For a moment, just before Keegan Messing was about to begin his “November Rain” long program at Skate America on Saturday, he thought about others.
“This is for you guys in Canada, to everybody who has to stay at home,” thought the Canadian skater, the only competitor from the land of the maple leaf to get a chance at any sort of Grand Prix competition this season. And then he brought it home.
Skating as if inspired, Keegs, as he is known, won the bronze medal for Canada behind the magical Nathan Chen of the United States and his biggest rival at home, Vincent Zhou, who was second.
Messing landed a beautiful quad toe loop – triple toe loop combo at the start of his program, that got loads of bonus points, and then a solo quad toe, that got just about the same. His spins were fast, his footwork quick. He did a split to the heavens. He floated into a hydroblade move with his cheek so close to the ice that he wore snow behind his right ear for the rest of the trip.
There were “oops” moments, as he calls them. He had to fight for the landing of a triple Axel – triple Salchow jump series, (blame that on an underroation on the Euler between them), and his foot crumpled on the landing of a triple flip at the end of the program. All of his elements but one got the highest level of difficulty: the change combo spin at the end. But it was magnificent, enough for him to throw his fist, point to a camera, where his only audience was and hear the adulation of an ever-grinning cardboard crowd.
Messing is the sort who plays to the crowd, who feeds off their energy. Somehow, he made his own energy, with the rest of the Canadian team on his brow. Friend and teammate Nam Nguyen wished he had sent a cardboard cutout of himself to cheer on Keegs, but he was there in vibes.
Messing earned 174.02 points for the free for an overall score of 266.42.
Just try defeating Chen, though. The two-time world champion, who has been undefeated for years, easily won the free with his introspective Philip Glass medley, wearing a simple shirt that billowed around him in the windslip he created as he skated.
Alas, he was not perfect, but remember, he was competing for the first time in months, in training conditions probably not ideal, as had everyone else. He poppled a quad Salchow into a double and then singled an Axel, a jump that has long been a nemesis.
But the rest of the program was epic, a quad flip – triple toe loop that got more than 3.96 bonus points (!), an exceedingly difficult quad toe – Euler – triple series that gave him 3.99 bonus points (!!), along with a couple of 5s (highest possible) for execution. His total element score soared over everyone else’s: 95.18, his presentation score rather ultimate, too, at 92.80. He finished with 187.98 for the free, and 299.15 points overall, not his highest, but stunning nonetheless.
Vincent Zhou, who trained for a time in Toronto with Lee Barkell before COVID took hold, scored 89.24 for elements and 87.50 for presentation, finishing with 175.74 points for the free (12.24 behind Chen) and 275.10 overall (24 points behind the winner).
Keegs was only a breath behind Zhou on the technical score (1.52 points back) and on the presentation score 1.20). He missed finishing second in the free by only 1.72 points.
Zhou’s combination of goods was top-notch. He fell on an opening quad Lutz, then came right back and landed one in combination with a triple toe loop. That jump alone earned him 17.08 (Chen’s quad toe – triple flip series was worth 20.82). He underroatated a quad Salchow, that cost him almost three bonus points.
Chen was disappointed with the jumps he missed, knowing that he should have done them. “I’m just thrilled to be here at this competition, so thankful to everyone who has been involved to bring us together and how smoothly it went so that skaters could just focus on skating,” he said.
Zhou, the 2019 world bronze medalist (there was no 2020 worlds), admitted to a few “hiccups” but said he was proud of himself “especially considering I’ve done some pretty stupid stuff in the practices.
“I’m proud of my fight this week,” he said. “I am proud of getting that second quad Lutz and also I’m happy with the way I performed both programs. Obviously, there is room for growth.”
Messing said he was “pretty stoked” with his free skate. “I had two little bobbles in the program but this is one of the few times that I’ve actually been able to go out and leave everything I had out on the ice,” he said.
Mariah Bell won the women’s gold medal, even after finishing fourth in the free skate. Her skate to Abba was a new direction for her (It started with the Dancing Queen and that sort of fit Bell). Bell roared along, delivering wonderful things until she fell on a triple Lutz at the end of her routine, finishing with 136.25 points with a total of 212.73.
Bradie Tennell actually won the free with 137.78 points and the silver medal with 211.07, starting the routine in a pretzel position. She unwound from that to deliver a couple of triple Lutz – triple toe loops, a triple loop right on the highlight of the music, and a fun triple flip – double toe loop – double loop jump series. Surprisingly, she touched a hand down and put a foot down on a relatively easy triple Salchow.
“I think it was a very good first showing of the program,” she said, having skating to “Sarajevo” and “Dawn of Faith.” “There is room to grow.”
The revelation of the competition was 16-year-old Audrey Shin, who finished .13 points ahead of Bell in the free and 206.15 overall, good for the bronze medal over a former U.S. champion Karen Chen, who finished .39 points ahead of Shin in the free.
Shin had lost a lot of time last season after ankle surgery in May. “I took a few months off because of it,” she said. “Once I got [back] on, I had a lot of boot issues and blade issues. But finally after a few months before the Youth Olympic Games, I worked really hard and then after that, I kept trying to improve the jumps and consistency. Getting those clean jumps in competition was a big goal.”
Nerves hit her before she stepped on the ice, but skating to “Modigliani,” she did everything with poise and expression and beautiful lines. Joy was on her face as she skated. She was the junior silver medalist last year in the United States.
Karen Chen didn’t disappoint either with her fourth-place skate overall. The 21-year-old skater performed to the “Butterfly Concerto,” which fit her like a glove. Light on her feet, and with exquisite spins, she earned the highest performance mark of 70.48.
And speaking of revelations: what about the new pair team of Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Brandon Frazier? Much to their surprise, they won Skate America in their first competition after teaming up March 30. And they are goosebump worthy. They fit together. It’s an exciting look.
In fact, never has the U.S. pair program looked better. Long the weak link in an Olympic team effort, U.S. pairs offers much hope for a big contribution to a team medal at the next Winter Olympics.
With husband Chris Knierim, Alexa Scimeca Knierim was a three-time U.S. champion (2015, 1018, 2020), and medalist at two Four Continents. At the 2018 Olympics, they became the first U.S. pair and the second in history to do a quad twist at an Olympics. Knierim opted to retire after last season, although his cardboard cutout was there in a front row to cheer on his wife. But Alexa wanted to continue.
Brandon Frazier was a roller skater when he teamed up with Haven Denny, then they both switched to figure skating. Together, they were twice Skate America silver medalists, 2013 world junior champions, 2017 U.S. champions. Their partnership ended last spring. But Frazier, 27, wanted to continue.
At Skate America this week, Frazier couldn’t stop smiling. Scimeca Knierim couldn’t stop looking astonished.
In their free, which they won without question, the new pair skated to “Fall on Me,” by Andrea and his son Matteo Bocelli. Beautiful. They let loose with a gorgeous, clean and clear triple twist, worthy of a level four of difficulty and loads of bonus points. They were far apart in their triple toe loop – double toe loop combination, but it did the trick. A throw triple loop was landed on soft knees. Scimeca Knierim held onto the landing of a throw triple Salchow. Their lifts were difficult and stellar, each earning more than 2 ½ bonus points.
They earned 71.22 element points and 69.36 presentation points for a free program score of 140.58, and an overall winning score of 214.71. Scimeca Knierim turned to Frazier in the kiss and cry with a look. With a mask on, only her eyes told the story. Those eyes said everything.
“It is always great to have a successful event and to place well, but more than anything, I think we’re pleased with the progress and we felt like our hard work has paid off,” Scimeca Knierim said. ”We’re just as excited for what is to come and excited to keep improving.”
Frazier said he was happy even with the progress they made this week. “We had to make a lot of adjustments since our virtual competition a couple of weeks ago,” he said.
They found twists and throws most difficult as they teamed up.
Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, second with a free skate score of 136.32 and 207.40 overall, threw themselves hugely into the picture with their enormous twists and difficult lifts. She had troubles with jumps in the free, skating to “Who Wants to Live Forever,” but all of their elements got a level four of difficulty (highest) except for the back outside death spiral (three). She put a hand down on a difficult throw triple Lutz.
Their reverse lasso lift and their Axel lasso lift each earned more than three bonus points.
“Getting a medal for us is a great stepping stone from the points challenge and from the previous season,” Calalang said. “
“We were a little disappointed about our long,” Johnson said. “We had a couple of mistakes on elements that we know we can do. We go back home and keep working.”
Third was a surprise: Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, U.S. junior champions in 2018, finished fourth in the free with 122.13 points, but held onto the bronze medal with 189.65 points, only .42 points more than season 2019 U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy Leduc. (189.23)
Mitrofanov is a big, power skater (look at those big strokes!) who easily throws Lu up into a triple twist worthy of a level four and lots of bonus points. They did difficult lifts, although Lu touched a hand down on a difficult throw triple Lutz, and fell on a throw triple loop.
Cain-Gribble and Leduc were three points the better of the youngsters in the free, and showed off a stunning routine to Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff, very familiar skating music. But Cain-Gribble used their long limbs to their benefit, opening with large sweeping arm and leg movements – perfect to the music – before they tossed up a big, high triple twist.
Cain-Gribble fell on an early triple loop but recovered to do a triple Salchow – double toe loop – double loop combo, an impressive reverse lasso lift, and a nice throw triple Lutz. She fought for the landing of a throw triple Salchow but was intrepid in an Axel lasso lift. Cain-Gribble looked exhausted after the event. It was a pity they were not on the podium, but not everyone can be.
Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue won their third Skate America crown and was there ever any doubt? Their free dance this year is exquisite. They could never be fresh-faced Romeos and Juliets, but choosing Leonard Cohen’s famous “Hallelujah,” music they had often used for exhibitions:genius.
Their bodies fit the long, simple emotional lines of the music.
“I thought it was a successful first step into the competition season,” Hubbell said. “This is a program that Zach and I are very passionate about. We already feel like we have almost a very easy time skating it because every part is purposeful and there is something about each part we enjoy.”
Hubbell and Donohue used the music the first year they came to Montreal after a career of disappointments and injury. In Montreal – ironically where Cohen was born – Hubbell and Donohue were restarting their career. “We used it as a moment of forgiveness to each other,” Hubbell said. They found it helpful.
They kept coming back to it in exhibitions. “It feels like us,” she said.
During the off-season, they looked at all sorts of music for their free dance. And if you do “Hallelujah,” which version do you pick? Jeff Buckley’s understated beautiful thing, elegant in its simplicity? Or K.D. Lang’s soaring one? They used both. “I think it really shows two different sides to Hallelujah,” Hubbell said. Mainly, a raw, intimate quality. That, this team can do.
“That is definitely part of our partnership,” she said.
Two-time Olympic champ and former training mate Scott Moir did the choreography.
“Hallelujah” earned them 126.09 points for the free – almost five points above the competition – and helped them get to a final score of 211.39, which was 8.92 points more than silver medalists Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who also train in Montreal.