Five things we learned from U.S. Figure Skating Championships ahead of 2022 Winter Olympics

Tom Schad
USA TODAY

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After four days of impressive quads, memorable performances and, unfortunately, a few positive COVID-19 tests, the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships are in the books.

Some of the results from nationals came as a complete surprise. Others ... not so much. But along the way, the event offered plenty of insight into both the state of U.S. figure skating and those who will represent it at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing next month. 

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Here are a few of the major takeaways from nationals, now that the medals have been distributed and the members of the U.S. Olympic figure skating team have been set.

COVID concerns for Beijing are real

There were questions about holding these championships amid the recent spike in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant – and concerns that a prominent athlete could get sick. And that, unfortunately, is exactly what happened.

The top female skater, Alysa Liu, and a member of the top pairs team, Brandon Frazier, were among more than a half-dozen athletes and coaches who missed out on the competition after testing positive for COVID-19. Several of them tested negative before traveling to Nashville, then positive at some point after they arrived.

Mariah Bell skates during the championship ladies free skate program.

While the COVID-19 protocols in Beijing will be much more stringent – daily tests for participants, for example, rather than the one test every four days at nationals – the way the virus disrupted this event could be prescient for the Winter Olympics. No matter how strict the countermeasures, it is all but certain that athletes will test positive in Beijing. And it will make the role of alternates, both in U.S. figure skating and across the board, that much more pivotal.

Momentum building for Nathan Chen

Nathan Chen wasn't perfect this week, falling twice on his free skate – including a surprising stumble during a step sequence toward the end of his program. But he still came away with his sixth consecutive national title and is sitting in a strong position entering Beijing.

In a way, the free skate screwups – and the way Chen responded to them – could prove to be the most important part of the weekend for him. At the 2018 Games, he let an early fall get to him, and it snowballed into a disastrous short program. This time, he recovered quickly and actually left the ice with a smile – a subtle sign of both confidence and comfort that bodes well for the Olympics.

Ice dance could be Olympic strength

The Olympic competition at ice dance promises to be tight, but the performances at nationals reinforced the possibility that the U.S. could actually have two teams on the podium at the Winter Games.

Fewer than two points separated Madison Chock and Evan Bates from Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, with the former winning the rhythm dance and the latter winning the free skate. They finished ninth and fourth, respectively, at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

Though Canada, France and Russia also boast top teams, the U.S. is the only country to medal in ice dance at each of the past four Olympics. And both Chock/Bates and Hubbell/Donohue will arrive in Beijing with the sort of experience that can make all the difference, especially in pressure-packed situations. Both teams have competed together for more than a decade.

Mariah Bell has star potential

Bell came to Bridgestone Arena as a serious contender for an Olympic spot, but she'll leave as both a national champion and perhaps a star in the making.

At 25 – an age that, she admits, is considered "ancient" by figure skating standards – Bell has one of Team USA's most compelling stories in one of the most popular sports at the Winter Olympics. She's been on the senior circuit for nine years but never competed at the Olympics. And now she'll be the oldest U.S. figure skater to compete in the women's event since the 1920s. 

As the nation gets to know these Olympic athletes in the coming weeks, Bell has the potential to become a fan favorite – just like one of her coaches, Adam Rippon, did in 2018.

The kids are alright

While all the focus is on the upcoming Olympics and the athletes who will be competing there, nationals also offered more than a few reasons for U.S. figure skating fans to get excited about 2026.

On the men's side, 17-year-old Ilia Malinin had an incredible weekend, wowing the crowd with his short program and then making a string of quads look routine one day later. He finished second behind Chen but will serve as an alternate in Beijing. The selection committee chose the more experienced Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown over Malinin.

The Virginia native isn't short on talent, nor confidence. His handle on Instagram is "quadg0d."

The same is true of 14-year-old Isabeau Levito, who proved to be one of the most enchanting performers at Bridgestone Arena, with a style reminiscent of some of the Russian skaters who now dominate the event. She is too young to compete at this year's Olympics but could be a name to know for 2026.