Figure Skating: From the Boards

Nice, Take Two: Ice Dance Preview March 25, 2012

“Sheer French magic, right here on the French Riviera.”

That was the announcer’s description of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat’s World Championship-winning Free Dance in the year 2000. The duo — who had finished second the two years before — won their first World Title in front of their home crowd, capping off an undefeated season, to boot.

Marina and Gwendal were second headed into the Free Dance, after placing first in each of the two compulsory rounds, but second (to Italians Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio) in the Original Dance. To win the title, they needed to finish strong.

Their Free Dance to the ever-dramatic Carmina Burana was masterful. The speed and precision was matched by intensity and passion. Their elements were woven in and out of the uniquely crafted choreography. You could feel the tension in the building, the French crowd seemingly willing them to victory.

The noise level built steadily throughout, and when they hit their signature lift — yes, the one where she does the lifting and he does the posing! — there was no stopping the eruption, or Mama Anissina’s tears as the camera flashed to her in the stands.

It was the moment they’d been building towards, planning for, and dreaming of: winning gold on French ice. And they’d done it.

Now, there is another French team who has been dreaming of a title, taking a number of turns around Championship ice, but always falling just short. And yet again, they’ve hit a speed bump.

Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat have twice finished just off the podium at Worlds. This year, they looked primed to take one of the top three spots, until a training accident left Pechalat with a severely broken nose and a need for surgery to repair the damage done. However, surgery would have surely kept them from competing. So, instead they chose to risk it — she skated with a protective mask in practices, taking care not to further the injury. But their determination to skate in front of their home-country fans and create their own French magic has them in Nice, readying to compete once again.

Standing in their way, though, is a host of anxious challengers, hungry for their own spot on the podium. Certainly the most likely candidates for medals come from the current hot-bed of ice dance — North America.

Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are sure to impress in Nice, what with their French inspired Free Dance and all. Plus, they’ve made a steady rise this season and could be set to peak at just the right time. So, too, could be their closest rivals — Americans (and reigning World bronze medalists) Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani.

Now, a few short months ago (say, before U.S. Nationals), I would have undoubtedly given the nod to the Canadians. They have plenty of miles on their programs this season, they’re comfortable, confident, and committed, both to the character of the dance and to their medal hunt. The Shibutanis, then, were not capitalizing on the potential of their samba Short Dance, and it was costing them.

These two had great expectations placed on them this year, after their meteoric rise through the senior ranks last season. But let’s not forget — this is only their second year on the senior circuit!

That said, they’ve put in massive amounts of work, not just on their SD, but now on their FD as well, working with dance pro Corky Ballas. And my, oh my does it show, even in the short practice clips we’ve seen. This may just be the ticket to topping the Canadians.

The Russian team of Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev would like to make a podium push, as well. The Russian dominance in Ice Dance for so many years has been seriously lacking. These two would like to change that. However, they themselves are seriously lacking in some areas. They have the skills, but often they lack the quality — which, in judge-speak equals Grade of Execution points.

Ice Dance has truly become a highlight of any event, especially at this level for two reasons — the level of depth and competitiveness, and the brilliance of Davis/White and Virtue/Moir.

This battle for gold could be one for the ages. Both teams are so equally capable. Their programs are suited to the system perfectly. While some (myself included) find Meryl Davis and Charlie White’s waltz a far better carriage for their skills, others prefer Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s Funny Face dance.

The reality is, on paper, these two teams are separated by a razor thin edge. At least, they should be. This title will come down to two things … and probably really only one.

Levels and components.

Take careful note of both teams’ base value mark. If the Americans haven’t upped the levels of some of their biggest elements in the Free Dance, they’ll lose the gold to their Canadian rivals. If they have, however, made the changes, the base values will be nearly identical. In which case, it is all about execution and performance — the PCS marks.

The only thing we know for sure is that the fight is on. And because of that, we may just see two of the greatest Worlds dance performances of all time.

Yeah, it could be that good.

When the dust settles, here’s how I see it shaking out.

GoldTessa Virtue and Scott Moir 
Silver Meryl Davis and Charlie White
BronzeMaia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani
Fourth — Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje

* I could be wrong, but I think Nathalie’s injury will keep them from surging as they’d need to to overtake the youngsters ahead of them.

Competition fuels greatness. We’ll have plenty of both this time around in Nice.

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