Blades of Glory
Kansas City hasn't hosted the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 32 years, but America's best skaters are back.
Gracie Gold at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jan. 15-24, 2016
By his own admission, Ryan Bradley had a somewhat bizarre season before the 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The St. Joseph native broke his left foot before the 2010 World Championships, had surgery, missed much of the year, and couldn't do his usual training regimen.
But it was also the year of his crowning achievement in figure skating.
Nationals, as it's also called, always creates an atmosphere of substantial energy and high-stakes pressure. Bradley harnessed a lot of the energy in the arena at Greensboro, North Carolina, in 2011 but didn't feel much of the pressure at all, leading to sterling performances in the short program and free skate that won him a national championship.
"I knew I could do well, and I knew I could win, but I just really wanted to go and have fun. Nationals was always such a fun week for me that I wanted one more stab at it before I called it quits," Bradley says. "Without the expectations of training all year round for it, it took a lot of that burden off of my shoulders, and ultimately it led to me performing a little bit more fluidly than I ever had before. I had some good skates in the past, but being able to put things together and really limiting my mistakes — because we have a lot of mistakes when we train in our sport — that was the year that I was able to let go of them the best."
For Bradley, his skating career comes full circle when the U.S. Figure Skating Championships are held Jan. 14-22 in Kansas City. His parents volunteered when Kansas City previously hosted nationals in 1985 at Kemper Arena, an event that was instrumental in getting Bradley and his sister, Becky, involved in skating. Now retired from the competitive realm and skating in shows, Bradley is the honorary co-chair for 2017 with former pairs national champion and Kansas Citian John Coughlin.
There are five different levels of figure skating competition across the four disciplines: men, ladies, ice dancing and pairs. Three of those levels — juvenile, novice, and intermediate — are being staged at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence. Those competitions are underway for several days before the junior and senior skaters even take the ice at Sprint Center.
Obtaining the bid for 2017 was the result of a dialogue with U.S. Figure Skating that actually began years ago. Kansas City had bid on it twice in 2011 and 2012 and lost to Greensboro, North Carolina, and San Jose, California, respectively. But at U.S. Figure Skating headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, they saw the potential.
Ashley Wagner at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jan. 15-24, 2016
"It laid the groundwork for us to understand what Kansas City had, what Kansas City's knowledge and interest was in hosting an event of this nature," says Bob Dunlop, U.S. Figure Skating's senior director of events. "I was a part of each of those bids in 2011 and 2012 from this side of things. We always told the group in Kansas City that we love what we see, keep at it, get a little more knowledge, come to our events, and understand it a little bigger."
Dunlop says the difference between the first two bid cycles and awarding it to Kansas City in 2017 was the pronounced leadership role the Kansas City Sports Commission took on in the process and Sprint Center's larger role in understanding the look and feel of the event. The lack of a day-to-day tenant at Sprint Center was also a draw. "Unlike some of the venues we've been in where we're challenged by that, I think we see this as an opportunity to work with a venue that's hungry to host us," he says.
In addition to the crowd they perform for at Sprint Center, a national television audience awaits the top skaters. Terry Gannon has called figure skating action for ABC and now at NBC Sports for 20 years, and nationals is his favorite event of the year for a couple of reasons.
"Like the U.S. Open in golf, if you're good enough, you make it there," says Gannon, who shares the booth with former skaters Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir. "It's not an invitational, it's not an elite event where they only invite certain names. If you make it through sectionals and regionals, you can earn your way there."
The other side of it, he says, is competing against the kids on the block that you know, something that always tends to pack an extra punch. He equates it to his own experiences as an athlete, playing basketball for North Carolina State in a powerful Atlantic Coast Conference.
"When we played at the NCAA Tournament, everything was on the line. It was the highest level, right? Trying to win the national championship," Gannon says. "But guess what? The ACC Tournament was in many ways more intense because it was all about pride, and you want to be the champion of your neighborhood and the people that you know. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it breeds intensity. And it's the same with the U.S. nationals as opposed to the World Championships."
It was the dawn of a new wave of American male skaters when nationals were last contested in Kansas City. Brian Boitano won the first of four championships in a row in 1985 and would later win the gold medal in 1988 at the Winter Olympics in Calgary. And the novice winner in 1985 was Todd Eldredge, who won nationals six times in a 12-year period and was a three-time Olympian.
Adam Rippon at the 2016 Prudential U.s. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jan.15-24, 2016
This year, Adam Rippon tries to defend his title, having won bronze at the Trophee de France in November, while 2013 champion Max Aaron is also looking strong. But everyone's buzzing about last year's bronze medalist, 17-year-old Nathan Chen, a dynamic skater who can pull off all of the quad jumps.
"Once he matures a little bit and gets a little bit more consistent with that firepower," Bradley says, "that's a kid that could potentially be on the top of the podium at the World Championships or the Olympics based on his maturity over this next 14 or so months heading into the Games."
Gracie Gold and one-time Kansas City resident Ashley Wagner are consistently the top two girls, dominating at nationals and winning team bronze at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Gold is the defending ladies' champion and also won in 2014, while Wagner won in 2012, 2013 and 2015.
"Here's a veteran in Wagner, who constantly skates with a chip on her shoulder for good reason, because people have doubted her and said she should be done," Gannon says. "And she's constantly trying to prove them wrong and has the last couple of years. How far can that take her? Can it take her all the way to the Olympics again? And Gracie Gold, who's got to find some belief in herself and some confidence. It's incredible to watch it play out. She's got the whole package and, right now, doubts herself. So can she find that in time for the national championships and eventually the world championships?"
Dunlop says that skating fans in Kansas City should also watch for any new names that might appear on the medal podium. "Every year, somebody surprises the audience and puts out the skate of their life," he says. "Sometimes that's a junior skater, sometimes that's a first-year or second-year senior year skater where it just clicks. And then they have one of those moments that you can't anticipate, necessarily, or maybe they didn't even expect it. But it's the emotion, it's the build-up, and it's the excitement that every skater in that field deserves to be there.
Nathan Chen at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jan. 15-24, 2016
"I think a lot of people grow up watching the sport on television through the Olympics at the very least. We're a TV-friendly sport, but we're really a fan-friendly sport when you come into that venue and see it for the first time. We think Kansas City will embrace it."
The seasoned and battle-tested Bradley had one of those once-in-a-lifetime skates himself when he won, thanks to a knack for showmanship that connects with fans and makes a difference with judges.
"It was easy to keep the energy up and keep the crowd entertained every time I stepped on the ice. And that was kind of a big goal of mine throughout my career, was to try and win the crowd over," Bradley says. "I knew that there were some downfalls within my skating that would make it hard for me to compete with some of the elite guys, and so my strength was always relating to the audience. That was my goal in every championship event, but that was the year that it really worked out to my benefit."
Nationals are notorious for memorable performances like Bradley's in 2011, and as Kansas City is poised for more of them, what stays with Gannon more than anything is the ability of these athletes to perform with so many eyes watching.
"It's a singular sport," Gannon says. "You get trapped in the corner [in basketball], you look for a teammate. There are no teammates out there for these kids. And you go out there and the lights are on, there's a hush, there's a dead silence, and then your music starts. And now you're the only thing going for the next four minutes. And it's all up to you."
For tickets and more information, visit 2017usfigureskatingchampionships.com.