Figure Skating: From the Boards

Grand Prix Rewind: The Guys November 28, 2012

With all six “regular season” Grand Prix events nicely tucked in the past, and a week before the Final in Sochi, I thought it was as good a time as any to reflect on the season thus far. Each GP season creates new buzz for the up-and-comers or the comeback-kids; it provides some disappointments for long-time favorites; we see just who came into the year most prepared; and, if we’re lucky, there are a few magical moments along the way to make it all worth while.

Today, let’s talk about the guys of the GP series.

Boy, were there a lot of them to choose from this time around. So many guys, so few medals to go around. But, that’s kind of become the status quo of the men’s event in the last Olympic cycle. There’s just too much talent to choose favorites.

This year, though, it became strikingly obvious: the Japanese men have done what the Japanese women did a few years back. They’ve completely taken over.

Six of the top ten men after all six events are from Japan. The only man to compete for Japan and not finish in the top 10? Daisuke Murakami who withdrew from his only event after an injury in the short program. That’s some pretty good odds, if you’re betting on a Japanese man landing on the podium, no?

At least one Japanese man was on the podium in every event; four of the six events were won by a Japanese man, with no repeat winners; three of the six events had multiple Japanese medalists, including Skate America where Takahiko Kozuka, Yuzuru Hanyu, and Tatsuki Machida swept the medal stand.

Continuing the trend, six of the top ten international scores this season belong to those Japanese men, with Hanyu, of course, setting — then breaking — the world record short program score. Yes, those two skates are definitely two of those magical moments I referred to earlier. So, too, was Kozuka’s free skate at Skate America.

Holy dominance, Batman!

That just blows my mind. Oh, to be in the arena for Japanese Nationals to see these guys duke it out!

The only other men to make the GPF are Patrick Chan (no surprise there) and Javier Fernandez (who bested Chan at Skate Canada for his first GP gold).

A bit surprising was Chan’s start to the season. Four falls at the Japan Open, followed by a less-than-perfect Skate Canada had the skating world buzzing, wondering if the coaching shake up or the pressure of being the top-ranked man entering the season had gotten to his confidence. Rostelecom Cup, though, proved that he still has what it takes, as he posted the season’s highest total score (262.35, just over 1 point better than Hanyu’s best).

Considered Chan’s biggest competition last season, Daisuke Takahashi didn’t have the smashing success I, for one, was expecting after his stellar skate at the Japan Open. He changed some elements of his free skate that, from my perspective anyway, fail to do him justice and hurt the program overall. He didn’t win either of his GP events.

If I was to make a prediction now, based on GP results, of who would make the US World Team, it would have to be Jeremy Abbott and Ross Miner. Both had their share of rough spots so far as they tried to insert the quad into both programs. Miner landed his first quad salchow in competition en route to a bronze medal behind Hanyu and Takahashi at the NHK Trophy — not bad company, I’d say! He also tallied the top US men’s score of the season (235.37). Abbott, once again, has sensational programs, showcasing two very different sides to his skating. However, the free skate remains a bit of a bugaboo for him … especially when he’s locked in on the quad attempt.

I watched him in the practices at Skate America miss the quad time and time again. I had to wonder if the risk was worth it, seeing how little confidence there seemed to be in that jump. Without it, he has to be flawless and depend on his polished program components. With it, though, he risks falling — literally — out of contention before he ever has a chance. It will be interesting to see what he chooses to do with it the rest of the season.

Jeremy is the first alternate for the Final. Should anyone not be able to compete, he may have another shot yet.

That accounts for the most shocking and impressive results of the men’s season. Except, of course, for Johnny Weir’s comeback attempt.

There’s not much to say about it, really, except that this comeback is going to be harder than perhaps even he realized. I applaud him for the effort. But, if he really wants to be competitive, he has oodles of work to do.

The Final will be a preview of what the Japanese Championships could look like. But, the real question will be, can Chan or Fernandez throw a wrench in the sweep potential?

What was your favorite men’s moment of the series? Biggest surprise? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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)

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)
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…)


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…)


A Look Ahead: Men of the GP Series May 22, 2012

Yesterday was the day. Where you surprised by the Grand Prix assignments? If you’re an Evan Lysacek fan, you were likely disappointed. Conversely, if you’ve been anticipating a Johnny Weir comeback, you may have squealed to see his name on the list twice.

Over the next few days, we’ll take a look at each discipline separately and how the assignments line up for each event.

Since the men have been the talk of the town (my “town,” anyway!) we’ll give them the first shake.

Here’s the Skate America lineup:

Michal Brezina (CZE)
Tomas Verner (CZE)
Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)
Takahiko Kozuka (JPN)
Tatsuki Machida (JPN)
Konstantin Menshov (RUS)
Alexandra Majorov (SWE)
Jeremy Abbott (USA)
Douglas Razzano (USA)

Not too shabby, eh?

As has become the norm, the biggest competition will come from the Japanese contingent, although it’ll be the Abbot — competing at Skate America for the first time in his career — who will have the support of the hometown crowd.

Last season proved we can’t count out quad-master Michael Brezina, and when he’s at his best, Tomas Verner is a force to be reckoned with as well.

Personally, I’m thrilled to see Douglas Razzano along side Abbott for Team USA. He’s a real “skater’s skater” with the elegance and musicality that can bring an entire arena to its feet. If he can match that artistry with technical difficulty, he’ll be well on his way!

Then there’s that haunting “TBA.”

What — or should I say who — is that spot for? Naturally, the rumor mill would lean naturally toward that spot being for reigning Olympic Champ Evan Lysacek who has made no secret about his wish to compete in Sochi. However, there have been more than a couple roadblocks along the way.

Last season, there was the “contractual issues” with the USFS that kept him from returning to competition. While the details of that conflict were not made public, it has been reported that it wasn’t simply “Evan wanting more money” like it came across the first time, but far more complicated than that.

With that assumed to be resolved, it was a bit surprising to NOT see Evan’s name on the assignment list. However, there are plenty of explanations (read: “assumptions!”) that don’t involve him not staging a comeback.

Perhaps he didn’t want the GP spot. He’s made mention of wanting to compete at Senior B events to ease back onto the international scene. He’s a proven champion, so maybe he simply feels it a better option to start small and work his way back up towards Nationals and Worlds, sans the fall series. Or maybe, he’s scheduled to compete on the Dancing With The Stars All-Star season this fall. Who knows, save Frank Carroll and Lysacek. But, perhaps that TBA spot is reserved should he choose to accept it after all.

How’s that for drama surrounding the first event of the season, eh?! (more…)


A look ahead: Cup of China’s hottest couples November 3, 2011

The dance and pairs disciplines bring us another dose of fresh faces, but also a few couples looking to claim one one of the first spots in the Grand Prix Final. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

Dancers spicing it up

The sambas and rumbas of this year’s short dance will bring an element all their own to the ice in China — heat. The ice dance event in has, in a handful of seasons, become one of the most popular among skating fans. The increased difficulty brought on by the Code of Points system, coupled with the intense competition spurred by the Shpilband/Zoueva camp has made it a highlight of every competition.

This weeks event features largely inexperienced teams, save the top two.

Maia and Alex Shibutani are fresh off of a second place finish at Finlandia Trophy earlier this season, as well as a surprise bronze medal at Worlds to end last season. The are good. Simple as that. And with their youth, they’ll continue to improve. The short dance is a stretch for them (brother/sister teams always have a challenge with the more sultry dances!), but if they manage that, they soar in the free dance.

Their biggest competition will come from the Russians, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev. These two had success on the Grand Prix circuit last season, but struggled at the end of the year. They tend to score well on some big elements, and they may have polished things up a bit since last year. They’ll need that to face the young Americans.

Pernelle Carron and Lloyd Jones will be pushing for a place on the medal stand. They finished in those “bubble” spots last season — 4th or 5th in the Grand Prix. But here, in a field without much experience, they should be pushing the top three.

Trying to be the next junior-to-senior phenoms, American’s Charlotte Lichtman and Dean Copely make their senior debut with a chance to impress. Also making their debut as a couple are Emily Samuelson and Todd Gilles. Of course, Emily made the 2010 Olympic team with Evan Bates (who debuted with his new partner last week). They will ahve work to do, but this is a good place to get their feet wet and see what they have going for them.

Podium predictions (no particular order):

Bobrova/Soloviev (more…)


A look ahead: Cup of China’s ladies and gentlemen November 2, 2011

You know, we spend the entire summer counting the days until the Grand Prix season begins. Then, just like that, we’re headed into week three! It always goes so quickly once it starts.

But enough of that. On to China!

As I was working on my column this week, I realized — this is the least “elite” event thus far, and yet, it could be the most competitive! So many skaters have the chance to improve on their past senior performances or, in some cases, stun the world with their senior debuts. Add in a handful of veterans who would like to regain their top spots, and I have quite the headache. Oh, and yes, we also have quite the competition on our hands!

Today we’ll talk ladies and gents. Tomorrow, the couples.

It’s any man’s game

When you pit the young Artur Gachinski against the talented Nobunari Oda and the determined Jeremy Abbott, it’s enough to make your head spin. Then throw in Yuzuru Hanyu, Kevin Reynolds and Ricky Dornbush and it essentially becomes a shoot out — the three  men who skate cleanest will likely find the podium.

Jeremy Abbott missed Worlds last year, and wasn’t too happy about it. He is a strong competitor, and can match his technical excellence with his artistic superiority. This is his first event since Four Continents, and he’ll want to make a statement. Much like Ashley Wagner last weekend, he may skate with a chip on his shoulder.

If Nobunari Oda could ever put together back-to-back programs, he would be in the discussions with the Chans and Takahashi’s of the world. But more often than not, silly mistakes cost him titles. Still, I don’t know anyone who has deeper knees and softer edges. He’s a joy to watch, and will compete for gold.

Ricky Dornbush is the only one man skating in his second event. He struggled a bit at Skate America, and will likely make some adjustments for China. However, Yuzuru Hanyu is the wild card with the potential to upstage them all. He’s young and a bit volatile, so he’s not a sure thing. However, I’m willing to bet on him this year. (more…)


Halfway home and still hardly predictable November 8, 2010

As we’ve made it to the halfway point in the Grand Prix series (already?!?), we watched some favorites struggle, and some up-and-comers stake their claim for international glory, and this past weekend in Beijing was more of the same.

If you’ve been with me this far, you’ve seen my involvement in US Figure skating’s Fantasy Teams. As for this week…well, let’s just say the unpredictability of the event wrecking havoc on my position on the leaderboard! Better luck next week there…

If you’re just joining me for a Cup of China recap, then let’s begin!

One of the most anticipated season debuts may have been the American Mirai Nagasu. She’s had her competition struggles in the past, but she ended the season with solid finishes at the Olympics, and a chance to medal at Worlds. Here, though, she was coming off of a limited summer training program due to a stress fracture that kept her off the ice for weeks. Here, we would all get our first taste of just what she had in store.

Her short program was delightful. It needs some polish, and I saw hints of maybe what it should be once fully trained. But she was the best of the night. That all unraveled in the long, though. It looked like the unfocused Mirai of the past was back, but it also appeared she just wasn’t comfortable in the program. Things like footwork and spins that are usually her forte looked labored and simplistic.

I know she was disappointed in her drop to 4th from 1st, but I think she and Frank need to be more concerned with getting these programs trained to the point of being competition ready.

As for the other ladies, Miki Ando walked away the champion. She had perhaps the most consistent technical programs of the season so far, hitting her jumps beautifully. She completed a triple-triple in the short, but the second jump was under rotated, so she wisely eliminated it in the long.

Miki had a very underwhelming season last year, so it was good to see her shed her inhibitions and just go out and skate with joy. I’m not sure these programs do anything spectacular for her, but if she stays consistent, she’s got a lot to look forward to.

Akiko Suzuki is so committed to every move, and every ounce of character. She’s just so engaging when she skates. Like Patrick Chan, she never stops performing, regardless of her struggles technically. Speaking of…she did struggle a bit. However, her enthusiasm made up for it in a lot of ways. I know she had her sights set on gold here, but even without perfection, she was lovely to watch.

The boys of Cup of China certainly brought the drama!

Brandon Mroz came out to prove he deserves to be in the conversation with Jeremy Abbott and Adam Rippon for the top US men. His long program was stellar, not only technically, but I felt he matched the jumps with great choreography and character. Well done, Brandon!

Tomas Verner came out with a short program that fed off his boyish charm…and charming he was! “Singing in the Rain” is the perfect choice for a performer like Tomas. His long program, on the other hand, reminded me of Florent Amodio’s crazy mashup…only his performance didn’t thrill me. Now, this is purely my opinion, but I feel Tomas is better than this program. Still, thanks to the mistakes of Brian Joubert, he skated to bronze.

Speaking of Joubert, we saw a completely reinvented version of the French quad king. He also had a disappointing Olympic season, and he’s changed just about everything in an attempt to get back to his winning ways.

Let’s pause for a completely biased, opinionated reflection on Brian Joubert – I might possibly have a gigantic crush on him in the past, and seeing his renewed dedication reminded me why that is!

Okay. Back to the recap.

I saw a lot of people tearing him apart for his flamenco choreography in his short program. While it might not be the most natural movement for him, I applaud him for attempting to move himself beyond the repetative Matrix choreo that he’s done for so many years.

Then to come out with a long program to Beethoven that was not only different, but impressive…well, I was very excited.

Now, he is going to have to attempt to understand the value of PCS, or he’ll never top the Kozuka’s, Abbott’s, Chan’s and Takahashi’s of the world. But, I have to give credit where credit is due, and he deserves credit for coming out with these programs as well as excellent quad jumps to boot.

Takahiko Kozuka is a bit of a mystery to me. He might have the softest knees I’ve ever seen in skating, and his basic skills are wonderful. But as good as he is, his programs tend to leave me feeling nothing. I just always find myself wanting more out of him than we every see. Still, he did enough in Beijing to land at the top of the medal stand.

The pairs competition wasn’t supposed to be filled with dramatics. Pang and Tong were clearly the favorites, and no one was expected to come close to upsetting them. But, the veterans were far from perfect, and while they were still unmatched in their polish and confidence, they have a lot of improvements to make.

Now, their mini-me countrymen, SUI and HAN did their best to upstage them by standing up on a throw QUAD salchow in the long. It was severely two-footed, but still…impressive. They’re still very junior-ish in a whole lot of ways, but they were a flash forward of what’s to come in the world of pairs skating.

I do have to say, I wonder how far into the future this will be if they keep going with the big tricks. I found myself actually worried for her safety as she launched into those throws and came down with an intensity that made MY knees hurt.

Even with the big quad throw, the night belonged to Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin from the US. If any pairs team ever had the look and the “it” factor, this one does. Their short program had me from the moment they took the ice. And the long was the same. It was a shame she fell on the second throw, because it really did “break the spell” of that moment. But they did their best to get it back, and I can’t wait to see more of them as they continue to improve.

The ice dance events this season have provided some excellent entertainment. Here, it was the battle between France and Italy, and whether you blame it on the skirt incidents of the Italians or the competition readiness of the French team, it was all Pechalat and Bourzat in China. They skated with character and passion, not to mention technical difficulty and fineness. Faiella/Scali will likely get to this polished point, but it just wasn’t there this time.

And there you have it. Skate America is next as once again, the competition returns to North America and, therefore, a much less sleep-depriving time zone! Check out my Fantasy Skating pics later this week, and then follow me on Twitter for updates throughout the weekend. With some of the best in the world, Portland is likely to bring on one great competition!

Until then…