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

 

 

Grand Prix Rewind: The Girls November 30, 2012

Ahh, the ladies of the Grand Prix. They sure have a way of keeping things interesting, don’t they? As we’ve seen in the past several seasons, consistency is not at the top of the “most seen” list. And yet, I felt this season was one of the stronger in recent history.

The USA sends two ladies to Sochi for the Olympic preview, a.k.a the Grand Prix Final.

That said, we only saw two repeat champions — Mao Asada, who has made a solid return back to the top of the rankings, and Ashley Wagner, who is in no way the “Almost Girl.” In fact, Wagner is the top ranked skater heading to the Final, as she holds the season’s best total score by roughly 5 points over Asada.

Wagner started strong, and has gotten stronger. However, she doesn’t have a triple-triple At least, she hasn’t had one. At Skate America, she cited it as a priority going forward, and she has recently discussed again the work going into a triple-triple combination for the biggest competitions on the international stage. I won’t lie, that makes me a bit nervous. She has a good thing going, and a mistake on a triple-triple will be costly. That said, that triple-triple has kept her from the top of the podium before … but because she didn’t have it at all.

Asada, on the other hand, showed herself far from unbeatable. In fact, her win at NHK Trophy was under strong scrutiny, because she missed more jumps than she hit. Yet, one thing remains teh same: her basic skating creates such a strong foundation that even with mistakes she is a strong competitor.

Akiko Suzuki got the short end of the stick at NHK … which seems to be an unfortunate norm for her. The same could be said for Mirai Nagasu (who presents an interesting set of “what ifs” herself).

The talent pool this year was more or less divided between the vets and the newbies — the talented little ballerina’s trying to take down the battle tested warriors … all while looking stunningly beautiful and completely put together, of course!

Even with the likes of Gracie Gold (who didn’t quite make the stellar splash we all expected) coming up in the US, it was the Russian dolls who made the biggest imprint on the GP series, as evidenced by two such ladies making the Final with relative ease.

Julia Lipnitskaia made an instant impression with her agility and flexibility. And yet, I just don’t get the hype. She can jump. (Sort of … there are some serious technique issues that she’ll have to fix if she wants to last on the senior scene.) She’s bendy. She skates fast. She’s tiny and doesn’t hardly look big enough to pull of the tricks she does. But there’s SO much more to skating than that. And at this point, she doesn’t have “it.”

Nevertheless, she did enough to make the final, although news broke today that she’s withdrawn due to injury. She’ll be replaced by Christina Gao who has looked unbelievably comfortable with the transition to Harvard life in consort with elite-level training. It helps that she has two sensational programs to work with, and added maturity to throw in the mix. She is fabulous.

Then, of course, there’s Elizaveta Tuktamisheva. Last year’s obsession proved that she still has it. No, she didn’t come away with two GP golds this time around, but she proved — to me at least — the most complete package of the young Russian hopefuls. She’s grown into the senior choreography a bit, and she’s better for it.

You know who’s not even an alternate for the Final? Adelina Sotnikova. Anyone else surprised by that? Needless to say, she has some work to do. She’s adorable, but not quite as good as she seems to think she is. There’s plenty of potential, don’t get me wrong. But it needs polishing, for sure.

Speaking of potential, how about Canada’s next great hope, Kaetlyn Osmond who pulled off the improbable win at Skate Canada? She’s a spunky little thing, isn’t she? No, she won’t rank quite that high outside of Canada. And she’s entirely unproved on the senior stage. But, for the first time since Joannie Rochette stepped away from the competition scene, Canadian skating fans have a lady to believe in.

And I can’t not mention the lovely Kiira Korpi. Back on the GP circuit after last year’s injuries, she made her presence known in a lucrative way … in the form of back-to-back GP medals, the second being gold. She, too, is working with gorgeous programs. In fact, she may have the most complete package of the season — the music, the choreo, the costumes. Everything works together beautifully, and gives her an added polish and quality that pays off in those ever-coveted PCS marks!

It’s a whirlwind, that ladies event, eh? And it’s sure to continue that way as we speed toward the Final next weekend!

 

Play to win, but remember your successes November 24, 2012

Confession: I hate to lose. I am fiercely competitive. It’s even a bit of a running joke with some of my friends, because I can be competitive about almost anything.

It’s my grandpa’s fault, really. He always said, “If you’re not going to play to win, why play?” He taught my mom well … and she, in turn, taught me.

But you know what else they both taught me?

There’s value in the journey.

I can’t tell you the number of times I left a piano recital or a speech competition in tears because I didn’t think I’d played well or because I didn’t win. And you know what one — or both — of them did? Took me for ice cream. Every time. Win, lose, or draw.

I can hear it still: “Did you do your best?” one of them would ask. “Well … yeah, I guess.” I’d respond, through the tears. (I’ve always been my own worst enemy.) “Well, then, that is all you can ever ask.”

“There’s a difference between THE best and YOUR best,” they would remind me. “And as long as you always do YOUR best, we couldn’t be more proud!”

See, there’s value in more than just winning. Sure, you play to win. But, all is not lost if you don’t.

Sometimes, it’s about the moment of accomplishment, not the final tally.

I was reminded of this today.

This weekend in Japan, there were a few moments that deserve to be celebrated. Not because of the result, necessarily, but because of the moment. Because these skaters did their best, no matter what else. And I, for one, am proud of their efforts!

We can get into the nitty-gritty technical mumbo-jumbo later. Tonight, as we await the final results of the pairs event, just enjoy the moments these athletes created for us. As a fan of the sport, I loved every second.

 

Halfway Home: Grand Prix 2012 Update November 5, 2012

With three events wrapped up all nice and tidy, I figured it was time for a quick look back.

Hopefully you caught my video updates from Skate America, but I admittedly didn’t get as much content up here as I’d hoped.

Then, Skate Canada happened; it came and went before I knew it. So it goes, some times, when “real life” doesn’t align with skating life!

of course, sketchy, middle-of-the-night streams from China were hard to find, but thanks to a few speedy YouTubers, I was caught up before I knew it.

And that was that. Three events down.

So, what did these three events tell us?

Here’s my take.

Just dance

Davis/White have brilliant programs this year. And, they weren’t perfect. There was visibly work that can be done.
Virtue/Moir? Okay, I guess if you’re a hard-core Tessa and Scott fan, you probably loved their Free Dance to Carmen-gone-“modern.” I, on the other hand, well … how do I say this? I thought it was a hot mess.

It was awkward, uncomfortable, out of their element, and definitely not this year’s best Carmen. 

Go ahead, say what you want now. The beautiful thing about ice dance is the subjectivity allowed!

I was also not floored by the concept and execution of Nathalie and Fabian’s Free Dance. The disco theme is interesting. Very “them.” But it felt a bit disjointed to me. It may smooth out over the season, and if it does, they could be pushing the top two teams. In fact, they make no bones about the fact that they want the top spot by the Sochi games. And, credit where credit is due, they amaze me with their continued improvement and creative (albeit occasionally awkward) lifts and choreography.

Bobrova/Soloviev, Weaver/Poje, Chock/Bates, and Kriengkrairutl/Giulietti-Schmitt were impressive early, too.

Men, men, men

(Also read, “Japan, Japan, Japan.”)

Holy toledo, Batman. The Japanese men came to play! A sweep at Skate America, Yuzuru Hanyu with a world record score, and Tatsuki Machida — the guy on the outside of the buzz last season — with a gold, a silver, and a ticket to the Grand Prix final.

Your move, Patrick Chan.

For the first time in two years, the Canadian champ has his work cut out for him. Nothing’s a guarantee, especially considering the early struggles he’s had.

The American men, too, have their work cut out for them. Jeremy Abbott had a bizarre physical breakdown in his Free Skate in Kent. Ross Miner and Adam Rippon fell short of the podium in Canada and China respectively, while Javier Fernandez finally broke through.

Beyond Skate America, though, we haven’t seen exceptionally clean skating, either. So that could shake up the standings eventually.

This one’s for the girls

…who’ve ever had a golden dream.

Ashley Wagner. ‘nough said.

Okay, not really. She debuted programs this year that exceeded last year’s works of art. Plus, she looked as trained as I’ve ever seen her, as confident, and as calm as she’s ever skated. This girl knows what she wants, and after last year, she knows if she puts in the work, she can get it.

Her competition is stiff — young Russians, veteran Japanese, and the return of Yuna Kim.

Speaking of competition, how about Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond? She certainly forced herself onto the radar (and gave Canadian fans a spark of hope!) with her win at home over Akiko Suzuki.

I can’t not mention the other two Americans making noise: Christina Gao. She was, in a word, stunning at Skate America. I’ve been a fan for a long time, claiming I see Kwan-like moments in her skating. Whatever mix she’s found with her studies at Harvard and skating when she’s not in class is working wonders. She looks mature, fit, and trained.

Mirai Nagasu is in that awkward position of being the US girl nearly falling off the edge. If she doesn’t get things together this season, she’ll have a tough road ahead making an Olympic team next year. She had jump after jump under-rotated or downgraded in China. And while it was a step in the right direction (she stayed upright!) her programs aren’t built to compensate for the points lost on the jumps.

As usual, the ladies are keeping it interesting!

Two is better than one

You know, the pairs event has been the least exciting thus far, at least in my mind.

Savchenko/Szolkowy have strange but difficult programs, and enough fire power to win. Volosozhar/Trankov have huge elements, but still have trouble putting out clean programs back-to-back. And a Chinese team is pushing everyone. The only shock is who that Chinese team is — Pang and Tong are back. And still skating. STILL. I can’t believe they’re still here after all these years. And, skating well enough to claim a Grand Prix Final berth. Kudos to them.

Americans Denny/Coughlin are well on their way. In fact, they may be more technically consistent than some other top teams. But, it’s those other things — the components points, for example — that are holding them back.

So…

…all that means is, we’ve only just begun!
What about you? Whose programs have you all worked up? And which skater has you most excited for the rest of their season?

 

 

 

A Look Ahead: The Ladies of the GP Series May 24, 2012

Let’s hear it for the ladies!

Last year, the women made this event ever-unpredictable and, as always, a premiere event to watch. Looking at the lineup this season, I expect to see much of the same! Here’s how it breaks down.

Skate America: 

Mae Bernice Meite (FRA)
Sarah Hecken (GER)
Valentine Marchei (ITA)
Haruka Imai (JPN)
Alena Leonova (RUS)
Adelina Sotnikova (RUS)
Viktoria Helgesson (SWE)
Rachael Flatt (USA)
Christina Gao (USA)
Ashley Wagner (USA)

Okay, lots of goodies here. First, we see US and Four Continents champ Ashley Wagner’s Skate America debut. We all know the season she put together last year, but this will be an even bigger test — living up to these new expectations.

Speaking of expectations, Rachael Flatt will be interesting to watch this year. There’s no doubt she adores the sport and the challenge of training to compete. But, will she be able to shake off last season’s disappointments and the weight of college academics to be competitive again?

Personally, I adore Christina Gao. Her carriage over the ice is almost regal. If she can stay healthy, look for a much better GP season from her in 2012.

The Russian return to the top in ladies skating has been coming on for some time now. Many think Adelina Sotnikova is the strongest hope for the podium in Sochi. If that’s the case, she needs to make great use of the next two years in order to build her stamina and consistency to compete with the best of the best.

Don’t overlook Alena Leonova, though. She’s not quite ready to give in to the budding youngsters — and you don’t have to look further than her World medal for proof of that! (more…)

 

Nice — Ladies’ Night Out April 2, 2012

 

Nice Day 2 — Maybe It’s The Ice… March 29, 2012

Yesterday after the Russians struggled so mightily in the Short Program, they brought to our attention that the ice in Nice is, well, not quite right. It cracks and crumbles right out from underneath the blades, they said.

Now, you would think that if the ice was really all that terrible, we’ve had heard a whole lot more about it since then.

Before you start to protest, simmer down! I’m not trying to stir any proverbial pot or cry “conspiracy” or even call out any particular pair for comments on ice that I have not had the privilege of skating on! In fact, after this morning’s Ladies’ Short Programs, I’m beginning to think maybe their right!

Bad ice makes for a much easier explanation than a gremlin that caused even more favorites to fall from grace (and, more importantly, a spot on the podium.)

As an American skating fan, I can’t deny my vested interest in the success of Team USA. So … let’s start there.

Ashley Wagner, since winning her National title, has been determined to lead the team that regains a third spot for the American team. And after her Four Continents performances, I was pretty well convinced she had the firepower to do it. And with Alissa Czisny — who can stumble a bit and still rake in scores on the spins and components — certainly in a position to peak, that third spot was not only within reach, but anything short would be a serious disappointment.

… today was a serious disappointment.

Wagner was the first of the American’s to skate, and she had high hopes of starting things off with a triple flip-triple toe combination. That vanished with the landing on the first jump. The extra turns could be costly in and of themselves in the GOE department, but now the combo had to be tacked onto the triple loop.

She managed to do that and complete the elements, but she had to have the technical edge in order to keep up with the skaters at the top (who, might I add, were not the skaters we’d all predicted, either! But I’ll get to that.).

By the time Czisny took the ice, there was a cavern at the top of the standings, as favorites continued to fall. Trouble is, so did she. Twice. And she barely hung on to the double axel.

My heart was breaking for her — you see the effort, the potential, the desire to finally live up to her own vast expectations, only to see everything that could go wrong, go terribly, terribly wrong.

The two sit in 8th and 16th place, and are almost certainly out of reach of the magic number 13 to get that 3rd spot.

(To look at it half full, Wagner is roughly four points out of bronze medal position, and Czisny is just over five points out of 10th. That combination — 3rd and 10th — would do the trick! “Impossible … things are happening every day!”)

At least a couple of skaters left the Short Program happy after strong skates!

As for the rest of the field…

It was Russia’s Alena Leonova who was the surprise leader. She skated her best short program all year, complete with 3-3 and quirky, complicated footwork.

Also a surprise was Japan’s Kanako Murakami who nearly matched Leonova element for element on her way to a second place finish, just two points off the lead.

It was a disappointing night for both Carolina Kostner and Mao Asada — perhaps considered co-favorites here. Asada skated first, and crumbled on her opening triple axel (a move she’s remained committed to, despite a lack of success). The result? 1.8 points out of a possible 8.5+. Ouch.

Kostner started much better, hitting her own triple toe-triple toe. But, as so often happens, she followed that with a mistake — a double loop, in stead of a triple. And that was enough to cost her, despite having the highest PCS marks of the night (she was the only one to break the 30-point mark).

In my world, I would have had Akiko Suzuki over Kostner in the short. But, she doubled a lutz that also got an edge call, resulting in a negative GOE on that element.

Ksenia Makarova had the skate of her season, and it was good enough to land her in 6th, just ahead of Elene Gedevanishvile, who was well on her way to a fantastic skate … until she singled the axel.

So, the battle lines are drawn for the Free Skate.

Realistically, the top ten could shift dramatically. There’s not a lot of consistency to speak of among the ladies currently in those spots. That might bode well for Wagner, who as been a stronger Long Program skater than others. It also means, everyone is going to have to shake the demons and shoot for the stars, holding nothing back. There can be no fear. No mind games. Just muscle memory and confidence.

They have a day to rest. And, hopefully, the gremlins are gone for good.