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Buckeye Bits

By Gina Capellazzi and Maura Sullivan Hill, Team FSO

COLUMBUS, OHIO — Beyond the stories of the champions, the 2024 U.S. Championships in Columbus contained some other special narratives, from outstanding performances to skaters making a return to Nationals after more than 10 years.

Figure Skaters Online’s Gina Capellazzi and Maura Sullivan Hill spoke with some of these skaters that had other accomplishments and victories, beyond the podium. They are highlighting them here in what they have coined — “Buckeye Bits”

Buckeye is used in the names of many Ohio-based companies and organizations. It is the official mascot of The Ohio State University, which is located in Columbus. Columbus, Ohio was the site of the 2024 U.S. Championships. 

Back-to-Back events

A number of the competitors at the U.S. Championships had to leave directly from that event and head to Shanghai, China, for the Four Continents Championships. Some knew it ahead of time, like ice dancers Caroline Green and Michael Parsons.

After the rhythm dance, FSO asked the team about how they prepared for two competitions with such a brief turnaround time in between. Parsons said: “A few more double run-throughs, but we’re used to back-to-back competitions. We’ve done back-to-back Grand Prixs before. We’ve done this before, and so we know what we have to do. We have to take care of our bodies, recovering and staying focused. Not just, we finish the free dance here and yes, that’s great! But, we finish the free dance here and we’re right on to Four Continents.”

His partner agreed, with Green adding: “When you have back-to-back events like that, it’s really easy to get caught up in, oh, I have so many things to do. It almost gets this looming sense of, you’re at the start line of a marathon, but I think we really try to break it down and do it almost like it’s a series of sprints.”

“Day by day,” Parsons agreed.

Others didn’t have advance notice, like Emilea Zingas and Vadym Kolesnik, who were driving home to Michigan when they got the call that they were going to Four Continents. 2024 U.S. Champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates had withdrawn from the event in Shanghai after battling illness at Nationals, and Zingas and Kolesnik, sixth place finishers in Columbus, were their replacements.

Incredible skates

Some skaters, not in medal contention, brought the sold-out crowds at Nationwide Arena in Columbus to their feet.

Kicking off the second group of men in the free skate was Yaroslav Paniot. Skating to a medley of songs from the rock group Queen, the crowd loved Paniot’s free skate, which included Paniot landing a quadruple flip and quadruple toe-double toe combination. It was one of his best free skate since he won the pewter medal in 2021.

“I chose it (my Queen program) for a reason because I want it to be fun,” he said after his free skate. “The people were just with me there and I felt it.  That’s what helped me a lot. It really helps when a crowd is cheering for you and when they stand up.”

Paniot, who is skating to Prince for his short program, has previously skated to music from Elvis, the Bees Gees and Saturday Night Fever. After his free skate, FSO asked why he likes upbeat programs.

“It (My programs) has to be fun for sure,” said Paniot. “I’m a serious guy by default so that’s why I don’t dare to choose some serious type of program because my poker face will be just stone.”

Paniot finished 7th overall.

Later in that same group, Jimmy Ma came out and had one of his best free skates this season. The free skate included a quadruple toe-loop and seven triple jumps. His only mistake was a stepout on the triple flip. He moved up from ninth in the short program to finish sixth overall.

“I’m very happy,” he said after the free skate. “This is more along the lines of what I am as a skater, but there’s still a lot more than I could have shown you, but this is a better representation of who I am as a skater and what I’m capable of compared to other performances this year.”

What made it even more special was Ma had a brand, new free skate. Ma switched up his free skate, skating to Phantom of the Opera instead of “Lacrimosa” by Apashe free skate. Ma explained that at Champs Camp in August, his choreographer Nikolai Morozov wanted to change the music because he felt that the music was too dark and it didn’t highlight Ma’s skating. While Ma agreed, he said he never had the chance to go to Morozov for a new program because the season was well on its way. But after his skates at the Grand Prix events in China and Finland, Ma called Morozov.

Ma went to see Morozov after he got back home from Finland and that’s when Morozov started choreographing Ma’s Phantom of the Opera program.

“It’s always good to go back to my roots a little bit,” Ma said. “I respect him (Morozov) a lot, and his opinions. When he told me Phantom of the Opera, I was skeptical because no one expects me to skate to Phantom. But this was Swan Lake [ Ma’s short program from 2021-2022] all over again.”

Another incredible skate was in the free dance with Isabella Flores & Ivan Desyatov, who skated to a medley from West Side Story medley. The team received a large standing ovation and finished in 7th place overall.

Skating siblings

Kai Kovar wasn’t the only Kovar competing in Columbus. Kai’s younger sister, Milada, competed in the novice pairs event with her partner, Nikolai Apter. They won the bronze medal.

“It was really cool,” Kai said of experiencing Nationals with his sister. “I was really happy for her because I’ve been a few times before this and I know this exhilarating feeling and I was just happy she got to experience it too.”

The Kovars weren’t the only siblings competing in Columbus. As mentioned above, Isabella Flores finished in 7th place in the senior dance event with her partner, Ivan Desyatov. Isabella’s sister, Olivia, won the junior pairs title with her partner, Luke Wang.

Stay tuned to Figure Skaters Online for a story about another set of skating siblings!

Making history

While Amber Glenn successfully landed the triple Axel in the women’s free skate, there was another skater that landed a quadruple jump. Mia Kalin landed the first-ever clean quadruple jump performed in the senior women’s event at the U.S. Championships. The 15-year-old, who finished eighth overall, said she first started working on quads when she was 12.

“For me, I think it was just that my triple toe had a lot of room, so I thought, why not do a quad?” Kalin said in the mixed zone after her performance.

Last minute replacement

Brooke Gewalt was the first alternate for the women’s event at the U.S. Championships, after finishing fifth in the 2024 Midwestern Sectional Singles Final. She kept training hard throughout the holidays and January, which paid off when she got the call to compete at Nationals.

She replaced Ava Ziegler, who withdrew from Nationals to focus on competing at the Four Continents Championships, which started the week after the U.S. Championships.

Gewalt found out she’d be competing in Columbus on Wednesday, Jan. 17, just a week and a day before the women’s short programs took place on Thursday, Jan. 25.

“My coaches encouraged me to keep training and stuff, because I knew that I was first alternate, so I continued my training just as normal. So I felt prepared,” Gewalt said in the mixed zone after the short program. “It’s everyone’s dream to skate out on national ice. I’m very happy with myself and it’s a very good experience.”

Thinking back to when she got the call, Gewalt shared: “I was so excited, it didn’t feel real. And I was so glad that I kept working so hard, like, it’s gonna pay off.”

Returning to the U.S. Championships

Daniel Samohin returned to the U.S. Championships for the first time since 2013, when he finished fourth at the novice level. He competed internationally for Israel from 2013 to 2021, but hasn’t been back on competitive ice in two years, since the 2021 Golden Spin of Zagreb in December 2021.

Samohin is awaiting his release from the Israeli federation and hopes to compete internationally for the U.S. next season. He finished 12th in the men’s event in Columbus.

“It’s a great comeback for me, and it’s only going to go up from here, for sure,” the 2016 World Junior Champion said in the mixed zone after the free skate. “Hopefully, once I get my release, I’ll be able to go to internationals, maybe just some smaller ones, we’ll see. That’s my goal, is to really be ready for [next season]. Whether I get senior Bs or anything else, whatever the U.S. can give me, I’ll do it.”

Shoulder dislocations were often a problem for Samohin, and he said that his doctors say his shoulder bone is just a bit smaller and more prone to dislocate. He said he’s able to keep his shoulders stable with daily physical therapy.

Samohin said he plans to do two quads in his short program next year, and was doing quad salchows in practice in Columbus. He was planning to do one in his free skate, but decided against it after putting his hands down on his first triple axel.

“I put my hands down, which is silly, but I decided, you know what, let me just go for a nice clean skate, try to work on my beautiful transitions,” he said in the mixed zone. “Hopefully my spins got all their levels. We’re going to work on that, because sometimes in the long, it’s a little bit harder for me to finish all my spins. I’m going to go for two quads in the short, and two or three in the long as I’m building up to the next season.”

Home sweet home

There were two skaters at the U.S. Championships who grew up in Ohio. Katie McBeath, who finished fifth in the pairs event with her partner, Danill Parkman, grew up in Garfield Heights, Ohio, which is about two hours north of Columbus.

“I have been so thrilled to be home, like ever since I got here I was like, ‘I’m home, I’m home,'” said McBeath. “I’ve seen some skaters I grew up with, one of them played our music at practice yesterday so that was awesome. Then two little girls I used to teach Learn to Skate to were sweepers. It’s been a while since I’ve been home. I have a lot of family and friends that will be in and out throughout the week and things like that. So it feels like home. I’m two hours north originally, but it’s home. So I’m so excited.”

Eva Pate, who finished in fifth place with her partner and fiancé, Logan Bye, grew up in Strongsville, Ohio, which is not far from Katie’s hometown of Garfield Heights. Both are suburbs of Cleveland. Many of Pate’s family and friends made the two-hour drive to Columbus to watch them compete.

“The crowd was insane. I saw so many people in the stands from Ohio, from the Cleveland area and it was great to see them and have them cheer us on,” Pate said. “It’s been awesome. I’ve never had this many people at one event.  I was looking, we had people all over the arena like everywhere.”

“It’s astounding to see and support,” added Bye. “It really means a lot to us. We’re so grateful for everything.”

Brain fart

By the time Nationals comes around, skaters are quite familiar with their programs. They know the choreography and which way they are supposed to go, but for Starr Andrews, she experienced a moment where she didn’t know what direction she was going.

“I got confused in the beginning of my program and I forget where I was going and I was like ‘I don’t know which way to go’, so I kind of missed some of the beginning choreography just because I was a bit confused,” Andrews described. “But after that I pulled it together, I was like, ‘get it together. You have the rest of the program we can’t be forgetting in the beginning.'”

“I honestly had just a brain fart,” she continued. “My coach, when I got off the ice, I said ‘I forgot’ and he was like, ‘I know. I noticed you didn’t know where you were going.’ And I was like ‘I’m so sorry but hey, I did the Axel so that I didn’t miss.’ But yeah, just a little brain fart honestly.”