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 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: 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)
TBA (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…)

 

Nice, Day 3 — It’s Raining Men March 30, 2012

Okay, maybe the music choice at the arena during yesterday’s Zamboni breaks was a premonition of sorts?

The Men’s Short Programs today seemed to follow the trend of the Pairs Short programs — sloppy and in some cases, quite shocking. For an event with so much depth and potential firepower, we sure saw a lot of mistake-filled mayhem today.

In a field with so many medal contenders, hope reigned supreme as the Short Programs began. But alas, it was not meant to be. Some long-shot medal hopefuls like Nan Song and Tomas Verner fell out of the top ten. Some not-so-long-shot contenders like Takahiko Kozuka and Artur Gachinski did the same. And that was only a taste of what we’d see.

It just wasn’t their day …

There were great hopes for the American men in Nice. Both seemingly skating well enough that a top-five finish was well within reach.

Adam Rippon was the first of the two to skate and his triple flip-triple toe combination set things off just right. But the pesky triple axel and a completely uncharacteristic mistake on the Rippon-triple Lutz resulted in technical scores some nine points off the lead. He did his best to keep up the performance, but the component scores (too low, in my opinion) didn’t do him any favors today.

After others had faltered, there was room at the top for Jeremy Abbott. But when he landed a little loose on the first jump in his triple flip-triple toe combo, he tried to muscle the second jump anyway … unfortunately, his efforts were in vain and he went down. A superb triple axel seemed to have him back on track, but a wobbly double lutz did him in. A level 1 call on his upright spin didn’t help gain back any points, either.

The good news is, he had the third-highest component scores of the day — less than two points behind Patrick Chan! Jeremy has long been undermarked on his PCS, so that was delightful to see. And just think: a clean program would likely have resulted in those marks going even higher!

As I mentioned, it was also not Takahiko Kozuka’s day. He fell on his opening quad toe, then caught an edge on the ride out of his triple axel and went down again.

His countryman and co-favorite Daisuke Takahashi had some troubles, too, as he tried — unsuccessfully — to tack a triple toe onto the end of his quad toe at the start of the program. Fortunately for him, though, the rest of his program was superb. Not a single negative grade of execution mark was given, outside of the botched combination. He also had the second-highest component scores — also well deserved.

Even Patrick Chan bumbled around a bit today. He was wild on the landing of his quad toe, so he had to add the combination back in later on (which he did beautifully, on the end of a lovely triple flip). And in his trademark footwork, he didn’t look quite over his feet a few times. He managed to stay vertical throughout, but there were a few close calls. And, appropriately, the scores mirrored that. Nothing untouchable about an 89.41. Well … normally.

Today, maybe it would hold.

It’s go time!

At least SOMEONE had a day!

So there were a few bright spots today. A few guys lived up to the moment the World Championships can provide and while not all of them have spectacular placements, they have skates to be proud of.

Javier Fernandez is a bit of a wild card here. He is more than capable of matching up with the best in the world, but he doesn’t have the “big game” experience that tells you how he might perform. Well, he came in after a hot mess of sloppy programs, and threw down a quad toe, triple lutz-triple toe combo, and a scratchy-but-rotated triple axel. Oh, and a whole heap of charm and personality! His coach, Brian Orser, expected higher scores for his young protege, but nevertheless, this was a skate to be proud of.

Brian Joubert came out, all guns blazing and tried to steal the show, too. He had a quad toe-triple toe combination, a triple axel, and a triple lutz that reminded us how he’d been at the top in the not-too-distant past. Sure, his choreography is a little lacking compared to the very best. But with the boost of the French crowd, he squeezed every ounce out of that performance. I was happy for him.

The biggest surprise, though, was Michal Brezina. Yes, he’s had some success this season. But normally against unimpressive fields. Don’t get me wrong, he deserves the praise. He has this Short Program so ingrained that I’m positive he could do it blindfolded. And it’s no slouch of a program, either. A triple axel, triple flip-triple toe combo and a quad salchow late in the program? That’ll do! His PCS aren’t quite Abbot/Takahashi/Chan-esque, but when you deliver those goods (and no one else does), it works just fine.

Standings after the Short

So here’s how it stands:

1. Patrick Chan (89.41)
2. Michal Brezina (87.67)
3. Daisuke Takahashi (85.72)
4. Brian Joubert (83.47)
5. Javier Fernandez (81.87)

9. Jeremy Abbott (74.85)
10. Adam Rippon (73.55)

Theoretically, it’s certainly still possible for the Americans to move up and snag that magic number 13 (to gain a third team spot for next year). Sixth and Seventh place would do it (or fifth and eight, fourth and ninth … you get the idea), but that means making up 5+ points over the three ahead of them. So that’s the task at hand. Now if it was only so simple!

(See complete SP results here: http://www.isuresults.com/results/wc2012/SEG005.HTM)

 

Here’s to a more inspiring free skate for the men on Saturday!

 

Nice, Take Two: Men’s Preview March 23, 2012

In the year 2000, Alexie Yagudin pulled off the three-peat, taking his third world title in Nice after rediscovering his passion for the sport. He skated a short program of technical genius, and a long program that, although flawed, was packed with superior emotional depth.

Along the way, his closest rival — one Evgeni Plushenko — crumbled under the pressure of completing an undefeated season and the potential to become the youngest men’s world champ in history to finish fourth overall.

Veteran Canadian champ Elvis Stojko and American Michael Weiss took silver and bronze.

“If I will not work anymore and I will just keep my levels on the same position, I will lose my title,” Yagudin said after the short.

Wisdom from a skater who would go on to elevate his skating to far greater levels on the way to Olympic glory. This time around, however, perhaps the same could be said by other returning champions heading to Nice for the premiere event of the season.

The men’s event has the potential to get a little crazy, with the “on paper” predictions likely to fall to the reality of slippery ice and an intensely deep field. Still, there are some things we can expect.

Patrick Chan is the hunted.

No matter how you slice it, Chan is the favorite, and deservedly so. The fact is, he has elevated his skating, namely by including two quads in his free skate while maintaining top levels on on footwork and 9s plus in program components. He’ll be tough to beat.

Still, he’ll have some competition.

The man with the best chance? Daisuke Takahashi, of course. He, too, has stood on that top step and would love to reclaim his title. But to do so, he’ll have to skate perfectly clean programs for the first time this season. While many argue his superior choreography and emotional depth, it all comes down to the nitty gritty of technical content in his battle for gold.

Should the top two falter, don’t worry — there are plenty of challengers ready to take their place on the podium!

There’s Jeremy Abbott who is perhaps more comfortable and focused than ever before, and Takahiko Kozuka who oozes talent, but hasn’t quite been able to leave it all on the ice when it counts. His younger countryman Yuzuru Hanyu has massive jumps and captivating artistry, while Adam Rippon has stunning artistry, but is still reigning in the jumps. Don’t forget Javier Fernandez who won the short program at Skate Canada over Patrick Chan, or Brian Joubert who is looking to reestablish himself among the world’s best.

Then there are Artur Gachinzki, Denis Ten, and Michal Brezina who are each capable of throwing down competitive programs.

And one on my personal radar is Misha Ge. This kid is a ball of energy with some really solid skating to go with it!

Phew! Looking at that list, I’d say it’s safe to expect some shakeups!

So what’s it going to take to make that podium?

Well, this season we’ve seen the quad once again claim the spotlight. Not that it ever really went anywhere, but it looks more unlikely than ever that a title would be one sans-quad jump. That’s why Jeremy Abbott is putting it in, Fernandez has two different quads, and Artur Gachinzki could be relevant. Clean quads will be important.

But really, that’s only part of the story.

Remember all the hulabaloo when Chan falls and still wins? That’s because his programs start at a higher base value that others. It’s the “everything else” score — the steps, the spins, the components. And he milks the system like none other. The guys who do that best, could be the ones who land on the podium.

And while it could shake out a variety of ways, here’s how I see it:

GoldChan
SilverTakahashi
BronzeAbbott
FourthKozuka

Call it playing it safe, but is there a chance the most predictable picks could pay off?

Don’t forget, as far as the Americans are concerned, they are also skating to regain a third spot on next year’s World Team. To do that, remember, their combined placements must total no more than 13. As much as they’re skating for themselves, you better believe that’s a goal in the back of their minds.

We’ll see, in only a matter of days now!

But I want to hear from you — what skater do you expect to bring the house down in Nice?

 

Vlog: The 4CC Breakdown — Men February 19, 2012

 

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…)