Figure Skating: From the Boards

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!

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Nice, Take Two: Pairs Preview March 24, 2012

Marina Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov had only been skating together for two years when they captured their first World title the first time Worlds were in Nice. That year, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao actually won the short program with a flawless skate. And in the absence of the then-reigning champs Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, there would be a first-time champion in 2000.

In the free skate, it was the Russians who put together the best four minutes to top Shen and Zhao by owning the presentation mark. Shen and Zhao — who had narrowly missed out on gold the year before — still had some growing to do before they would develop into the beloved team they are now.

Flash forward a mere 12 years, and it’s another Russian duo (two, actually) taking on another Chinese pair, and attempting to fend off the reigning champs from Germany.

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, along with Tatiana Volsozhar and Maxim Trankov, and Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov have played an unpredictable game of leap frog all season.

Aliona and Robin and Tatiana and Maxim each won both of their Grand Prix events. Yuko and Alexander won their first, but placed second to the Germans at Rostelecom Cup. Then at the Final, it was again the Germans taking the top spot, but by a mere .18 over Volosozhar and Trankov. Kavaguti and Smirnov were third.

Each of the three has also battled injuries at some point, Savchenko and Szolkowy as recent as Europeans where they were not able to compete.

Not to be forgotten is the Chinese team of Qing Pang and Jian Tong. The two did not compete on the Grand Prix circuit this year, making it difficult to predict how they’ll stack up. They finished third at last year’s Worlds.

The other Chinese team of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han are the kids with the fancy tricks. However, their polish and maturity will show quite glaringly against the other teams.

Then you have a host of challengers who, though they may not be favorites to medal, could push the teams at the top.

Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran are an exciting, young team with elegance and presentation beyond their years. Their elements — when they hit them — are stunning. Trouble is, they tend to miss a lot. And they often don’t just miss one thing. When it goes wrong, it seems a lot goes wrong. They need to clean up their act if they want to contend.

Canadian darlings, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are, in a word, delightful. Their charm reaches every person who watches them, and the connection between the two of them makes you love them even more. Both their programs have strong choreography, and they are more than capable of putting out strong technical components.

But you can’t forget about the Americans. Now, American pairs skating has, undoubtedly, been lacking for some time. John Coughlin and Caitlyn Yankowskas looked to be a shining hope, but instead, they split. However, that made way for Caydee Denny to rejoin the elite ranks. Now, she and John are on the brink of putting U.S. skating back on the map.

Their technical elemnts are their strength. They have a split triple twist that makes my jaw drop, every single time. They need more time to develop intricacies in their choreography and finesse in their presentation, but there is a good chance for them to make a splash in Nice.

If they don’t, Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker will. Another team well on their way to greatness, they are, perhaps, this season’s Most Improved. They have a refreshing youthfulness, and an equally exhilarating determination.  This is likely not their year, but don’t forget the faces.

In the end, only one team can win, and two more will join them on the medal stand. Here’s how I see it breaking down.

Gold — Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov
Silver — Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy
Bronze — Yuko Kavaguti and Aledanxer Smirnov
Fourth — Qing Pang and Jian Tong

*I’ll also say that both American teams have a good chance to finish within the top ten.

Nice Part One took place two years before the Salt Lake City Olympics. Part Two? Two years before the Sochi games. In 2000, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier placed fourth. They went on to share the gold in the oh-so-famous 2002 pairs competition. Will history repeat itself this time around? Only time will tell!

 

Tweet all about it, San Jose style! January 24, 2012

With titles already being decided in San Jose, senior competitors are getting their Nationals on, twitter style. Keeping up with all the buzz is tricky, but here are some of the latest and greatest!

Some of the crew has already arrived.

Others have just arrived, giving us visuals to confirm.

And others can’t wait to join in the action!

Can you feel the buzz?! I sure can. Ahh, Nationals!!

 

Moments that made memories — 2011 Year In Review December 31, 2011

Most years on December 31 I sit and wonder, “How is the year over already?!” This year, however, when I started to look back, I found myself thinking, “That was really all this year?”

Maybe I kept myself busy enough that the accomplishments seem too great for one year. Or, maybe, I just have a terrible memory and forgot half the things that really happened! (The latter is not entirely unlikely, I assure you…)

Regardless, I was looking back. And in looking back, I tried to come up with the top 10 skating stories or moments of the year. Again, there were a lot to choose from. Narrowing it down seemed daunting. But, I’ve come up with a lists that, to me, defines this year in skating.

From technical wonders to emotional triumphs and all the little moments in between, 2011 was quite the year for the world of figure skating.

Here’s my list.

10. Brandon Mroz  and the first ever ratified quad lutz.
I know many US skating fans want to see guys focusing on consistency and artistry before adding new elements, but that move is impressive. I have to give the kid props for even trying the trick!

9. Meagan Duhamel’s “Is it enough?!” moment at TEB ’11 & Rudi Swiegers saves Mark Ladwig at 4CC.
Every season has its off-ice moments that melt your heart. These two stand out for me, although there are plenty of others I could pull up and recall. These are the moments you see the person, not just the competitor. I love those moments.

8. Exciting rivalries
This year has had its share of exciting rivalries, and that’s what makes competitions so much fun. This year featured three big ones, starting with the obvious: Meryl Davis and Charlie White vs. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Training mates make the fiercest competitors. Then there is the former champ chasing the current champ, Daisuke Takahashi vs. Patrick Chan. (I know, I know. Everyone thinks it won’t matter what Dai does because of Patrick’s “two-fall cushion.” I happen to think it’s made Takahashi better, and the rivalry fascinating to watch.) Last but not least, the dynamic pack of pairs who have battled through this year’s Grand Prix Series — Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy vs. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov vs. Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov.

Can I just say, I can’t wait for Worlds?! (more…)

 

The shift is on: Denney/Coughlin pair up May 17, 2011

Coughlin, with partner Caitlin Yankowskas, mesmerized audiences with a sultry tango short program.

In case you somehow missed it, there’s yet another chapter in the developing story of the US Pairs program. After the somewhat surprising news about National champs Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin’s split, it seemed nothing was predictable for this off season.

Case in point: today’s official announcement that former National champ Caydee Denney would be pairing up to compete with Coughlin.

After the announcement from Coughlin, all signs led many to believe John would retire, continuing in the sport via coaching of some sort.

His partnership with Yankowskas had a quality that many only dream of — the two called each other their best friend, and their chemistry on the ice was almost tangible.

Of course, the emotional connection to the champs was aided by their emotion-filled season. Skating their long program as a tribute to his late mom, John allowed himself to feel — and to heal — in front of the world. The magic they created and the class with which they carried themselves had fans and experts alike calling them the best American hope in years. With their four year partnership reaching a new level of confidence, things looked good headed towards Sochi. At least from my place on the couch! (more…)

 

Pairs Short Program Recap April 27, 2011

I finally had the chance to watch the final two groups of the Pairs competition and now feel capable of posting my recap!

First, and likely most dramatic, was the performance by Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. They started strong, but on the triple twist, she nailed him in the nose with her elbow on the way down. He’s lucky he wasn’t knocked out cold…she hit him hard. Hard enough, in fact, that his nose was quite visibly broken and bleeding through the rest of the skate. But, to his great credit, he wouldn’t stop. Even telling her when she tried to tell him they should, that he would be fine. Clearly, he was not fine. But they managed to hit each element and go on to hold the 1st place position for quite some time!

His nose was reset by a team doctor afterwards and Eric said he’d wait to see how he felt in the practice session before the free tomorrow. Wishing them the best!

Also skating early on was the potential spoiler team from Russia of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. These two are a nearly brand new team, but they stepped up at Russian Nationals and beat both Kavaguti/Smirnov and Bazarova/Larionov who have competed well internationally all season.

Boy, did V/T make a statement here!

They not only hit every element, but they skated with passion, attention to detail, and an awareness of each other that defies their short partnership. I must say, I was quite impressed…as were the judges.

The American teams skated near the end, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig in the second to last group. This is only the second time they’ve competed with their new short program to “Sing, sing, sing” and I must say, it is MUCH improved since 4 Continents. They looked much more comfortable and confident in each move. Unfortunately, she fell on the side-by-side triple toe which cost them. But their lifts are still spectacular, and she hit the throw. Although not enough to compete with the big guns, E/L earned their own season’s best score and have much to be proud of.

The other American team of Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin had the challenge — and honor! — of skating after China’s Pang and Tong (who I will get to momentarily!). Talk about a tough act to follow! However, John and Caitlin skated strong. They had a great triple twist (I think improved from Nationals, even), a stunning throw triple salchow, and a sultry, demure character that perfectly portrayed the maturity of the tango selections. However, a bobble by Caitlin on the side-by-side triple toe that was followed by a fluke toe-pick kind of fall by John cost them critical Grade of Execution points. Plus, I think they were more nervous than they let on! John felt terrible afterwards. Again, they don’t have the base technical content to match up with the top teams, but with the execution they’re capable of, they should have been a few places higher. Look for them to really lay it all on the line in the free skate — it’s the “final goodbye” so to speak, to the Ave Maria program in honor of John’s mother. If they could somehow recreate US Nationals, they could move back up the standings. Most importantly, as John said afterwards, “Don’t fall down!”

Now. Back to Pang and Tong.

I’ve said all season that they looked a bit flat. The elements were mostly there, but that was it. Nothing went any deeper. Today, they found it. And the result? Magic. This short program was absolutely stunning. Every technical element was executed with control and perfection. Every component to the choreography was meaningful and complete.

I fully expected the Germans to come in and take this title with a fair amount of ease. But Pang and Tong decided they weren’t quite ready for that, and they proved it.

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy also had a beautiful skate. They were mostly clean. There elements are big. But little things started to add up quickly: a pitch forward here, a scratchy landing there, and a small collision on the twist later one. The Russian crowd seemed to adore their Russian-folk themed short program, but the judges didn’t love it enough to ignore the imperfect execution. They weren’t happy with their scores, but (unlike the men’s short program!) I was in complete agreement with their 2nd place finish.

Expected to compete for a top spot on the podium was the veteran Russian team of Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov. They also started well. Similar to the Germans, they had a few minor issues. Still, big elements, and bigger crowd responses. Then the bizarre fall series continued and Smirnov went down just after they’d started their step sequence. Whether it was the fall, the lost points on the footwork, or the small errors all over, they fell to a fifth place finish just behind the other two Russian teams. Clearly, not what they were hoping for, and not what anyone expected. They sit roughly 11 points out of first, and nearly 8 points off the podium. They’ll have plenty of ground to make up in the Long.

I expect the free skate event to be quite the battle. The top three are separated by less than 4 points, while roughly 8points separate 4-10.

Here are the complete standings after the short programs.

  1. Pang/Tong (CHN)   74.00
  2. Savchenko/Szolkowy (GER)    72.98
  3. Volosozhar/Trankov (RUS)    70.35
  4. Bazarova/Larionov (RUS) 64.64
  5. Kavaguti/Smirnov (RUS)    62.54
  6. Takahashi/Tran (JPN)    59.16
  7. Duhamel/Radford (CAN)    58.83
  8. Yankowskas/Coughlin (USA)    58.76
  9. Berton/Hotarek (ITA)    57.63
  10. Moore-Towers/Moscovitch (CAN)    56.86
  11. Evora/Ladwig (USA)    54.64
  12. Hausch/Wende (GER)    53.90
  13. Zhang/Wang (CHN)    52.25
  14. Dong/WU (CHN)    49.29
  15. Kadlecova/Bidar (CZE)    45.20
  16. Zabijako/Kulbach (EST)    44.35
  17. Kemp/King (GBR)*    44.14
  18. Canac/Bonheur (FRA)*    43.92
  19. Bakirova/Kamianchuk (BLR)*    38.20
  20. Montalbano/Krasnopolski (ISR)*    37.43
  21. Martini/Kiefer (AUT)*    35.34
  22. Malakhova/Kenchadze (BUL)*    30.10
*did not qualify for the free skate
See you all again before the sun comes up for the free skates!!
 

Taking on the World: the Pairs April 18, 2011

Unlike the Ladies competition this season, the Pairs field for Worlds is much easier to define, and in a sense, to predict.

The overwhelming favorite will be the German team of Savchenko and Szolkowy. They own the top score this season, posting a 210.72 at the Grand Prix Final, and they’ve looked the most polished and prepared, as well as the most determined to win all season long. They have a maturity to not only their programs, but to their approach to competition that has served them well, and should continue to do so. This team always does something that’s a little different; they push creativity to a new level. And this year, the seem to have found programs that work for their own sense of originality and for the judges watching their every move.

Yuko and Alexanders free skate gave them the victory at Cup of Russia early in the season.

Coming into the event a bit under the radar, the Russian team of Kavaguti and Smirnov have a good chance to take home a medal. This team has been on the rise for a couple seasons now, but never really broken through to the top. Having seen what they had to offer this year, however, that could be about to change. They only competed at one Grand Prix event (Russia), but there they won gold. Their long program is stunning. It is one of my favorite pairs programs of the season. With the time they’ve had since coming in second to the Germans at Europeans (with the second highest score of the season — 203.61), they’ll have had time to improve as well.

Joining them with newly acquired “home ice advantage” are fellow Russians Bazarova/Larionov, and Volosozhar/Trankhov. Bazarova/Larionov posted the fourth best score this season, while Voloszhar/Trankhov topped the field at Russian Nationals, wining the title over the favorites. They have little international experience, but they have all the talent in the world. They could be a surprise. Russian Pairs teams are once again on the rise, and they’ll be represented strongly here before the hometown crowd (with thoughts, no doubt, of being podium-ready by Sochi in 2014).

The early season co-favorites with Savchenko/Szolkowy are the Chinese team of Pang and Tong. They have had a strong season in their own right, although they’ve looked a little shaky throughout. First place finishes at both of their Grand Prix events got them to the Final where they were edged out by the Germans to take home the silver. They came back strong, however, at 4 Continents for gold there. Their season best score of 199.45 has them in third on the list, but we all know that doesn’t necessarily translate to results at Worlds. It’ll be a battle between the top three here, for sure.

Joining the Japanese contingent is the young team of Takahashi/Tran. They squeeze into the top ten international scores this season, but competing on both the Junior and Senior level this season could result in fatigue, especially now that the season has been lengthened by a month.

Then things get a little less obvious and a bit more sentimental. The US and Canadian teams have been nice surprises on the international scene, and they all boast stories that make them great storylines. Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin have been skating very well, of course, in the shadow of the program dedicated to John’s late mom. They skate with such raw passion and they’re driven by something greater than sport — life. They also have their sights set on earning back three spots for the US at next year’s Worlds.

Joining them in that quest are Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig. They debuted a new short program at US Nationals, and I feel they may be one of the few who will have benefited from the extra month to train. That way, they’ll be quite sure of this program and its intricacies, which could serve them well. Of course, Amanda is also recently engaged to Jeremy Barrett — the bronze medalist from US Nationals with then-partner Caydee Denney. The two have since split and Jeremy has retired.

Canadians Moore-Towers/Moscovich, and Duhamel/Radford have both medaled this season internationally, so they’ll likely be duking it out with the Americans and Russians to fill out the top five or six spots. Kirsten and Dylan were the last minute replacements for Jessica Dube and Brice Davison at Skate America who shocked the field by taking silver. Not bad for last minute substitutions! Meagan and Eric are on a mission of their own. Meagan had retired after last season, but that was short lived. Now she’s trying to take her new partnership with Eric to their best Worlds finish yet.

All of these teams have posted scores this season capable of putting them in the top 10 in Moscow. It ultimately comes down to who leaves it all on the ice when it counts.