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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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??

 

 

Grand Prix Rewind: The Pairs December 3, 2012

I may be in the minority on this, but as far as I’m concerned, the pairs event has been the most underwhelming thus far. We’ve seen good skates here and there, but for the most part, the couples who walk away with gold around their necks have been far from spectacular. They’re just that much better than everyone else … that or the politics are holding everyone else back.

But that would never happen in skating these days, right? (No, I’m not up for discussing conspiracy.)

It’s just, the top teams have so much potential, so much talent, so much polish. but we haven’t really seen that. We’ve seen sloppy attempts at extraordinary creativity or overused story lines lacking energy and charm. Don’t get me wrong — there are programs out there with the capability of being quite memorable for their quality and uniqueness. They just haven’t been skated that way.

Don't be surprised if Bazarova and Larionov play the role of late-season spoiler.

Don’t be surprised if Bazarova and Larionov play the role of late-season spoiler.

It doesn’t help that those underwhelming performances have won events more often than not. Who knows, maybe these top teams are prepping to peak just at the right part of the season and the remainder of the year, we’ll see the kind of skates that make lasting memories for their epic (yes, epic) greatness! (A girl can hope, right?)

Alas, there is still a season to recap. So let’s get too it.

Not unexpectedly, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are the top qualifiers for the Grand Prix Final after winning both of their events. They, though, are perfect examples of programs not skated to full potential. I will say this: I like their programs this year. Not as much as last year’s, but I do like them. And their pairs elements are stunning. Side-by-side spins to end a program? Suicide … unless you do them as well as Tatiana and Max do. Their throws? Comparable to anyone in the world. Their lifts are strong, and their side-by-side jumps are typically beautiful. It’s just a matter of hitting all those elements in the same program, which they haven’t yet done.

Still, they have the season-high pairs score with 207.53. A far cry, though, from last year at their best.

The rest of the best, it seems, battled for consistency. Bet you’ve never heard that one before!

Qing Pang and Jian Tong are impressive in that they can still skate at such a high level despite the years of damage to their bodies. A silver and a gold is nothing to be disappointed in, and yet they, too, have a number of technical issues to work through if they hope to medal at Worlds.

Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov? They’ve been okay. Nothing to match the glory of last year’s early season (granted, they weren’t able to sustain that). Again, though, a gold and a silver isn’t too shabby.

The last of the Final qualifiers to join the one gold, one silver club is the Russian duo of Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov. These two seem to once again be right on the brink of breaking through. They dealt with a bit of an injury to start the year, but came back stronger. Not perfect, but better. They once again have beautiful programs, but sometimes they skate right through them. There’s a bit of spark to their performance that tends to be lacking for me. If they add that to the mix (and manage those technical elements), they’ll be right up there with their Russian teammates before long. In fact, there’s a chance they peak at the perfect time this season and pull off a bit of an upset.

A bit of a surprise, perhaps, is the fact that two Canadian teams made the Final: Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, and Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch. Kirsten and Dylan made it on a tie-break over Caydee Denney and John Coughlin and Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek. Duhamel and Radford, though, steadily continue their climb toward the world’s top five. They have added polish this year that compliments their technical prowess. Their technical risk, however, can either be their greatest advantage or their worst enemy. Their side-by-side triple lutzes? Brilliant, if they hit. Costly if they don’t.

Notably absent from the GPF is the reigning World Championship team, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. They only skated in one event, eliminating their chances for the Final. However, they did post the second-highest score on the year with 201.36 in their gold  medal winning (albeit flawed) Skate Canada performance. They’re also the only other team to break the 200 point mark this season. All that means is, don’t count them out for the World Championships. You better believe they want to defend that title.

I can’t forget to mention the American teams. No, they didn’t make the final. But Denney and Coughlin made marked improvements over the offseason. Their technical elements are perhaps as consistent as anyone out there. While their components are often lacking, they have a new level of performance value and connection to one another that no doubt helps them draw in the crowd — and the judges.

Meanwhile, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir finished out a successful Grand Prix season with their first ever GP medal — bronze at NHK Trophy. These two have such a captivating quality on the ice. Of course, it helps that their height difference makes all their elements look even more larger-than-life. With the ability to land throw quads, their power isn’t a concern. I’m excited to see them continue to develop and mature on the ice!

The Final should prove an interesting test — has the season experience boosted the performance levels enough that we see back-t0-back magical skates in Sochi? We shall see…

 

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?

 

 

 

Skate America: Happy Couples October 17, 2012

As always, there were a few rounds of musical partners on the ice dance/pairs stages this summer. But, the dust has settled. Couples are happily training (as far as I can tell, anyway!), and the competition ice awaits.

Dancers, Are You Ready?

Despite the coach shuffle in Canton over the off season, Meryl Davis and Charlie White still enter as the clear-cut favorites.

Don’t get me wrong — both Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are coming with top-notch stuff, no one has proven they have what it takes to beat the world’s top two (Davis/White, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir). Until someone does, Davis and White are the obvious choice.

Speaking of Bobrova and Soloviev, they do have a leg up on the Americans — they’ve already done the whole “debut” thing. With a 159+, they took home the Finlandia title a few weeks back.

Weaver and Poje, too, put their programs out early. They were even better — a 161.38 at the Nepela Ondrej Memorial.

Unless something dramatic happens, you’re looking at your top three. Now, the order is up for (some kind of) debate.

Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmidtt (who will now officially be referred to by me as simple, “Lynn and Logan!”) would love nothing more than to break up that top group’s party, though. The duo was third at the US International Classic, but have yet to achieve the kind of scores that could mess with the predicted podium.

Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi are fresh off a bronze medal at Nebelhorn, too. But, their Free Dance was only good enough for 5th in the field in Germany. That’s going to have to change if they have any shot at a podium finish here.

Gold: Meryl Davis/Charlie White
Silver: Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje
Bronze: Bobrova/Soloviev

Spoiler alert: Lynn and Logan

Perfect Pairs

It may not seem like it, but there’s a lot of history between these teams. Okay, maybe “history” isn’t quite the world. But, if you like those head-to-head matchups from the top dance groups, you’ll love this:

The top three pairs faced each other at Worlds, then four of the eight saw each other this season already at Nebelhorn.

Will that help or hurt them?

Who knows.

What I do know is, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are up to their old tricks again (and that’s a good thing!) — two stunning programs, complete with ridiculous technical difficulty. They only lost two events last season, and the two they took second in? By tenths of points.

After a full season and offseason together now, Caydee Denney and John Coughlin appear far more comfortable on the ice with one another. They’ve improved in some key areas, too — adding difficulty to their death spirals, spins, and steps.

It’s not enough yet to catch Volosozhar/Trankov, but it’s a great start.

Qing Pang and Jian Tong are still a bit of a wild card. (As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I know all about being the wild card!) Not competing most of last season, to a disappointing 4th place at Worlds, they proved they still have some of the goods. The question is, can they pull out those “goods” when the skaters around them up the ante?

Both the other American teams come prepared with exquisite programs, just dying to be performed cleanly. That’ll be their goal this weekend.

Between Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir’s throws, and Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff’s lifts, these teams have guts. And they’re going for it. For someone, that’s going to pay off.

Could it be Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, instead? These two have two sets of judges scores already — one from the 3rd place finish at Nebelhorn, and the second from the French Masters. At the second event, their scores were more than 15 points higher than the previous weekend.

Maybe something’s in the air. We’ve got to have an underdog story somewhere, right?

So for those predictions …

Gold: Volosozhar/Trankov
Silver: Denney/Coughlin (out on a bit of a limb, here!)
Bronze: Pang/Tong

Spoiler alert: Castelli/Shnapir

And there we have it. THe first official previews for the first official international event.

Now, it’s go time.

Share your predictions, thoughts, questions and concerns in the comments, via twitter, or even Facebook … before, during, and after the event. I love hearing your feedback!

 

First Impressions: Nebelhorn Trophy October 5, 2012

You know what they say about first impressions — they’re lasting. With the Grand Prix season just around the corner, every opportunity for skaters to take to the competition ice and provide a positive first impression is a good one.

Last week, several top skaters did just that at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany.

Early season skates are hardly indicative of what we may see later on, but they do provide glimpses of progress. And they leave impressions … that last.

Here are mine.

 

Men

Nobunari Oda … he’s baaaack! He has such perfect programs for his style and character. Sure, there were some bobbles here and there. But I can’t be the only one distracted by his flawless, soft knees to the extent that the flaws become less visible, right? Love him.

Konstantine Menshov still has the jumps. So does Keegan Messing. But, big and powerful isn’t always going to work. Both guys need to take a big step up in the components department. (Plus, all I can think of with Messing’s “Matrix” program is “Brian Joubert 2.0!”)

On the flip side, both Stephen Carriere and Denis Ten have lovely programs, beautiful expression, and dynamic highs and lows. Now for some consistency in the jump department … (more…)

 

A look ahead: Pairs of the GP Series June 5, 2012

Now that we have the Shpilband news out in the open, we can get back to daydreaming about what the upcoming Grand Prix season will hold. Today, it’s all about the Pairs. So let’s jump right in, shall we?

First up, Skate America.

Jessica Dube & Sebastien Wolfe (CAN)
Qing Pang & Jian Tong (CHN)
Vanessa James & Morgan Cipres (FRA)

Stacy Kemp & David King (GBR)
Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankov (RUS)
Caydee Denney & John Coughlin (USA)
Gretchen Dolan & Andrew Speroff (USA)
TBA (USA)

Pang/Tong and Volosozhar/Trankov look to be the pack leaders at the season opener. Of course, the Russians are coming off of a magnificent Free Skate at Worlds that would have crowned them champions, had they not crumbled in the Short Program. You know they want to prove that was a fluke!

Don’t take your eyes off Denney and Coughlin, though. Last season was their year to feel each other out, see how things would go, and what they were capable of. This year, they must add technical difficulty and depth to their choreography if they want to keep up with the big kids. They can do it. And if they can do it while maintaining their consistency, look for a handful of podium finishes for these two.

The rest of the field is packed with potential, too. Dube and Wolfe have beautiful elements and lines, but their technique sometimes fails them. Dolan and Speroff ooze talent, and Kemp/King and James/Cipres are pressing towards the Olympic games with growing fan bases.

Let the fireworks begin!

Skate Canada

Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford (CAN)
Paige Lawrence & Rudi Swiegers (CAN)
TBA (CAN)
Aliona Savchenko & Robin Szolkowy (GER)
Stefanie Berton & Ondrej Hotareck (ITA)
Katarina Gerboldt & Alexander Enbert (RUS)
Mary Beth Marley & Rockne Brubaker (USA)
Tiffany Vise & Don Baldwin (USA)

At first glance, it’s no surprise Savchenko and Szolkowy will enter this event as the gold medal favorites. They narrowly edged the Russian duo of Volosozhar and Trankov at Worlds, and they have oodles of experience to pull from at the beginning of the season.

However, the battle between Duhamel/Radford and Marley/Brubaker could be interesting. Sure, the Canadians have the edge based on last season. But we all know how much the young American team improved in just one off season together. If they make a similar leap this year, they could be right up there, likely gunning for a couple of GP medals themselves.

This event is, however, a great opportunity for the other teams on the schedule to step up their game and make a run at the podium early in the season. (more…)