Figure Skating: From the Boards

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!

 

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!

 

Play to win, but remember your successes November 24, 2012

Confession: I hate to lose. I am fiercely competitive. It’s even a bit of a running joke with some of my friends, because I can be competitive about almost anything.

It’s my grandpa’s fault, really. He always said, “If you’re not going to play to win, why play?” He taught my mom well … and she, in turn, taught me.

But you know what else they both taught me?

There’s value in the journey.

I can’t tell you the number of times I left a piano recital or a speech competition in tears because I didn’t think I’d played well or because I didn’t win. And you know what one — or both — of them did? Took me for ice cream. Every time. Win, lose, or draw.

I can hear it still: “Did you do your best?” one of them would ask. “Well … yeah, I guess.” I’d respond, through the tears. (I’ve always been my own worst enemy.) “Well, then, that is all you can ever ask.”

“There’s a difference between THE best and YOUR best,” they would remind me. “And as long as you always do YOUR best, we couldn’t be more proud!”

See, there’s value in more than just winning. Sure, you play to win. But, all is not lost if you don’t.

Sometimes, it’s about the moment of accomplishment, not the final tally.

I was reminded of this today.

This weekend in Japan, there were a few moments that deserve to be celebrated. Not because of the result, necessarily, but because of the moment. Because these skaters did their best, no matter what else. And I, for one, am proud of their efforts!

We can get into the nitty-gritty technical mumbo-jumbo later. Tonight, as we await the final results of the pairs event, just enjoy the moments these athletes created for us. As a fan of the sport, I loved every second.

 

A look ahead: Pairs of the GP Series June 5, 2012

Now that we have the Shpilband news out in the open, we can get back to daydreaming about what the upcoming Grand Prix season will hold. Today, it’s all about the Pairs. So let’s jump right in, shall we?

First up, Skate America.

Jessica Dube & Sebastien Wolfe (CAN)
Qing Pang & Jian Tong (CHN)
Vanessa James & Morgan Cipres (FRA)

Stacy Kemp & David King (GBR)
Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankov (RUS)
Caydee Denney & John Coughlin (USA)
Gretchen Dolan & Andrew Speroff (USA)
TBA (USA)

Pang/Tong and Volosozhar/Trankov look to be the pack leaders at the season opener. Of course, the Russians are coming off of a magnificent Free Skate at Worlds that would have crowned them champions, had they not crumbled in the Short Program. You know they want to prove that was a fluke!

Don’t take your eyes off Denney and Coughlin, though. Last season was their year to feel each other out, see how things would go, and what they were capable of. This year, they must add technical difficulty and depth to their choreography if they want to keep up with the big kids. They can do it. And if they can do it while maintaining their consistency, look for a handful of podium finishes for these two.

The rest of the field is packed with potential, too. Dube and Wolfe have beautiful elements and lines, but their technique sometimes fails them. Dolan and Speroff ooze talent, and Kemp/King and James/Cipres are pressing towards the Olympic games with growing fan bases.

Let the fireworks begin!

Skate Canada

Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford (CAN)
Paige Lawrence & Rudi Swiegers (CAN)
TBA (CAN)
Aliona Savchenko & Robin Szolkowy (GER)
Stefanie Berton & Ondrej Hotareck (ITA)
Katarina Gerboldt & Alexander Enbert (RUS)
Mary Beth Marley & Rockne Brubaker (USA)
Tiffany Vise & Don Baldwin (USA)

At first glance, it’s no surprise Savchenko and Szolkowy will enter this event as the gold medal favorites. They narrowly edged the Russian duo of Volosozhar and Trankov at Worlds, and they have oodles of experience to pull from at the beginning of the season.

However, the battle between Duhamel/Radford and Marley/Brubaker could be interesting. Sure, the Canadians have the edge based on last season. But we all know how much the young American team improved in just one off season together. If they make a similar leap this year, they could be right up there, likely gunning for a couple of GP medals themselves.

This event is, however, a great opportunity for the other teams on the schedule to step up their game and make a run at the podium early in the season. (more…)

 

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…)

 

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…)

 

Stop #2: Canada October 28, 2010

After the whirlwind of last weekend’s NHK Trophy to kick off the Grand Prix series, I was happy for a few days to breath. Then I just got excited all over again for this weekend’s Skate Canada event. First up, my fantasy skating picks.

This event has the potential to be as competitive as you’ll ever see. With Dube/Davison and Virtue/Moir out in the pairs and dance disciplines, those events are pretty wide open for some teams who have been just so close in the past, as well as for teams that are relative newbies on the senior circuit to break through.

The ladies event could be interesting as well, with some youngsters ready to jump into the “big leagues” with other skaters who, again, have been close to the top but not quite able to hold it together. I went with Phaneuf, Meier and Gilles on my fantasy team, but it very well could have been Czisny, Imai and Zadwadski (oh, and throw in Fumie Suguri who is also a wild card). It could be VERY interesting.

The men’s competition probably has the biggest names with Chan, Oda and Rippon in the “A” grouping, but the fact remains – it’s anyone’s game. Chan may have an edge, but he’s not invincible, especially with such tough competitors pushing him.

Canadian skating fans are always incredible, so I have no doubt that it will be a wonderful event for the skaters and spectators alike. Canadian’s tend to do well in front of a home crowd, but there are those like Chan who, having not skated his best in Vancouver in February, will be looking to make a big statement to the fans, to his challengers, and to himself. The lineup here may not have the same buzz as NHK Trophy did, but I have a feeling it will be just as fun to watch!

(Plus, it’s on the same continent as I am, so my 3:00 a.m. twitter updates won’t be necessary!)

Hope you’re as excited as I am. Follow me on Twitter (@fromtheboards) for updates throughout the weekend. Then I’ll be back with thoughts, reviews and comments after the event finishes.

Until then…