Motor City Moments: Memorable stories and performances from the 2019 U.S. Championships

By Gina Capellazzi and Maura Sullivan Hill, Team FSO
Photos by Team FSO


It wasn’t just the medalists who shined in the Motor City during the 2019 U.S. Championships. There were some other special stories that came out of the event, from skating in front of a hometown crowd, to senior debuts, to last-minute program changes, to travel nightmares!


Figure Skaters Online‘s Gina Capellazzi and Maura Sullivan Hill were in Detroit and caught up with these skaters who had memorable moments during the 2019 U.S. Championships, what FSO has coined as “Motor City Moments.”


Hannah Miller


Though finishing in a disappointing 15th place, the U.S. Championships was still a memorable event for Hannah Miller, who trains in Lansing, Michigan and attends Michigan State University. Figure Skaters Online caught up with her after her free skate about skating in front of a hometown crowd.


Figure Skaters Online (FSO): “What was it like to skate in front of the home crowd?”


Hannah Miller (HM): “It felt so good! I really tried to soak in the moment. I really haven’t had a chance to perform in front of a hometown crowd at such a big competition I guess. It has always been little competitions so I really tried to soak in the moment and enjoy. The program did not go how I wanted it to. I had a lot of mistakes and I was really tight out there. But overall, the experience was great and I could tell the crowd was with me, which was great.”


FSO: “Even though the program wasn’t going as planned, you had a huge smile on your face throughout the whole program.”


HM: “I was really just enjoying the moment. Even at the end, I took the time to soak it up and took the extra time to look around a little bit because I may not get another chance like this in my career.”


FSO: “Did you have a lot of friends and family here to watch you skate?”


HM: “Yes, friends from school, family and trainers. Everyone who helps me at home on a daily basis made it out here today.”


FSO: “You are a full-time student in your junior year at Michigan State University, where you are studying psychology. How has been balancing school and training?”


HM: “It is not easy (laughs). If I’m not skating, I’m doing homework  and if I’m not doing homework or in class, I’m skating. It is keeping me busy, but that is how I like to be. I also coach a lit bit and I’m also starting to do some choreography for the younger kids. So all of that is keeping me really busy, but I really enjoy being busy all the time, so I’m really happy.”


Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov


2018 U.S. Junior Champions Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov were making their senior Nationals debut in Detroit. They finished the short program in 5th place, just two points out of third, but unfortunately, Mitrofanov was fighting off illness going into the free skate.They finished the event in 6th place. Figure Skaters Online caught up with them after their free skate.


Figure Skaters Online (FSO): “What are your thoughts regarding your free skate?”


Misha Mitrofanov (MM): “We’re definitely happy with our jumps and especially our throws. Split twist was good, too. We’re definitely happy. A little bit rough on the lifts side. Unfortunately, I was feeling sick yesterday at night, so that definitely killed my stamina, but we’re happy that we were able to get everything done and stay on our feet.”


Audrey Lu (AL): “We’ve mostly been working on speed and unison, and connection between us, because that’s what we’re missing, the connection. We had good elements, but we’d pretend we were like two singles skaters, and that’s something we worked on.”


FSO: “Talk about your training environment.”


MM: “It’s amazing, I feel like that’s definitely where our jumping background comes in. We see all the singles skaters doing these crazy triple jumps and so we’re just trying to make sure we can hold our own with the triple jumps, and then obviously work on all the other elements.”


FSO: “Are the side-by-side jumps a way for you both to stand out?”


AL: “We were going to try triple Salchow-half loop-triple Salchow, but instead we did (triple) Salchow-(double) toe-(double) toe, because we’re going to work on it more to make it more consistent for later.”


FSO: “Talk about the differences from the junior to the senior level.”


AL: “The crowd is amazing!”


MM: “The crowd, honestly, was amazing. Especially when they started cheering for us on that second lift, that was just, that meant the world to us.”


AL: “Yeah, they helped us get through it.”


Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson


The 2019 U.S. Championships was the nationals debut for the new team of Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, who teamed up in the summer of 2018.  The team trains in Aliso Viejo, CA with U.S. Pairs Champions Jenni Meno and Todd Sand. They finished their first Nationals together in 5th place.


Figure Skaters Online (FSO): “What are your thoughts regarding your free skate?”


Brian Johnson (BJ): “I feel like after the short, it’s only half done. You’ve half done your job, if you do a good short. After the long, really, everything comes together and you know hopefully, when this event is finished and if you’ve done really well, you’re really pleased because it’s all come together. It’s been a whole year of really hard work.”


Jessica Calalang (JC): “Actually, less than a year. We haven’t even skated for a year.” (laughs)


Brian Johnson (BJ): “That’s true, it’s been seven or eight months.” (laughs)


Coach Todd Sand (CTS): “I think in the beginning, it was a big change for them. They had been skating with their other partners for seven or eight seasons (Jessica with Zack Sidhu) and four seasons (Brian with Chelsea Liu). So that was a big adjustment–timing, just the way they skated, the way they lifted, the way they did everything together–it took a lot of adjustment. I think it was a big change for the both of them, both on the ice and even off the ice was a change. It was a challenging year, and I think that’s why we’re so happy and pleased. As coaches, we’re very proud of them, because they worked very hard, and it hasn’t been easy at times.”


FSO: “Do you think this Nationals is validating that you are the right partners for each other?”


BJ: “Yeah, I think so, definitely. Really, really happy with how we’re doing and who I’m skating with.”


JC: “We knew it was going to be a process and building blocks, and this is just the first step. And I’m really happy I took it, and listened to my coaches, and really listened to what I wanted to do for the next four years.”


“I feel like it was really trusting our training. They (Jenni and Todd) really busted our butts the past literally eight months.”


CTS: “That’s not an understatement.” (laughter from all)


JC: “Going into this championships, we were just trusting our training, and, you know, just letting the real work that we did, even though it wasn’t that much compared to some other teams, just let that take over.”


Sean Rabbitt


The U.S. Championships in Detroit was also memorable for Sean Rabbitt for other reasons! The 28-year-old from Yorba Linda, Calif. was stuck in Chicago and ended up taking a train to get to Detroit. He documented his experiences on his social media accounts. Rabbitt managed to put his travel nightmare aside to skate a personal-best score program, to enter the free skate in 7th place. He finished the event in 8th overall.
Figure Skaters Online caught up with him after the short program.


Figure Skaters Online (FSO): What was it like to have to a great short program that brought the crowd to its feet? What was it like, especially after the travel nightmare you had getting to Detroit?”


Sean Rabbitt (SR): “It was euphoric!  This whole week, I’m sure a lot of people were following my tweets and Facebook and that it took 32 hours to get here and the whole time I really kept my cool I think. Then getting here, I still had some issues with my music and stuff and I kind of let that take over in my (six-minute) warm-up and I just put a lot of pressure on myself. So once I got out there(for my skate), I closed my eyes and remembered this is the easy part, getting here was the hard part. So I don’t know my body just kind of took over.”


FSO: “Your six-minute warm-up didn’t go well. So how did you regain your focus to have a good skate?”


SR: “I stopped thinking so hard. I have a tendency to over think things and that is where stuff like that happens. The other thing, and I still have tomorrow to focus on obviously, but when I’m training the short program is usually the harder program for me to get through and this year with me communicating back and forth to Colorado (Springs) and spending a lot of time training on my own, I have been really grateful that everyone at the rink has been so behind me and so I just thought of those days when everyone at the rink was pushing me. So I just thought of them and tried to relax.”


FSO: “This season, your coach, Tammy Gambill moved from Riverside, Calif. to Colorado Springs, but you stayed in Calif. How often did you go to Colorado Springs to work with Tammy?”


SR: “It was supposed to be once a month, but it ended up being every two months or so. So right before a big competition basically, so before Slovakia (Ondrej Nepela Trophy), before Sectionals (Pacific Coast Sectionals) and before this (Nationals), I went out there for a couple of days and trained.”


FSO:  “So when you weren’t in Colorado, you were training on your own in Calif.?”


SR: “I did have my best friend, Richard Dornbush (2011 U.S. silver medalist). He has been doing coaching, so he was helping me and he went to Slovakia with me and then one of my former coaches helped me. She worked with me when we had schedules that would coordinate, but 70 percent (of the time) it was definitely all me.”


FSO: “You returned to your “East of Eden” short program from 2017, which you choreographed yourself. Why did you decide to return to that program and did you make any changes to it?”


SR: “It is actually the same exact program, step-for-step. I was having a hard time choosing music this year and it always takes me forever, like I can start tomorrow and I might not decide (my music) until right before I need to know (what I’m skating to). I was having a hard time last year. I took sometime off, just to let my body relax because I’m 28 and I’m getting older. Just to enjoy life outside of the rink a little bit. And when I came back, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the long. I wanted to do West Side Story. My mom had been wanting me to skate to it my entire career and it just seemed like a good time to skate to it. But for the short, I couldn’t realize decide what I wanted so Tammy was the one that actually said, ‘Why don’t you do your “East of Eden” program?’ because that was the program that I kept breaking my own personal records and sure enough I broke a personal record today!”


FSO: “Speaking of your mom, your mom is doing?” (Editor’s note: Sean’s mom has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy)


SR: “My mom is doing good! She made the trip up here. They also had issues. They got diverted to St. Louis and ended up driving from there. And the cold is a little bit hard on her, but she is here. She has a hard time clapping, but I saw her clapping for me (crying).”


FSO: “What are you hoping for in the free skate on Sunday?”


SR: “Another standing ovation!”


Jordan Moeller


For skaters competing at Nationals, their programs are pretty familiar to them as they have been training and competing them since the summer. But for Jordan Moeller, he debuted a brand, new free skate at the U.S. Championships to Panic! at the Disco’s “Nearly Witches” which many skating fans described as a bold choice in music selection for Moeller. Figure Skaters Online caught up with Moeller after his free skate. Moeller finished the event in 13th place.


Figure Skaters Online (FSO): “So that wasn’t the program that you competed at Midwestern Sectionals in Nov. and it wasn’t the program listed on your official website? What happened? Why the change?”


Jordan Moeller: That program (“Nearly Witches”) is about a month old (roughly). I competed at Sectionals and I had a great short. Long, obviously, was not so great. The music that I was skating to earlier (“Light of the Seven”) from Game of Thrones, it is very beautiful music, it is very powerful music, but it is a very somber piece of music and that tone carries through and in my opinion, it felt like one of those programs were it had to be skated so well element wise and choreographically in order for it to be received well. After coming off Sectionals and I got back to Colorado, I had another run through or two that went about as similarly (as Sectionals), and I went up to (my coach) Kori (Ade) and said, ‘We need to change this now.’ Which we apparently agreed on, but she didn’t tell me because she knows how particular I am about my music. So she agreed and said, ‘I have been thinking the same thing, but didn’t want to tell you because I thought you would be mad at me.’ (laughs)’. So we kind of thought through it. I had several pieces of music that I wanted to skate to. If I had time to skate to everything that I wanted to, I would be skating for 70 more years (laughs). So this one is by Panic! At the Disco, one of their older songs, “Nearly Witches.” It has been one of my favorite songs for a really long time and I felt like I needed something different, I need a change and I felt this is something that is not only different for me and my own skating but I don’t think that kind of program has been skated, to the best of my knowledge before anyways. So I was hoping to bring something fresh to the stage. Obviously, I had a little bit of a leap of faith there because obviously I only had a month to adapt what I had to kind of fit that music.


FSO: “After a disappointing short program, how do you think your free skate went?”


JM: “I have struggled a lot in the past with just letting go and having fun, which sucks because this is what we are here to do. We have that whole concept of being judged constantly from the moment we step into the building. So having that ability to kind of let that go and just enjoy the fact that I was doing something completely different and doing something that hopefully no one has really seen that much before was kind of a liberating experience.”


FSO: “You graduated from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs in December. So what’s next?”


JM: “That is a great question. I have been putting off this answer for such a long time, between moving, between working, between so many different things. I have been saying, ‘Let me get through my season, let me get through my season,’ whether that means get me through Nationals, get me through whatever. So now I feel that it is time to start thinking about that direction. On a broad skill, I’m considering going to law school. I’d like to work part-time at least in some kind of legal office to see if that is a commitment I’d be willing to take. So it is kind of a scary thing, but it is also really freeing in a way, because I haven’t had time without school pretty much all my life. I started right after high school and carried through. I really didn’t have that many semesters off. I did summer semesters. I did winter semesters, all of that. So this is kind of my first time without school. So it has given me time to focus on what I want to do and focus on training, whatever that may look like for me.”


FSO: “Still planning on organizing your annual skating show, One Skate at a Time, in the spring?”



JM: “That is the plan. I don’t have anything set in stone yet. I still have to connect with people on that end,  but that is the plan so far.”