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

 

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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…)

 

Nice — Ladies’ Night Out April 2, 2012

 

Nice Day 2 — Maybe It’s The Ice… March 29, 2012

Yesterday after the Russians struggled so mightily in the Short Program, they brought to our attention that the ice in Nice is, well, not quite right. It cracks and crumbles right out from underneath the blades, they said.

Now, you would think that if the ice was really all that terrible, we’ve had heard a whole lot more about it since then.

Before you start to protest, simmer down! I’m not trying to stir any proverbial pot or cry “conspiracy” or even call out any particular pair for comments on ice that I have not had the privilege of skating on! In fact, after this morning’s Ladies’ Short Programs, I’m beginning to think maybe their right!

Bad ice makes for a much easier explanation than a gremlin that caused even more favorites to fall from grace (and, more importantly, a spot on the podium.)

As an American skating fan, I can’t deny my vested interest in the success of Team USA. So … let’s start there.

Ashley Wagner, since winning her National title, has been determined to lead the team that regains a third spot for the American team. And after her Four Continents performances, I was pretty well convinced she had the firepower to do it. And with Alissa Czisny — who can stumble a bit and still rake in scores on the spins and components — certainly in a position to peak, that third spot was not only within reach, but anything short would be a serious disappointment.

… today was a serious disappointment.

Wagner was the first of the American’s to skate, and she had high hopes of starting things off with a triple flip-triple toe combination. That vanished with the landing on the first jump. The extra turns could be costly in and of themselves in the GOE department, but now the combo had to be tacked onto the triple loop.

She managed to do that and complete the elements, but she had to have the technical edge in order to keep up with the skaters at the top (who, might I add, were not the skaters we’d all predicted, either! But I’ll get to that.).

By the time Czisny took the ice, there was a cavern at the top of the standings, as favorites continued to fall. Trouble is, so did she. Twice. And she barely hung on to the double axel.

My heart was breaking for her — you see the effort, the potential, the desire to finally live up to her own vast expectations, only to see everything that could go wrong, go terribly, terribly wrong.

The two sit in 8th and 16th place, and are almost certainly out of reach of the magic number 13 to get that 3rd spot.

(To look at it half full, Wagner is roughly four points out of bronze medal position, and Czisny is just over five points out of 10th. That combination — 3rd and 10th — would do the trick! “Impossible … things are happening every day!”)

At least a couple of skaters left the Short Program happy after strong skates!

As for the rest of the field…

It was Russia’s Alena Leonova who was the surprise leader. She skated her best short program all year, complete with 3-3 and quirky, complicated footwork.

Also a surprise was Japan’s Kanako Murakami who nearly matched Leonova element for element on her way to a second place finish, just two points off the lead.

It was a disappointing night for both Carolina Kostner and Mao Asada — perhaps considered co-favorites here. Asada skated first, and crumbled on her opening triple axel (a move she’s remained committed to, despite a lack of success). The result? 1.8 points out of a possible 8.5+. Ouch.

Kostner started much better, hitting her own triple toe-triple toe. But, as so often happens, she followed that with a mistake — a double loop, in stead of a triple. And that was enough to cost her, despite having the highest PCS marks of the night (she was the only one to break the 30-point mark).

In my world, I would have had Akiko Suzuki over Kostner in the short. But, she doubled a lutz that also got an edge call, resulting in a negative GOE on that element.

Ksenia Makarova had the skate of her season, and it was good enough to land her in 6th, just ahead of Elene Gedevanishvile, who was well on her way to a fantastic skate … until she singled the axel.

So, the battle lines are drawn for the Free Skate.

Realistically, the top ten could shift dramatically. There’s not a lot of consistency to speak of among the ladies currently in those spots. That might bode well for Wagner, who as been a stronger Long Program skater than others. It also means, everyone is going to have to shake the demons and shoot for the stars, holding nothing back. There can be no fear. No mind games. Just muscle memory and confidence.

They have a day to rest. And, hopefully, the gremlins are gone for good.

 

Nice, Take Two: Ladies Preview March 26, 2012

She had only skated one clean program since the 1998 Olympics. After placing second in qualifying, and third after the short, she was in the “worst case scenario,”meaning she needed the leader — Maria Butyrskya — to finish 3rd or lower, and she needed to win the Free Skate.

Plus, she was skating first.

Then, the haunting vibrations of The Red Violin swept through the Palais des Exposition and Michelle Kwan crafted, perhaps, the most magical moment of the 2000 World Championships.

Every move was assured, from the opening triple loop, to the stunning triple toe-triple toe combination. Her spins were improved, her footwork was quick and sharp, and her presentation was, well, Kwan-esque.

There was nothing she needed to do in that program that she left undone. No extra turnout on a jump, no slippery edge in a transitional step. Not even a finger misplaced. She skated both the most technically difficult program of the night, and the most emotionally complex program of the night to win her third World title.

Michelle Kwan became the first American woman to reach that mark since Peggy Flemming. Michelle had officially reached legend status.

And, as usual, coach Frank Carroll said it best when he said of Kwan’s forward progress: “That’s the way of sport. You have to continue to make progress, or you’ll get left in the dust.”

Now, some 12 years later, a pair of American girls hope to follow in the path the Flemmings and Kwans of the world made. But, it won’t be easy.

The number of ladies who could win this title is a little ridiculous. Between Carolina Kostner, Mao Asada, Ashley Wagner, Akiko Suzuki, Alissa Czisny, and Alena Leonova, things could get a little crazy. But then you throw in Kanako Murakami, Valentina Marchei, Elene Gedevanishvilli, or Viktoria Helgesson, and it gets even more dicey.

Carolina Kostner is, perhaps, the closest thing to a “favorite.” She presents an interesting situation, though. She doesn’t have a triple lutz, and has only recently added a triple flip back into her programs. Some find that terribly unjust, when there are other girls (including Ashley Wagner) using all of the different triple jumps. But, what Carolina has is win-induced confidence. She’s had a stellar season, and she knows it. That could play very nicely into her hands, as she’s the only lady to take the top of the podium consistently all season.

Ma Asada is a former champ. She’s struggled the last few years, dedicating herself to reworking her jump technique. And it shows. She’s back to smiling when she skates, and floating across the ice, and making triple jumps look easy. At least most of the time. She still has a tendency to underrotate jumps, and she gets a little off and pops a jump or two here and there. Asada is talented to the max, but far from consistent.

Alissa Czisny has all the qualities you want in a great champion. All except consistency (yes, I sound like a broken record. There’s an obvious pattern developing here.). To get on the podium, she needs to skate two clean programs. Clean Programs. She can’t miss her jumps, because she doesn’t have the complexity in the choreography to make up for it. As much as her spins wow us, they can’t do all the work. She seems motivated, though, and this could be her time to shine.

Suzuki and Leonova tend to be hit or miss. Akiko has effortlace elegance on the ice. But she can crash and burn on occasion. As can Leonova (who doesn’t share the same elegance in the least).

Despite all of the possibilities, all eyes may be looking towards American champ Ashley Wagner. Not because she’s been there, done that, but because she hasn’t, and yet she notched a score at Four Continents that put the rest of the world notice — she has arrived. And with even more planned difficulty in Nice, could she take her third title in a row?

There is a part of me that wants to go all in, to believe in the improbable. She’s charming me more and more with each competition, and it would do my heart good to see her win. But, there’s too much unpredictability in this event to call it her way just yet.

In fact, calling it at all is almost pointless but, here’s my attempt.

Gold Carolina Kostner
Silver Ashley Wagner
BronzeMao Asada
Fourth –Alissa Czisny

*And yes, America regains the third team spot

Who will take the challenge head-on and who will get left in the dust? However it unfolds, I hope we’re graced with at least one program that sticks in our minds the way Michelle’s The Red Violin has.

 

It’s a Numbers Game February 28, 2012

Sometimes, life happens at a rate that makes keeping up with everything nearly impossible.

There’s not much I love more than previewing, covering, breaking down, and just simply talking (or, in this case, writing!) about figure skating. Sadly, I haven’t yet turned it into a full-time gig, so sometimes things get in the way.

Why am I telling you all this? Because, if you’ve been keeping up with my 4CC vlog reviews, you’ll have noticed one glaring hole — that of the ladies recap! Unless there is an overwhelming demand for that video to actually be created, I think we’re well past the event and, thus, beyond a basic (read: normal) breakdown.

But, what I do have is something else.

I have the protocol breakdowns I promised!

Now, this is how keep track and compare. You’ll have to let me know if it makes sense on paper like it does in my eyes!

Here’s an idea of how it works.

The elements and scores are broken down one-by-one and side-by-side. They are not necessarily in order as you’d find in the program itself, because I’ve tried to match up the elements in both programs for the closest comparison possible. (All of that means, if both skaters do a triple lutz, those jumps will be side-by-side in the spreadsheet, for easy comparison.)

When an element isn’t identical, I’ve placed it with the closest substitute: three-jump combos, for example, don’t always have the same specific jumps, but the comparison of the element as a whole is made simple.

Here’s a little taste from Ashley Wagner’s FS compared to Mao Asada’s. (more…)