Chen, Zhou join Brown in making make US team for Olympics

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Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc compete in the pairs free skate program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Three-time world champion Nathan Chen proclaimed 17-year-old Ilia Malinin to be the future of U.S. Figure Skating.

Maybe so, but Malinin’s present won’t include the Beijing Olympics.

That distinction belongs to Chen, who won his sixth straight national title Sunday, and veterans Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, whom the selection committee chose over Malinin to represent the American team at the games next month.

“This team is incredible, just the amount of experience we all have,” Chen said. “I think regardless of anything we’re going to have great skates there. And going back to experience, I think that’s so important. I have been to events for the first time and things didn’t necessarily go the way I wanted it to. It’s really daunting.”

Indeed, it was so daunting four years ago that Chen stumbled through his short program at the Pyeongchang Games to dash any chance of winning an Olympic medal. He wound up a disappointing fifth with Zhou one spot behind him.

Meanwhile, Brown missed the 2018 team entirely after finishing ninth at the 2014 Games in Sochi.

“I’ve been through every single scenario: the young kid that makes it, the guy that gets left off the team. I so feel for (Malinin),” said Brown, who can’t touch Malinin’s jumping ability but makes up for it with his artistry and command.

“It’s really difficult,” Brown said. “There’s no easy way no matter what, when you look at the field. I’m so proud of how dense the men’s field has become. It’s remarkable. Just watching (Malinin) grow and shine — he was unbelievable tonight.”

Malinin was selected in place of Brown for the U.S. squad for the world championships in March. But Malinin must achieve a minimum technical score for the international event, something he should easily do.

The selection committee had to pick three skaters for the Olympics that did not finish nationals: Alysa Liu on the women’s team and Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in pairs. Liu and Frazier tested positive for COVID-19 and withdrew.

The remainder of the roster has U.S. champion Mariah Bell and Karen Chen in the women’s competition; gold medalists Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc in pairs; titlists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, plus Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker in ice dance.

“It’s going to be a different games from what we can imagine and other people experience,” Baker said, “but I know we’ll be surrounded by such amazing people. The outfits look pretty cool, too.”

Like most young skaters, Frazier had developed a carefully crafted picture in his mind of what it would be like to learn he finally realized his Olympic dreams. But the reality looked a whole lot different after his positive COVID-19 test; he merely had a Facetime chat with Knierim while awaiting the negative tests that would free him from his hotel quarantine.

“I never imagined it like it actually went down last night,” Frazier said Sunday, four days after his positive test forced the pair to withdraw from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and petition for a spot at the Winter Games.

“But that’s when I knew it meant the absolute world to me,” Frazier said, “because it meant just as much to me.”

Gain-Gribble said she learned she was going after finishing “a huge pizza and cookie dough, so I was feeling pretty good.” LeDuc, the first non-binary Olympic athlete, got his call just as he was arriving to his family’s Airbnb rental.

As for Frazier, sitting alone in his hotel room?

“I hugged the crap out of that pillow,” he said with a Cheshire cat-like grin.

There was no drama in the three dance teams picked. Chock and Bates will carry the momentum of a record-setting win at nationals to their third Olympics; Hubbell and Donohue will try to improve on their fourth-place finish at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang; and Hawayek and Baker give the Americans a third team that could stand on the podium.

“It’s the honor of a lifetime. It’s the greatest honor we can achieve in our sport,” said Bates, who will make his fourth Olympic trip after going in 2010 with former partner Emily Samuelson. “We’re fortunate to go back for the third time, or fourth time, but it never gets old. It’s always special each time.”

Unlike their teammates, Hawayek and Baker will experience the Olympics for the first time. It’s been a long and difficult road for the pair, both of whom have come back from concussions, including Hawayek’s this past summer.

“With full transparency, I didn’t know what the course of the injury was going to look like as we entered the Olympic season. There was a lot of doubt whether we’d be able to get back to a competition-ready place,” she said. “I think we’ve set ourselves up to continue to grow as the winter went on.”

All three American teams, who are close friends as much as rivals and training partners, work under the watchful eyes of Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer at the Gadbois Centre in Montreal.

Also training there are 2018 Olympic silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the French ice dancers who had the highest scorer of the Grand Prix season and likely their biggest competition in Beijing.

The three American dance teams plan to spend the next three weeks in Canada, putting in the final work for Beijing. But like the rest of the U.S. contingent, their biggest goal is not so much fine-tuning the performances but ensuring they stay healthy with COVID-19 running rampant.

“We’re in our bubble, doing what we can control, and right now the No. 1 concern for all of us in the next 20 days is to be healthy,” Hubbell said. “We all have to travel and be on an airplane and be around people, and certainly COVID is our No. 1 concern. It’s the next thing that can stand in the way of all our dreams. We’re going to be as diligent as we can be to do our best and represent Team USA with honor.”

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