Figure Skating: From the Boards

Skating for Gold – Nationals 2011, Ice Dance January 10, 2011

Ice dance, in my mind, is an ever evolving discipline, perhaps even more so than the other areas of figure skating. I had my first real introduction to the event at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics which was, ironically, the culmination of what had apparently been years of political scandals and national biases.

But still, it was the first time I’d been really aware of the sport.

Flash forward to the 2004 National Championships, in particular the build up for the showdown between the five-time champs, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev and the newcomers, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. I had fallen in love with Naomi and Peter in 2002, and was devastated by Naomi’s injury that had them set to retire, pre-Nationals. But they decided to give it a shot, and made a valiant attempt. Unfortunately, the injured Lang couldn’t go on, and they withdrew.

Enter Tanith and Ben a la Elvis and West Side Story.

And so began my love affair with Ice Dance.

The sport is dramatically different now than it was back then, but it may be the one discipline that I feel has really benefited from the changes to the judging system. And thanks to the determination of skaters like Belbin and Agosto, American Ice Dance is officially on the map. Example, the field set to compete in Greensboro.

First off, the “contenders.”

  • Meryl Davis and Charlie White
  • Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani
  • Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein

Obviously missing from the list of teams expected to compete for honors this season are Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates. The two set themselves up last season as the heirs to the ice dance throne, only to be sidelined by a freak injury before their season even began.

That, combined with the retirement of Tanith and Ben, make Meryl and Charlie the only team competing this season to have been on the podium before. But don’t let that fool you – these teams have staked their claim for international glory this year with some stellar performances in the Grand Prix Series.

Davis and White should, barring some unforeseen circumstance, take the top spot by a mile. But that doesn’t mean they can take this event lightly. At this point, their biggest competition is themselves, and if they want to compete for the World title this season, they have to continue to make improvements. They won the Grand Prix final with relative ease, but their programs were far from flawless. I hope they come out in NC with the spark, fire, and confidence of the reigning National Champions, not willing for anyone to question their right to the top of the podium.

Maia and Alex Shibutani have been one of the brightest spots of this entire season in my book. The joy with which they skate makes me smile, without fail. And they may have the most potential internationally of any other team on the US roster right now. They’re now training with the best, which has seemed to motivate them to be the best. If anyone can push Meryl and Charlie in the coming years, I see it being this team.

That said, they’re not in the clear for the #2 spot, at least not yet. Madison and Greg have a fantastic Free Dance this season that takes them so far out of their comfort zones that it also takes them to a new, challenging, and exciting level. They had some success on the Grand Prix that may have surprised some people, and I feel like they will battle it out with the Shibs in NC for the right to be the new American sensation.

In my mind, those three teams are the clearest bet for the medal stand, but not to be forgotten is the brother/sister team of Madison and Keiffer Hubbell. They’ve struggled a bit this year to get things going, battling some injuries here and there. But they’re hungry, too, and if someone in that top three makes a misstep, they better watch out.

While the field may seem less advanced than it has been for the last two Olympic cycles, I feel it will still be highly competitive. It also provides us a glimpse of the future of American Ice Dance, as well as giving the newbies a look at what they’re in for.

If nothing else, the top three teams should be VERY good. And they all have this season of international experience under their belts, so the World team could shape up to be very good as well.

 

And there you have it. Three disciplines down, one to go. The ladies competition has always been the premiere event, but for some time now it’s lacked a little…spark. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this year’s field has more spark than we’ve seen since the last time Michelle and Sasha faced off in Portland 2005. Why? You’ll just have to come back in a few days to find out!

Until then…

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