Figure Skating: From the Boards

This one’s for the boys… September 6, 2010

Happy Labor Day to those who have so kindly chosen to follow FromTheBoards (the few, the proud…the skating fans!). Labor Day is an interesting holiday, don’t you think? I was curious enough, in fact, to look up the origin of the day. Apparently (correct me if I’m wrong, here!) a kid named Peter McGuire was inspired by a workers strike where employees were demanding a decrease in the hours of their long work days. Ultimately, McGuire helped for a workers union and the Labor Movement began. These workers then decided that they wanted a holiday halfway between Independence Day and Thanksgiving, thus the first Monday in September. It appears it used to be celebrated more heartily – parades, feasts, etc. Now it’s basically the last day of summer (sad day!) and sometimes a day for picnics.

So there you have it. Your random fact for the day. Now on to the good stuff – the skating!

First things first, I wanted to share a bit of news for you who may  not have heard. It seems Yu-Na Kim has decided to move to Los Angeles and train at the Kwan’s rink, East West Ice Palace, in Artesia. She will temporarily be coached by former ladies and pairs skater, Naomi Nari Nam (love her!) in an arrangement that is suspected to become more permanent if it seems to work. Good for Yu-Na to quickly move on from the train wreck with Brian Orser. I hope she’s happy with Nam (who is fluent in Korean) and that, should she decide to pursue her competitive career for years to come, she is able to find the passion and joy that once brought her to tears as she spoke of fulfilling her dream of skating to Olympic glory. (Check out the story at BlazingBlades.com, direct link here)

Back to business – the men, of course! And let me just say, this may be the most exciting discipline in the sport right now. The ladies long held that crown, but even with the great Yu-Na in the mix, it’s just not the same as it once was. The men’s competition, however…talk about drama! So once again, we look at the top 20, according to the World Rankings posted at icenetwork.com. Let’s dive in!

The American Olympic champ, Evan Lysacek, holds the top spot, which makes perfect sense. I mean, he is the Olympic champ. But with his recent decision to sit out the Grand Prix series and take a “wait-and-see” approach to Nationals, there will be some open space at the top, at least at the beginning of the year. Evan pushed himself to the brink last season, so he certainly deserves some time off. The question will be, can he get back into the kind of shape he’ll demand from himself? Also, will skating competitively remain his passion despite the other offers he’s getting? Even with Sochi 2014 “on his radar,” Evan’s certainly non-committal at this point regarding any future plans.

So, who’s the #2 who gets bumped to #1 by default? That would be World Champ Daisuke Takahashi. The Japanese champion stood up on a quad flip at Worlds in March, so look for him to push the envelope technically this year. But don’t let the technical side throw you – this kid’s a performer. He’s got a Mambo short program in the works, and I’ve seen portions of it. One word? Magic. I’m really looking forward to seeing his progression this year. A lot of people thought he deserved silver in Vancouver, so he may feel he has a little something to prove.

Sneaking into the top three (perhaps thanks to Plushenko’s ban that stripped his ISU eligibility and, therefore, his right to be ranked) is another of Japan’s stars, Nobunari Oda. He’s had an interesting career thus far – National champion in 2008, but that was after sitting out the season before due to a suspension for driving under the influence of alcohol (driving his moped, by the way!). And the road back to glory hasn’t been easy. Yes, he won the Japanese national title in December of 2008, but since then it seems he makes a big statement, then collapses when it really counts. At the Olympics, he fell in his long program, broke a lace, restarted, finished…all to end up 7th. Then, he completely bombed at Worlds, landing only one single jump in his short, and not even qualifying to skate in the free program. I have a feeling he’ll be looking for a strong comeback, but sometimes I think he wants it TOO much. Keep an eye on him, but don’t hold your breath for a stellar, world title kind of year.

Number four in the world is currently the Frenchman, Brian Joubert. He’s an interesting story (far too long to discuss in this particular blog, but if you have thoughts on him, I’m curious to know!) I find myself with a soft spot for Brian…I feel like he’s just never really been able to find himself on the ice. He seems to always be trying to match someone, or skate like someone else. For years he was criticized for trying to be 2002 Olympic Champ Alexei Yagudin’s mini-me, and it’s almost like when he stopped trying to be Alexei, he didn’t know who to be. I think he’s finally getting there, but again, it hasn’t been easy. He’s faced some bizarre injuries (cutting his foot with the opposite blade on the landing of a jump?!?) and some tough competitions, but he keeps climbing back up. You know what they say, champions aren’t the ones winning all the time, but the ones who get back up every time they fall. Brian’s got a short program to “Malaguna” planned – a much more artistic piece of music for him – so maybe he, too, will come back with new focus and passion. I wish him well.

The American national champion Jeremy Abbott closes out the top five. Jeremy is such a talent – his edges cut the ice like butter, his choreography pours out of him as naturally as he breathes – yet there’s something that’s kept him from reaching the top. I think he battles nerves with the best of ’em, and half the time they get the best of him. If he can combine the technical demands with nerves of steel, the rest will be easy as taking candy from a baby (…so they say). He’s another wild card for me.

Patrick Chan from Canada takes the #6 spot. This kid has got “it.” Whatever “it” is…he’s got it. He has some of the softest knees since, I don’t know, Todd Eldridge or Brian Boitano. When he’s on, he’s magic. The problem is, he’s not always on. He needs to step up the consistency in the technical department and, well, that’s about it. He has some of the best footwork in the business, in my opinion, and apparently in the opinion of the judges. He won some competitions last year that even he was surprised (dare I say, embarrassed?) to win because he didn’t complete clean jumps. But his transitions and footwork held him in it. It will be interesting with the new rules about footwork and jumps (supposedly to make jumps more weighted) to see how he fares, and if he can get those HUGE jumps under control.

Takahiko Kozuka is the #7 man heading into the season. Japan’s contingent is so strong. Expect the same from these three this year. Kozuka hasn’t had a “big break,” so to speak, but he’s looking to change that. Will this be the season?

Two Czech men are 8th and 10th (we’ll get to 9 in a minute) – Tomas Verner and Michal Brezina. Tomas had some wins last year. He’s not a polished skater, but he’s got the big tricks. He did have more entertaining programs last year, but when it counted, he faced disaster in Vancouver. It will be interesting to see how he rebounds from that. Brezina skated his “American in Paris” program to a 4th place finish at Worlds in March, so he’s looking to keep the momentum up heading into this season.

Jump back to #9 for a second – American Johnny Weir. He was originally slated to compete in the Grand Prix, but shortly thereafter decided that he needed to sit out this season and determine whether he wanted to continue competing. Johnny’s been through a lot the last few years. He hasn’t quite been able to pull together his own ideas about what skating should be and what the rules say it has become. Within that struggle, he couldn’t quite seem to reach the level of technical difficulty necessary to compete internationally. But at least for this year, he doesn’t have to worry about it!

On to #11. Little Adam Rippon. I say little because he seems like such a youngster compared to many of those at the top of the sport, but boy is he a talent! His movements are so pure, his edges so deep and clean. If he gets a bit more comfortable in the senior ranks with his jumps, he will be right up there with some of the Patrick Chans of the skating world. (He also does a “Tano” jump with a hand over his head as well as his own variation with both hands over his head. Gotta love it!) His future excites me. I can’t wait to see his season. He’s skating to “Romeo and Juliet” and Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto #2″…familiar pieces, but I have no doubt that Adam will bring the intense beauty out of them. He’ll be ready to compete.

Samuel Contesti of Italy is next at #12. This guy has an entertainment factor, for sure. He lacks a bit of content sometimes, and needs to work on fineness. He moved from 18th at the Olympics to 7th at Worlds, so he has the ability to compete. He just needs to put it all together.

Yannick Ponsero from France is the same way. He’s had some bright spots, showing potential, but he’s got to put it all together. He, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, Alban Preaubert of France, and Sergei Voronov of Russia are all ranked for a reason – they’ve got the goods to compete. But this season they’ll all need to keep moving in the right direction. Often some of the potential greats don’t quite make it to great, so we’ll see which of these guys brings it this year.

I have to pause for a second to talk about number 17 – Florent Amodio. This kid from France was one of my highlights last year. He’s the 2010 French National Champ, and as per usual for French skaters, he’s got a personality the size of Europe! He’s adorable. I challenge you to watch him skate without smiling. (Seriously, the video below…watch it. This is my “you will smile” guarantee!)

I can’t wait to see what he comes up with this year.

Wrapping up the top 20, #18 is Kevin Van Der Perren from Belgium. He’s a skater that just keeps on keepin’ on, even without always seeing the results he’d like. He’s got some big tricks, he just doesn’t have the consistency to skate multiple clean programs.

Russian youngster Denis Ten is poised to make his presence known. He skated to an 11th place finish in Vancouver, and I expect more good things as he grows in the sport.

Finishing off today’s list is the Chinese junior champ, Nan Song. He finished 6th at Four Continents as a senior last season, and was second at the Junior World Championships. He’s a young one to watch as he comes on to the seen with the top dogs!

We made it! So, we’re through the men and the ladies. The competition will be fierce, that’s for sure! Some will step up, others will fall down. But that, my friends, is the beauty of sport. On to pairs!!

Until then…

(Find me on twitter @FromTheBoards or email me thoughts, questions, comments: fromtheboards@gmail.com)

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12 Responses to “This one’s for the boys…”

  1. Mary Crispin Says:

    Lovin’ it!! Tara. Insightful and well written! Keep ’em coming!

    • Thanks, Mary! This one was fun for me…made me realize how much more invested I’ve become in the men’s competition – thanks, in part, to Evan, of course! Without him on the GP circuit this year, it was interesting to look at the other top guys and how things will change! Should still be the most wide-open discipline, I think.

  2. Y Says:

    The Icenetwork and ISU ranking are just puzzling. As admirably talented as they are, how could Oda, Jeremy and Joubert, all headcases who bombed one time or other the last season, be ranked above the World Silver medalist Chan, who beat them all at two recent Worlds and the Olympics, even if he too uderperformed last year?

    BTW, Chan is over a year younger than Little Adam Rippon.

    • I actually agree with you about the rankings. I didn’t ever get into explaining how those are figured, but yes, they are a little confusing sometimes. I just used them more as a “who’s who” in skating to keep me on track!

      I also agree about Chan. He’s truly something special. I can’t wait to see what he has planned for this season!

  3. Y Says:

    I don’t bother to get into the details of how they rank the skaters myself. I know basically points are given for competition placements in the two recent years, and the point totals determine the ranks. There must be some questional calculation somewhere. I suppose Chan’s rank is hurt by competing in very few events last year due to injury. (Plushenko and Shen/Zhao, coming out from retirements, skated in the first flights in the Olympics, and would still be ranked low had they stayed eligible.) I think major events like the Olympics, Worlds, then GP Finals, should be weighted and count more. Personal preferences aside, I admire all the elite skaters for all that have taken them where they are. It’s often a matter of their competitiveness to bring it when it counts. Thus the fact remains that Oda, Abbott and Joubert melted down and Chan managed to do better at the recent major events.

    I like the COP system but understand how it can be very confusing for casual fans unfamiliar with the highly technical aspects of the highly esthetic sport. (I mostly blame the commentators.) But really, the ranking should not be adding to the image of the sport being incomprehensible, biased and political.

    • Ah, yes. The politics of the skating world. Can’t ever quite get away from it, can we? But yes, all the elite skaters have given so much to get to where they are. As they say, the ice is slippery…so many top skaters could be “the best” on a given day. But I suppose that’s part of what I love about the sport!

      • Y Says:

        Don’t mean to drag on this conversion but can’t help commenting on “politics” – a favorite all purpose “fall guy” for the wrath of fans unhappy with their favorite skaters’ marks and placements. I don’t think these days there is much of any politics in the sense of collusions, let alone all the convoluted conspiracies. Under the COP system, there’s not much wriggle room in the TES for the judges but to score as obligated. Human biases do show up in the more subjective PCS but usually not what many unhappy fans assume and accuse of. E.g. Chan’s PCS is hardly overmarked and he mostly wins with TES. I’m optimistic the ongoing adjustments and the first crop of COP babies coming of age will validate the scoring system. It’s just a difficult transition for older skaters, fans, even some coaches and commentators. Chan being the most precocious COP baby unfortunately has to bear the brunt of misdirected angry confusion.

        As for competitive performances, the mind is more slipperty than the ice. The highest level of any sport is mental. Exhibit A: Tiger Woods.

      • Good point RE: the mental aspect.

        Interesting insight regarding COP. I have withheld much judgment on it as a whole because I’ve felt the skaters stuck in the transitional period were bound to seem a bit awkward and uncomfortable with it. I do appreciate several aspects of the system, but I guess as a fan who fell in love with the sport under 6.0, I’ve had a hard time accepting COP for all it is. I do think it takes away some of the wiggle room, and it has created a more even playing field, despite national traditions or individual performance expectations. But I do think the balance between TES and PCS is not always consistent, and that may be why some fans see such a conflict. I’m typically not one to cry “politics” at the first sign of something I’m unhappy with. Maybe I’m just naive enough to think that way, although I do know that there are, in fact, some “politics” that go on between judges. But I like to think that the system is just now coming into its own in a way that will make it more consistent and understandable, dare I say defendable in some instances, for skaters, judges and fans alike.

        Chan, to me, is the perfect blend for COP. His technique is stunning, and his program components leave me breathless more often than not. He makes me believe COP can work…and I hope there are more Chan-like skaters to come.

        Thanks for the conversation! I love hearing the view of other skating fans.

  4. Y Says:

    I too fell in love with skating under the 6.0 system, way before you did in fact! That system may have a wider appeal because anybody can watch a competition on TV and pretty much predict the winner(s). It is quite instinctual. It is easy to see landed jumps for the technical marks, and appreciate the beauty of the program and at times even feel emotional connections for the artistic marks. One problem was unavoidable unfairness. The marks were simply ordinances as judges gave marks as placeholders, saving room to insert later skaters and eventually forgetting the early ones. How is it possible to compare and slot all the skaters appropriately in their places with fixed marks over hours of competition? How? By pre-judgement and pre-determination. Skaters were pretty much already slotted, at least approximately, before they started skating. There were no breakdowns and accounting of the technical scores. For most people Quad = good = winning, and Fall = bad = losing. Skaters got away with underrotations, wrong edges, simple though sometimes impressive footwork, posing, etc. Well, these days falling on a sloppy underrotated jump after a long stalking is not the same as falling after fully rotating the jump with the right take off immediately after a difficult footwork sequence. There are specific TES bullet points for all technical aspects of the skate. The technical panel decides on qualifiations and difficulty levels of all elements on which the judges’ GOEs will be based. Throwing out the highest and lowest marks (and, up till this season, two random scores) and computer calculation pretty much limit any single judge’s ability to influence the overall marks. The one problem is the so-called “Corridor” judges try to fit in else they get called to be questioned. This may lead to pre-judging as in the 6.0. However, I do believe COP makes politicking and collusion more difficult.

    Skating under the COP system is like a decathlon. Great sprinting or pole vaulting alone will not automatically suffice. Do more and do them well and do them beautifully is the way to win. All different skills and elements are valued. Trouble is it gets complicated as this is a highly technical sport though people just want to instinctually enjoy and judge it for themselves.

    This system does give much more equal opportunities to all skaters. Now we have a different world champion each year and young talents in ice dancing can actually advance quickly and win, without “paying the dues” for years under the 6.0.

    Those who complain that COP kills quads only have to be a little patient as COP babies grow up. They simply progress differently, on all fronts. This coming season see all top 10 or 12 men with quads at various stages of competition readiness. Too bad the American girls still rush for jumps and pick up bad habits and techniques they find hard to correct as seniors. My most earnest hope is for skaters to train properly and to stay healthy, instead of letting quads ruin their bodies and skating careers. If the COP system helps with that prospect, I’d be most grateful. Time will tell.

    The best arguments for 6.0 are some of Lu Chen’s skates. They make you cry inspite of some technical flaws that wouldn’t pass COP.

    • Again, a very well written, thoughtful post! I was not a COP fan at all, initially. However, because of many of the things you mentioned, it’s grown on me. I absolutely love that skaters are being rewarded for being well rounded, and that a fall or a mistake doesn’t automatically eliminate them from medal contention. I still feel the balance may not quite be right, but it’s a work in progress, and it’s certainly getting there. I think what I miss about the 6.0 system is a little bit of that emotional connection you mentioned. That isn’t a quantifiable element, so giving it a “mark” isn’t easy. And yet, eliminating its importance because it can’t be numerically factored in seems to take away a bit of the magic that is figure skating. All the greatest moments in the sport are not merely performances of technical brilliance, but moments of real, uncontainable emotion. Skates from Lu Chen, Brian Boitano, Michelle Kwan, Shen and Zhao, Belbin and Agosto…the list goes on, including many before my own skating experience began…are iconic because of that emotion, both from the skater and the fans. I think skating is slowly getting back to that, but with as system as specific and broken down as COP, it’s hard to see that connection to the moment not given a value.

      Otherwise, I am seeing skaters improve in so many ways, likely due to COP. And, as you said, it isn’t a sport of the elites any more – every athlete who takes the ice has a chance. I LOVE that. I think that’s been seen most in ice dance, but it’s showing in all disciplines, too. I also think it makes things more simplified for the skaters themselves – they can see on paper where they need to improve, and how they can earn points for what they do well. It’s made skating more strategic…which took a while for me to get used to, but again, I’m warming up to it! I like that a guy like Evan Lysacek who does just about everything well can use his well rounded-ness to his advantage. I like that lady skaters are rewarded for the quality of their spirals, but not given credit for that element solely based on the “gumby-ness” of it. I think it’s brilliant for ice dance to have elements quantified as they have been, and pairs teams have had to step up creatively as well.

      Despite my sentimental connection to 6.0, I also do like the fact that there are so many additional factors that make judging more than just an ordinal or a saved mark. And as with any change, there are some growing pains. But I think we’re getting there, and as you said, the COP babies will likely show us the real benefit of the system, and they way it can be used to make skating all it’s supposed to be.

      I’ve really appreciated your insight on all of this!

  5. Y Says:

    Well, skaters can still go for meaningful simplicity outside of competition. But the best ones can pack the competitive programs with both difficult elements and artistry, (think Lambiel, Takahashi and Chan) though some can do difficult jumps, or footwork, or astistic expression but not all together (Joubert, Weir…). There are some that have it all except consistency, such as Kozuka, Oda, Abbott, etc. And there’s a whole bunch of promising up and comers, all these in just Mens discipline. Oh, Patrick Chan. He’s special alright – though well ahead of his age group, he’s still progressing every season and nowhere near peaking. There’s not a wasted second in his programs, yet he’s never frantic, just effortlessly elegant and musical. He’s the best example of the best ones making the hardest executions look too easy. Unfortunately for him sometimes.

    See, the beauty of skating still thrives. Like music, a beautifully played complex sonata is more exciting and appreciated than a beautifully played simple tune. It takes more skills and separates the man from the boyz, the cream from the milk, the wheat from the chaf………….

    I shall stop taking over your blog site now. LOL

    • Hey, no worries! I’ve enjoyed the discussion!

      And yes, the beauty of skating lives on…it just took it a while to find its place within COP. Like I said, those like Patrick Chan gave me reason to believe that once the transitional period was over, the beauty of skating would once again rise as passion finds its place within the newly important technical demands. (By the way, I think you hit the nail on the head about his programs – not a second wasted, not a moment unimportant. Brilliant!!)


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