Figure Skating: From the Boards

Skate America: Ladies and Gents October 16, 2012

Let’s get right down to it — another skating season has arrived.

We’re past the Senior B events. We’ve seen the Japan Open. Some of the top skaters have had the chance to put their programs on competition ice for the first time, others will soon have that chance. But the time for planning and preparation is nearly over; it’s time to get this party started!

So, here we go.

There are always significant storylines in the season opener … this year is no different.

Ladies First

There is little doubt that Ashley Wagner comes into this event as the favorite. And after what she showed at the Japan Open, there’s good reason for that.

I recently compared the debut of her new Free Skate to a Michelle Kwan season debut — it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a skater put out a program for the first time and look so ready, so confident … and rightfully so.

Last season did this girl good in more ways than one. Last year, she proved something to herself. Now, she’s out to prove it to the rest of the world.

Her biggest competition will likely come from the Russians — World Silver Medalist Alena Leonova and 2011 World Junior Champion Adelina Sotnikova.

Leonova, too, competed at the Japan Open. She was not nearly as “big stage” ready as Wagner. Granted, both girls competed Free Skates only, but Leonova’s 107+ was no match for Wagner’s 123+.  Still, we saw last year that she is capable of taking advantage of the mistakes of others, as well as hitting big, beautiful jumps that rack up those points.

Sotnikova, on the other hand, is already a three-time Russian champion … and yet, is in her first season where she is age-eligible for Worlds. Last year — her first on the Senior Grand Prix circuit — she took home two medals.

She, too, opened her season early — at Nebelhorn Trophy — where she finished a somewhat disappointing second.

Haruka Imai has already had one magical moment this season — rebounding from 9th in the Short Program at Nebelhorn to 3rd overall. I’ve been waiting for Imai to have a breakout season. She has some truly beautiful moments in her programs, and when she lands the jumps, they, too, area beautiful. Perhaps this is the year.

Viktoria Helgesson took third in this event last season. She followed that with a fifth-place finish at Trophee Eric Bompard. There’s just something about her that makes me close my eyes and imagine that she’s skating inside a snowglobe. She’s stunning. Sometimes, though, stunning doesn’t come with clean triple jumps.

Don’t forget about the other American girls in this event!

Both Christina Gao and Rachael Flatt have the fire power to make a move here.

Gao is in her second season as a senior — this time, making the decision to juggle a Harvard education and skating all at once.

Flatt understands that struggle, as a sophomore at Stanford. But, both have committed to continue training. And both are looking to rebound from disappointing — and at times injury riddled — seasons last year.

Prediction time!

Gold: Ashley Wagner
Silver: Adelina Sotnikova
Bronze: Alena Leonova

Spoiler Alert: Haruka Imai

The Boys of Fall

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting.

In the last few Olympic cycles, I have to say the men’s competition has been even more drama-filled than the ladies’. Story after story, comeback after catastrophe, dual top-billings throughout the year … I love it!

Last year, Skate America was, for lack of a gentler term, kind of a splat fest.

Often, that’s what we see in the first event out. However, the names this week are enough to keep me hoping for some fireworks, even in the opening event.

With Evan Lysacek pulling out with an injury (he’s been replaced by Armin Mahbanoozadeh),  Jeremy Abbott stands alone as the top US man in Washington.

I have to say, I am very much looking forward to his programs this season … but, I’m also curious to see how he comes back from a disappointing World Championships.

And, if he has the quad ready to go.

You know who does have a quad ready to go? Michal Brezina. And Yuzuru Hanyu. Um, and Takahiko Kozuka.

Brezina is the reigning Champion at this event after shocking most everyone but himself by holding on to the win last year. But, he struggled to hold onto that consistency, falling to 6th by Worlds. At Nebelhorn, he was fifth with a score that didn’t seem to hint at a return trip to the top of the Skate America podium.

Hanyu started his season at Finlandia Trophy where he overcame a rough Short Program to overtake Javier Fernandez in the Free Skate for gold. He was helped by a pair of quads and a pair of triple axels.

Takahiko Kozuka finished third at Skate America last season. He is a skater who seems to have all the pieces, but not all at once. There could be an interesting battle beginning between Kozuka and Hanyu — not just at SA, but for the remainder of the season.

Don’t forget Tomas Verner, though his more recent skates haven’t been quite up to his best. He has a beautiful quad toe that could put him in contention.

Gold: Yuzuru Hanyu
Silver: Takahiko Kozuka
Bronze: Jeremy Abbott

Spoiler alert: Michal Brezina

 

More on the Pairs and Dance teams tomorrow! And, a little bit of special news on Thursday.

We’re almost there!

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Do You Know The Way To San Jose: Ladies Preview January 17, 2012

“This one’s for the girl …” who’s always dreamed of a National title! And the reality is, San Jose’s podium order is wide open. The way I see it, there are three girls fighting for gold, and at least four others battling for a medal. That means the pressure will be enormous — and could cause some stumbles. Or, it could result in “one of those moments athletes dream about” kind of programs. That, in turn, means we have another great event on our hands.

The Break Down

Alissa Czisny — She is, of course, the defending champion. That makes her, by default, the one to beat. However, she’s had anything but a smooth season. Yes, she won a pair of medals (one gold) on the Grand Prix series. But she battled a painful injury at the Grand Prix Final that kept her from skating anywhere near her best. Add to that the fact that she admittedly hasn’t quite felt right all season, and she has a challenge ahead of her. That said, her short program is to die for. Her long has potential. And her artistry is second to none. If she can put the pieces back together, she has a good shot at repeating.

Ashley Wagner — It takes a confident skater come out and say, “This is my Nationals to lose.” But that is exactly what Ms. Wagner has done. And, while the really “talking” will happen on the ice, she may not be wrong. In a season filled with former champions stumbling along, Ashley shined. She’s in the best shape of her career, and she has the best programs she’s ever had. She has the extra motivation of not wanting to be the “almost girl” again. If anyone wants this title more, I’ve yet to find them.

Mirai Nagasu  — The former National champ is quite the curious case. Like so many young talents, she has all the goods, all the potential to be one of the world’s best. And yet, just when she seems closest to getting there, she derails herself by collapsing under the fear of falling short. Recently, she told icenetwork.com that she’s drawing a new kind of inspiration from an unlikely source — The Food Network’s “Chopped.” Apparently, Madison Cowan, a recent contestant on the show, spoke of cooking for the love of it, not purely to win. The un-pressured approach seemed to strike a chord with Nagasu. Perhaps the “skate for the love of it and let the chips fall where they may” perspective is just what Mirai needed to skate free and easy.

Rachael Flatt — Another former champ trying to regain her mojo, Flatt has had a rough go of it as she tries to adjust to the life of a Stanford student, as well as a new coaching situation. Her Grand Prix skates were sub-par, and it suddenly left her out of the National title discussion. Her focus is split these days, and her skating has suffered. However, she’s a competitor. She knows what it takes to win at Nationals, and she’s had plenty of time to sort things out. (more…)

 

Breaking it down: Rostelecom Cup November 28, 2011

It seems impossible, but the Grand Prix series for 2011 is over, save the Final in a few weeks. We’ve seen a little bit of everything this year, so I continue to expect the unexpected as we go forward through the GPF, Nationals, Europeans, Worlds, Four Continents … they’re really not as far off as they seem! In fact, the US Nationals competitors list was just released, if you’re interested.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s take one last look back at the sixth and final GP event of the season.

Meryl and Charlie … and everyone else

One of the more tender moments of their FD.

To be fair, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were fantastic. But there’s just no comparison to what the World Champs are doing.

Their free dance this year is, in its purest form, exactly what ice dance should be. It’s a waltz. And while there are times it could have a more waltz-y feel, what they do in this program is brilliant. I’ve said I don’t believe Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s FD shows off their strengths, but the opposite is true of Davis and White. Their polish is evident despite the complexity of this skate. And the crazy thing? There’s still room for improvement. I expect come Worlds, this program will be stunning. I’m excited to watch it develop. (And that’s not even mentioning their sizzling short dance! Charlie stumbled in this event, but they have the samba mood down pat.)

Weaver and Poje have one of my favorite free dances of the year. Yes, the falling strap can be a tad distracting, but you’d be hard pressed to find any dance team who pours as much emotion into a dance as these two. You almost feel like your heart is breaking along with Kaitlyn’s by the end! That’s powerful stuff. Plus, they skated it really well. They have always seemed to struggle to get the high marks from the judges, but they’re coming into their own and their confidence shows.

Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev were quite the home crowd pleasers, but finished a distant third.

Nix the triple axel, take the gold

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy got me again. In their first match up with Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov (at NHK Trophy), I figured they had the upper hand. Problem was, they were determined to try their latest trick — that

Every element is sharp and clean and, well, perfect.

throw triple axel. It cost them when they couldn’t hit it cleanly.

I assumed they would continue that daring here, thus I picked Kavaguti and Smirnov. But no. The reigning World Champs went the “safe” route and stuck to more manageable throws. (You know, like the lutz and loop. “Easy” stuff!) The result?

Gold.

Good for them. They skated a fantastic free skate that gave them the top international score of the season from the other Russian stars, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov.

When these three end up at the same event (like the GPF), watch out. There will be fireworks! (more…)

 

Breaking it down: Skate Canada October 31, 2011

Two down, four to go, friends!

Skate Canada presented another series of season debuts this past weekend. Some hit, some missed. And now that it’s over and Cup of China is on the horizon, we have a few minutes to glance back in the rear view mirror and reflect. Shall we?

“Funny” how some things never change

Virtue and Moir -- Short Dance

Canadian royalty. That’s how Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were received in Missassauga, as well they should be. Like their American counterparts, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, they are the class of a deep Canadian field, and the cream of the crop here. They seem to be one constant in a sport that has so few.

Their spicy short dance won over the crowd instantly … and that’s no surprise. These two thrive on strong character dances and though they only performed it fully one time, last season’s samba free dance was the perfect preparation. Tessa oozes Latin flavor. It will be fun to see this up next to Davis/White’s SD at the Final.

Their free dance is a totally different take on classic dance. Their “Funny Face” program is charming and challenging. While this isn’t my favorite look for them (at first glance, I feel it takes away from some of their best qualities — posture, line, depth of edges, emotional maturity), it’s already better than it was at Finlandia, and I expect it to continue on that path. Scott alluded to his “Fred-like-ness” in the Kiss and Cry, and that he definitely has going for him. Fred Astaire would be proud.

Fellow Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje skated back to back strong programs. Both need more polish, but for their first event, I’m impressed by their improvements. The emotional depth they’ve added — especially in their free dance — is impressive.

Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte have a gorgeous short dance. Their free dance didn’t impress me quite as much. They’re still a little rough around the edges, to be sure. But they are making great strides.

Despite a silly stumble at the end of their well-skated short dance, Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates added themselves to my list of teams to watch — and the list of new teams that had stellar debuts! Their free dance was one of my favorites of the entire event. Madison is the perfect ice dancer — her expressions come from every inch of her body. And Evan, well, it was so good to see him back on competitive ice. Welcome back, Evan! (more…)

 

Skate Canada: It’s anybody’s game! October 28, 2011

After an afternoon watching the practice sessions from Skate Canada (thanks, skatebuzz!), I can say I’m fully ready to see how this event goes down. Let me just say, it could go any which way!

The ladies event continues to be unpredictable, this time with the added impact of a 14-year-old Russian phenom who might just steal the show.

Mirai Nagasu is the skater who should have the edge. She’s been close to the top before, and when she is right mentally, she has all the pieces to be one of the best in the world. At the end of last season, her coach Frank Carroll said she was the best she’d ever been mentally. If that has continued, she could be in for her best season yet. Of course, that is always qualified by her lack of consistency in the past.

Elizaveta comes to Canada armed with a stellar triple lutz-triple toe combination.

Canadian Cynthia Phaneuf is still looking to put herself back in the talk of the top ladies in the world. Generally speaking, she’ll have a strong short program, but lose it in the free skate. Plus, the pressure of skating at home sometimes works against her, rather than in her favor.

Akiko Suzuki won a Grand Prix gold last season, but she, too, has some free skate consistency issues to work around.

The real fireworks, though, could come from Russian Elizaveta Tuktamisheva. She is the 2011 World Junior silver medalist, but more importantly, the 2011 Japan Open champion where she posted a 118+ in her free skate. She’s a jumping bean with a very traditional style, but she’s been impressive. Look out for her!

Don’t forget about the other Americans — Rachael Flatt and Ashley Wagner. They’ll always be in a fight for the podium.

The men’s event seems fairly predictable, at least for gold — it’s a faceoff between Patrick Chan and Daisuke Takahashi, who both looked strong in yesterday’s practice. Patrick looked to be better off from the quad stand point — Dai fell quite hard on his quad toe attempts.

Before everyone goes off trying to say which skater is better, I think it’s important to realize — they are BOTH fabulous, just in different ways. Patrick gives us all the thrill of something that’s larger than life. He sweeps across the ice with speed and flow that is unmatched, and his choreography tells a beautiful story.

Daisuke, on the other hand, shows excellence in the details. His musicality is second to none, and he highlights every little accent throughout his programs. He really believes in his music and choreography and melds them together to hit every note, right on cue. (more…)

 

Ladies Short Program Recap April 29, 2011

We’ve arrived at the ever-prestigious Ladies event (appropriately on the same morning as the also prestigious Royal Wedding!) and the ladies took to the ice with much to prove.

Canadian Amelie Lacoste skated early, but had a nice Worlds debut that kept her in first place until Mae Berenice Miete had her turn. She included a triple-triple combination, followed by lovely a triple loop and double axel. She has a beautiful quality to her skating, and a great combination of power and presence. I was quite impressed!

Kanako Murakami is the young fireball from Japan, and she came out with the usual energy and vivaciousness! She hit a big triple toe-triple toe combination, a solid triple flip, then had an unfortunate step put on the double axel, but her interpretation of this music is impeccable. She has oodles of energy and this program is great for her. I do miss her polka dot dress, though!

The first of the Russian hopefuls took the ice in an unfortunate, clown-like dress. However, as Irina Slutskya sat nervously with clenched fists on the sidelines, Elena Leonova skated a wonderful short program. She, too, hit a triple toe-triple toe, a triple flip, and a double axel. Everything was on cue and strong. The reaction from the crowd didn’t hurt, and she easily took the lead.

Carolina Kostner has the unfortunate reputation of skating poorly and being overly rewarded in the scores. She started out strong with a triple toe-triple toe combo, hit the double axel, then fell on the triple flip. She skates with great speed, but her transitions are average as are some of the other elements. Still, she ended up tied with Leonova after the short. And still, I don’t understand 8s for her components. (more…)

 

Taking on the World: Ladies Preview April 16, 2011

Ah, the ladies event. The ever lovely, every turbulent staple to the figure skating world. What would we do without it? (I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’d spend a lot less time scratching my head, that’s for sure!)

Heading into Worlds, yet again, the strength lies in the Japanese team, as they boast the top two international scores this season.

Four Continents Champ Miki Ando holds the top spot, and also the honor of being the only woman to break 200 this season. Her 201.34 from 4CC, as well as her strong Grand Prix gold medals in both Russia and China set her up as potentially the favorite here. She had a mini-collapse at the Final, but she was battling back troubles that have haunted here here and there. If a healthy Ando shows up to Worlds, she has all the momentum in her favor.

Nipping at her heals, though, and on a comeback trail of her own, is her countrywoman and the reigning World Champ, Mao Asada. I won’t lie — when I saw Mao at the beginning of the season, I feared for the worst. Certainly, this season was done for. And by the look on her face when she skated off the ice, I wondered if it would be even worse. To her credit, though, and that of her coaches, she managed to continue reworking nearly every aspect of her skating, while gaining momentum, ending up making the World team, and 2nd place behind Ando at 4cc. She’s put herself back in the hunt. Now she just has to keep moving forward.

As with the men, the circumstances surrounding the Japanese skaters is anything but ideal. While the skating world debated what to do about the World Championships, these Japanese skaters mourned the enormous loss of so much in their country. They will be the story of the event, and how they handle the situation will be very based on the emotions they’re battling. The question becomes, will they rise to the occasion and bring home a World title? Or will the intensity be too much to let them really shine? Either one would be totally understandable…

Interestingly, the 3rd highest score this season belongs to a skater who won’t have the chance to take on the world’s best: American Mirai Nagasu. Her 189.46 puts her in the hunt for a World medal, but her lack of confidence and

Czisny's newfound confidence lead her straight to her second US title.

execution at Nationals means she won’t have that chance. Not this year, anyway.

That does, however, put Alissa Czisny‘s 180.75 from the Grand Prix Final win into serious contention. I love this girl, and want more than anything to see her succeed. It’s not too often that I find myself pulling for someone without any reservation, willing them to succeed. But she brings that out of me. And now more than ever, I believe in her, and I think she does, too. The girl’s got the goods. Her components are to die for, her spins the best in the business. Her long program is probably in my top two overall this season. It’s one of those feel-good, makes you sigh in contentment, can’t wait to see it again kind of programs. If she skates it like she’s capable of, she’s got a real shot here.

Rachael Flatt doesn’t want to be left out of the party. She comes in right behind Czisny in the score department with a 180.31. She’s had her ups and downs this year, trying to figure out what the international judges are looking for. I think she’s found it in her new “East of Eden” short program. Now, if only her injuries will allow her to put the triple-triple back into her long, she has a chance to really contend.

As much as it baffles me, we can’t have a conversation about medal contenders without bringing up Carolina Kostner. There’s something about her that judges can’t deny, and despite her seriously watered-down technical elements, she manages to score well on a fairly regular basis. She’s battled her share of injuries this year as well, but managed to come in 2nd to Czisny at the Final, and 2nd at Europeans. She’ll need to have a pretty spectacular event to take down the top two, but a medal’s never out of reach.

Six through nine on my top 10 contenders list are Kanako Murakami, Kiira Korpi, Ksenia Makarova, and Cynthia Phaneuf. All have had moments of brilliance this season, but never managed to put it all together at once. As with the men, these aren’t necessarily skaters with a chance at the podium, but they do have the opportunity to make a splash, and to end their season knowing they put it all out there among the best in the world.

So what about #10? Well, if you’re observant at all, you’ll notice that Olympic Champ Yu-Na Kim has eluded my list thus far. Reason being, she doesn’t have any kind of score to compare to the others this year. That in no way, however, eliminates her from contention for the title. It’s hard to say what kind of shape she’ll be in, or how well polished her programs will be. But I feel quite confident saying that she will be ready. She will be fierce. And she will fight for the right to once again stand atop the medal stand. She’s the best in the world when she’s on. It’s all a matter of how she will handle the unfamiliarity of competing two brand new programs for the very first time at the World Championships.

As for the medalists, I fully expect it to be something unexpected. But that may, in fact, be what is most logically predictable. You just never know, especially with this field. No matter what, though, it will be fun to watch.