Tara Lipinski & Johnny Weir Preview Skate America (and the Start of the Olympic Season!)

Nathan Chen
Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There’s nothing like the first Grand Prix event of an Olympic season when figure skaters debut the programs they hope will earn them a spot on the team and, looking ahead to February, the podium in Beijing.

“The anticipation is at an all-time high,” says Olympic gold medalist turned commentator Tara Lipinski of the 2021 Guaranteed Rate Skate America (October 22-24 in Las Vegas). “There is definitely more pressure for the music, style and choreography to hit just right with the audience and the judges. And preferably right from the start to set the tone. In the Olympic quad, many skaters take those three years to test out new genres of music and different styles to see what works best for them, in hopes that through trial and error they land on just the right feel and look for the Olympic year. It’s not just landing the jumps; the program makes up a huge part of the artistic score and can be the deciding factor between gold or silver or making an Olympic team or not.”

Both Lipinski and fellow Olympian/analyst Johnny Weir can’t wait to see what quad king Nathan Chen — who hasn’t lost since finishing fifth at the 2018 Games — skates in the men’s October 22 short program (9/8c, NBCSN and Peacock) and October 23 free skate (10/9c, NBCSN and Peacock). “He is a chameleon, so it’s hard to guess what he will pick for the most important season of his career,” says Lipinski, who would bet on one of the three-time world champion’s signature dance breaks. “Nathan is in a league of his own and can likely win Skate America with a few mistakes, but skating cleanly and setting up the perfect time to peak this season will likely be what’s on his own personal agenda.” Adds Weir, “His dominance is certainly what makes him a favorite for the Olympic gold, but his sensitivity to his music and his technical consistency are breathtaking. The only competition I see for Nathan this season will come from double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan [who won’t be at Skate America].”

Among the women (see the rest of the weekend’s broadcast schedule), Alexandra Trusova is the favorite if she skates cleanly: “She recently performed five quad jumps in her free skate at the Russian test skate and her jumps are what keep her on the podium. If she skates well at Skate America, she will be in a class by herself,” says Weir. “The technical wizardry she’s shown over the last few seasons has elevated women’s figure skating to astronomical heights. There is a reason she’s called The Russian Rocket.”

The fiercest contest of the weekend will be in ice dancing as Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock/Evan Bates continue their epic rivalry. “[That] will be compelling to watch this season because ice dancing is the most political of figure skating disciplines and each team will be determined to go to Beijing as the No. 1 American team,” says Weir. “These teams are so special and excellent in every way. They’ve continued a long tradition of great American dance teams with style and technical mastery and I can see both teams on the Olympic podium.”

But how do Chock and Bates beat their classic Snake Charmer free dance?

“When you are Chock and Bates it’s not that hard — they have had some pretty memorable and amazing programs throughout their career,” Lipinski says. “I’m sure they have put a lot of thought into the follow up to that iconic program, especially knowing people are expecting them to top it. I find dancers have a much easier time coming out with multiple programs that they are remembered for, it’s such a huge part of their discipline: You have to be skilled at reinventing yourself or you get lost in the shuffle. I am excited to see what they come out with this year.”

On the Pairs side, America’s Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier hope to build on the success of their first year as partners. “They have gelled very quickly, but they don’t have a ton of international competitions under their belt together as a team. That will definitely add some extra pressure to their season,” Lipinski says. “What makes them so special is individually they are so strong, and that is only amplified when they come together as a pair.”

Does it make her nervous to watch the pairs teams do their dreaded side-by-side jumps? “[Those] don’t make me too nervous, but that’s also an element I can do. For me, it’s the loss of balance or unsteady footwork in the pair lifts that really put me on edge,” she says. “I could never be flying across the ice at that height and speed!”

2021 Guaranteed Rate Skate America begins Friday, October 22, 9/8c, NBCSN and Peacock