By Johanna Bear
Photos by Leah Adams and Getty Images
To many figure skaters, as well as athletes from other sports, a fourth place finish at a competition can feel like a failure, or at the very least a missed opportunity; coming so close and yet so far from receiving a meaningful medal. For Grant Hochstein, however, a fourth place finish has been both a victory and an opportunity to continue proving himself.
Hochstein finished in fourth place at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and also came in just shy of a podium spot this past fall at his two ISU Grand Prix events, Cup of China in Beijing and NHK Trophy in Nagano, Japan.
“It sometimes gets a little frustrating finishing in fourth because I have been so close to the podium on multiple occasions,” Hochstein said. “Fortunately at the U.S. Championships, fourth place does get a medal! That being said, to finish fourth at both of my Grand Prix events was extremely validating for the work that I’ve been doing. The fields in those events were so deep and to be able to hold my own against those guys felt great!”
In the process of competing in those Grand Prix events, which marked his first time returning to the Grand Prix circuit since 2010-2011, Hochstein got the invaluable experience of watching reigning World champion Javier Fernandez of Spain and reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, two of the premier talents in the sport, go about their business en route to both of them taking home the titles in China and Japan, respectively.
“What I was able to take away from competing against Javi and Yuzu was their extreme focus and confidence. They enter a building and know that they are the best. It’s nice that they both have remained humble, even with their great successes,” Hochstein stated.
That focus and confidence from the Grand Prix circuit translated into Hochstein’s skating when he traveled to Saint Paul. His previous best finish at the U.S. Championships was a 7th place in 2009-2010, but this season he went into the competition feeling more prepared than ever before.
“Nationals this year was unlike any other for me. For once, I didn’t go in feeling nervous or anxious. I did the training for this competition and knew that I was ready,” Hochstein explained. “Even after the short program didn’t go exactly as I planned it, I still approached the long like I did every other competition this year. That is exactly what Nationals felt like, just another competition.”
Hochstein sat in sixth place after the short program, but was able to move up in the standings by staying within himself for his free skate.
“I just felt prepared for the long. I had done the work, so the long didn’t feel like anything special,” Hochstein said. “I love my long program and I feel it in my soul. It takes me, and hopefully everyone else, on a journey. I knew that I would have a good chance of moving up in the long, possibly being fourth in that segment, but since I had doubled the triple flip, I wasn’t sure how far I would be able to move up.”
Hochstein’s fourth place free skate featured an opening quadruple toe loop that had a slightly flawed landing, followed by seven triple jumps, including two triple axels. His spins were well done, and he skated with emotion. Many in the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end.
“When the final results came up and I had finished fourth, it felt so good. It is that feeling of justification for the work I was doing,” Hochstein said. “I trained harder and smarter this year than I ever had before and it was nice for it to pay off! I knew it would be close, so I just kept reminding myself that it was more important to do the good skating than to have a medal. Though, when I got the pewter medal, that felt pretty good too!”
Whether it was an improved competitive mentality, a connection to his “Les Misérables” music, or a combination of both, after the final results came in, Hochstein, 25, stood on the podium with a senior level medal at the U.S. Championships for the first time. However, he had no idea at the time that, in addition to being assigned to make his debut at the Four Continents Championships, he would also end up getting the chance to make his debut at the World Championships due to an unforeseen sequence of events.
Prior to the start of the 2016 U.S. Championships, defending national champion Jason Brown had announced his withdrawal due to a back injury and later submitted a petition to U.S. Figure Skating in order to be considered for a spot on the 2016 World team. Although his bid was unsuccessful, Brown continues on the path to recovery.
2016 U.S. bronze medalist Nathan Chen was assigned to both the World Championships and the World Junior Championships. However, while he was performing in the exhibition gala that followed the men’s event, he incurred a hip injury that required surgery, thereby ending his competition season.
“The injuries of Jason and Nathan are really very unfortunate,” Hochstein commented. “They are both so talented and I wish them both full and speedy recoveries. Nevertheless, I‘ve had to work really hard to be in the position I am in (replacing Chen as the first alternate to Worlds) by doing good, consistent skating.”
Hochstein confirmed that he will be keeping the same program layouts that he featured at the U.S. Championships, with the exception of adding in a quadruple toe loop combination in the short program.
Four Continents and the World Championships are icing on the cake for Hochstein, but that does not mean that he will not go into the competitions prepared and focused on putting out two quality programs.
“My goals for Four Continents and Worlds are similar to the goals that I set for myself at Nationals. I want to put out two good programs at each event and show myself to be a contender with some of the best skaters in the world,” Hochstein said. “I think at this point in my career it is more important to give myself performance goals as opposed to placements goals, especially considering this will be my first time at both of these events. I want to do my very best and make my country proud!”
“These are two events that I’ve always dreamed of competing in. I’m just going to try to take it all in and love every moment of the experience!” Hochstein continued. “I’ve been having a blast this season. Each event brings something new into my life. That is one of the beautiful things about this year for me. I’ve been to amazing places and have gotten to share them with the most important people in my life. I medaled at Nationals and got to share that with my mom, and now I get to go to Four Continents and Worlds. What more could a guy ask for?”
Hochstein also got the opportunity to ask for competitive advice from his longtime idol Michelle Kwan, the sister of one of his coaches, Karen Kwan-Oppegard.
“When I talked to Michelle (Kwan) in the summer about needing to be ready for Glacier Falls (club competition in late July/early August of 2015) to prove myself, she stopped me and said ‘whenever you get on the ice, whether it’s for nationals or a club comp., you always need to prove yourself. It doesn’t matter where you are or how good you get, you always have to do your work.’ ”
Another factor behind his recent success has been a renewed perspective off the ice.
“What I find is helping me this season is the fact that I can see my future. Skating isn’t the only thing in my life anymore,” Hochstein said. “It is still important to me, but it isn’t the only thing. If I have a bad skate, it isn’t the end of the world. I go home and still have my girlfriend, my dog, my apartment; I still have real life. The ability to see my present and more importantly, my future, is what I think helps me.”
He also spoke about the effect that his increased mental toughness has had on his performances.
“This season, I am most proud of my mental strength,” Hochstein stated. “I’ve put myself in a place to be competitive and relevant again in skating. For a few years I was forgotten and my skating wasn’t to the level it should have been. This year, I feel like I’ve stepped it up and found myself again. I love skating and I have enjoyed every single experience I have had this season. Without heart, skating means nothing. I’m proud of it all!”
Off the ice, Hochstein coaches younger skaters with his girlfriend Caroline Zhang, a three-time U.S. national senior medalist (bronze in 2009, pewter in 2008 & 2012), who has been sidelined this season while recovering from hip surgery.
“Coaching is actually very different from skating itself. The challenge is to be able to teach a base technique to all of the skaters, but still be able to adapt it to each individual,” he elaborated. “Everyone is different so you have to find different ways to explain the technique to each person and also adjust it to their body. The bonus in having to do that is that I basically know every which way to explain skating and I now have a greater awareness of my own skating.”
“Caroline and I split choreography duties between our skaters. I usually choreograph for the younger kids and we divide the older girls. We have two intermediate level skaters and Caroline did the short programs and I did the long programs. I think my favorite program I’ve ever done was a “Popular” program from Wicked for one of the pre-preliminary level girls last year.”
Coaching has also given him a better sense of what he values when it comes to the technical side of the sport.
“In terms of a skating philosophy, I consider myself to be a purist,” Hochstein admitted. “I believe in straight, steady lines into jumps and clean skating skills. I think that nowadays the basics in skating tend to get lost because we are all trying to do harder and more innovative moves and positions, but if you want to do them well, you have to know the basics. I would never teach a sit variation if the skater couldn’t perfectly center a regular sit spin. By going back to the basics, I think it helps us to move forward at a better and more productive rate.”
As a result of his incredible success both nationally and internationally this season, Hochstein has turned his long-term focus towards the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“After this season, I definitely have my sights set on the 2018 Olympic Games,” he said. “I think it is still important to be taking things one event at a time; however, long-term my goal is definitely to qualify and compete at the Olympics. It has always been a dream of mine and I feel like I’m in the right place in my career to make this happen.”
Based on his results so far this season, it is well within the realm of possibility that Hochstein could be in the serious running for one of the U.S. spots on that Olympic team. His maturity, experience and durability make him a strong contender. However, he prefers to look to the immediate future and focus on the upcoming World Championships, which will take place in Boston for the first time.
“I actually have a big group of people coming to worlds!” Hochstein exclaimed. “Caroline and my mom will both be there, along with two of my very best friends, my very first student in Detroit and her mom, and one of my students from L.A. and her parents. It’s such an honor to be skating at Worlds in the U.S. and to have so many of my favorite people there with me is an even greater blessing.”
It will be fascinating to see what the latter part of the season has in store for Grant Hochstein and how far this newfound confidence will take him in his continued quest for the top three spots on the podium.
More with Grant Hochstein:
On Grant’s plans after Worlds:
“Usually, I take a decent amount of time off after my season; however, this year my season will be much longer than previously. Caroline and I are planning to go to New York City after Worlds, but other than that I have no vacation plans. I want to give myself a little time off, but I have my own students who need my attention. Therefore, I will probably be going into the rink every day, regardless of whether or not I am skating.”
I’m usually at the rink for about 9-12 hours each day during the week another three hours on Saturdays and Sundays. During the week I get to the rink at 6:30 am, teach for an hour and a half, and then get ready for my first session. Then I usually alternate between skating and teaching the next six sessions. I also teach on the public session following the freestyles. Three days a week I also teach skating school classes.
I teach all levels of skating. My youngest student is four years old and in Basic Skills level three. I share a student with my coach Karen Kwan-Oppegard, who made it to Sectionals as a junior and then even have one of my own skaters who made it to final round at Regionals at the juvenile level.
I love reading. Right now I’m reading a book called “A Whole New World” which is a story about what Agrabah would have been like had Aladdin not been the one who rescued the magic lamp. I’ve also read the entire Harry Potter series twice in the past 10 months. After the book I’m reading now, I’m planning on starting “The Revenant.”
On his college degree started at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan (school he represented when he won two U.S. Collegiate Championship titles in 2010 and 2011):
I’ve finished four years of classes at WSU and I’m planning on finishing my history degree once the 2018 season is over. I only have 33 credits left, so about a year and a half.
On his two younger siblings:
I have two siblings, Veronica and Nick. My sister also skates and right now she’s touring with Holiday on Ice. She’s been with the company for three years and I was actually able to go see her in Prague (Czech Republic) two years ago. It’s great to see her be able to express her love of skating in another facet and do what she loves all across the world.
My brother is the youngest of the three of us and is doing a combination of school and work right now. When he was in high school he played baseball and football.
On his dog (who was named after the city of his first Grand Prix event in 2010, Skate Canada International):
Kingston is a special kind of dog. I rescued him from the Michigan Anti-Cruelty Society when he was 6 months old. He’s very skittish and most things freak him out. He’s afraid of meeting new people, but over the years he has gotten a little bit better. That being said, I wouldn’t trade him for the world. It takes him a long time to get used to people, but once he does, he has so much love to give. He loves Caroline and me very much and is very protective over us. I believe that people should always try to adopt shelter dogs before going to breeders.