Figure Skating: From the Boards

The Final Countdown: Ladies and Gents December 6, 2012

Sochi

Ah, the ever-shifting world of both ladies and men’s skating. Keeps things interesting doesn’t it? Especially with Sochi — the Olympic version — on the horizon, the world’s best are focused on taking this chance to test the ice, as well as to inspire their work for the next year in hopes of making it back again in just over one year’s time.

It’s a good chance, too, to size up the competition. The year before the Olympics starts to create buzz. The buildup can be distracting, or it can generate good energy that reminds these to-tier skaters why they do what they do. It also separates the contenders from the … shall we say, “pretenders?” Maybe that’s a little harsh. We have, after all seen plenty of occasion where the sport’s stars the year before the Games can’t hold out for another full year. There’s also that little thing about the World Championship curse. You know, the one where reigning World Champs hardly ever win Olympic gold. So the story goes, anyway.

But, that’s a whole year away. This weekend is all about this year’s best. And there are plenty of good ones to go around.

LADIES

A few years ago, skating fans were wondering if Ashley Wagner would ever figure it out. She wanted to be the best. But she just wasn’t ever quite there. And then, last season, something clicked, and it’s been like a flipped light switch.

The girl is crazy committed … just watching her in practices at Skate America convinced me even more that she’s discovered whatever the missing piece was that turned her into a full-blown competitor. She has the mindset now, and that is something no one could do for her. But, she’s got it now. What she doesn’t have is a competition-tested triple-triple combination. Does she put it in here as practice for a likely World Championship run? If she doesn’t, does she take that risk later in the season?

She has the third-best short program score, but the top free skate and total score. She’s in prime position to win as it is. This is where the age-old battle of risk vs. reward comes in. If she puts the combination in and hits it? She’s likely guaranteeing herself the title. If she tries it and misses, she opens the door to two very talented Japanese ladies who’d love nothing more than to gain some momentum headed toward Worlds.

She’s won without it. Her prime competition — Mao Asada — doesn’t have one either. Is the risk worth taking? (Personally, I’d like to see her tack a triple toe on to the double axel combination … seems a tad safer.)

Asada has some work to do. She holds the season’s best short program score (her short is fabulous, I must add), but she still struggles to make it all the way through a free skate. Her NHK Trophy win was marred by a long program hardly worthy of the title, but outside the jumps, she still does other good things. Her choreography in the free leaves a little to be desired compared to the SP, and it doesn’t have the tension or detail that Wagner’s does. Or, for that matter, that Akiko Suzuki’s does.

I adore her free skate. It is so her. It’s a program that highlights her best qualities and celebrates her unique take on story telling. Plus, her dress is killer!

If she hits her short program, and manages all the technical difficulty in her free skate, both of the top qualifiers better watch their backs. Suzuki is often on the short end of the judging stick, but that give her no reason to hold back. She’ll have to lay it all on the line … and if she hits, it could very well be golden.

The other girls skating at the Final will play the role of spoilers. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva carries the Russian flag alone, after the withdrawal of Julia Lipnitskaia. Liza is lovely, but this season she hasn’t been the overpowering Russian force she appeared to be last year. That said, she’s certainly got the goods. It’s a matter of consistency.

Kiira Korpi comes armed with gorgeous programs. She’s one of those skaters you use to describe a “complete package.” However, she’s reportedly been quite ill and not able to train. She’s also been quoted as saying she isn’t 100% ready for this event. That could be just the opportunity last-minute alternate Christina Gao needs to make an international statement of her own.

She, too, has beautiful programs, and jumps that simply compliment the beauty of her skating. I like her. And she has a great open door to jump through this weekend.

PREDICTIONS

Gold: Ashley Wagner
Silver: Akiko Suzuki
Bronze: Mao Asada

MEN

This will be a battle for the ages. Four Japanese men vs. Patrick Chan and Javier Fernandez.

Despite all the early season struggles (read: Japan Open), Patrick Chan has recovered. He’s the defending champ of the Final, as well as the World title. He’s not about to give that up without throwing down the best that he has to offer.

Mr. Debonair, Javier Fernandez, has topped Chan once. But, the Canadian star was not nearly at his best. Fernandez, though, has some of the most technically ambitious programs you’ll see in Sochi. The trouble is, he’s sometimes too ambitious for his own good.

Then there’s these Japanese guys. The “Super team.” Which one of them do you leave off the World team?!

It likely won’t be Yuzuru Hanyu, that I can say. The kid set then broke his own new short program record score. He can be sensational. But, his problem comes in the free skate where he tends to lose focus and fail to live up to the short program. It worries me a bit that he seems to struggle with the pressure. He’s still young, and his time at the top is not yet here. But with competition veterans like Chan and Takahashi adding to the pressure, I worry that he will struggle to stay focused.

Daisuke Takahashi has had a bit of a disappointing season thus far. No golds yet on the Grand Prix circuit, and his programs seem to be a bit of a work in progress. Personally, I liked the free skate better at the Japan Open. Seems the judges did, too. But there’s no denying the possibility of Taka putting up a performance for the ages … especially with his good old rival Patrick Chan sharing the spotlight.

Takahiko Kozuka was more than impressive at Skate America. He was fabulous. He failed to match that at his second event, but we now know it’s in him to blow us all away. He’s not ready to be written off. And with the shockingly deep Japanese field, he needs this event to prove himself.

The kid who is, perhaps, the most surprising qualifier is Tatsuki Machida. He quietly made his way to the podium twice this year, winning in his second event. But, he’s the one man who may not have the fire power to break onto the podium, unless the top guys struggle. Which has happened before. So it could certainly happen again.

This men’s event may be the one I’m most excited about, simply because of the quality of skating from 1 – 6. They’re all fantastic. And their skills could push each other to exceptional heights.

PREDICTIONS

Gold: Patrick Chan
Silver: Daisuke Takahashi
Bronze: Yuzuru Hanyu

 

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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

 

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…

 

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!

 

Three Blind Mice to ABC… September 2, 2010

Today, I figured I’d dive in a bit to my expectations or predictions for some of the top ladies skaters heading into this season. We’ll start with my ideas about the current world rankings for the ladies and how their seasons might play out, based on what’s gone on with them this off season.

But first!

When I began this blog, I said there would be stories. Well, this is a story day. And I’m super excited about this one.

I recently had the intense privilege of seeing a young skater recognized on national television. But this was not just any young skater. This young boy is a star…that much I knew from the very first time I saw him skate, back when he was 4 years old.

The current Novice Men’s national champion, Nathan Chen, skates out of Salt Lake City, Utah.

When I was living there, I also skated in Salt Lake City, Utah. (See where this is going…?)

Basically, I skated with Nathan Chen when he was 4 years old.

This January, he blew away the skating world with his performances in Spokane to win the Novice title.

This summer, he was named the ABC News person of the week (check out the video below…).

Okay, so it’s not like I can take credit for anything. But I do want to say, I called it!

I remember being at the rink trying to work on my own skills, but getting caught up watching this little tiny kid who was already better than I was! My mom would be at the rink with me, and one day we were leaving and noticed a newspaper article on the bulletin board – it was all about the 4 year old and his early success. I remember like it was yesterday, turning to my mom and saying, “Mom, remember his name. Because he’s gonna be a star one day, and when he is, I want to be able to say I skated with him before he was famous!”

Flash forward a few years…talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy, eh? The kid’s incredible.

But he wasn’t always the 10-year-old whiz kid who could throw a triple jump at the drop of a hat. Don’t get me wrong, he always had “it,” but I watch him in the days where he was learning how to do a proper scratch spin.

Now, explaining anything to a 4 year old is complicated, but trying to explain the proper technique – specifically, how pulling your arms in slowly throughout the spin will increase the speed – takes patience and skill.

That’s exactly what was happening the day I remember most clearly.

Nathan was working on a program to “Three Blind Mice,” but his coach was trying to get him to be more precise with his scratch spin.

(Time out: for those of you who may not be familiar with the technical terms, the “scratch spin” is usually one you’ll see at the very end of a program. The skater is standing straight up, arms out to either side, and as they spin, they slowly pull the arms in…or up…to increase the speed.)

Nathan’s coach stopped him and said, “Imagine you’re hugging a giant marshmallow as you spin, and squeeze it to your chest.”

Let me tell you, the kid’s quick. Because just that much of a visual made all the difference.

And clearly, he’s just as quick today. He’s also determined. And charming. And quickly becoming the one to watch. Now, he won’t be old enough for the Olympics in Sochi 2014, but I bet he’ll be a force to be reckoned with by then!

Anyway, All of this to essentially say, I’m so proud of my little skating friend from so many years ago that I couldn’t help but share. I can’t wait to watch him through the years. He’s definitely got a forever-fan in me!

Now, check out the video (and poke around the related videos too, because they’re all great!)

All right. Back to business. The ladies of 2010, shall we?

According to the world rankings on icenetwork.com, Queen Yu-Na is, of course, #1. The question for this season is, while she wont’ be competing in the GP series, will she compete at Worlds, and will she be able to put aside the coaching drama as well as the expectations of being the Olympic champ, to perform up to her own very high standards?

Always seeming to be tied together in one way or another, #2 on the list is Kim’s long-time rival, Mao Asada. Amidst the rumors surrounding the Kim/Orser split was one in particular that was potentially the cause for the tension – Mao’s camp wanted on board the Orser Express. Who knows what was actually said, who was approached, what was being considered, but there’s no doubt that Asada has been living in the shadow of Yu-Na for the last several seasons, and she’s none too happy about it. The question for Mao this season will be, have the new rule changes (specifically regarding the 3 axel points footwork levels) done enough to even her up with those, like Kim, who rack up the points in areas of footwork and spin difficulty? For me, personally, I need her to actually connect to her performances for her to ever match the magic of a Yu-Na Kim or Mirai Nagasu, who we’ll get to later on.

#3 on the world list is Asada’s Japanese compatriot, Mikki Ando. She’s a strange one to me. She always seems to do just enough to win a few titles every year, but she never has it all together at once. Sure, she won the World Titles in ’07, but her technique hasn’t improved since then, and if I had to comment on last year’s programs, I’d say they were terrible for her style, well, whatever style she may have. I think she’s a sweetheart, but if she doesn’t change some things this season, I’m not sure she’ll be able to keep up.

Canadian sweetheart, Joannie Rochette, is 4th on this list. She’s a champion through and through. I adore her maturity on the ice and thought last year’s programs were brilliant. She’s not competing in the GP series, either, so that opens up another spot for someone – perhaps one of the young American stars (Nagasu finished just behind Rochette in Vancouver). That said, I’d love to see Joannie come back to competition. I think she really hit her stride last season and her determination to compete with the young guns was evident, and it paid off. She created such a lasting memory at the Olympics, skating despite the tragic loss of her mother, that I can’t help but pull for her in whatever she decides.

Laura Lepisto of Finland and Akkiko Suzuki of Japan come next in the rankings, and these are two skaters who performed well last season, but will really have to step up their game in order to really compete for the top spots. Laura is a beautiful, classic skater, but her jumps occasionally fail her. However, with two of the top five out of the GP, she may have a chance at a break through year. She’s just gotta make sure those triples are consistent and that her footwork/spins aren’t too simplistic.

Carolina Kostner comes in at #7. She’s quite a story, herself. Working with Frank Carroll last season did her some good, but I worry that she’s too much of a head case to ever make it to the top. I hate to say that about anyone, but the girl just can’t get things back together. This season could be a make-it-or-break-it year for her.

Russian Alena Leonova is another pretty girl who needs to step up her game. I haven’t seen too much out of her that makes me lean one way or another, but post-Olympic years always seem to be the time for skaters like Alena to be the surprise. Russia’s about ready for a new world power, so I’m sure she’ll be working hard to climb her way up the world ladder.

American Rachel Flatt makes the top ten, ranking at #9. Rachel is a doll. She’s smart, funny, dedicated, and consistent. But she sometimes (well, most of the time) lacks the spark…maybe the sparkle…to pull off a standing-O type performance. She may skate very well this season. I just hope she finds a way to shine beyond the consistency and really let the programs sing. That said, she should be right up there through the Grand Prix season, in my opinion.

Filling out the top 10 is Kiira Korpi, followed by Kanako Murakami. I’m not hugely familiar with these two, so I’ll reserve judgment until I see them in their first Grand Prixs.

Mirai Nagasu is ranked #12, and for me, she’s one of the top candidates for a break-through year. All right, I know I’m more than a little biased because I adore her, but I really do believe she had the goods. With Frank Carroll on her side, she could be dynamite if she can get the technique down pat, and stop doubting herself. I am expecting big things from her, but only because I truly believe she’s World Champion material.

Two other Americans fall in behind Mirai: Ashley Wagner and Alissa Czisny. Wagner has potential to move up in the rankings. She had a good season, but unfortunately missed the Olympic team. She’ll be looking to make amends for that. Alissa….well, I love her. But I’m not sure she’s ever going to break through anymore than she did a few years back. She just doesn’t compete well under pressure, no matter how badly I want her to. We’ll see. Maybe she’ll prove me wrong.

Cynthia Phaneuf, Polina Shelepen, Elena Gedevanishvilli, and Ksenia Makarova, are next, and again are skaters who’ve had some success, but are looking for some consistency. Ksenia is a new Russian hope and I believe she has a great chance at having a good season.

Caroline Zhang and Fumie Suguri wrap up the top 20. These two skaters are on completely opposite ends of their careers, but strangely are facing similar mountains to climb this season. Caroline is to Mirai what Mao Asada is to Yu-Na Kim. Sort of, at least. They both came up about the same time, are good friends, but their careers have separated dramatically in the last season or so. Last year was a disaster for Caroline. I never felt like she was really enjoying skating. Now, with a new coach, she’ll try to redeem herself and gain back the momentum she had that lead everyone to believe she was the biggest hope for a return of American dominance in ladies skating.

Fumie on the other hand, has had her day in the sun. She’s been the warrior that paved the way for the multitude of Japanese stars, yet, along the way, she’s kind of been left behind. Every year people expect her to retire, but every year she decides she wants to train a little more, compete a little longer. She just loves it. And, like Caroline, she’s going to want to prove she’s still got it. Last I heard she was having trouble getting the funding she needed to continue to skate, so we’ll see if she ends up on the world scene for another season or not.

Phew! That was a lot of analyzing. But it’s got me all worked up for the Grand Prix to start. Did you notice it’s September? That means less than 2 months till the first Senior Grand Prix gets underway!

Next time we’ll talk about the top 20 men…which could be very interesting.

Until then…

(Follow me on Twitter…twitter.com/fromtheboards)

 

Oh, the drama! August 26, 2010

So, I’m sitting here, sipping my morning cup of joe, flipping back and forth between the Today Show and “My Fair Wedding with David Tutera” (Don’t judge…) and checking up on the latest stats from this week in skating, and I’m realizing I may need more time.

What a week, eh?

If you haven’t heard all the news, no worries – I’m here to save the day! And if you have heard, well, get ready to “hear” again, and then chime in with your own thoughts. Sound good? Okay. Here we go.

Pre-season drama part 1:

*National Champs and Olympic team members Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett jump ship from the coaching staff of Jim Peterson, Lyndon Johnston and Alison Smith to train in Coral Springs, Fla. with U.S. Pairs champion John Zimmerman and his wife, Italian star Silvia Fontana.

This is very interesting to me, for a couple of reasons.

First, this could be a GREAT move for Caydee and Jeremy. I love John Zimmerman and have a feeling his creativity could be fantastic for the young national champs. He certainly knows how to train, and he knows what it’s like to be among the best in the world. Caydee and Jeremy need to step it up if they want to be the American team who breaks into the top tier of the international elite. This might just be their staircase.

Second, I’m curious about the reasons for changing. Back at Nationals and at the Olympics in Vancouver, this team seemed beyond happy with their situation, overly complimentary of their coaches, and so proud of their up-and-coming status that led them to the Games. Yet, they weren’t about to be content with the status quo…they want to be the best, and I think this move shows that. It’s still curious to me as I wonder what that final straw was that led to the change.

Third, there was always an interesting dynamic with the pairs teams under the tutelage of Peterson and crew: their other pairs team who skated to a spot on the Olympic team, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, has a unique connection to John Zimmerman’s new team. Amanda and Jeremy have been a couple for some time, even living together and, of course, training and competing together. Does this move say something about that relationship? If not, does it put strain on the two of them and, therefore, their competitive careers? (Okay, okay, maybe I’m meddling. But hey, a girl can’t help but wonder…)

Coaching changes are always intriguing to me as they seem to say a lot about the needs of the athlete and the underlying goals that lead to the switch. I hope this one for Caydee and Jeremy works out because they certainly have the momentum and the potential to be a longtime standard in U.S. pairs skating.

Pre-season drama part 2:

*2006 Olympic champ and reigning Olympic silver medalist Evgeyni Plushenko IS, in fact, stripped of ISU eligibility due to participation in unapproved exhibition shows after pulling out of the post-Olympics World Championships. This means, he is no longer free to continue competing, therefore eliminating his proposed run at the 2014 games in Sochi.

Something about this seems pretty fishy.

First, these elite level skaters are aware of the rules – perhaps they don’t always think, “Hmm, if I do this, that could happen because the rule says such-and-such.” However, it’s not a secret that certain shows are off limits, especially after withdrawing from a sanctioned competitive event. Plushy should have known that, and if not, his “people” should have warned him. For that reason, I wonder how unaware he really was. Now, I don’t know the guy, but this seems weird. He has struggled with knee injuries since 2006, and the likelihood of his body actually holding up through 2014 is slim to none, in my opinion. And they way the pieces all fell apart here leads me to wonder if he realized he was talking too big for reality.

Second, he had a chance to appeal and he didn’t. Why? If he really wanted to compete, he had the means to make his argument and keep the Sochi dream alive. He didn’t. So, game over. He doesn’t have to make a big announcement of his retirement due to injury, nor does he have to deal with the fact that he left Vancouver talking smack and now doesn’t have the ability to back it up. Like I said, I don’t know Plushy personally, so all of this is purely speculation.

Regardless of his reasoning, it makes the next few seasons either a bit more interesting, or I suppose, a bit less interesting. But it certainly gives some other guys the chance to jump (or spin, glid, and step-sequence) their way into the spotlight!

Pre-Season drama part 3:

*Olympic Champ Yu-Na Kim and miracle-working coach Brian Orser split in soap-opera fashion, leaving Orser without the world’s #1, and Kim fighting for not only the motivation to continue competing, but also for the character of her own mother.

To me, this is just totally unfortunate.

First, Brian and Yu-Na made magic. Simple as that. What he was able to do with, perhaps, the most raw talent in the entire world was remarkable. Yu-Na soaked it all in and blossomed under Brian’s instruction, and maintained a sense of normalcy thanks to his protection. We will likely never know what the reason was for the Kims’ decision to leave Orser, but no matter the reason, I’m still sad to see them split. As Melissa Bulanhagui “tweeted” the other day, it’s like Brad Pitt and Jen Aniston all over again!

Second, the mudslinging has gotten out of hand. I don’t care who knew what, or if mama Kim overstepped her bounds, or if Brian stuck his story out there to save face…the media circus makes the sad feeling of seeing the news of the split about a  million times worse. I feel badly for both “sides” of the story. Yu-Na wrote a letter to her fans, expressing her pain because of Brian’s comments, and because of her frustration in needing to defend her decision and her mother’s character. That’s not something she should have had to do, yet she did. And unfortunately, it’s not helping. The media are running with all of it, no matter how small, and turning it into a zoo.

Again, coaching changes/splits are always interesting to me, but it’s sad when such a magical combination of skills is destroyed by one thing, then exaggerated by harsh comments and disappointed slams.

I wish the best for both parties, and hope to see Yu-Na skate again at Worlds.

Speaking of seeing Yu-Na skate…

She will be skating in LA a few months from now, and the legend, Michelle Kwan, will be co-staring in the show – her first on-ice appearance in the U.S. since the end of the Champions on Ice tour after her devastating injury in 2006. Now, Michelle Kwan is my hero. I’d give, well, a lot to be there in LA for this performance, but I’m not sure the likelihood of that happening is in my favor right now. So, if any of you are planning to be there, let me know! I’d love to post your review of the event, or possibly get some photos from you to share here as well…so if anyone wants to be a part of From the Boards for a day, get in touch.

In other news, the Junior Grand Prix season began today. The ladies have skated the short program, and Yretha Silete of France is in 1st, followed by Polina Shelepen from Russia and Nina Jiang from the USA.

It’s underway, folks!

Let the drama continue.

Until then…