Figure Skating: From the Boards

Omaha or Bust: Dance party, anyone? January 23, 2013

PrintLet’s just go ahead and start here: Meryl Davis and Charlie White should leave Omaha with yet another National title.

As good as U.S. ice dance has become, as deep as this field is, as many ways as the rest of the podium could shape up, there is still no one near Davis and White, technically or artistically. It’s as simple as that.

That’s not to say the rest of the field isn’t improving, too. In fact, some of the U.S. teams are in the running for “most improved,” even internationally speaking. It’s just that Davis and White keep pushing the envelope, not for anyone else, but just to push themselves one step closer to a shot at Olympic gold.

They’ve done it this season, going undefeated so far. In fact, they haven’t stood anywhere but the top of the podium since losing the World Title to training mates Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir last March.

I could talk about Meryl and Charlie all day, but the fact remains: they’re the class of the field. I can’t wait to see them throw down two more electrifying skates.

But, I’m equally as excited to see what the rest of the field does.

Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt are one of those teams in the “most improved” category. They’ve been on the brink of breaking through before, and last year’s Nationals gave them a chance to do just that.

Everyone loved them at Skate America, and they took gold at the Ice Challenge Graz. They don’t quite have the speed and the flow of the world’s top teams, but there’s one thing they do as well as anyone else: entertain. Audiences buy what they’re selling from the moment they step on the ice. That makes for great fun, and combined with challenging technical elements, great scores.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue would love to repeat their Nationals performances from a year ago. Those performances validated their new partnership, and gave them a spot on the World Team. But, their path to the podium won’t be easy. Not with Madison Chock and Evan Bates hungry for a shot of their own.

Chock and Bates have an ethereal quality to their skating. Plus, they are so committed to the characters of their programs that it’s nearly impossible not to get sucked into the story they create! They built slowly as the season progressed, starting with an unsatisfying performance at the US International Classic in Salt Lake, but finishing with a much better Cup of China competition. They’re scores put them right in the medal hunt, and in fact, only one team not named Davis/White has a higher season’s best than they do: Maia and Alex Shibutani.

The Shibs have had to deal with some significant physical limitations this season. Alex, dealing with a left leg injury, struggled through the competition in Russia. After treating that, though, their NHK Trophy performance was much stronger. They finished third with a 154+.

Since then, they’ve made improvements to the overall polish of their programs, and especially to the Short Dance. Technically, they’re right up there. Still young, they don’t always pull in the component marks. But, they are still, at least on paper, the second-best team in America.

They just have to prove it.

The battle for the podium will be fierce, no doubt. With five teams capable of earning a trip to Worlds, and only three spots available, there will be fireworks. And it’s going to be awesome.

Who would you like to see on the podium?

Here are my picks.

Gold: Davis/White
Silver: Shibutani/Shibutani
Bronze: Chock/Bates
Pewter: Kriengkrairut/Giulietti-Schmitt

 

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter (@FromTheBoards) for updates from Omaha. And, if you’re an instagramer, follow me @TaraBethW for pictures throughout the week!

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Omaha or Bust: Bring on the boys!

PrintBased on name recognition and resume, the mens title would seem to be easily in the hands of reigning champ, Jeremy Abbott. He has the pedigree. He has the experience. He’s won the title not once, not even just twice, but three times already. He comes to Omaha armed with extraordinarily complex choreography, emotionally engaging music, and the jumps, steps, and spins to rank him one of the world’s best.

But, he’s battled some physical setbacks this year that made those technical things quite difficult.

Meanwhile, Ross Miner made good strides on the international circuit, scoring the highest totals of any U.S. man in a Grand Prix event when he took bronze at NHK Trophy.

There’s also Richard Dornbush and Adam Rippon. Both have had their struggles. Both have had their moments to shine. Both would love to be on the World Team again. But, their path to a world spot isn’t simple.

Not only do they have to get past Abbott or Miner, but they have to hold off challengers like Armin Mahbanoozadeh, Brandon Mroz, Douglas Razzano, and young stars like Joshua Farris, Jason Brown, and perhaps the stiffest competition, Max Aaron.

Max presents a potentially large road block. His score of 231.27 at the Senior B event in Salt Lake City to start the year is higher than Abbott’s best Grand Prix score. That carries some weight.

Understand, though — that was a very well executed competition for Aaron. It was not Abbott’s best competition. Not by a long shot.

All that means is, Max Aaron is in play for a medal. But, he’ll have to be GREAT, while others have room for error.

Likewise, Mahbanoozadeh has a chance to make a splash. He was dealing with an ankle injury at Skate America (where he was a last minute replacement for Evan Lysacek), but is always a potential spoiler.

Razzano was 5th at Nationals last season after pulling up from 8th in the short to 4th in the long. Could he be this year’s upset?

Not that it means anything now, but, just for kicks, how different would this competition be if Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir had, indeed, come back and been able to compete?

Johnny attempted the comeback. His Grand Prix experiment didn’t go so well. Not that he didn’t make a valiant effort, but it appeared that he sorely underestimated how far he was from being a contender.

If he’d stuck it out, trained as hard as ever, and been scheduled to skate in Omaha, how would he have fared? It’s hard to say, of course, but based on what we saw out of him earlier this fall, he would have been a long shot.

And Evan? He couldn’t have been counted out, that’s for certain. If he’d been healthy enough to compete internationally earlier in the year, and if he was truly back in “fighting shape,” you’d be hard pressed to deny his chances.

Lysacek provided consistency for the American men for many years. Many hoped he’d be able to come back and help earn back that third World Team spot. Instead, he stares down a potential comeback during the Olympic season, instead of before it. That’s no easy task, to say the least.

Meanwhile, though, we have a handful of contenders who will be in Omaha. And I have a feeling they’re going to put on quite a show!

Who do you think makes the World Team? Who will fare the best against Evgeyni Plushenko, Patrick Chan, and the Japanese superstars?

Here are my predictions.

Gold: Abbott
Silver: Miner
Bronze: Aaron
Pewter: Dornbush

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter (@FromTheBoards) for updates from Omaha. And, if you’re an instagramer, follow me @TaraBethW for pictures throughout the week!

 

Omaha or Bust: Just another day in “Pair”adise January 22, 2013

It’s no secret that I am often frustrated by the U.S. pairs landscape. Not because we don’t have talented pairs to choose from, but because more Printoften than not, the game of “musical partners” is more intriguing than their actual competition results!

This year, there were the usual swaps. Caitlin Yankowskas finally found herself a partner in Joshua Reagan (who skated at last year’s Nationals with Ashley Cain).

Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim paired up, and surprised everyone with exceptional scores in Nice and at NHK — they’re senior Grand Prix debut.

Meanwhile, Mark Ladwig, who skated for so many years with Amanda Evora, found a new partner in Lindsay Davis (who formerly skated with Themi Leftheris and Alex Merritt). They started the season at the Senior B in Salt Lake and … well, they had a lot of work to do. To their credit, they were much improved by their second GP event.

At least Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff and Tiffany Vise and Don Baldwin are still together … though neither team has had the kind of success this season they’d hoped for. Both teams are, though, in the running for a medal in Omaha.

And if all the new partnerships aren’t enough for you, let’s make absolutely sure that there’s no chance for a repeat National Champ — John Coughlin? Done for the season after having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip. For him and Caydee Denney to not be able to finish the season is such a shame; they were having a fabulous year.

But, what that does mean is, the pairs competition is the one event in Omaha that will not feature a reigning champ. In fact, there isn’t a national champion in the field.

But, despite all the turnover among U.S. teams, the new headliners of the event seem to stand alone.

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir have been skating together since 2006. That’s ancient history in pairs years! And, to top it all off, they’ve been having a career year. A strong start at Skate America led to a convincing Ice Challenge Graz victory, which they followed up with bronze at the NHK Trophy.

The only team to post scores anywhere close to Castelli/Shnapir’s (except Denney/Coughlin, mind you) is that of Scimeca and Knierim.

This is Marissa and Simon’s year, it seems. The question is, will they live up to the moment?

Here’s how I see it.

Gold: Castelli/Shnapir
Silver: Scimeca/Knierim
Bronze: Vise/Baldwin
Pewter: Davis/Ladwig

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter (@FromTheBoards) for updates from Omaha. And, if you’re an instagramer, follow me @TaraBethW for pictures throughout the week!

 

Omaha or bust: Let’s go, ladies

PrintNo lady has defended her U.S. title since Michelle Kwan last did it … in 2005. There were a few who could have. But, pressure, injuries, and rising young stars have kept the roller coaster going strong.

Once again, though, the current ladies champion is in prime position to be the first back-to-back champion in seven years. But, we’ll get to Ms. Wagner in a moment.

The rest of the field provides some seriously interesting possibilities.

With Alissa Czisny forced to withdraw after dislocating her hip in her late-season debut, Mirai Nagasu becomes one of the most notable “veterans” in the field. And yet, her own personal roller coaster has been no secret. After parting ways with Frank Carroll after last season’s disappointing end, she has taken on more responsibility in her skating, it seems. And, she’s happy again.

But, happy and mature are only part of the equation — she still has to prove she can put down back-to-back clean (read: no underrotations!) programs that are filled with elite-level transitions and in-betweens. Her average scores on spins this season top the field of U.S. ladies, and her program component scores keep her in the hunt.

Technically, Christina Gao can put up a good fight. We saw it at Skate America, where she took home silver behind Ashley Wagner. As Gao’s season progressed, she struggled more and more. But, she is averaging the highest free skate base value of the American girls … even if only by less than a point over Wagner.

For Gao, her program components go as the technical elements do — when she’s on, she’s glorious. But when she’s not, things fall apart across the board.

Then there’s the battle between the girl still trying to claim her elite spot and the girl with the potential to snatch it all away.

That would be Agnes Zawadzki — last year’s bronze medalist — and newcomer Gracie Gold, the future of American ladies skating.

Zawadzki is another skater with all the talent in the world. She has jumps that are larger than life, but all too often she misses in just enough ways to take herself out of the running. Meanwhile, Gold has no doubts about where she sees herself in the national mix. Despite missing the Grand Prix podium in her first senior season, she believes, according to her comments to reporters last week, that she’ll “fit right in” with the country’s best senior ladies.

It may not be quite that easy, though. She’s struggled mightily in her long programs this season, changing the content as she goes sometimes in order to make up for a miss earlier in the skate. The one thing that hasn’t changed? Her triple lutz-triple toe combination. She’s raking in more than 11 points on average for that element alone in the free skate.

But, then there’s Wagner.

Gold at Skate America. Gold at Trophee Eric Bompard. Silver — despite a nasty fall in the free skate — at the Grand Prix Final.

In a world of inconsistencies, she’s been as consistent as anyone. In fact, her short program scores actually went up by roughly three points each event. Her free skate totals have been within a few points of each other (except for the Final …).

Despite the fact that she’s only doing a triple-double combination in the short, she still has the highest average score on that element in the short, compared to the other top U.S. ladies who are doing triple-triple combinations. Her grade of execution scores, coupled with much improved program components, make everything she does, even if it’s not as technically difficult, extremely valuable.

The reality is, this title is hers for the taking.

Now, she has to go out and do her job. That hasn’t changed. But if she does, one of the World Team spots is as good as hers. A more interesting story, perhaps, is the other spot.

Is this the year Mirai makes her comeback? Does Agnes avoid the little bobbles? Can Christina regain her early-season form? Or will Gracie prove she belongs on the world stage?

What do you think?

Here’s my prediction:

Gold: Wagner
Silver: Zawadzki
Bronze: Nagasu
Pewter: Gold

Be sure to follow me on twitter (@FromTheBoards) for updates from Omaha. And, if you’re an instagramer, give me a follow at tarabethw for photos from the week.

 

Find a penny, pick it up … hope that it will change your luck. January 15, 2013

Last week, I was elated with word straight from the source: Alissa Czisny would be back in action in Omaha.

This week, I was heartbroken from more news, first, this time, from US Figure Skating. Then, confirmed by Jason Dungjen. Alissa’s Nationals hopes were dashed, yet again.

Czisny headline

Come on, now. Can a girl get a break?!

This poor woman has dealt with more ups and downs in her career than anyone should have to. After the years of struggling with confidence that caused her to miss the Olympic team, to a comeback season that led to one of the most magical Nationals moments of my time with the sport, to a crushing and frustrating battle with an unknown enemy — an injury that had the potential to cost her career — to, once again, build all the way back to the top of the mountain, just close enough to see sweet victory on the other side, only to be faced with another, potentially career-ending injury.

I can’t even imagine the emotional wreck I’d be if I was in her shoes (…or skates).

It makes you think, no? How much more can she, or will she, face before she decides life away from the drama of the ice is enticing enough to pursue?

Of course, selfishly I want her back on the ice as soon as possible. Somehow, that would make me feel better about her situation. I want her on the next Olympic team. I want her to have her moment at Worlds. I want one of the most gracious champions of our time to experience the reward for her patience and diligence and never-say-die attitude.

I want that for her. I think we all do.

But, who knows what she’ll do. In the meanwhile, though, here’s a little reminder of Alissa at full-strength. The grace, the passion, the charm … she’s the total package. And a champion of character, too.

Remember your successes, sweet Alissa. You’ve battled back before. Follow the desires of your heart; know the skating world will be anxiously awaiting your return! Rest up … you got this!

 

US Pairs: Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make me a Match! January 10, 2013

Just tossing it out there: any chance we can convince Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek to come back to skating as pairs skaters? That would be a great buzz-story, right? And it’s evident the US Pairs world needs a little more drama. (And consistency, but we’ll get to that.)

Seriously, keeping up with the world of pairs skating is like trying to keep up with the road runner and Wylie Coyote. No? Just me? Hmm. Okay. How about this: Keeping up with the world of pairs skating is harder than keeping up with the Kardashians! (Still terrible, I know. Moving on …)

If a team isn’t splitting up, their changing coaches. And if they’re not changing coaches or splitting up, they’re probably injured. And if they’re a national champion one year, chances are pretty good they won’t be around to defend that title the following year.

I know, this year there are some extenuating circumstances there, this time around. John Coughlin’s injury and surgery made his National Title defense with partner Caydee Denney impossible. And with a goal of making the 2014 Olympic team, it’s better to miss this Nationals than the next one.

But with Denney/Coughlin out with injury, Mary Beth Marley/Rockne Brubaker no longer skating together, Amanda Evora retired, Caitlin Yankowskas/Josh Reagan a recent withdrawl … we’ll be lucky if there are enough skaters left to fill the medal stand in Omaha, at this rate!

Yes, I’m being a bit dramatic. But, there seems to be a bit of a black hole in US Pairs skating these days that makes it tough to gain ground internationally. It does, though, open the door for skaters like Marissa Castelli/Simon Shnapir and Gretchen Donlan/Andrew Speroff to stake their claim the season before the Olympic year. Without a defending (or even former) US Champ in the field, these two teams (who finished in the top five last year at Nationals) have a golden opportunity.

We’ll get to what to expect at Nationals later, but for now, with the current landscape of US Pairs skating, I want to play matchmaker, and I want your help!

Let’s assume we have any US figure skater at our disposal. Who would you pair up in an attempt to create the new super-team? (It worked out pretty well for Caydee and John … pre-injury … so why not give it another shot?)

And, while we’re at it, if we can please find a partner for Rockne Brubaker, that would be fabulous. The skating world misses him. … I miss him. (At this rate, I’ll be your partner, Rockne!)

So, who would you pair up? Current skaters? Past skaters? Singles skaters?

How about Sasha Cohen and Rockne?

Or Mirai Nagasu and Adam Rippon? (Maybe not … but you get the idea!)

Who would you pick as the next great American pairs team??

 

 

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