Figure Skating: From the Boards

The Final Countdown: Pairs and Dance December 5, 2012

We’re just a few days away from the Grand Prix Final kicking off as a “preview event” of sorts for the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russian. And, the contenders are all very much aware of this, I promise you. Everyone wants to get a glimpse at what it might be like to skate in Sochithe arena where new Olympic champions will be crowned. And, this is that chance, albeit under a teensy bit less pressure.

Still, the energy will be high as the conclusion of the Grand Prix series gets underway.

It’s been an interesting season. We’ve had moments of brilliance and competitions as tight as ever, in some cases. Most of the stops along the way produced high-quality skating. It is, after all, the buildup year to the Olympics. Everyone is starting to make that extra push.

But, there were a few let downs, too. This isn’t a recap, though. If you’re looking for that, check the posts from a few days back. It’s all there: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

This, though, should be quite good.

PAIRS

The way I see it, each of the pairs competing here are primed for the performance of the seasons. We haven’t seen too many magical pairs moments yet this year, especially from the top teams. But, with three Russian teams in the Final, two Canadian teams, and just one Chinese team, there’s been a shift in the power houses of the Pairs world. Notably absent, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy who didn’t not qualify after skating in just one event.

Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov have yet to wow me this year. But, they do still hold the top international score. When they put the pieces together, they are hard to beat. They are just so good.

Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov continue to steadily climb towards the top. They’re not there yet, however. This is a great chance for them, though, to stake their claim to a spot on the podium — here, and heading towards Worlds.

The third Russian team is, surprisingly, not considered a medal favorite. Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov have struggled to match last year’s brilliance that, too, fell off a bit towards the end of the year. Perhaps this is their time to jump back into the upper echelon of Pairs teams?

I see a team like Qing Pang and Jian Tong and am blown away. Not by their technical brilliance these days, but by their undying passion for the sport. Why, after all these years and all the medals and titles won, do they still need to push themselves? Why would they delay their wedding in order to compete, when they openly admit their bodies often don’t cooperate anymore? How can they still perform such difficult programs? But, even more impressive, is the emotion with which they skate. That was something I always found a bit lacking in their skating, but the older they get and the they compete “for the love of the game,” as they say, the more joy shows in each move.

It’s beautiful, not matter where they finish.

And how ’bout those Canadian teams? Are we witnessing the rebirth of the Russia vs. Canada pairs rivalry? Not quite yet, perhaps, but by the time they return to Sochi? Possibly.

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are living proof of determination directing results. These two know what they want and have developed a formula for how to get it. No, they can’t yet compete with Volosozhar and Trankov. But they put themselves in medal contention in every event the enter. In fact, they have a chance here to knock off the veteran Chinese team and land on the podium. It would be an upset, but we’ve certainly seen one or two of those at a Final before, haven’t we?

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovtich have a longer way to go. I’m not entirely convinced this season’s programs are the best vehicle for their skating, but they continue to fight and make something of each event. They are in the Final after a tie-break gave them the last spot. So, there’s really no pressure. That might be just the situation they need to excel.

PREDICTIONS

Gold: Volosozhar/Trankov
Silver: Bazarova/Larionov
Bronze: Duhamel/Radford

ICE DANCE

Have I mentioned I love this event?

There isn’t a team scheduled to compete that doesn’t deserve to be there. There are, however, teams that didn’t make the Final that arguably should be in Sochi right now. That’s besides the point, though. And now it’s all about these top six couples.

Again, Russian is well represented with Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev and Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov set to take the ice in front of the home crowd.

Both teams are much improved. Both have dances that don’t quite make sense to me, but perhaps they appeal more wildly to a Russian audience? Both teams have two second-place finishes this season, and would love to make the podium. However, there are some pretty tough challengers standing in their way.

The same could be said for Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte. They are divine. I adore their unassuming charm as well as their ability to sell a character-driven piece as well as anyone in the business. Their improvements this season are quite impressive, and they continue to make me believe they could be a contender in the near future. Again, though, the top three teams in the world are pretty set in stone at the moment.

Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat are another team — similar to Pang and Tong — that wow me with their consistent improvement and commitment to a long-term plan. I often struggle with the far-out nature of their creativity, because I don’t know that it translates as well as they’d like it to. But, I admire their dedication to maintaining artistic integrity despite the demands of the system. They are much improved technically, but still not quite where they’ll need to be to break up the top two.

Speaking of the top two …

It wouldn’t be ice dance without a little drama, eh? For my take on the wide-swinging pendulum of opinions on Meryl Davis and Charlie White’s free dance vs. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s free dance, check this piece out. I present my own opinion, but also give you the bare facts and numbers, in case you could care less about my private opinion.

These two teams have made each other better, that is the one thing I can, without a doubt, guarantee. As they continue to push one another, they in turn push the entire sport.

I’m amazed when I watch them both, because of the complication of each piece of choreography. There are no simple movements in their programs. No easy steps. No basic strokes. And yet, they combine the difficulty with basic skills that make it all look remarkably easier than it actually is. Plus, you add the layer of story telling and passion and connection and emotion … there’s so much to the package — for both teams — that I don’t know how they pull it all off.

They’re like machines … with pretty costumes and powerful expressions.

Every conversation about these two should start with the simple fact that both teams are extraordinarily good at what they do.

Side note: anyone else wonder what differences we’d see in this rivalry if they didn’t train together? It’s an interesting thought …

PREDICTIONS

Gold: Davis/White
Silver: Virtue/Moir
Bronze: Pechalat/Bourzat

Tomorrow: Ladies and Men

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Grand Prix Rewind: The Pairs December 3, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And So It Begins: 2012 US International Classic September 28, 2012

I’ve decided that life has a way of spiraling  out of control most when I’d rather be watching skating!

Okay, so it hasn’t been totally out of control. But a move and a new project at work have kept me from the US International Classic videos until, well, right now. But with Neblhorn happening now and Skate America right around the corner (can you believe it?) I’ve definitely been itching to sneak a look at some of the performances from Salt Lake City. 

This event welcomed several skaters I, for one, was anxious to see.

Lindsay Davis & Mark Ladwig, for example.

Their pairing is interesting to me. There isn’t an automatic, “this is going to catch on like wild fire” vibe from them. But, it’s still so new, there is a little bit of push and pull. They just need time. I like some of the artistic elements — a little more drama, perhaps! The technique will come along. I just hope they don’t get frustrated with the results until then.

Kirsten Moore-Towers & Dylan Moscovitch — I love this duo. She is a little dynamo. And it’s nice to see so much emotion in their skating again this year! And those throws? GORGEOUS. As soon as their short program started, I realized we’d just jumped up a level. The speed, the strength, the confidence, it was all there. A few stumbles here and there, but they have a lot to work with this season … and some pretty grand expectations of themselves.

Tiffany Vise & Don Baldwin — First comeback free skate of the season? They recovered from a disappointing 5th-place short program to leapfrog country mates Felicia Zhang & Nathan Bartholomay for the bronze. They always do something interesting and unique. It’s nice to see them skate well to go with their great programs!

How about the ladies?

Gracie Gold is precious. At such a young age, and with so little senior experience, she always looks so polished, so poised. She really takes her time with the choreography — something that often gets lost in the shuffle of point counting. She had some trouble in the second half of her free skate (which she was not happy about) but this gives her room to build. I worry, sometimes, that the expectations already on her shoulders are too much to live up to. But, she has the talent, no doubt.

Agnes Zawadski — her jumps are ridiculously gigantic. Yes, ridiculously gigantic. She skates with so much power! Sometimes it’s too much, but this early in the year? She looks in complete control. A few bobbles here and there, but nothing to be terribly concerned with. Her struggles will likely come if she has a tough competition. In the past, that has gotten to her in a big way. But this was a great victory — mentally, even more than physically — to get her on track for the year.

I have a feeling the battle in the ladies’ competitions this year is going to be something else. And at US Nationals? It could be anyone’s game! (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):

Shibutani/Shibutani
Carron/Jones
Bobrova/Soloviev (more…)