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!

 

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…)

 

InterNATIONALS Round Up January 5, 2012

He’s baaaack! That could be the theme for the recent run of men’s national champs. In France, it was Joubert. In Russia, Plushenko. And in the Czech Republic, Verner. But it wasn’t just the men in action. So, since we’re in that lull before Canadian/American Nationals and Europeans, here’s a quick round up of the latest results, complete with video links.

France

Men

1. Brian Joubert (230.97)
2. Florent Amodio (210.42)
3. Chafik Besseghier (183.67)

Ladies

1. Yrétha Silété (152.21)
2. Maé Bérénice Méité (149.33)
3. Anaïs Ventard (143.74)

Pairs

1. Daria Popova/Bruno Massot (137.75)
2.Vanessa James/Morgan Ciprès (128.83)
3. Anne-Laure Letscher / Artem Patlasov (104.06)

Dance

1. Nathalie Péchalat/Fabian Bourzat (173.75)
2. Pernelle Carron/Lloyd Jones (142.69)
3. Tiffany Zahorski/Alexis Miart (120.49)

  (more…)

 

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…)

 

A look ahead: The Grand Prix Final December 7, 2011

Earlier this week, I posted my icenetwork.com Fantasy Skating column in preparation for the Grand Prix Final in Quebec City. Fantasy, though, is a whole different competition than, well, the competition! So, how ’bout a complete preview?

Yes?

Okay, good.

We’ll start with the Ladies and the Gentlemen. Pairs and Dance later.

Ladies

The thing about these ladies’ events compared to ladies events of the past is there’s no clear-cut favorite. No Michelle Kwan. No Yu-Na Kim.

Five of the six ladies have won a Grand Prix event this season. Six of six have programs that accentuate their strengths.

Asada's Free Skate from NHK Trophy

Akiko Suzuki‘s free skate scores are nearly identical in her two events on the season. For her, (much like Alissa who I’ll get to in a moment) it is a matter of two clean programs back to back. She skates with more joy than any other lady on the ice. This year, she seems to have more attack as well, which bodes well for her completing the jumps.

Battling her way back to championship form, Mao Asada has proven herself quite the ray of sunshine, too! The smile she skates with this year is one I haven’t seen in … I can’t even say how long. I adore her short program and the character she brings to it (plus, what a great costume!), and her long, though recycled from last season, is a beauty. But those jumps have to be clean if she wants to win here. UPDATE: Sadly, Mao has withdrawn from the Final, due to the severity of her mother’s illness back home in Japan. She has flown home to be with her mom. My thoughts and prayers are with her and her family.

Speaking of comebacks, Carolina Kostner is in the midst of one of her own. In the past, I’ve been quite vocal about judges’ tendency to over-mark her. This year, though, she has packaged her skating in a way that better justifies her scores. Now, she still isn’t doing the “hard” jumps (lutz/flip), but the jumps she does do are strong. Plus, she genuinely believes in her choreography this year — something I’ve never seen from her before.

Alissa Czisny had her reinvention last  year. This time around, she is trying to continue on. Her short program is one of my favorites of the season. It absolutely fits her to a “T.” She just needs to hit the jumps. She’s certainly capable, as proven by her free skate in Paris (only Asada brings a better LP score to Canada). If she skates clean, she has a great shot at gold.

Then come the Russians. Aleona Leonova is trying her best to keep her young teammates from stealing all of the spotlight. This girl has more energy than I would know what to do with! Her short program is great. Her free skate, though, just hasn’t been up to par with the top tier ladies this season.

And then there was one. Elizaveta Tuktamisheva. I hate buying into hype early in on a season — a career, even. We’ve seen far too many “flash in the pan” phenoms for me to get too excited too fast. This little darling, however, has me singing her praises just two competitions into her senior career. I have no idea where she will go after this season. (Not to Worlds, though, because she’s still a baby!) But for now, she’s the only lady in the event to have two GP golds. She’s for real … at least for now.

Podium:
(no particular order)

Czisny
Tuktamisheva
Asada  (more…)

 

Breaking it down: Rostelecom Cup November 28, 2011

It seems impossible, but the Grand Prix series for 2011 is over, save the Final in a few weeks. We’ve seen a little bit of everything this year, so I continue to expect the unexpected as we go forward through the GPF, Nationals, Europeans, Worlds, Four Continents … they’re really not as far off as they seem! In fact, the US Nationals competitors list was just released, if you’re interested.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s take one last look back at the sixth and final GP event of the season.

Meryl and Charlie … and everyone else

One of the more tender moments of their FD.

To be fair, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were fantastic. But there’s just no comparison to what the World Champs are doing.

Their free dance this year is, in its purest form, exactly what ice dance should be. It’s a waltz. And while there are times it could have a more waltz-y feel, what they do in this program is brilliant. I’ve said I don’t believe Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s FD shows off their strengths, but the opposite is true of Davis and White. Their polish is evident despite the complexity of this skate. And the crazy thing? There’s still room for improvement. I expect come Worlds, this program will be stunning. I’m excited to watch it develop. (And that’s not even mentioning their sizzling short dance! Charlie stumbled in this event, but they have the samba mood down pat.)

Weaver and Poje have one of my favorite free dances of the year. Yes, the falling strap can be a tad distracting, but you’d be hard pressed to find any dance team who pours as much emotion into a dance as these two. You almost feel like your heart is breaking along with Kaitlyn’s by the end! That’s powerful stuff. Plus, they skated it really well. They have always seemed to struggle to get the high marks from the judges, but they’re coming into their own and their confidence shows.

Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev were quite the home crowd pleasers, but finished a distant third.

Nix the triple axel, take the gold

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy got me again. In their first match up with Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov (at NHK Trophy), I figured they had the upper hand. Problem was, they were determined to try their latest trick — that

Every element is sharp and clean and, well, perfect.

throw triple axel. It cost them when they couldn’t hit it cleanly.

I assumed they would continue that daring here, thus I picked Kavaguti and Smirnov. But no. The reigning World Champs went the “safe” route and stuck to more manageable throws. (You know, like the lutz and loop. “Easy” stuff!) The result?

Gold.

Good for them. They skated a fantastic free skate that gave them the top international score of the season from the other Russian stars, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov.

When these three end up at the same event (like the GPF), watch out. There will be fireworks! (more…)