, also competed at Easterns, finishing second with partner Colin McManus.

We asked Isabella if the sisters ever get competitive with each other.

"Surprisingly, we don't," she said. "We support each other. There's really no jealousy or anything of that nature. It's weird -- we compete against each other, but it doesn't seem like we are. We're so supportive."

We wish everyone the best as they train for Omaha!

Sarah and Drew
Follow us on Twitter @SarahandDrew.