Figure Skating: From the Boards

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!

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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…)

 

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…)

 

Oh, Canada! November 1, 2010

Oh, to be a Canadian skating in Canada! And no, I’m not referring to what some have deemed the “Skating while Canadian” bonus that occasionally seems to appear in the scores for Canadians skating at home.

I’m referring to the intensity of the support for the home team as seen all week long in Kingston.

Even the simplest bit of choreography, executed to the music and theme, received heartfelt cheers. It reminded me of watching Shen and Zhao skate in China. Every moment was epic, every skate memorable, thanks to the endless, boisterous support of the Canadian faithful.

And while this event didn’t feature many of the biggest names in the sport, the competition was tight as ever, and anything but predictable. Let’s start with the ladies, shall we?

For me, the most impressive moment of the whole event belongs to American sweetheart, Alissa Czisny. This is an athlete who has come so close so many times, making her name internationally, but sometimes struggling to put it all on the line at home. She’s been a National Champ before, but struggled last year, and, I’ll be honest, I had my doubts about where she’d be coming into Kingston.

Thanks to a pre-event article from Figure Skating Online, I started to think maybe Alissa was in just the right place for this competition. While her short program wasn’t without error, I saw so much improvement and confidence that led me to believe she had all she needed to pull off a “Chan-like” rebound in the free skate. And what a free skate it was! She’s clearly worked on her jump technique, and her program components are as strong as ever. She’s by far the best spinner in the field, and she just radiates grace and elegance throughout every moment of her “Winter to Spring” long program.

The girl’s got the goods, and it seems she’s got the confidence to match, so far this season. Congrats to Alissa on stealing the show! (Canada’s good to this girl…2005 Skate Canada anyone?)

Speaking of newfound confidence, in the absence of Joannie Rochette, Cynthia Phanuef has taken over as Canada’s golden girl. And she, too, had a new sense of confidence this week. She hit a few speed bumps in the long, but, as someone pointed out on twitter, the look of fear and uncertainty in her eyes was no where to be found as she took the ice to the applause of the crowd. Good for her.

Another ladies highlight was the young American, Agnes Zawadzki. This girl’s got it goin’ on! She needs some mileage on that long program, but she’s got the personality and the nerves of steel to make her into a great competitor. A lot of people thought she might play spoiler here and win the whole ordeal, and it’s clear why they felt that way. It was a very nice senior debut for Agnes!

Now let’s talk pairs.

The young Russian pair of Lubov Iliushechkina and Nodari Naisuradze was thrilled with their win…and that says something! These two are very classically Russian in their lyrical, elegant style. However, they’re anything but typically Russian in the size of their personalities! They’re adorable! We’re used to seeing Russian skaters much more demure and refined. These two just ooze character and I found myself wishing I knew Russian so I could listen to their post-program thoughts in the Kiss and Cry! These two have some roughness to smooth out on the ice, but look out for them, if not this season, in those to come!

The Americans, Castelli and Shnapir had it going for them after the short, but a tough long program bumped them just off the podium. Still, one highlight of the pairs competition for me was their daring “Avatar” long program. Such unique choreography, skated to very difficult music to live up to! I found myself imagining how this program will come off when they skate it clean – throw triple axel and all! – perhaps at Nationals. It could be spectacular.

The real highlight of the Pairs event, however, belonged to the last minute replacements for Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison – Kristen Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch. Fifth after the short program, they came out for the long and blew the roof off the K-Rock Center! Skating to music from Les Mis, the fed off the energy of the crowd and built the program from beginning to end in a way that was so captivating, so magical…*sigh* It was truly wonderful. They won the free skate by roughly 7 points and ended up with the silver medal. Not bad for a team that wasn’t even supposed to be there! Way to be prepared, kids!

Ice dance is probably more popular in Canada than anywhere else in the world. Of course, it helps that they boast the reigning Olympic Dance champs in Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, but even when the starlets are out of the competition due to injury, the fans still show up in droves to cheer on their beloved ice dancers.

This was far from an exception.

Thanks to Twitter, I heard that it was standing room only for the free dance on Sunday. And the Canadian skaters, under the pressure of the home-town crowd, didn’t disappoint.

Let’s start with the team that ended up 4th overall – Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam. These two are making a bid for the title of “Virtue/Moir 2.0.” In their free dance to “As Time Goes By”, it was especially hard to remember that I wasn’t watching a young Tessa and Scott, and while they’ve got a ways to go to match some of the Olympic Champs’ elements, they’ve certainly figured out how to charm an audience like Tessa and Scott. One particular standout for me was the smoothness as they exited their lifts. Seamless! The teams above them in the national standings better watch out – these two have a fabulous future ahead of them!

The brother/sister team of Sinead Kerr and John Kerr were probably the favorites to win this event, and with only a .01 lead after the short dance (What?!? .01, really? NICE!) it was still anyone’s game in the free dance. The Kerrs skated a GORGEOUS program to “Exogenesis: Symphony Pt 3 Redemption” with such a smoothness and elegance. These two are so watchable because they bring the audience in to every second of their programs. It’s always more about telling the story, relating to the audience and being memorable than it is catering to the judges, which, if you ask me, is very refreshing (but not always rewarded). An unfortunate bobble on a lift kind of broke the magic of the moment and things were a little rocky the rest of the way. Still, an excellent program early on in the season.

I’d just like to pause and say, Christopher Dean is pure genius.

What he did with “Eleanor Rigby” for Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier is just fabulous. That’s a program that you have to watch several times to get the full effect. I’ve watched it 2 or 3 times so far and every time it’s like there’s another little piece of the story that falls into place. It will be interesting to see how these two stack up against the Virtue/Moirs and Davis/Whites of the world, but good for them to come out here at home and put that performance out there.

What’s left? Oh, that’s right. The men. Oh boy. This got pretty dicey as the probable favorite, Patrick Chan, had a very messy short program in a lot of ways, yet he pulled in the (questionable?) scores to stay within reach for the long. Then when the top three had some sketchy  moments in their long programs, Chan’s quad, despite a fall on the axel, along with his incomparable program components vaulted him to gold.

Here’s how I saw it.

In the short, Kevin Reynolds stole the show by becoming the first to land two quads in a short program. Not only that, but his character and performance was stellar, too. In the long, however, his technique failed him and his performance suffered for it.

Nobunari Oda could have been considered a co-favorite in this competition. He has a tendency to kill it or get killed by his programs. Here, he put together a nice short, good enough for the lead, thanks to PCS better than Reynolds. His long was kind of strange for me…moments were good, but it was, overall, less polished than Chan’s, with enough technical mistakes to knock down his score.

Adam Rippon is just a delight. There’s not much I love more than his “Rippon lutz.” He’s on a great roll so far this season, first with the Japan Open and now this. He’s got to shore up that triple axel and maybe rework a few things components-wise, but I have no doubt that he’ll be a major player this season.

Okay. Now for what some have deemed “Chanflation.” While I’ve tended to agree in the past that Patrick, as good as he is, sometimes pulls in marks that make me go, “Huh?!” However, at the risk of being flamed for it, I’m actually going to stand by the judges on this one!

No one was perfect in Canada. Everyone made mistakes, everyone had their moments, good and bad.

What sets Chan apart from everyone else in the world is the very elements that make up that controversial program components score. So let’s check those out.

Skating Skills: For me, one key to look for here is the quality of the edges and control. Patrick’s edges and turns and every step in the footwork is built on a solid foundation of clean, strong, and smooth basic edges. Jeremy Abbott is another great example, in my mind, of stellar basic skating skills.

Transitions: If you watch Chan’s long program in particular, there is something connecting every move to the next – and that “something” is always harder than it appears. He has a way of using connecting steps as a more than just a way to get from point A to point B, they’re part of the story. It’s incredible.

Performance/Execution: The execution element should drop a bit when there are technical mistakes, IMO, but the thing about Chan is that, despite mistakes, he never stops performing his heart out. Don’t think the judges don’t notice that.

Choreography: As far as I’m concerned, Chan’s footwork is second to none, at least thus far this season. There are skaters who are better jumpers, better spinners, etc., but his footwork is simply remarkable. Again, every step is so complex, so creative, so much an integral part of the story, and (most of the time) executed brilliantly. Granted, the footwork is a part of the technical elements, but it’s moments like his footwork that are the climax of brilliant choreography that punctuate the music and challenge his technique.

Interpretation: This is, perhaps, the most subjective of the PCS elements. But Chan’s musicality is always evident, and he really skates up to the power of the music he chooses. In his short, he was full of personality and joy. In the long, he was expressive and passionate and everything built with the music.

Bottom line is, he does all of these things SO well. I know it’s hard to understand how someone with several technical mistakes (read: jumps/falls) could vault to the top with such high scores. But we have to understand the difficulty of every element in his programs.

I’ve referenced Patrick several times in conversations about my slow conversion to not only accepting but believing in the Code of Points system. The key is, Chan is a child of CoP, not 6.0. He was, essentially, born into this system, so he hasn’t struggled with the transition. He works the system to perfection and is rewarded – justifiably – for it.

Crucify me now, if you must! But my congrats to Patrick for skating a program that is well rounded and beautiful.

And there you have it! The second stop of the series is in the books, and the controversy is already brewing! Now it’s on.

Oh, and for those of you wondering how I made out in Fantasy Skating, see below!

FANTASY RESULTS:

Ladies: 1 for 3 (Group B: Imai over Marchei)

Men: 2 for 3 (Group A: Chan, Group B: Reynolds)

Pairs: 2 for 3 (Group A: Iliushechkina/Maisuradze, Group B: Duhamel/Radford Note: Castelli/Shnapir almost had me 3 for 3!)

Dance: 2 for 3 (Group B: Chock/Zuerlein, Group C: Paul/Islam)

SC ranking: tied for 93rd

Current ranking: tied for 73rd (up from 183 last week!)

See you in a few days with more in preparation for Cup of China!

Until then…

 

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…