Figure Skating: From the Boards

The Final Countdown: Ladies and Gents December 6, 2012

Sochi

Ah, the ever-shifting world of both ladies and men’s skating. Keeps things interesting doesn’t it? Especially with Sochi — the Olympic version — on the horizon, the world’s best are focused on taking this chance to test the ice, as well as to inspire their work for the next year in hopes of making it back again in just over one year’s time.

It’s a good chance, too, to size up the competition. The year before the Olympics starts to create buzz. The buildup can be distracting, or it can generate good energy that reminds these to-tier skaters why they do what they do. It also separates the contenders from the … shall we say, “pretenders?” Maybe that’s a little harsh. We have, after all seen plenty of occasion where the sport’s stars the year before the Games can’t hold out for another full year. There’s also that little thing about the World Championship curse. You know, the one where reigning World Champs hardly ever win Olympic gold. So the story goes, anyway.

But, that’s a whole year away. This weekend is all about this year’s best. And there are plenty of good ones to go around.

LADIES

A few years ago, skating fans were wondering if Ashley Wagner would ever figure it out. She wanted to be the best. But she just wasn’t ever quite there. And then, last season, something clicked, and it’s been like a flipped light switch.

The girl is crazy committed … just watching her in practices at Skate America convinced me even more that she’s discovered whatever the missing piece was that turned her into a full-blown competitor. She has the mindset now, and that is something no one could do for her. But, she’s got it now. What she doesn’t have is a competition-tested triple-triple combination. Does she put it in here as practice for a likely World Championship run? If she doesn’t, does she take that risk later in the season?

She has the third-best short program score, but the top free skate and total score. She’s in prime position to win as it is. This is where the age-old battle of risk vs. reward comes in. If she puts the combination in and hits it? She’s likely guaranteeing herself the title. If she tries it and misses, she opens the door to two very talented Japanese ladies who’d love nothing more than to gain some momentum headed toward Worlds.

She’s won without it. Her prime competition — Mao Asada — doesn’t have one either. Is the risk worth taking? (Personally, I’d like to see her tack a triple toe on to the double axel combination … seems a tad safer.)

Asada has some work to do. She holds the season’s best short program score (her short is fabulous, I must add), but she still struggles to make it all the way through a free skate. Her NHK Trophy win was marred by a long program hardly worthy of the title, but outside the jumps, she still does other good things. Her choreography in the free leaves a little to be desired compared to the SP, and it doesn’t have the tension or detail that Wagner’s does. Or, for that matter, that Akiko Suzuki’s does.

I adore her free skate. It is so her. It’s a program that highlights her best qualities and celebrates her unique take on story telling. Plus, her dress is killer!

If she hits her short program, and manages all the technical difficulty in her free skate, both of the top qualifiers better watch their backs. Suzuki is often on the short end of the judging stick, but that give her no reason to hold back. She’ll have to lay it all on the line … and if she hits, it could very well be golden.

The other girls skating at the Final will play the role of spoilers. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva carries the Russian flag alone, after the withdrawal of Julia Lipnitskaia. Liza is lovely, but this season she hasn’t been the overpowering Russian force she appeared to be last year. That said, she’s certainly got the goods. It’s a matter of consistency.

Kiira Korpi comes armed with gorgeous programs. She’s one of those skaters you use to describe a “complete package.” However, she’s reportedly been quite ill and not able to train. She’s also been quoted as saying she isn’t 100% ready for this event. That could be just the opportunity last-minute alternate Christina Gao needs to make an international statement of her own.

She, too, has beautiful programs, and jumps that simply compliment the beauty of her skating. I like her. And she has a great open door to jump through this weekend.

PREDICTIONS

Gold: Ashley Wagner
Silver: Akiko Suzuki
Bronze: Mao Asada

MEN

This will be a battle for the ages. Four Japanese men vs. Patrick Chan and Javier Fernandez.

Despite all the early season struggles (read: Japan Open), Patrick Chan has recovered. He’s the defending champ of the Final, as well as the World title. He’s not about to give that up without throwing down the best that he has to offer.

Mr. Debonair, Javier Fernandez, has topped Chan once. But, the Canadian star was not nearly at his best. Fernandez, though, has some of the most technically ambitious programs you’ll see in Sochi. The trouble is, he’s sometimes too ambitious for his own good.

Then there’s these Japanese guys. The “Super team.” Which one of them do you leave off the World team?!

It likely won’t be Yuzuru Hanyu, that I can say. The kid set then broke his own new short program record score. He can be sensational. But, his problem comes in the free skate where he tends to lose focus and fail to live up to the short program. It worries me a bit that he seems to struggle with the pressure. He’s still young, and his time at the top is not yet here. But with competition veterans like Chan and Takahashi adding to the pressure, I worry that he will struggle to stay focused.

Daisuke Takahashi has had a bit of a disappointing season thus far. No golds yet on the Grand Prix circuit, and his programs seem to be a bit of a work in progress. Personally, I liked the free skate better at the Japan Open. Seems the judges did, too. But there’s no denying the possibility of Taka putting up a performance for the ages … especially with his good old rival Patrick Chan sharing the spotlight.

Takahiko Kozuka was more than impressive at Skate America. He was fabulous. He failed to match that at his second event, but we now know it’s in him to blow us all away. He’s not ready to be written off. And with the shockingly deep Japanese field, he needs this event to prove himself.

The kid who is, perhaps, the most surprising qualifier is Tatsuki Machida. He quietly made his way to the podium twice this year, winning in his second event. But, he’s the one man who may not have the fire power to break onto the podium, unless the top guys struggle. Which has happened before. So it could certainly happen again.

This men’s event may be the one I’m most excited about, simply because of the quality of skating from 1 – 6. They’re all fantastic. And their skills could push each other to exceptional heights.

PREDICTIONS

Gold: Patrick Chan
Silver: Daisuke Takahashi
Bronze: Yuzuru Hanyu

 

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