Figure Skating: From the Boards

Dancing with the North American stars September 13, 2010

First off, I’d like to congratulate the junior skaters who brought home medals from Romania this week in the Junior Grand Prix competition. Keegan Messing skated to gold for the first US gold of the season, and Joshua Farris backed him up with the sliver. For the ladies, Kristiene Gong won silver, and Lauri Bonacorsi and Travis Mage placed third for the bronze in ice dance. Nice work, team USA!

Speaking of ice dance, that’s the focus for today’s post. We’ve talked through the top 20 for the ladies, the men, and the pairs (well…some of the pairs, at least!), so now it’s time for some ice dance.

But before we get there, just one more thing. And observation, I suppose. Something that made me stop and think about the toughness of all competitive athletes.

This past week, I was bothered by a knee problem. It wasn’t much, and I’ll admit, I’m kind of a baby when it comes to pain. Still, for almost two weeks, I limped around, not sure what was wrong, but knowing I was struggling with simple, menial, daily tasks (getting in the car, for example). Then today, I took the morning off, instead of getting right on my to-do list, because I was battling a migraine.

Now, I watch a lot of sports. I also know a lot of people who suffer from migraines, back pain, shoulder pain, etc. The athletes I watch can’t be too different. In fact, many of them push their bodies to the limits in so many ways, that they nearly always feel pain. Yet, they go out and do their job day after day. They spend long hours on the court, the field, the ice; do countless reps in the gym alone, and they deal with the aches and pains without, for the most part, saying a word. This morning, I couldn’t even get out of bed.

I’ve been watching a lot of football lately (it’s back!!!!), and I can only imagine how banged up some of those guys are after a game. I’m thinking skaters who work triple jumps for hours each day may feel it in their knees later. And watching some college soccer players this weekend, I realized once again that the first time I tried to head a ball, I’d have a headache so ridiculous I might not even make it off the field. And my hip or shoulder? I bet Rafa Nadal doesn’t always feel loose enough to play like a champ. But he does. He did. And he was brilliant! (Congrats, Rafa!!)

I know we get used to watching these professionals compete, and sometimes even get frustrated when they don’t perform to our crazed-fan standards. Yet there’s not a one of them (even those who sometimes appear lazy or lackadaisical in their efforts) who doesn’t deal with more physical challenges than most of us can imagine. At least more than I can imagine. My hat is off to every athlete who takes the hits and still goes out day after day to do what they love to do, whether their knees hurt or they’re fighting a migraine or not.

Okay. Back to the topic of choice: the upcoming season in ice dance. There are some key empty spots in the ranks this year, and that will make for some differences in how competitions unfold. So, without further ado, let’s take a look.

Sitting at the top, for obvious reasons and without any real argument otherwise, are Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir from Canada. Their gold in Vancouver wasn’t much of a surprise, per se, but it was an obvious exclamation point on what many people have been saying about these two for years – they’re the real deal. The amount of talent and skill makes everything they do look simple. I promise you, it is not. And the fact that they can garner such high technical marks while presenting such a remarkable story, filled with emotion, passion and elegance makes them magical to watch. This season, their challenge will be reinventing themselves. Coming back to “regular” competition after such an Olympic high isn’t always easy. Plus, there’s the “What do we do to top that?” syndrome. Never fear, though. If anyone can pull out all the new stops, it’s these two. I expect nothing less.

Their challengers, though, are chomping at the bit, waiting their turn to one up their friends and training mates. Meryl Davis and Charlie White produced one of the best Original Dance numbers ever last season, and they two will have to reinvent themselves. In order to get the scores they’ll need to take down Virtue and Moir, they’ll need to up the technical ante as well as smooth out some of their transitions and footwork sequences. The thing about Virtue and Moir is, everything looks like one, giant, sweeping movement. Davis and White tend to leave things a bit more sectioned. (Footwork….spin….lift….transition, etc.) That said, I have no doubt that their coach is pushing them both. The inspiration factor certainly lies more with Meryl and Charlie, as they still have something to prove. That could be enough to get them where they need to be.

Russians Oksana Domina and Maxim Shabalin are #3 to start the season. These two confuse me sometimes. I’m never quite sure why they get the high marks they do. No doubt they’re fearless, but she never seems to straighten her legs, and they certainly don’t have the smoothness or the polish that the top two (and even some lower scoring teams) do. They worked with the same coach as Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto for the last few seasons, and that pushed them to be better. However, they’ve got some work to do to become the “skater’s skater” type team that Virtue and Moir and Davis and White are. (Side note: Charlie White is dating Tanith Belbin…I wonder how active she will be in his skating career, now that her own competitive career is over.)

The French team of Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat have certainly had their challenges. They managed to finish second to Virtue and Moir twice last year, before ending up 4th at Worlds. They always bring something unique to the table, and it’s evident they love to compete. They can’t quite seem to find that extra bit to push them over the top. I think their PCS scores need to improve to give them a leg up.

The sibling team of Sinead and John Kerr from Great Britain have impressed in the last few seasons. THey have an impeccable ability to get a crowd going, and that makes them ever so likable. They need to add a little bit technically to match up with the top teams, but they’ve been on a steady climb in that direction. I expect more of that from them as they look to get in the top three this season.

Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy, and Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier from Canada are 7th and 8th. I admitedly don’t know much at all about these two. The finished 12th and 14th at the Olympics respectively.

Number 9 is the young American team of Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates. These two are looking to carry on the relatively new tradition of solid American ice dance teams. Undoubtedly, these two were influenced by the success of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto who really put US ice dance on the map. Now, they look to be the next generation of that work. They definitely have the talent and the determination to do just that. From their icenetwork.com athlete profile, their goals for the season are “to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, finish in the top two at the U.S. Championships and place in the top seven at the World Championship.” Of course, it’s far to early to make any real predictions, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think they can do all three.

Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje finish off the top 10, and this is another young team that will make a splash as soon as this season. Third in Canada last year, they will be working to move up that ladder. I look forward to seeing what they have to offer together.

The bottom half of the top 20 is filled with several teams I’m not too familiar with, so I’ll key in on a couple of young American teams and leave the rest of my dance insight for the season.

Another brother-sister team, Maia and Alex Shibutani have been U.S. champs at the novice, intermediate and junior levels, and now they’ll be working towards a solid senior debut internationally. These two have some spark. They’ve got some skill. I can’t wait to see where their future takes them.

Madison and Keiffer Hubbell will be looking for the same kind of breakout season. With these two young teams coming up the ranks, I have to say, the future of US ice dance looks to be in great hands. I like what I see.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the powerhouses of the sport of ice dance are mainly North American? The super stars of the sport are getting the credit they deserve, and the momentum has shifted dramatically from only European skaters to the top Americans and Canadians. While there are a lot of things about the CoP judging system that I don’t love, I do like that in a lot of ways it leveled the playing field, and, especially for dance, made the requirements more clear cut.

Keep in mind, the discipline of ice dance will look dramatically different this year – no compulsory dances means no repetitive patterns of dance on ice. I’m not sure how I feel about this change (call me old school, but I like the focus on actual skating skill that compulsories brought, just as figures did to singles skaters), but what I’ve heard so far about the new “Short dance” seems mostly positive. I’ll reserve judgment until I see how it plays out in a few competitions with top teams, but it will definitely change the landscape of how dance competitions go. Often, some of the top teams in the world were not always tops in the CD (Belbin and Agosto, for one). That could shake up the standings, even with some of the top teams. Regardless, it makes for an interesting season. Once again, (I feel like I say this a lot…) I can’t wait!

I had every intention of putting up a video blog with this post, but due to the headache, I never got around to it. I’ll work on that for next time, especially since we’ll be moving on from our top 20 overview. We’ll see where the skating world takes us next, and try to get the camera out for the vlog as well.

Thanks again for all of you who come here and read my thoughts. I know many people checked out the blog after a twitter response I got from Erin Andrews – if you’re still reading, thank you! Erin is quite a role model, and I was blown away by the responses I got from some of you, both here and on twitter. Now, if you know anyone else who might like a little skating insight, send ’em on down! And, as always, feel free to comment, email thoughts (and even topic ideas or questions) to fromtheboards@gmail.com, and follow me on twitter for daily tid bits. I’m there 24/7 @fromtheboards, and I love hearing from you! You’re the best.

Until then…

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