SAN JOSE, Calif.—Ross Miner had the crowd at the SAP Center on their feet at the end of his long program at the 2018 National Figure Skating Championships. The 26-year-old Boston native had performed to a medley of Queen songs and landed a clean quadruple salchow jump (and several other jumps, too).
Then it was time for the top three skaters after the men’s short program—Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon, and Jason Brown—to skate. Most expected these three to bump Miner and local favorite, Vincent Zhou, down the rankings.
Rippon was the first of the last three to take the ice. He opened with a quadruple lutz jump, which he fell on. This was not a disaster for him. He has been hit or miss with this jump—well, mostly miss—all season long. If Rippon hit the rest of his planned program, he’d easily secure a spot in the top three and make his inclusion on the Olympic team a no-brainer for the selection committee. After the opening fall, it seemed like he was getting himself back on track, hitting his jumps pretty well (though he did under-rotate at least one of them). Until the last two. Rippon popped his attempts at a triple salchow and a triple lutz—meaning he did just a single revolution in the air on each. With those two “pops,” he left more than 10 points on the table. His point total left him in third with two people still to skate, including Chen, who was the overwhelming favorite to win the title. There was little doubt that Rippon would be pushed off the podium. Chen was certain to do it. The question was: How far down the standings would Rippon be pushed?
Next up was Brown, who, in 2014, went viral with his long program at the national championships and earned a spot on the Olympic team. Brown, like Rippon, fell on his quad jump, which he has yet to land in competition. But, as with Rippon, this was not the fatal blow. What came next was—Brown botched nearly every subsequent jump, under-rotating them, stepping awkwardly out of them, and singling an intended triple. Brown was in fifth place with Chen still left to skate.
Chen, 18, did what everyone expected him to, landing five quadruple jumps in his long program. His only mistake was popping his intended triple axel. Still, he won his second consecutive national title by more than 40 points. Chen did nothing to damage his Olympic favorite status in San Jose.
But what about Rippon? U.S. Figure Skating does not have to select the three-man Olympic team based on the results at national championships; the results from tonight are part of the “tier one” criteria but so are results from other competitions like the Grand Prix Final and the 2017 world championships. There are also two lower tiers of criteria the selection committee will consider when determining who makes the Olympic team.
In the mixed zone after the men’s free skate, Rippon took responsibility for what he did on the ice, but he stated emphatically that he deserved to make the team despite his performance tonight.
“I feel like I have better criteria than second and third place here,” he said.
Here’s how the skaters who finished two through six shake out in terms of selection criteria:
This was not the result U.S. Figure Skating was hoping for. The last time they decided to pull the fourth place finisher onto the Olympic team was 2014, when they named Ashley Wagner instead of bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu. This decision, which was due to Wagner’s superior competitive track record leading up to Sochi, was controversial.
But if Rippon is assessing the situation accurately and that, save for this one poor performance, he does deserve to be on the Olympic team, then where should the ax fall? Should Zhou be the one to stay home? Or should it be Miner?
Zhou and Miner finished less than a point apart so, when it comes to that particular tier-one criteria, they’re effectively tied. Also, Zhou fell on one of his jumps whereas Miner hit everything. Zhou’s score has the potential to go up if he manages to land all of his jumps. Zhou’s résumé is also more impressive than Miner’s. He’s the defending world junior champion (tier three), the 2017 national championships silver medalist (tier three), and has better challenger and grand prix results than Miner. And Zhou is a young talent, just 17 years old. U.S. Figure Skating might want to give him a chance to get Olympic-level experience.
It’ll most likely come down to Miner and Rippon for that third team spot. And Rippon is right: He does have the edge over Miner. Both have a strong tier-one result—for Miner it’s these championships, and for Rippo it’s his qualification to the grand prix final. But are those two weighted the same? Will more weight be given to Miner’s higher score and placement at nationals or to Rippon’s performance in front of international judges and in an international field?
In tier two, Rippon runs circles around Miner. He has two grand prix silver medals to Miner’s single sixth-place finish at one grand prix event, Skate America. And in the lowest tier, Miner has more competitions—two Challenger events and the 2017 national championships (for which Rippon was injured) but Rippon’s sole Challenger result at the Finlandia Cup was a podium finish.
Though Miner attested that his performance tonight wasn’t a fluke, it is clearly an outlier when you judge it against his recent track record. Until tonight, he hasn’t medaled anywhere—domestically or internationally—since 2015 Cup of Russia. The criteria exist for skaters like Miner and Rippon, to keep a skater who hits it out of the park once off the team and to rescue a skater who had one bad performance in an otherwise strong season.