Will the U.S. dominate figure skating again?


Olympic champion and former NBC commentator Scott Hamilton has seen it all, in figure skating and in his personal life. So with Nathan Chen, a 17-year-old American, generating massive buzz ahead of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City (Jan. 14-22), Hamilton is ready for Chen -- and other hopefuls such as Ashley Wagner and Adam Rippon -- to give the sport a much-need boost in a world where it has lost its edge.

"When you're different and when you're new, it's like a breath of fresh air," Hamilton said of Chen in a phone interview with ESPN in December. "Everyone goes, 'There it is! Finally!' He's a new toy."

In December at figure skating's Grand Prix Final, where the season's best six international skaters compete, Chen became the first U.S. man to land four quad jumps in one program. He won the free skate, finishing with the silver medal overall.

"I think he's turning a lot of heads for the fact that he has multiple quad takeoffs," Hamilton said. "That's unique. He's throwing four or five quad jumps into a long program, which is unheard of. He's setting the bar high. Who is coming up behind him? And what are they doing?"

For every question lobbed at Hamilton, 58, he has a handful to ask back. And his unending energy hasn't slowed him down, even as he has faced a major illness for the fourth time in his life. In August, he was diagnosed with a tumor in his brain, having survived bouts with illness in 1997 (testicular cancer), 2004 (a benign brain tumor) and 2010 (a recurrence of said brain tumor).

But Hamilton asks, "Why bother slowing down?"

Having been replaced by former Olympians Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski in the NBC commentary booth in late 2014, Hamilton, a native of Ohio, is still close with the sport.

"Change is good; it's healthy," said Hamilton, who covered seven Olympics, dating back to 1992.

In the fall, he launched "The Scott Hamilton Show," a weekly web series on icenetwork.com, and he also produced "An Evening with Scott Hamilton & Friends," a charity skating show that had stops in Cleveland and Nashville. The shows each had charitable ties to the illnesses that he has faced, the latter benefiting his cancer research nonprofit, the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation.

Hamilton's first guest on the web series was Ashley Wagner, a three-time national champion in the U.S. who in April broke a 10-year dry spell for the American women on the world stage, winning silver at the World Championships in Boston.

Hamilton said he would like to see Wagner and her peers return to prominence on the international stage. The U.S. now plays second fiddle to other skating powerhouses, including Japan, Russia and Canada. Hamilton wants to fix that. Chen and Wagner might be part of the answer.

"As an American skater, when you look at the world, you see that bar and say, 'OK, how do I get there?'" Hamilton said. "It's a different world now than the one that I was brought up in. Wherever the [skating] world is right now, a really smart skater is going to figure out how to raise the bar even higher. It's going to take some work and some time.

"The way that we develop our skaters and the way that everything is in the skating world right now, I think looking at that now we need to think, 'What do we need to do to right this ship?'"

But for Hamilton there is reason to hope. And recent events back him up: Wagner's silver medal in 2016 at worlds was a start. Veteran Adam Rippon and Chen each qualified for the exclusive Grand Prix Final, marking the first time two U.S. men have done so since 2009; and the top U.S. ice dance teams are three of the best in the world.

"I always joked that if America rules ice dancing, that's one of the seven signs of the apocalypse," an upbeat Hamilton says, laughing. "But now we do. It's a great reality."

The reality of the high-flying Chen is something that has taken Hamilton and many who watch the sport by surprise. Chen is a soft-spoken teenager from California who has produced some jaw-dropping performances, including at the U.S. Championships last January when he finished third behind Rippon and Max Aaron. During the Grand Prix season in the fall, his superior jumping made him the youngest man to qualify for the final since 2011, when Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu did it. Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic champion, has been the man of the hour in figure skating for the past three years.

Chen's quad-filled free skate master class at the Grand Prix Final won him that portion of the competition outright, outscoring the likes of Hanyu and former world champions Patrick Chan and Javier Fernandez. The result, a month before the U.S. Championships, helped increase the volume of the growing buzz around him.

But with just 13 months to go before the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea, Chen isn't the only one who will be tested again in Kansas City. In ice dance, spurred by the success of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto (silver in 2006) and Meryl Davis and Charlie White (silver in 2010, gold in 2014), the U.S. sibling team of Maia and Alex Shibutani as well as Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue all qualified for the six-team Grand Prix Final. That's right: half of the field. Ice dance is flourishing in a country it was once considered an afterthought in.

While Rippon and Chen are the current U.S. men on their game, Rippon announced this week that he was withdrawing from the U.S. Championships after breaking his foot in practice last week. That means Chen will headline Kansas City next week, joined by 2013 champion Aaron, 2015 winner and Sochi "Riverdance" darling Jason Brown and a host of others looking to push America into the global conversation. Currently, the skaters with front-runner status are Hanyu, the reigning Olympic champ; Fernandez, a two-time world champ; Chan, an Olympic silver medalist; and up-and-comers such as Jin Boyang of China and Japan's Shoma Uno. It's a dogfight for the Americans to find themselves even in the top five.

On the women's side, Gracie Gold will be defending her national title in Kansas City. Gold, 21, finished fourth at the World Championships in April after leading in the short program and has had a turbulent eight months since. She finished fifth and eighth, respectively, at her two Grand Prix assignments this season, after landing on the podium at the two same events in 2015. At Skate America in Chicago in October, she talked about a crisis of confidence because of a lack of training.

"Gracie has had a tough year," Hamilton said. "But when you get to nationals and worlds, that's where the cream rises to the top."

Gold and Wagner have flip-flopped the top-skater status the past four years in the U.S., and should they bring their best form, there is no reason for that to change in Kansas City. Polina Edmunds, a 2014 Olympian, has dealt with a nagging injury this year but is nipping at their skates, as is young upstart Mariah Bell, 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu, veteran Caroline Zhang, Angela Wang and youngster Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan).

"Who's coming up now?" Hamilton asks rhetorically, speaking to the depth of the field. "There are more people in the conversation, which I think makes it more fun."

Hamilton said a competitive coaching field will help push the U.S. back to greatness, and he tips his hat to Igor Shpilband, Marina Zueva and Rafael Arutyunyan, who have their fingerprints on the works of a variety of national champions. Zueva and Arutyunyan have been sharing Chen this season as he works his way into the senior ranks.

"You have some people who are making a case that they are the 'it' coach right now," said Hamilton, who runs a skating academy in Nashville but does not coach any elite skaters himself. "It's very competitive in that world, and I think that's great. If the coaches are hungry and looking to be unique, that helps drive success. You hope that it doesn't become homogenized -- you want the mavericks out there. The enthusiasm and the hunger comes from wanting to be better than everybody else."

You could call Hamilton a maverick, fighting cancer, continuing to keep his finger on the pulse of the sport, serving as a father figure as the U.S. tries to produce more household names like his own: Lipinski, Weir, Nancy Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan, Evan Lysacek and those from greater eras past.

"How is the sport of figure skating, the industry, being managed right now?" Hamilton asked. "What is the five-year strategic plan?"

He offered a simple yet hard-to-execute solution: "You have to win -- all the time. Are we ever going to get back to where we were? The pendulum swings both ways. We just have to be patient. We have to be smart. We've had great skaters who have worked really hard, but you need the marketing arm in skating, too. How do we bring balance back to skating? How do we bring our audience back?"

For the U.S., one challenge of that will come at the World Championships this March in Helsinki, where they can qualify for Olympic spots. The top two finishers in each discipline from the U.S. must combine to a total of 13 or under (say, sixth and seventh place) for the teams to earn three Olympic spots. The U.S. women had that in 2014 after only two skaters competed in 2010, and the U.S. men haven't had three Olympic skaters in singles since 2010.

"If our guys skate two good programs at Worlds, I don't see why not," Hamilton said of earning back that third spot. "There are a lot of [American] guys out there that can do amazing things. It's going to come down to who keeps themselves in the conversation."

And the conversation for Hamilton and his life? He just keeps going -- no matter what. His prognosis is pending, but he said he'll face a "period of yuck" (if it does come) head on.

"I try to do my best to practice what I preach," he said. "A big part of my unique hobby of collecting life-threatening illnesses is that I have to be vigilant. I'm not allowed to bang on my chest with my fists and say that I'm bulletproof, because I've been proven otherwise. I'm going to be patient and methodical and just deal with this thing as it comes. If I'm going to deal with something, I'm going to do it joyfully."