Keegan Messing turned his back to the camera and pointed with both hands to the CANADA emblazoned across the back of his team jacket: the only Canadian figure skater to compete at any of the Grand Prix events this season.
He has become the beacon of the Canadian side, through unfortunate circumstance as the rest of his teammates sat at home watching him compete in the short program at Skate America on Friday. Messing, 28, who didn’t have to cross borders to attend because he lives in Alaska, dedicated his efforts to his teammates, and in particular two-time Canadian champion Nam Nguyen, who bolstered his motivation through almost daily sessions of Face Time.
Skate Canada, which was to be held in Ottawa next week, was cancelled due to the coronavirus. So was Internationaux de France in a country that has called a state of emergency with soaring coronovirus cases. Diligently, U.S. Figure Skating was able to make Skate America happen, make it an oasis in a country that hit a record daily coronavirus count of more than 77,000 on Friday.
The athletes were grateful. Messing admitted to nerves, but filled his spot by landing a quad toe loop – triple toe loop, (shooting a hand out for balance) and losing his balance during a step sequence as he skated to “Perfect” – a program from last season that honored his marriage.
That put Messing in third place with 92.40 points behind the skater who is the most difficult in the world to defeat: Nathan Chan who sits atop the leaderboard with 111.17 points. That’s higher than his record score of 110.38 points set at the 2019 Grand Prix Final, but it won’t count: all of the Grand Prix events are run as domestic events with domestic judges, unless an international skater trains in the country of the event. Canada’s precocious Stephen Gogolev was also on the list to compete at Skate America, but he withdrew because of injury.
“This is the first time I’ve skated in front of a crowd this year,” Messing said. “You’ve really got to hand it to the US to make this happen. I feel like this was something that was needed. It really felt like a safe environment. It was good to go out and feel the butterflies again.”
Messing, training by himself with no other elite skaters around him in Alaska, said it’s always been difficult for him to train. He would get around this by getting out to regional competitions in Canada, but none of that happened this season. All of his shows were cancelled. “This was probably the hardest year to train for this,” he said. He was proud of what he did.
All of the competitors were in a strict bubble. They all stayed within three floors of the Orleans Hotel, next to the arena. They wore masks, until they skated. The masks were the first thing they donned when they stepped on ice, reaching into a box with all of their equipment (jacket, skate blades). Skaters sat alone in the Kiss and Cry area. Press conferences had the top three skaters separated by long distances.
There were no spectators, except for smiling cardboard cutouts of people who kept the smiles when somebody fell. Cutouts of dogs, and cats watched attentively in their seats. They did not cheer, although the arena piped in canned ovations at the end of a performance.
Chen noted the lack of audience response during programs, noise that often carried an athlete through a performance. “I think skaters feed off the audience,” he said. “But we were all in the same boat. This was not a deal breaker. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
“It was an opportunity to compete against these guys, and we are fortunate to have a group like this. It’s something we didn’t expect to happen.”
They all trained as if they believed it would happen. Chen, who skated a new program to “Desperado,” said they all had a pretty good sense it would happen; they just didn’t know how it would be run. He said he tried to make his situation normal.
Vincent Zhou, who finished second with 99.36 points, said he trained no differently from any normal situation. The U.S. association kept them informed through zoom calls, making rules and regulations clear to everyone.”
Zhou, a world bronze medalist who will be 20 on Sunday, came out of the box swinging, with a quad Lutz – triple toe loop combination that gained him more than three bonus points. He followed that up with a quad Salchow. Skating to “Starry Starry Night,” he sizzled off a step sequence that earned him the highest level of difficulty and a rack of plus fours for execution.
Other high points in the men’s event: Ilia Malinin, the 15-year-old son of 1999 Grand Prix Final champion Tatiana Malinina, who represented Usbekistan, left his mark, finishing seventh in the short program on Friday with a quad toe loop that got him 2.49 bonus points, and a quad Salchow in combination (with the latter part underrotated.).
His parents, Malinina and Roman Skorniakov, both born in Russia, skated for Usbekistan. Malinina was top class, winning the 1999 Four Continents, the NHK Trophy twice and finishing eighth at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. Skorniakov was a two-time Olympian, who married Malinina in 2000. They coached each other when their long-time coach died. And they live and coach in Virginia. Their son shows great promise.
Also, notable was Alexei Krasnozhon’s quad loop, which the online streaming announcer called a triple loop, causing a bit of confusion to viewers. He sits fifth.
In the women’s short program, Mariah Bell, 24, won with a triple flip – triple toe loop combo while skating to Pink and wearing her free program costume, because she found in practice that her short program outfit just did not fit well. “We’re in Vegas, we have cardboard cutouts, anything goes,” she said. “It will be round two [with the outfit] tomorrow. [Saturday].”
Bradie Tennell, 22, came out looking fierce (gone are the days of Cinderella programs) with her routine to “Moderation” by Florence and the Machine, wearing a black unisuit. With a triple Lutz – triple toe loop combo, she earned 73.29 points, working this year with coach Tom Zakrajsek.
The surprising delight of the night was third-placed Audrey Shin, only 16, the US junior silver medalist last year. Wearing an aqua costume while skating to “The Giving” Shin did a triple Lutz – triple toe loop combo, and a triple loop, all with an expressive body and lovely spins. She earned 69.77 points.
Finishing third was “really cool,” Shin said. “I don’t believe it’s real right now. I’m really excited.
“Tomorrow is a new day,” she said.
More exciting moments in the pairs event. Alexa Sciemeca Knierim skated first with her new partner Brandon Frazier, and they finished first, in front of a cardboard cutout of her husband Chris, sitting near the Kiss and Cry. They looked terrific together.
Earning 74.19 points, Scimeca Knierim and Frazier launched a gorgeous triple twist that landed them 2.39 bonus points, and good triple toe loops, although not landed in synch. The throw tirple loop was solid. They earned level fours and high marks for a death spiral and a change foot combo spin, and an exciting lift.
“I always like to dream big but I did not expect to be where we are today so soon,” Scimeca Knierim said. “We have been working really hard at home. We didn’t have much expectations coming in since this is our first realo event. We’re happy with how we skated, but we know we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson also shone with an exceedingly difficult lift, and a level four triple twist, – and hey a throw triple Lutz, too. But Calalang fell on a triple Salchow while Johnson did a double instead of a triple.
“Our performance wasn’t the best, “Calalang said. “We did have a mistake at the beginning but we really had to focus on our performance and small skating skills.’
They earned 71.08.
Youngsters Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov – fifth at the world junior championships two years ago – got 67.52 and sit third with their “The Show Must Go On” routine. They did a beautiful level four triple twist, tirple Salchows and a level four lift. They earned level fours for all elements, even the step sequence, except for the forward inside death spiral.
“We put down a very solid program and this gives us confidence right now going into the free skate,” Mitrofanov said. “It is surprising for us to be in third place.”
Ashely Cain-Gribble and Timothy Leduc are surprised to be in fourth place but they lost points on a throw Lutz, and had an underrotation on a triple Salchow. They have 64.21 points.