By Claire Cloutier, Team FSO contributing writer
Header photo by Robin Ritoss
ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Last month, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier of the United States ended their 2018-19 season with a 5th-place showing at the ISU Four Continents Championships in Anaheim, California. It was a solid finish for the American team after a challenging season.
It’s been a slow, and often frustrating, climb back up the competitive ladder since Haven Denney’s serious knee injury in spring 2015. When Denney and Frazier returned to competition in the 2016-17 season, they got off to a fine start, winning their first senior U.S. title, but struggled at 2017 Worlds in Helsinki where they did not qualify for the free skate. In the 2017-18 season, they finished a discouraging 5th at U.S. Nationals and did not earn any late-season assignments. After that event, Denney and Frazier decided it was time to return to coach John Zimmerman, who had guided their most successful senior campaign (2014-15).
This season began with another obstacle as Denney suffered an ankle stress fracture that limited their training and kept them out of their second Grand Prix and Challenger Series events. Although Denney and Frazier fought back to earn a silver medal at U.S. Championships in January and a trip to Four Continents Championships, the team is still looking for more. They’re proud of the improvements they’ve made this season in presentation and choreography, but freely admit there’s still more work to do. When Figure Skaters Online spoke with Denney and Frazier the day after Four Continents, the couple was candid in discussing the current state of their skating.
“This season was a bit up-and-down,” Denney said. “We struggled with an injury–my stress fracture. So it was hard to train, leading into our competitions. It was two weeks off, get back on the ice, limit your jumps and throws, or no jumps and throws, and then competition. After Skate Canada, we were trying to prepare for our second Grand Prix [France]. And at that point it was just so painful, I couldn’t even get my foot in the boot. We were like, ‘Okay, let’s take this time and recover, and get well-trained for Nationals.’ So that’s what we did. And we were happy with the way that Nationals went.”
Denney said the quick turnaround between Nationals and Four Continents wasn’t a problem for them. “We were keeping the momentum from Nationals, and our bodies and our minds were already in competition mode. So yes, there were technical errors–specifically, the jumps–in our long program [at Four Continents]. But overall, we did some really good things in this program, too.”
“The beginning of the season didn’t really go the way we wanted it to,” Frazier said. “There were some variable changes that we didn’t plan on. I think we did the best we could. Because the season could have gone one of two ways. The injury [stress fracture] could’ve gotten the best of us, and our brains, our mental game. But we came back; we fought strong.”
Frazier said the last few years have been challenging. The team has needed to focus not only on rehabilitating injuries, but also on choreography, skating skills, execution, and perhaps most of all, their confidence level.
One thing that was never in doubt was their motivation. “We have such a passion for the sport. That’s why we’re still here,” Frazier said. “For us, we’ve been on the highest points, and then we’ve had some big lows as well. We battled some of the hardest injuries you can receive. Then we’ve battled that mental game of: ‘You know, we’re building, we’re ready to be one of the top teams in the world’–And then, things just happen.
“Trying to rebuild was a big thing for us after 2018 Nationals,” Frazier continued. “A lot of disappointment, just all around. We knew when we started this quad, we were going to need to start doing everything better. Yes, obviously, the technical–the jumps. Everyone’s got that one thing that they have to improve. For some teams, it’s lifts; for some, it’s throws. For us, it was a lot of things. And I think, this season, we did a good job of minimizing that down. That list became a lot shorter now. We have cleaned ourselves up. We have found a better approach in our skating skills and our performance, and how we compete and attack things, which is a start. We’re not there yet, but we’ve narrowed it down.
“Last year, even maybe the season before, I was sitting there [thinking]: ‘Oh, we don’t have the jumps. Our programs aren’t as strong. Our skating skills aren’t– We’re not getting the component mark.’ So it’s really nice that people are loving our performances now,” Frazier concluded.
This season, Denney and Frazier began working with Charlie White on choreography. Their programs to David Cook’s “Billie Jean” and medley by The Irrepressibles showed new maturity and were well-received. The team spoke highly of White.
“Charlie is just one of a kind,” said Frazier. “He’s a genius with what he does, but his mindset is so fresh off the competitive scene that he knows all those little things that go on in our brains. He’s got such a fun way, a professional way, about him that he is just a real pleasure to work with. Our programs came really quick with him.”
Denney and Frazier also strove to improve their skating skills this season, working with coach Silvia Fontana. “Silvia’s specialty is the skating skills and the components. We work with her for about 45 minutes or 1 hour each day,” said Denney. “We’ll sit there with our video, and watch again and again. John [Zimmerman] is amazing, too, at creating transitions and intricate parts of the program.”
Denney and Frazier feel confident that they are on the right path in developing their presentation. And they’ve been working daily with coaches John Zimmerman and Jeremy Barrett on their technical elements. However, there are still some technical weaknesses to work out–mainly, their side-by-side jumps.
“We made some great strides in the right direction, and now there’s a smaller hole that we need to fill. It’s the last piece that’s really going to take us from that mid-pack to the next level. People always come up to us and they’re like, ‘You’ve got it, you just need the jumps.’ And we know that. We want it. It’s just about finding the plan to make it work,” said Frazier.
“It’s like–the jumps, the jumps,” Denney said. “It’s two elements in a pairs program. Even with these two elements, it doesn’t define how the rest of the program is going to go. That was something [that] we were really proud of ourselves mentally, in this program [at Four Continents], is that we didn’t let those mistakes affect the rest of the program. It’s not all about the jumps. With that said … Yes, of course, we need to get that. Things in practice have been so much better–more consistent, more confident, with our side-by-sides. The next step is being able to compete that. We did a good job at Nationals with our side-by-side triple Salchows. We were able to compete that. So it’s in us, we know we can do it. And now, we have this time to work.”
Following discussions with Mitch Moyer, senior director of athlete high performance for U.S. Figure Skating, the team expects to spend several weeks during the off-season working with a jump specialist to address that gap in their skating.
With this season now completed, Denney and Frazier’s thoughts are already turning to next season. The team said they were not planning to take any break at all after Four Continents.
“We’re going to get back right into the rink,” Denney said. “There’s always more improvement that we can do in this upcoming off-season, and we’re motivated to get to work.”
To start with, Denney and Frazier will work on new lifts with coach John Zimmerman. “John’s a master at inventing new lifts. He’s always been great at that, and that’s what we enjoy working with him [on] now,” Frazier said.
The team explained that it’s easier to work on new lifts while still in competitive shape. “It’s tough to do that when you come off from two weeks’ [vacation], and you’re a little out of shape, and putting up fifty lifts in a week,” Frazier said.
“Easy things feel hard [then]. Hard things feel harder. So we’ll do that now,” Denney said, with a smile. “We’ve learned in the past that, after our last competition, getting back into the rink right away and starting to create new lifts [is good]. We already know what the requirements for the short program are next year, so we can get a head start on that while we’re in shape. So we don’t take a vacation and then come back and try to do all these things and get injured or something. Of course, we’ll take time off for a vacation … Later.”
“While you’re fresh and you’re hungry, you make the adjustments now,” Frazier agreed. “We know John will be away for Worlds. We’ll probably take some time [off] then, so we’re not losing too much [coaching] time. And maybe right before this season’s high performance camp [Champs Camp in August], take a couple extra days.” Frazier added that the team will also have year-end meetings and a season’s-end evaluation after returning home.
Asked about their plans for programs next season, Denney said: “We would like to get two new programs. It’s always fun to create new programs and grow as a team. But we’ll have to talk about it with our coaches and with Charlie and decide what’s the best thing for us to do. But we would like to get two new programs,” she said with a smile.
Denney and Frazier hope to work with White again for their choreography. “This was just the first year with him, and consistency is the key to having this stuff. I’m excited to see what two or three years from now is going to be like,” said Frazier. “For me, I connect with him well. And when something’s working, you stick with it.”
The team is intent on getting an early start because they hope to compete more in the 2019-20 season.
“We didn’t compete a lot this season, due to the injury and just getting our process going after last year’s Nationals,” Frazier said. “So, I think our plan is to get out more next season. Really get out as much as we can. Senior B [internationals], things like that. So when we try the hard stuff that we want to pack into our program, we have mileage under it. Four Continents was [only] our fourth competition of the year. Probably our most successful senior season, with The Lion King program, we competed a lot [2014-15]. I think we competed 11 times that year. We got to Worlds, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m tired.’ But it was good for us.”
“We [want to] know we’re able to do our program under any circumstance, any competition,” Denney said. “At practice, it’s more comfortable, you know? So, getting out into competitions and being under different circumstances–by the end of your season, which is hopefully at Worlds, or Four Continents–by that time, you know what to expect.”
As Denney and Frazier look to next season, they take inspiration from their training partners, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres. The French couple also skate in Zimmerman’s group and, after eight years of partnership, have reached the top of the sport this season, winning both the Grand Prix Final and Europeans.
“To be on the same ice as them, and be teammates and work together, is really cool,” Denney said. “Because Vanessa’s an amazing person on and off the ice. And it pushes us. It’s like, ‘Okay, they just did a clean program, so let’s try to do our best.’ It’s motivating. It’s a lot of fun working with them.”
“We’ve never really had the privilege to work with a top team like this,” Frazier observed. “For me, I look at Morgan, and [it’s] very, very good for me on a competitive side. Because he is one of the best in the business. Obviously, I’m not on the same level. But I ask myself every day when I’m training, ‘How do I get to that level?’ And I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Frazier said that James and Cipres also provide a great example of how persistence and determination can lead to success in the end–even if doesn’t happen right away. “I think they’re the best example of that,” he said. “I mean, they’ve always been good. I remember watching them when they first got together. But they’re the best example of [how] the hard work and dedication and patience is how you get to the top. The improvements they have made, leading up to this very moment …They jumped levels so quickly, and it’s because they both work hard, they support each other. We have the privilege to see it every day and watch the workshop process. They’re both great people, and we wish them the best of luck at Worlds.”
So while their training mates go after a possible World title this spring, Denney and Frazier will be at home, working steadily in the hopes of seeing big improvement in their own skating next season.