It’s been a while since I wrote anything about figure skating. (Since April, to be exact.) That’s a shame, because this has been a really wonderful season of figure skating so far.  So here are some trademark Train Thoughts (things I have written on my phone during my daily commuter rail commute) on my three favorite skating programs of the season so far.

Maia and Alex Shibutani – “That’s Life” short dance

One of the last nights my little sister was staying with me before she moved back to California, we were hanging out in the living room.

“Hey, I know you don’t like skating, but just watch this.” I said, pulling up the Shibutanis short dance from Skate America.

This program is set to a mashup of Frank Sinatra’s and Jay Z’s “That’s Life.” This year’s requirements have ice dancers performing blues, swing and hip-hop in their version of a short program, and I thought the Shibutanis had the best attempt at hitting the hip hop part of that equation.

My sister was drinking a beer when I started the video. Not a sip was taken, nor did she move, or say a word for the entire program. She’s really giving this a chance, I thought. My, things have changed since we were kids, when she just tolerated my endless skating watching.

Once the program ended, she turned to me. “That was the most f—- amazing skating anything I’ve ever seen.”

I almost wish there had been some way to save this program for an Olympic season (short dance requirements change by the season, so there is not.) No matter what skating fans think about it, this is something that would pull in the non-fan. Has it fully realized its potential yet? No, but no program or skater wants to be peaking in November. This program is on target for its best performance at Nationals, and is one of the reasons I keep trying to figure out exactly I could make it to Kansas City in January.

Mariah Bell – “East of Eden” long program

The other program that has me visiting every airlines’ website desperately trying to find ways to get to Kansas City for Nationals is Bell’s long program.

I had goosebumps watching a video of it from the early season U.S. International Classic. Despite costume issues and bobbles, it was a well composed long program that she had the talent to deliver beautifully.

Just a few weeks later, Bell performed it to near its full potential at Skate America in Hoffman Estates, Illinois (better known to college hockey fans as home of the Shillelagh Tournament, which is a tournament name I love to say over and over.) She won the long program and the overall silver medal for the effort.

She may double a toe loop on the end of a double Axel combo and the Salchow on a triple flip-half-loop-triple Salchow. Otherwise, it is some good, old-fashioned, captivating figure skating. In an era of no spirals, there are two solid, although brief, ones (one into the double Axel combo and one at the end) and no movements are thrown away. When a teacher, coach or choreographer implores a student to feel movement to their fingertips, this is what they mean. Is it the most artistic program ever? No. But none of this is filler movement, none of this represents a hummingbird fluttering around, and it never gets dull. Bell genuinely enjoys being on the ice, and this program showcases that.

On that note, I must digress. Longtime skating journalist Phil Hersh wrote this week about the “sad” state of U.S. skating, quipping, “Please don’t tell me that Rafael Arutunian will do a silk purse makeover on Mariah Bell.” I don’t believe anyone is saying that Bell’s coaching change (from the Kori Ade camp in Colorado Springs to the Arutunian camp in Southern California) is automatically going to elevate her past every other ladies skater in the U.S. But Hersh’s statement ignores the potential Bell has demonstrated in the past. She has always gone into Nationals with the goods that could have placed her in that bronze medal spot on the podium. All a coaching change needed to do for Bell is get her jumps more consistent and her confidence up. Bell is a contender, has been a contender, and will continue to be a contender, and shame on anyone who is just now realizing this and/or discounts the effort. 


Yuzuru Hanyu – “Let’s Go Crazy” short program

Prince’s untimely April death gave way to a few tribute programs this season, and this short program by the defending Olympic champion is my favorite. Technically, it has the difficulty to set it above the rest (opens with a quad loop, which Hanyu is the first to land, and the triple Axel comes out of an odd, but awesome, edge.) Artistically, it feels like going to a school dance and finding out that kid who seems like he would have no rhythm can actually break it down better than anyone. It starts off a little geeky, but by the ending slide across center ice that hits the song’s famous guitar riff, every girl is lining up to dance with him. (Gosh, I hope this comparison makes sense.) It’s as much fun as one can have in a short program these days, and I hope he finally hits it all at this weekend’s Grand Prix Final.