NASHVILLE – Every time I cover a figure skating event, what always gets to me is the size of the ice. Figure skating events are often held in NHL arenas, with the slick, frozen expanse taking up as much room as it does for a hockey game.

The big difference? That the single skater or pair of skaters occupy the same span of ice that's usually traversed by two teams fighting for a puck. Even the tallest skaters, some of the biggest men in pairs, look tiny on that big ice.

At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Bridgestone Arena, home of the Nashville Predators, skaters took to the big ice and thrilled and failed all over again. Nathan Chen, the reigning world champion, threw quad jump after quad jump, setting up a showdown with two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu from Japan.

Madison Chock and Even Bates compete in the ice dance program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Madison Chock and Even Bates compete in the ice dance program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Madison Chock and Evan Bates won the ice dance, just beating out friends, rivals and training partners Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. Both pairs have a bevy of medals from world championships, national championships and Grand Prix events. They will get to face off again at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Ice dance and men’s are the strongest areas in U.S. figure skating. Russia and Japan have outpaced the U.S. women, and pairs has never been a strong suit for the U.S. If you’re wondering where the U.S. will likely bring home some hardware, that’s where to look.

But that ice at Bridgestone contained more than the winners.

Jason Brown competes in the men's free skate program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Jason Brown competes in the men's free skate program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

The ice turned out to be a welcoming place for LGBTQ skaters. Jason Brown, the crowd pleaser you may remember from the Sochi Olympics, came out last year, and he was named to the Olympic team. Timothy LeDuc, who partners with Ashley Cain-Gribble in pairs, is non-binary. They won the pairs event, and will get to head to the ice in Beijing.

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Mariah Bell performs during the skating spectacular at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Mariah Bell finally found her breakthrough on that big ice. The 25-year-old – ancient in figure skating these days — won a national championship after nine years of trying. Her free program doesn’t have the firepower of the skaters she will face in Beijing, but she got her big moment at Bridgestone as fans stood and threw stuffed animals at the end of her free program to “Hallelujah.”

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Yaroslav Paniot competes in the men's free skate program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

The fickleness of the ice was on display, too, best shown in men’s competitor Yaroslav Paniot. He competed in the Olympics for Ukraine in 2018, then became an American in time to try for the 2022 Olympics. In the short program, he had crowds cheering and dancing along to his disco-themed skate. After he landed his first jump in the free program, the laces that held his skate together snapped, completely unlacing the boot. He tried to fix it within the short time given by officials, tried to keep skating, but it just wasn’t working. He withdrew, standing in the middle of that giant ice with a sheepish look on his face. He probably wouldn’t have made the men’s team, but his balky skate meant he didn’t even get to try.

Skaters often talk about getting lost in their thoughts, in the music, in their skating, but the ice provided no refuge from COVID. Positive tests knocked out Brandon Frazier, a pairs skater who is headed to Beijing with partner Alexa Knierim, and Alysia Liu, who is on the women’s Olympic team. Other skaters and coaches found themselves quarantining in a Nashville hotel after positive tests. Skaters wore double masks, stayed in Airbnbs, avoided any contact with any human, even family, to stay COVID free.

The national championships boast more skaters than those shown on TV. Families drive their minivans and SUVs from all over the country to give junior skaters a shot on the biggest ice most skaters will find. The great majority of skaters who competed at Bridgestone Arena will never compete internationally or even come close to the Olympics. But they get a chance to skate on the same ice as their heroes, the ones we'll watch next month in Beijing.

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