Figure Skating: From the Boards

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…)

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A quick look back: Trophee Eric Bompard November 21, 2011

Before you say it, I know. I missed NHK Trophy all together here at From the Boards. I hate that it happened that way, but last week was simply one of those weeks. Too many things on my white boards “to-do list,” and not enough hours in the day to get them all done. Something had to give. I’m sorry that it was here, but hopefully you caught my Fantasy preview at icenetwork.com or usfigureskating.org.

I promise to always at least have that updated before events! 

Since I can’t go back to NHK now, we’ll just take a glance back and this weekend’s even in Paris — Trophee Eric Bompard.

I always loved this event (especially when it was Lalique) because of the fancy Kiss and Cry designs. Nothing too extraordinary this year, though. However, the trophy given to the winners was pretty spectacular!

But I digress…

The Pairs and Dance events went off mostly as predicted.

Russian stars Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov proved themselves human with errors in both the short and the long, but the overall quality of their skating and the non-jump elements pulled them through. They’re going to need to regain the element of perfection, though, in the Final and as they head on to Worlds.

Their teammates Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov snagged the silver after the cleanest of the free skates. There seems to be something missing from them, though. The spark from the other top couples is greater, despite B/L’s strong, classic lines. Most times I just don’t feel, well, anything from them as they skate through well choreographed programs (albeit, to overused music!).

Duhamel/Radford skated another strong short program in Paris.

One of the highlights of the entire event was Meagan Duhamel’s reaction to their scores after a well presented but poorly performed free skate. See, Duhamel and Radford are on that Grand Prix Final bubble. They needed to finish no lower than third with a score of 113.58 to give themselves a chance. She had her fingers crossed, watching the scores go up.

“Is it enough? Is it enough? I’m not getting too excited yet…”

But she knew it was enough. Despite three falls.

“115 with three falls, Eric?” she added.

These two improve with every event. I’m looking forward to seeing how they stack up at Worlds.

Again, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig were haunted by the side-by-side jumps. Their programs are stunning, but she just can’t seem to stand up on those jumps. Another fourth place finish isn’t what they were looking for, but here’s hoping we see these programs skated cleanly at Nationals. (more…)

 

Breaking it down: Skate Canada October 31, 2011

Two down, four to go, friends!

Skate Canada presented another series of season debuts this past weekend. Some hit, some missed. And now that it’s over and Cup of China is on the horizon, we have a few minutes to glance back in the rear view mirror and reflect. Shall we?

“Funny” how some things never change

Virtue and Moir -- Short Dance

Canadian royalty. That’s how Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were received in Missassauga, as well they should be. Like their American counterparts, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, they are the class of a deep Canadian field, and the cream of the crop here. They seem to be one constant in a sport that has so few.

Their spicy short dance won over the crowd instantly … and that’s no surprise. These two thrive on strong character dances and though they only performed it fully one time, last season’s samba free dance was the perfect preparation. Tessa oozes Latin flavor. It will be fun to see this up next to Davis/White’s SD at the Final.

Their free dance is a totally different take on classic dance. Their “Funny Face” program is charming and challenging. While this isn’t my favorite look for them (at first glance, I feel it takes away from some of their best qualities — posture, line, depth of edges, emotional maturity), it’s already better than it was at Finlandia, and I expect it to continue on that path. Scott alluded to his “Fred-like-ness” in the Kiss and Cry, and that he definitely has going for him. Fred Astaire would be proud.

Fellow Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje skated back to back strong programs. Both need more polish, but for their first event, I’m impressed by their improvements. The emotional depth they’ve added — especially in their free dance — is impressive.

Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte have a gorgeous short dance. Their free dance didn’t impress me quite as much. They’re still a little rough around the edges, to be sure. But they are making great strides.

Despite a silly stumble at the end of their well-skated short dance, Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates added themselves to my list of teams to watch — and the list of new teams that had stellar debuts! Their free dance was one of my favorites of the entire event. Madison is the perfect ice dancer — her expressions come from every inch of her body. And Evan, well, it was so good to see him back on competitive ice. Welcome back, Evan! (more…)

 

Skate Canada: It’s anybody’s game! October 28, 2011

After an afternoon watching the practice sessions from Skate Canada (thanks, skatebuzz!), I can say I’m fully ready to see how this event goes down. Let me just say, it could go any which way!

The ladies event continues to be unpredictable, this time with the added impact of a 14-year-old Russian phenom who might just steal the show.

Mirai Nagasu is the skater who should have the edge. She’s been close to the top before, and when she is right mentally, she has all the pieces to be one of the best in the world. At the end of last season, her coach Frank Carroll said she was the best she’d ever been mentally. If that has continued, she could be in for her best season yet. Of course, that is always qualified by her lack of consistency in the past.

Elizaveta comes to Canada armed with a stellar triple lutz-triple toe combination.

Canadian Cynthia Phaneuf is still looking to put herself back in the talk of the top ladies in the world. Generally speaking, she’ll have a strong short program, but lose it in the free skate. Plus, the pressure of skating at home sometimes works against her, rather than in her favor.

Akiko Suzuki won a Grand Prix gold last season, but she, too, has some free skate consistency issues to work around.

The real fireworks, though, could come from Russian Elizaveta Tuktamisheva. She is the 2011 World Junior silver medalist, but more importantly, the 2011 Japan Open champion where she posted a 118+ in her free skate. She’s a jumping bean with a very traditional style, but she’s been impressive. Look out for her!

Don’t forget about the other Americans — Rachael Flatt and Ashley Wagner. They’ll always be in a fight for the podium.

The men’s event seems fairly predictable, at least for gold — it’s a faceoff between Patrick Chan and Daisuke Takahashi, who both looked strong in yesterday’s practice. Patrick looked to be better off from the quad stand point — Dai fell quite hard on his quad toe attempts.

Before everyone goes off trying to say which skater is better, I think it’s important to realize — they are BOTH fabulous, just in different ways. Patrick gives us all the thrill of something that’s larger than life. He sweeps across the ice with speed and flow that is unmatched, and his choreography tells a beautiful story.

Daisuke, on the other hand, shows excellence in the details. His musicality is second to none, and he highlights every little accent throughout his programs. He really believes in his music and choreography and melds them together to hit every note, right on cue. (more…)

 

Skating for Gold – Nationals 2011, Ice Dance January 10, 2011

Ice dance, in my mind, is an ever evolving discipline, perhaps even more so than the other areas of figure skating. I had my first real introduction to the event at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics which was, ironically, the culmination of what had apparently been years of political scandals and national biases.

But still, it was the first time I’d been really aware of the sport.

Flash forward to the 2004 National Championships, in particular the build up for the showdown between the five-time champs, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev and the newcomers, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. I had fallen in love with Naomi and Peter in 2002, and was devastated by Naomi’s injury that had them set to retire, pre-Nationals. But they decided to give it a shot, and made a valiant attempt. Unfortunately, the injured Lang couldn’t go on, and they withdrew.

Enter Tanith and Ben a la Elvis and West Side Story.

And so began my love affair with Ice Dance.

The sport is dramatically different now than it was back then, but it may be the one discipline that I feel has really benefited from the changes to the judging system. And thanks to the determination of skaters like Belbin and Agosto, American Ice Dance is officially on the map. Example, the field set to compete in Greensboro.

First off, the “contenders.”

  • Meryl Davis and Charlie White
  • Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani
  • Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein

Obviously missing from the list of teams expected to compete for honors this season are Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates. The two set themselves up last season as the heirs to the ice dance throne, only to be sidelined by a freak injury before their season even began.

That, combined with the retirement of Tanith and Ben, make Meryl and Charlie the only team competing this season to have been on the podium before. But don’t let that fool you – these teams have staked their claim for international glory this year with some stellar performances in the Grand Prix Series.

Davis and White should, barring some unforeseen circumstance, take the top spot by a mile. But that doesn’t mean they can take this event lightly. At this point, their biggest competition is themselves, and if they want to compete for the World title this season, they have to continue to make improvements. They won the Grand Prix final with relative ease, but their programs were far from flawless. I hope they come out in NC with the spark, fire, and confidence of the reigning National Champions, not willing for anyone to question their right to the top of the podium.

Maia and Alex Shibutani have been one of the brightest spots of this entire season in my book. The joy with which they skate makes me smile, without fail. And they may have the most potential internationally of any other team on the US roster right now. They’re now training with the best, which has seemed to motivate them to be the best. If anyone can push Meryl and Charlie in the coming years, I see it being this team.

That said, they’re not in the clear for the #2 spot, at least not yet. Madison and Greg have a fantastic Free Dance this season that takes them so far out of their comfort zones that it also takes them to a new, challenging, and exciting level. They had some success on the Grand Prix that may have surprised some people, and I feel like they will battle it out with the Shibs in NC for the right to be the new American sensation.

In my mind, those three teams are the clearest bet for the medal stand, but not to be forgotten is the brother/sister team of Madison and Keiffer Hubbell. They’ve struggled a bit this year to get things going, battling some injuries here and there. But they’re hungry, too, and if someone in that top three makes a misstep, they better watch out.

While the field may seem less advanced than it has been for the last two Olympic cycles, I feel it will still be highly competitive. It also provides us a glimpse of the future of American Ice Dance, as well as giving the newbies a look at what they’re in for.

If nothing else, the top three teams should be VERY good. And they all have this season of international experience under their belts, so the World team could shape up to be very good as well.

 

And there you have it. Three disciplines down, one to go. The ladies competition has always been the premiere event, but for some time now it’s lacked a little…spark. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this year’s field has more spark than we’ve seen since the last time Michelle and Sasha faced off in Portland 2005. Why? You’ll just have to come back in a few days to find out!

Until then…

 

Dancing with the North American stars September 13, 2010

First off, I’d like to congratulate the junior skaters who brought home medals from Romania this week in the Junior Grand Prix competition. Keegan Messing skated to gold for the first US gold of the season, and Joshua Farris backed him up with the sliver. For the ladies, Kristiene Gong won silver, and Lauri Bonacorsi and Travis Mage placed third for the bronze in ice dance. Nice work, team USA!

Speaking of ice dance, that’s the focus for today’s post. We’ve talked through the top 20 for the ladies, the men, and the pairs (well…some of the pairs, at least!), so now it’s time for some ice dance.

But before we get there, just one more thing. And observation, I suppose. Something that made me stop and think about the toughness of all competitive athletes.

This past week, I was bothered by a knee problem. It wasn’t much, and I’ll admit, I’m kind of a baby when it comes to pain. Still, for almost two weeks, I limped around, not sure what was wrong, but knowing I was struggling with simple, menial, daily tasks (getting in the car, for example). Then today, I took the morning off, instead of getting right on my to-do list, because I was battling a migraine.

Now, I watch a lot of sports. I also know a lot of people who suffer from migraines, back pain, shoulder pain, etc. The athletes I watch can’t be too different. In fact, many of them push their bodies to the limits in so many ways, that they nearly always feel pain. Yet, they go out and do their job day after day. They spend long hours on the court, the field, the ice; do countless reps in the gym alone, and they deal with the aches and pains without, for the most part, saying a word. This morning, I couldn’t even get out of bed.

I’ve been watching a lot of football lately (it’s back!!!!), and I can only imagine how banged up some of those guys are after a game. I’m thinking skaters who work triple jumps for hours each day may feel it in their knees later. And watching some college soccer players this weekend, I realized once again that the first time I tried to head a ball, I’d have a headache so ridiculous I might not even make it off the field. And my hip or shoulder? I bet Rafa Nadal doesn’t always feel loose enough to play like a champ. But he does. He did. And he was brilliant! (Congrats, Rafa!!)

I know we get used to watching these professionals compete, and sometimes even get frustrated when they don’t perform to our crazed-fan standards. Yet there’s not a one of them (even those who sometimes appear lazy or lackadaisical in their efforts) who doesn’t deal with more physical challenges than most of us can imagine. At least more than I can imagine. My hat is off to every athlete who takes the hits and still goes out day after day to do what they love to do, whether their knees hurt or they’re fighting a migraine or not.

Okay. Back to the topic of choice: the upcoming season in ice dance. There are some key empty spots in the ranks this year, and that will make for some differences in how competitions unfold. So, without further ado, let’s take a look.

Sitting at the top, for obvious reasons and without any real argument otherwise, are Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir from Canada. Their gold in Vancouver wasn’t much of a surprise, per se, but it was an obvious exclamation point on what many people have been saying about these two for years – they’re the real deal. The amount of talent and skill makes everything they do look simple. I promise you, it is not. And the fact that they can garner such high technical marks while presenting such a remarkable story, filled with emotion, passion and elegance makes them magical to watch. This season, their challenge will be reinventing themselves. Coming back to “regular” competition after such an Olympic high isn’t always easy. Plus, there’s the “What do we do to top that?” syndrome. Never fear, though. If anyone can pull out all the new stops, it’s these two. I expect nothing less.

Their challengers, though, are chomping at the bit, waiting their turn to one up their friends and training mates. Meryl Davis and Charlie White produced one of the best Original Dance numbers ever last season, and they two will have to reinvent themselves. In order to get the scores they’ll need to take down Virtue and Moir, they’ll need to up the technical ante as well as smooth out some of their transitions and footwork sequences. The thing about Virtue and Moir is, everything looks like one, giant, sweeping movement. Davis and White tend to leave things a bit more sectioned. (Footwork….spin….lift….transition, etc.) That said, I have no doubt that their coach is pushing them both. The inspiration factor certainly lies more with Meryl and Charlie, as they still have something to prove. That could be enough to get them where they need to be.

Russians Oksana Domina and Maxim Shabalin are #3 to start the season. These two confuse me sometimes. I’m never quite sure why they get the high marks they do. No doubt they’re fearless, but she never seems to straighten her legs, and they certainly don’t have the smoothness or the polish that the top two (and even some lower scoring teams) do. They worked with the same coach as Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto for the last few seasons, and that pushed them to be better. However, they’ve got some work to do to become the “skater’s skater” type team that Virtue and Moir and Davis and White are. (Side note: Charlie White is dating Tanith Belbin…I wonder how active she will be in his skating career, now that her own competitive career is over.)

The French team of Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat have certainly had their challenges. They managed to finish second to Virtue and Moir twice last year, before ending up 4th at Worlds. They always bring something unique to the table, and it’s evident they love to compete. They can’t quite seem to find that extra bit to push them over the top. I think their PCS scores need to improve to give them a leg up.

The sibling team of Sinead and John Kerr from Great Britain have impressed in the last few seasons. THey have an impeccable ability to get a crowd going, and that makes them ever so likable. They need to add a little bit technically to match up with the top teams, but they’ve been on a steady climb in that direction. I expect more of that from them as they look to get in the top three this season.

Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy, and Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier from Canada are 7th and 8th. I admitedly don’t know much at all about these two. The finished 12th and 14th at the Olympics respectively.

Number 9 is the young American team of Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates. These two are looking to carry on the relatively new tradition of solid American ice dance teams. Undoubtedly, these two were influenced by the success of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto who really put US ice dance on the map. Now, they look to be the next generation of that work. They definitely have the talent and the determination to do just that. From their icenetwork.com athlete profile, their goals for the season are “to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, finish in the top two at the U.S. Championships and place in the top seven at the World Championship.” Of course, it’s far to early to make any real predictions, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think they can do all three.

Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje finish off the top 10, and this is another young team that will make a splash as soon as this season. Third in Canada last year, they will be working to move up that ladder. I look forward to seeing what they have to offer together.

The bottom half of the top 20 is filled with several teams I’m not too familiar with, so I’ll key in on a couple of young American teams and leave the rest of my dance insight for the season.

Another brother-sister team, Maia and Alex Shibutani have been U.S. champs at the novice, intermediate and junior levels, and now they’ll be working towards a solid senior debut internationally. These two have some spark. They’ve got some skill. I can’t wait to see where their future takes them.

Madison and Keiffer Hubbell will be looking for the same kind of breakout season. With these two young teams coming up the ranks, I have to say, the future of US ice dance looks to be in great hands. I like what I see.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the powerhouses of the sport of ice dance are mainly North American? The super stars of the sport are getting the credit they deserve, and the momentum has shifted dramatically from only European skaters to the top Americans and Canadians. While there are a lot of things about the CoP judging system that I don’t love, I do like that in a lot of ways it leveled the playing field, and, especially for dance, made the requirements more clear cut.

Keep in mind, the discipline of ice dance will look dramatically different this year – no compulsory dances means no repetitive patterns of dance on ice. I’m not sure how I feel about this change (call me old school, but I like the focus on actual skating skill that compulsories brought, just as figures did to singles skaters), but what I’ve heard so far about the new “Short dance” seems mostly positive. I’ll reserve judgment until I see how it plays out in a few competitions with top teams, but it will definitely change the landscape of how dance competitions go. Often, some of the top teams in the world were not always tops in the CD (Belbin and Agosto, for one). That could shake up the standings, even with some of the top teams. Regardless, it makes for an interesting season. Once again, (I feel like I say this a lot…) I can’t wait!

I had every intention of putting up a video blog with this post, but due to the headache, I never got around to it. I’ll work on that for next time, especially since we’ll be moving on from our top 20 overview. We’ll see where the skating world takes us next, and try to get the camera out for the vlog as well.

Thanks again for all of you who come here and read my thoughts. I know many people checked out the blog after a twitter response I got from Erin Andrews – if you’re still reading, thank you! Erin is quite a role model, and I was blown away by the responses I got from some of you, both here and on twitter. Now, if you know anyone else who might like a little skating insight, send ’em on down! And, as always, feel free to comment, email thoughts (and even topic ideas or questions) to fromtheboards@gmail.com, and follow me on twitter for daily tid bits. I’m there 24/7 @fromtheboards, and I love hearing from you! You’re the best.

Until then…