Figure Skating: From the Boards

Omaha or Bust: Just another day in “Pair”adise January 22, 2013

It’s no secret that I am often frustrated by the U.S. pairs landscape. Not because we don’t have talented pairs to choose from, but because more Printoften than not, the game of “musical partners” is more intriguing than their actual competition results!

This year, there were the usual swaps. Caitlin Yankowskas finally found herself a partner in Joshua Reagan (who skated at last year’s Nationals with Ashley Cain).

Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim paired up, and surprised everyone with exceptional scores in Nice and at NHK — they’re senior Grand Prix debut.

Meanwhile, Mark Ladwig, who skated for so many years with Amanda Evora, found a new partner in Lindsay Davis (who formerly skated with Themi Leftheris and Alex Merritt). They started the season at the Senior B in Salt Lake and … well, they had a lot of work to do. To their credit, they were much improved by their second GP event.

At least Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff and Tiffany Vise and Don Baldwin are still together … though neither team has had the kind of success this season they’d hoped for. Both teams are, though, in the running for a medal in Omaha.

And if all the new partnerships aren’t enough for you, let’s make absolutely sure that there’s no chance for a repeat National Champ — John Coughlin? Done for the season after having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip. For him and Caydee Denney to not be able to finish the season is such a shame; they were having a fabulous year.

But, what that does mean is, the pairs competition is the one event in Omaha that will not feature a reigning champ. In fact, there isn’t a national champion in the field.

But, despite all the turnover among U.S. teams, the new headliners of the event seem to stand alone.

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir have been skating together since 2006. That’s ancient history in pairs years! And, to top it all off, they’ve been having a career year. A strong start at Skate America led to a convincing Ice Challenge Graz victory, which they followed up with bronze at the NHK Trophy.

The only team to post scores anywhere close to Castelli/Shnapir’s (except Denney/Coughlin, mind you) is that of Scimeca and Knierim.

This is Marissa and Simon’s year, it seems. The question is, will they live up to the moment?

Here’s how I see it.

Gold: Castelli/Shnapir
Silver: Scimeca/Knierim
Bronze: Vise/Baldwin
Pewter: Davis/Ladwig

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter (@FromTheBoards) for updates from Omaha. And, if you’re an instagramer, follow me @TaraBethW for pictures throughout the week!

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US Pairs: Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make me a Match! January 10, 2013

Just tossing it out there: any chance we can convince Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek to come back to skating as pairs skaters? That would be a great buzz-story, right? And it’s evident the US Pairs world needs a little more drama. (And consistency, but we’ll get to that.)

Seriously, keeping up with the world of pairs skating is like trying to keep up with the road runner and Wylie Coyote. No? Just me? Hmm. Okay. How about this: Keeping up with the world of pairs skating is harder than keeping up with the Kardashians! (Still terrible, I know. Moving on …)

If a team isn’t splitting up, their changing coaches. And if they’re not changing coaches or splitting up, they’re probably injured. And if they’re a national champion one year, chances are pretty good they won’t be around to defend that title the following year.

I know, this year there are some extenuating circumstances there, this time around. John Coughlin’s injury and surgery made his National Title defense with partner Caydee Denney impossible. And with a goal of making the 2014 Olympic team, it’s better to miss this Nationals than the next one.

But with Denney/Coughlin out with injury, Mary Beth Marley/Rockne Brubaker no longer skating together, Amanda Evora retired, Caitlin Yankowskas/Josh Reagan a recent withdrawl … we’ll be lucky if there are enough skaters left to fill the medal stand in Omaha, at this rate!

Yes, I’m being a bit dramatic. But, there seems to be a bit of a black hole in US Pairs skating these days that makes it tough to gain ground internationally. It does, though, open the door for skaters like Marissa Castelli/Simon Shnapir and Gretchen Donlan/Andrew Speroff to stake their claim the season before the Olympic year. Without a defending (or even former) US Champ in the field, these two teams (who finished in the top five last year at Nationals) have a golden opportunity.

We’ll get to what to expect at Nationals later, but for now, with the current landscape of US Pairs skating, I want to play matchmaker, and I want your help!

Let’s assume we have any US figure skater at our disposal. Who would you pair up in an attempt to create the new super-team? (It worked out pretty well for Caydee and John … pre-injury … so why not give it another shot?)

And, while we’re at it, if we can please find a partner for Rockne Brubaker, that would be fabulous. The skating world misses him. … I miss him. (At this rate, I’ll be your partner, Rockne!)

So, who would you pair up? Current skaters? Past skaters? Singles skaters?

How about Sasha Cohen and Rockne?

Or Mirai Nagasu and Adam Rippon? (Maybe not … but you get the idea!)

Who would you pick as the next great American pairs team??

 

 

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…

 

Skate America: Happy Couples October 17, 2012

As always, there were a few rounds of musical partners on the ice dance/pairs stages this summer. But, the dust has settled. Couples are happily training (as far as I can tell, anyway!), and the competition ice awaits.

Dancers, Are You Ready?

Despite the coach shuffle in Canton over the off season, Meryl Davis and Charlie White still enter as the clear-cut favorites.

Don’t get me wrong — both Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are coming with top-notch stuff, no one has proven they have what it takes to beat the world’s top two (Davis/White, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir). Until someone does, Davis and White are the obvious choice.

Speaking of Bobrova and Soloviev, they do have a leg up on the Americans — they’ve already done the whole “debut” thing. With a 159+, they took home the Finlandia title a few weeks back.

Weaver and Poje, too, put their programs out early. They were even better — a 161.38 at the Nepela Ondrej Memorial.

Unless something dramatic happens, you’re looking at your top three. Now, the order is up for (some kind of) debate.

Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmidtt (who will now officially be referred to by me as simple, “Lynn and Logan!”) would love nothing more than to break up that top group’s party, though. The duo was third at the US International Classic, but have yet to achieve the kind of scores that could mess with the predicted podium.

Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi are fresh off a bronze medal at Nebelhorn, too. But, their Free Dance was only good enough for 5th in the field in Germany. That’s going to have to change if they have any shot at a podium finish here.

Gold: Meryl Davis/Charlie White
Silver: Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje
Bronze: Bobrova/Soloviev

Spoiler alert: Lynn and Logan

Perfect Pairs

It may not seem like it, but there’s a lot of history between these teams. Okay, maybe “history” isn’t quite the world. But, if you like those head-to-head matchups from the top dance groups, you’ll love this:

The top three pairs faced each other at Worlds, then four of the eight saw each other this season already at Nebelhorn.

Will that help or hurt them?

Who knows.

What I do know is, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are up to their old tricks again (and that’s a good thing!) — two stunning programs, complete with ridiculous technical difficulty. They only lost two events last season, and the two they took second in? By tenths of points.

After a full season and offseason together now, Caydee Denney and John Coughlin appear far more comfortable on the ice with one another. They’ve improved in some key areas, too — adding difficulty to their death spirals, spins, and steps.

It’s not enough yet to catch Volosozhar/Trankov, but it’s a great start.

Qing Pang and Jian Tong are still a bit of a wild card. (As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I know all about being the wild card!) Not competing most of last season, to a disappointing 4th place at Worlds, they proved they still have some of the goods. The question is, can they pull out those “goods” when the skaters around them up the ante?

Both the other American teams come prepared with exquisite programs, just dying to be performed cleanly. That’ll be their goal this weekend.

Between Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir’s throws, and Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff’s lifts, these teams have guts. And they’re going for it. For someone, that’s going to pay off.

Could it be Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, instead? These two have two sets of judges scores already — one from the 3rd place finish at Nebelhorn, and the second from the French Masters. At the second event, their scores were more than 15 points higher than the previous weekend.

Maybe something’s in the air. We’ve got to have an underdog story somewhere, right?

So for those predictions …

Gold: Volosozhar/Trankov
Silver: Denney/Coughlin (out on a bit of a limb, here!)
Bronze: Pang/Tong

Spoiler alert: Castelli/Shnapir

And there we have it. THe first official previews for the first official international event.

Now, it’s go time.

Share your predictions, thoughts, questions and concerns in the comments, via twitter, or even Facebook … before, during, and after the event. I love hearing your feedback!

 

Do You Know The Way To San Jose: Pairs Preview January 19, 2012

“What do you say to taking chances? What do you say to jumping off the edge?” Chances are, this title will be won by the team willing to simply take the chance. Between new partners and retired skaters, this event does not have a defending champion. Yes, John Coughlin is there, but in a very knew partnership. Veterans Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig have come awfully close, but never to the very top. Will experience trump chemistry? It’s an interesting battle, for sure.

The Break Down

Caydee Denney & John Coughlin — The closest thing to a returning National champ, both Caydee and John have been there, done that. But, not together. It’s been interesting watching these two compete this year. They seem to have a natural fit in their technique, and more importantly in their connection. They both seem to be skating with an enormous amount of determination, and the talent to back it up. Still, their partnership is new. Their choreography isn’t complex. Their elements are huge, but it takes more than that to win a title.

Amanda Evora & Mark Ladwig — I think it’s safe to say these two have more experience together than the top four teams combined! That certainly plays to their advantage here. Not only does their time together have them at a comfort level unheard of by the other teams, but it allows them to add difficulty to every element. Their lifts, their in betweens, their footwork, their choreography — all things they have improved this year. The trick for them is hitting the side-by-side jumps. The called in some backup from Christy Krall (yes, Patrick Chan’s coach) to help solidify the jumps. If they hit them, the may be looking at their first National title in 10 trips to the championships.

Mary Beth Marley & Rockne Brubaker — This is a team that, in a way, confuses me a bit. Let me explain. Of course, I expected Rockne Brubaker to be competitive, with whatever partner he chose. And they were at last year’s Nationals. However, trying to keep up with internationally experienced teams with Mary Beth learning pairs skating on the fly … it’s a challenge that seems to widen the gap, not lessen it. I adore them both, don’t get me wrong. But they have to be flawless to keep up. The expectations on Rockne may have people anticipating more from them sooner than they are capable of it. That said, the bronze medal position is very open. They have a chance at claiming it. (more…)

 

Skating for Gold – Nationals 2011, the Pairs January 7, 2011

The great thing about National championships is that you get a chance to see not only the best the country has to offer, but all of those who will some day be the best. For many skaters, just competing at Nationals is the best the season will get. Qualifying is a victory. Skating well, a testament to hard work. And when they have sensational results to go with it, we get to see the purest, most fulfilling joy skating can bring – not based on expectations or lofty goals, but simply in a dream achieved.

With that in mind, let us take time for round two of my Nationals preview, the pairs competition.

Pairs is a discipline that hasn’t been the strongest point in American skating for, well, quite some time. That said, there have been some highlights, and I have a feeling this year’s field could be one of them. First of all, as before, we’ll look at the skaters I feel are top contenders.

  • Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett
  • Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig
  • Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin

I think, for the most part, the podium should be between these three teams. Don’t get me wrong, there are others who could break up the party, such as Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, Felicia Zhang and Taylor Toth, and Brittany Simpson and Nathan Miller. But the fact is, the top three teams are the top three for a reason – they have the most to offer.

Caydee and Jeremy are obviously coming in with the biggest target on their backs, being the reigning Champs. They’ve made some changes in their skating this year, most noticeably by moving to train with John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana, but I’ve got to say, I have yet to see the complete package from them. Perhaps they’ve timed it perfectly, and they’ll peak in Greensboro. If they do, I have a feeling their programs will bring the house down. Caydee’s energy is electric, and while their programs have a more muted tone to them this year, the emotional value is still just as strong. They have a way of reaching the audience, and that’s not something you can teach. If they hit their elements, they have a good chance at gold, once again.

Nipping at their heals, though, are two teams hungry to prove their own national worth. Amanda Evora (who is recently engaged to Jeremy Barrett – congrats to them!) and Mark Ladwig have been the tortoise in the national rankings – slow and steady, but poised to win the race. They, two, have made some changes this season. Most noticeable to me is their newfound confidence, and renewed determination. They want to represent the country internationally, and they’re out to do whatever they can to give themselves that chance. What they have that is stronger than anyone else is belief in themselves. It got them on the Olympic team, and this year, the programs they’ve put together have the potential to claim top honors.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the dark horse team of Caitlin and John. I’m personally a big fan of the previous two teams, but I have to say, Caitlin and John have captivated me this season. They bring a spark to the ice – a calm under pressure, an elegance and poise – and they have charming personalities to boot. They make you want them to succeed…and that I do! They actually had pretty impressive success on the Grand Prix series this year, finishing 3rd and 4th at their two events, and I truly believe they’ll give Caydee/Jeremy and Amanda/Mark a run for their money.

It’s anyone’s game and it will all come down to which team puts out two programs, back to back.

Don’t eliminate the possibility of one of the other three teams I mentioned breaking things up a bit, however.

And even with the tight competition that is sure to come for the podium, I may be even more excited by the return to competition by two skaters I’ve loved for a while now – Rockne Brubaker and Themi Leftheris.

Both guys are returning with different partners than they last skated with. Themi, having skated with Naomi Nari Nam in her attempted return to competition, has just never quite found the right pieces. He’s skating this year with Lindsay Davis, and while I don’t expect a gold medal performance out of them, I’m excited to see what they have to offer. I wish them the best.

The same can be said for Rockne and his new partner, Mary Beth Marley. Rockne most notably skated with Keauna McLaughlin in a bid for the Olympic team. After an extreme disappointment at Nationals last year, Keauna took a break from skating, leaving Rockne in a starting-over position. And he’s done just that, with Mary Beth, who is new to pairs skating all together. But don’t let that fool you – they want to bring their A-game in Greensboro, and they want to compete for a medal. For them, just making it to the Coliseum isn’t quite enough.

Pulling a team together so quickly isn’t entirely new for Rockne – he and Keauna weren’t together long before their first National title. Rockne and Mary Beth competed today for the first time internationally, and put up a respectable 56.51 in their short. Comparatively, Caydee and Jeremy have the highest SP score for the American’s this season with a 58.49. Rockne and Mary Beth’s score puts them 3rd on the list of SP scores by American teams this season. Not bad, eh? So if we’re looking for a team to play spoiler, don’t count out these two. They’re hungry. And they’re talented. And it’s Nationals – anything can happen!

As with the men, I’d love to know your picks for the Pairs event. Who will it be for gold, silver and bronze?

Until then…