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…

 

Halfway Home: Grand Prix 2012 Update November 5, 2012

With three events wrapped up all nice and tidy, I figured it was time for a quick look back.

Hopefully you caught my video updates from Skate America, but I admittedly didn’t get as much content up here as I’d hoped.

Then, Skate Canada happened; it came and went before I knew it. So it goes, some times, when “real life” doesn’t align with skating life!

of course, sketchy, middle-of-the-night streams from China were hard to find, but thanks to a few speedy YouTubers, I was caught up before I knew it.

And that was that. Three events down.

So, what did these three events tell us?

Here’s my take.

Just dance

Davis/White have brilliant programs this year. And, they weren’t perfect. There was visibly work that can be done.
Virtue/Moir? Okay, I guess if you’re a hard-core Tessa and Scott fan, you probably loved their Free Dance to Carmen-gone-“modern.” I, on the other hand, well … how do I say this? I thought it was a hot mess.

It was awkward, uncomfortable, out of their element, and definitely not this year’s best Carmen. 

Go ahead, say what you want now. The beautiful thing about ice dance is the subjectivity allowed!

I was also not floored by the concept and execution of Nathalie and Fabian’s Free Dance. The disco theme is interesting. Very “them.” But it felt a bit disjointed to me. It may smooth out over the season, and if it does, they could be pushing the top two teams. In fact, they make no bones about the fact that they want the top spot by the Sochi games. And, credit where credit is due, they amaze me with their continued improvement and creative (albeit occasionally awkward) lifts and choreography.

Bobrova/Soloviev, Weaver/Poje, Chock/Bates, and Kriengkrairutl/Giulietti-Schmitt were impressive early, too.

Men, men, men

(Also read, “Japan, Japan, Japan.”)

Holy toledo, Batman. The Japanese men came to play! A sweep at Skate America, Yuzuru Hanyu with a world record score, and Tatsuki Machida — the guy on the outside of the buzz last season — with a gold, a silver, and a ticket to the Grand Prix final.

Your move, Patrick Chan.

For the first time in two years, the Canadian champ has his work cut out for him. Nothing’s a guarantee, especially considering the early struggles he’s had.

The American men, too, have their work cut out for them. Jeremy Abbott had a bizarre physical breakdown in his Free Skate in Kent. Ross Miner and Adam Rippon fell short of the podium in Canada and China respectively, while Javier Fernandez finally broke through.

Beyond Skate America, though, we haven’t seen exceptionally clean skating, either. So that could shake up the standings eventually.

This one’s for the girls

…who’ve ever had a golden dream.

Ashley Wagner. ‘nough said.

Okay, not really. She debuted programs this year that exceeded last year’s works of art. Plus, she looked as trained as I’ve ever seen her, as confident, and as calm as she’s ever skated. This girl knows what she wants, and after last year, she knows if she puts in the work, she can get it.

Her competition is stiff — young Russians, veteran Japanese, and the return of Yuna Kim.

Speaking of competition, how about Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond? She certainly forced herself onto the radar (and gave Canadian fans a spark of hope!) with her win at home over Akiko Suzuki.

I can’t not mention the other two Americans making noise: Christina Gao. She was, in a word, stunning at Skate America. I’ve been a fan for a long time, claiming I see Kwan-like moments in her skating. Whatever mix she’s found with her studies at Harvard and skating when she’s not in class is working wonders. She looks mature, fit, and trained.

Mirai Nagasu is in that awkward position of being the US girl nearly falling off the edge. If she doesn’t get things together this season, she’ll have a tough road ahead making an Olympic team next year. She had jump after jump under-rotated or downgraded in China. And while it was a step in the right direction (she stayed upright!) her programs aren’t built to compensate for the points lost on the jumps.

As usual, the ladies are keeping it interesting!

Two is better than one

You know, the pairs event has been the least exciting thus far, at least in my mind.

Savchenko/Szolkowy have strange but difficult programs, and enough fire power to win. Volosozhar/Trankov have huge elements, but still have trouble putting out clean programs back-to-back. And a Chinese team is pushing everyone. The only shock is who that Chinese team is — Pang and Tong are back. And still skating. STILL. I can’t believe they’re still here after all these years. And, skating well enough to claim a Grand Prix Final berth. Kudos to them.

Americans Denny/Coughlin are well on their way. In fact, they may be more technically consistent than some other top teams. But, it’s those other things — the components points, for example — that are holding them back.

So…

…all that means is, we’ve only just begun!
What about you? Whose programs have you all worked up? And which skater has you most excited for the rest of their season?

 

 

 

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…)

 

Nice — “Nice” recoveries! March 31, 2012

 

Nice, Take Two: Pairs Preview March 24, 2012

Marina Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov had only been skating together for two years when they captured their first World title the first time Worlds were in Nice. That year, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao actually won the short program with a flawless skate. And in the absence of the then-reigning champs Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, there would be a first-time champion in 2000.

In the free skate, it was the Russians who put together the best four minutes to top Shen and Zhao by owning the presentation mark. Shen and Zhao — who had narrowly missed out on gold the year before — still had some growing to do before they would develop into the beloved team they are now.

Flash forward a mere 12 years, and it’s another Russian duo (two, actually) taking on another Chinese pair, and attempting to fend off the reigning champs from Germany.

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, along with Tatiana Volsozhar and Maxim Trankov, and Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov have played an unpredictable game of leap frog all season.

Aliona and Robin and Tatiana and Maxim each won both of their Grand Prix events. Yuko and Alexander won their first, but placed second to the Germans at Rostelecom Cup. Then at the Final, it was again the Germans taking the top spot, but by a mere .18 over Volosozhar and Trankov. Kavaguti and Smirnov were third.

Each of the three has also battled injuries at some point, Savchenko and Szolkowy as recent as Europeans where they were not able to compete.

Not to be forgotten is the Chinese team of Qing Pang and Jian Tong. The two did not compete on the Grand Prix circuit this year, making it difficult to predict how they’ll stack up. They finished third at last year’s Worlds.

The other Chinese team of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han are the kids with the fancy tricks. However, their polish and maturity will show quite glaringly against the other teams.

Then you have a host of challengers who, though they may not be favorites to medal, could push the teams at the top.

Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran are an exciting, young team with elegance and presentation beyond their years. Their elements — when they hit them — are stunning. Trouble is, they tend to miss a lot. And they often don’t just miss one thing. When it goes wrong, it seems a lot goes wrong. They need to clean up their act if they want to contend.

Canadian darlings, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are, in a word, delightful. Their charm reaches every person who watches them, and the connection between the two of them makes you love them even more. Both their programs have strong choreography, and they are more than capable of putting out strong technical components.

But you can’t forget about the Americans. Now, American pairs skating has, undoubtedly, been lacking for some time. John Coughlin and Caitlyn Yankowskas looked to be a shining hope, but instead, they split. However, that made way for Caydee Denny to rejoin the elite ranks. Now, she and John are on the brink of putting U.S. skating back on the map.

Their technical elemnts are their strength. They have a split triple twist that makes my jaw drop, every single time. They need more time to develop intricacies in their choreography and finesse in their presentation, but there is a good chance for them to make a splash in Nice.

If they don’t, Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker will. Another team well on their way to greatness, they are, perhaps, this season’s Most Improved. They have a refreshing youthfulness, and an equally exhilarating determination.  This is likely not their year, but don’t forget the faces.

In the end, only one team can win, and two more will join them on the medal stand. Here’s how I see it breaking down.

Gold — Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov
Silver — Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy
Bronze — Yuko Kavaguti and Aledanxer Smirnov
Fourth — Qing Pang and Jian Tong

*I’ll also say that both American teams have a good chance to finish within the top ten.

Nice Part One took place two years before the Salt Lake City Olympics. Part Two? Two years before the Sochi games. In 2000, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier placed fourth. They went on to share the gold in the oh-so-famous 2002 pairs competition. Will history repeat itself this time around? Only time will tell!

 

Moments that made memories — 2011 Year In Review December 31, 2011

Most years on December 31 I sit and wonder, “How is the year over already?!” This year, however, when I started to look back, I found myself thinking, “That was really all this year?”

Maybe I kept myself busy enough that the accomplishments seem too great for one year. Or, maybe, I just have a terrible memory and forgot half the things that really happened! (The latter is not entirely unlikely, I assure you…)

Regardless, I was looking back. And in looking back, I tried to come up with the top 10 skating stories or moments of the year. Again, there were a lot to choose from. Narrowing it down seemed daunting. But, I’ve come up with a lists that, to me, defines this year in skating.

From technical wonders to emotional triumphs and all the little moments in between, 2011 was quite the year for the world of figure skating.

Here’s my list.

10. Brandon Mroz  and the first ever ratified quad lutz.
I know many US skating fans want to see guys focusing on consistency and artistry before adding new elements, but that move is impressive. I have to give the kid props for even trying the trick!

9. Meagan Duhamel’s “Is it enough?!” moment at TEB ’11 & Rudi Swiegers saves Mark Ladwig at 4CC.
Every season has its off-ice moments that melt your heart. These two stand out for me, although there are plenty of others I could pull up and recall. These are the moments you see the person, not just the competitor. I love those moments.

8. Exciting rivalries
This year has had its share of exciting rivalries, and that’s what makes competitions so much fun. This year featured three big ones, starting with the obvious: Meryl Davis and Charlie White vs. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Training mates make the fiercest competitors. Then there is the former champ chasing the current champ, Daisuke Takahashi vs. Patrick Chan. (I know, I know. Everyone thinks it won’t matter what Dai does because of Patrick’s “two-fall cushion.” I happen to think it’s made Takahashi better, and the rivalry fascinating to watch.) Last but not least, the dynamic pack of pairs who have battled through this year’s Grand Prix Series — Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy vs. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov vs. Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov.

Can I just say, I can’t wait for Worlds?! (more…)