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400 top U.S. figure skaters, plus thousands of fans, descending on KC

KC synchronized skating team rehearses for national championship opening ceremony

When Kansas City hosts the U.S. Figure Skating Championships January 14-22, area skaters will welcome them with a 20-minute showcase of talent on Thursday, January 19 at the Sprint Center. The Kansas City Illusion, the only area synchronized skati
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When Kansas City hosts the U.S. Figure Skating Championships January 14-22, area skaters will welcome them with a 20-minute showcase of talent on Thursday, January 19 at the Sprint Center. The Kansas City Illusion, the only area synchronized skati

In the competitive world of death spirals, triple axels and toe loops, theirs are household names:

Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner, Maia and Alex Shibutani, Nathan Chen.

They’re among some 400 premier U.S. figure skaters coming to Kansas City to compete in the 2017 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which begin Saturday and run through Jan 22.

Tens of thousands of fans are expected to attend the competitions, which are being held in Kansas City for the first time since 1985, when Brian Boitano and Tiffany Chin ruled the ice.

Mariah Hirst of Smithville can hardly wait.

“She’s so happy she’s coming out of her skin,” Brad Hirst said of his daughter, a 13-year-old synchronized skater and Smithville Middle School student.

In October, she and other Kansas City area skaters were chosen to perform as part of the formal opening ceremony Jan. 19 to kick off the most competitive events for men, women, pairs and ice dancing.

Kansas City area luminaries Ryan Bradley, the 2011 U.S. champion, and John Coughlin, U.S. pairs champion in 2011 and 2012, are scheduled to take part.

“I’m very excited to be skating with the people I love to watch,” said Mariah, who also will be a “sweeper,” one of the young skaters who gather the flowers and stuffed toys that fans toss onto the ice.

“I have to miss school,” Mariah said. “No, I’m not upset about that.”

The U.S. Championships are the premier annual competition for U.S. figuring skating, with the winners frequently offering strong clues to who will be the top contenders from the U.S. at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in March in Helsinki, Finland, and the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

The Kansas City event schedule has competitions at both Sprint Center in Kansas City and Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence. Each discipline — women’s, men’s, pairs and ice dancing — has five competitive levels: juvenile, intermediate, novice, junior and senior, also known as the championship level.

Competition in the three lowest levels will be held from Saturday through Jan. 20 at Silverstein. Junior and championship level competition begins Tuesday and runs through Jan. 22 at Sprint Center.

Each competition has its own storyline:

▪ Women’s singles: A great rivalry has been brewing between Gold, who grew up in Springfield, and Wagner. Both are former U.S. national champions.

Wagner was national champion in 2012, 2013 and 2015; Gold was national champion in 2014 and 2016.

“They’ve kind of been trading off the top spot,” said Renee Felton, communications director for U.S. Figure Skating.

▪ Men’s singles: Last week, while training, reigning U.S. champion Adam Rippon injured his left foot and had to pull out of the competition.

The 2015 champion, Jason Brown — who couldn’t compete last year because he was injured — is looking to regain the top spot, with strong competition from 2013 champion Max Aaron.

Also on the scene is a relative newcomer, 17-year-old Nathan Chen, who in December at the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final in Marseille, France, notched the highest score ever in that event for a men’s singles skater from the U.S.

▪ Pairs: Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea are the reigning champions. But Haven Denny and Brandon Frazier, who took silver at the 2015 U.S. national championships, are back after missing last year because Denny was injured.

Also in the hunt: Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran. In 2014, Castelli shared a bronze medal in Japan at the Sochi Olympic Games with her then-partner Simon Shnapir, and they were national champions in 2013 and 2014.

Castelli and Tran last year won the bronze at the U.S. nationals.

▪ Ice dancing: “Internationally, ice dance may be the strongest discipline for U.S. skaters,” said Felton of U.S. Figure Skating.

The reigning U.S. national champion dancers are Maia Shibutani and brother Alex Shibutani, followed by Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

At the 2016 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, all three couples ranked among the top six teams, grabbing silver, bronze and sixth place respectively. Their competition in Kansas City is likely to be close, Felton said.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who took the gold medal in ice dancing in 2014 at the Olympics in Sochi, are not competing in the U.S. nationals.

▪ Local: Although not competing at the championship level, Kristofer Ogren of Parkville and partner Ainsley Peterson are scheduled to skate at Silverstein in novice pairs. They will go at 4:30 p.m. Monday and 1:25 p.m. Tuesday.

Ogren has been training with Peterson in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“I haven’t seen everyone in a while, so I’m really excited to come and perform and say hi to everybody, and kind of show them how I’ve improved,” he said.

▪ Other events: In conjunction with the championships, the Ice Terrace at Crown Center is holding a SkateFest with free skate lessons as well as rentals in two sessions Monday: 9:30 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. to 11 a.m. Pre-registration has filled the classes, but the first 25 children will be accepted as walk-ups for the two time slots.

▪ Cost: Tickets for events at Silverstein are $15 at the door for a one-day ticket, come and go all day. Tickets at Sprint range from $13 to $68 for single seats per event. Ticket packages also are available.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler