Figure Skating: From the Boards

Omaha or Bust: Dance party, anyone? January 23, 2013

PrintLet’s just go ahead and start here: Meryl Davis and Charlie White should leave Omaha with yet another National title.

As good as U.S. ice dance has become, as deep as this field is, as many ways as the rest of the podium could shape up, there is still no one near Davis and White, technically or artistically. It’s as simple as that.

That’s not to say the rest of the field isn’t improving, too. In fact, some of the U.S. teams are in the running for “most improved,” even internationally speaking. It’s just that Davis and White keep pushing the envelope, not for anyone else, but just to push themselves one step closer to a shot at Olympic gold.

They’ve done it this season, going undefeated so far. In fact, they haven’t stood anywhere but the top of the podium since losing the World Title to training mates Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir last March.

I could talk about Meryl and Charlie all day, but the fact remains: they’re the class of the field. I can’t wait to see them throw down two more electrifying skates.

But, I’m equally as excited to see what the rest of the field does.

Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt are one of those teams in the “most improved” category. They’ve been on the brink of breaking through before, and last year’s Nationals gave them a chance to do just that.

Everyone loved them at Skate America, and they took gold at the Ice Challenge Graz. They don’t quite have the speed and the flow of the world’s top teams, but there’s one thing they do as well as anyone else: entertain. Audiences buy what they’re selling from the moment they step on the ice. That makes for great fun, and combined with challenging technical elements, great scores.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue would love to repeat their Nationals performances from a year ago. Those performances validated their new partnership, and gave them a spot on the World Team. But, their path to the podium won’t be easy. Not with Madison Chock and Evan Bates hungry for a shot of their own.

Chock and Bates have an ethereal quality to their skating. Plus, they are so committed to the characters of their programs that it’s nearly impossible not to get sucked into the story they create! They built slowly as the season progressed, starting with an unsatisfying performance at the US International Classic in Salt Lake, but finishing with a much better Cup of China competition. They’re scores put them right in the medal hunt, and in fact, only one team not named Davis/White has a higher season’s best than they do: Maia and Alex Shibutani.

The Shibs have had to deal with some significant physical limitations this season. Alex, dealing with a left leg injury, struggled through the competition in Russia. After treating that, though, their NHK Trophy performance was much stronger. They finished third with a 154+.

Since then, they’ve made improvements to the overall polish of their programs, and especially to the Short Dance. Technically, they’re right up there. Still young, they don’t always pull in the component marks. But, they are still, at least on paper, the second-best team in America.

They just have to prove it.

The battle for the podium will be fierce, no doubt. With five teams capable of earning a trip to Worlds, and only three spots available, there will be fireworks. And it’s going to be awesome.

Who would you like to see on the podium?

Here are my picks.

Gold: Davis/White
Silver: Shibutani/Shibutani
Bronze: Chock/Bates
Pewter: Kriengkrairut/Giulietti-Schmitt

 

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter (@FromTheBoards) for updates from Omaha. And, if you’re an instagramer, follow me @TaraBethW for pictures throughout the week!

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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 Dancers December 4, 2012

Ice dance has fast become one of my very favorite events. It’s the discipline that I think has benefited most from the Code of Points system because things are actually quantifiable now.

Of course, it helps to have a generation of dancers actively working to live up to the likes of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Meryl Davis and Charlie White who continue to lead the way.

The Grand Prix series this year gave a good indication of the progress some dance teams have made … perhaps none more notably than Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat.

Those two are always creative … sometimes distractingly so. But the technique often suffered in the past for the sake of creativity. Not so much this year. Theyr’e still not quite there yet, as far as Virtue/Moir or Davis/White standards, but if the top two don’t watch their backs and step up their own games, the Olympic year could be way more interesting than the last few have been.

It’s interesting, in that regard, how teams that have generally been very politically correct in answering questions about their competition goals who are suddenly voicing their determination to be THE best, both at Worlds this year and, more importantly, the Olympics. Pechalat and Bourzat are certainly a part of that new trend, early this season stating — quite emphatically — that they are right on track with their career goals that have them peaking in Sochi.

So far, they’ve skated accordingly.

Speaking of teams that have made marked improvements, Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev are another such team. Personally, they’re not my cup of tea. But that’s the thing about ice dance (and skating in general) — it’s okay to not fall in love with every team or every performance, even if other skating fans do. And even if their basic skating has improved, I’m not in love with their programs, though I can respect their attempts at creativity.

Want to know what team I am impressed with, on a multitude of levels? Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte. They were adorable last year, with charming choreography and fresh exuberance. This year, they’ve conditioned themselves into legitimate competitors on the world scene. Maybe not World medal contenders, since the top three are on a whole other plane, but they’re nipping at their heals. That medal stand isn’t far off, for sure.

Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov also made the Final with a pair of silver medals. They did so relatively quietly, perhaps because they didn’t stand a chance against Virtue and Moir or Davis and White. But, I have to say, their programs — especially their free dance — don’t do them justice.

Side note: I’m super disappointed the reaction to Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje’s free dance wasn’t better from the judges. It’s beautiful and creative and original and magical and … yeah. Unfortunately, it didn’t lend itself to the complexity that the new system rewards. And as a result, they miss out on the Final. Sad day.

Now, for the top two teams.

It’s interesting, the ice dance world. I can’t say I realized how drastic the difference of opinions is between Canadians and Americans until this season with Tessa and Scott’s “Carmen,” and Meryl and Charlie’s “Notre Dame de Paris” free dances.

I’ve heard opinions blasting Davis and White for goign away from the kind of character and passion they’re good at — the “at a distance” kind — while praising Virtue and Moir for trying something new and challenging. I’ve seen fans gush over the magical moment Meryl and Charlie create while recoiling in a flash from Tessa and Scott’s dark, seductive choreography.

If you want my opinion, I prefer Davis and White’s dances. I appreciate the way they’re trying to stretch themselves, and while some feel they don’t actually tell story of the hunchback and Esmeralda directly enough. However, I find myself memorized  by the picture they do create and yes, I do see improved connection and passion.

Now, I’m going to try not to contradict myself, so hear me out.

I do appreciate the attempt at something new for Virtue and Moir. I get where they’re trying to go. However, this team’s strength is, without a doubt, the way they can stretch each move, and wring out every drop of emotion from it. The romance they can create is second to none. They elegance is something that sets them apart. And their ability to tell a heartfelt story that captivates an audience with artistry and grace while performing technically brilliant and complicated choreography is what made them Olympic champions.

This modern dance version of Carmen? Not any of those things. Again, I understand where they’re trying to go. It’s different. It’s edgy. But while I feel Davis and White’s “different” stems from their strengths, I feel this “different” is an attempt to recreate the wheel. The super-seductive “passion,” cheapens the quality of their movement, and obstructs the flow and connection they have with one another and that their blades have with the ice.

To me, it doesn’t bring out their best qualities while making them more versatile.

And, if you really don’t care what I have to say or what my opinion is, I’ll just give you the facts: the judges like the American’s free dance better.

Exhibit A: the score breakdown from both teams’ first Grand Prix event, wherein Virtue and Moir edge Davis and White in TES, but Davis and White win the PCS mark and the total score.

Davis.White vs. Virtue.Moir GP1

And, exhibit B: the same comparison from both teams’ second events. This time around, the base value is identical, but Davis and White made marked improvement in the GOE category, as well as bumping up the PCS scores yet again.

Davis.White vs. Virtue.Moir GP2

Before you jump me for cross-event score comparisons, I know. It’s different. Judges are different. Pressures are different. All of the above, I know.But the point remains — the reaction to Davis and White has been better than the reaction to Virtue and Moir. Personal opinions on the choreography and interpretation aside, it ends up being a numbers game. So far, Davis and White are winning that game.

Will the trend continue? This weekend’s head-to-head will be quite telling!

 

Skate America: Happy Couples October 17, 2012

As always, there were a few rounds of musical partners on the ice dance/pairs stages this summer. But, the dust has settled. Couples are happily training (as far as I can tell, anyway!), and the competition ice awaits.

Dancers, Are You Ready?

Despite the coach shuffle in Canton over the off season, Meryl Davis and Charlie White still enter as the clear-cut favorites.

Don’t get me wrong — both Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are coming with top-notch stuff, no one has proven they have what it takes to beat the world’s top two (Davis/White, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir). Until someone does, Davis and White are the obvious choice.

Speaking of Bobrova and Soloviev, they do have a leg up on the Americans — they’ve already done the whole “debut” thing. With a 159+, they took home the Finlandia title a few weeks back.

Weaver and Poje, too, put their programs out early. They were even better — a 161.38 at the Nepela Ondrej Memorial.

Unless something dramatic happens, you’re looking at your top three. Now, the order is up for (some kind of) debate.

Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmidtt (who will now officially be referred to by me as simple, “Lynn and Logan!”) would love nothing more than to break up that top group’s party, though. The duo was third at the US International Classic, but have yet to achieve the kind of scores that could mess with the predicted podium.

Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi are fresh off a bronze medal at Nebelhorn, too. But, their Free Dance was only good enough for 5th in the field in Germany. That’s going to have to change if they have any shot at a podium finish here.

Gold: Meryl Davis/Charlie White
Silver: Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje
Bronze: Bobrova/Soloviev

Spoiler alert: Lynn and Logan

Perfect Pairs

It may not seem like it, but there’s a lot of history between these teams. Okay, maybe “history” isn’t quite the world. But, if you like those head-to-head matchups from the top dance groups, you’ll love this:

The top three pairs faced each other at Worlds, then four of the eight saw each other this season already at Nebelhorn.

Will that help or hurt them?

Who knows.

What I do know is, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are up to their old tricks again (and that’s a good thing!) — two stunning programs, complete with ridiculous technical difficulty. They only lost two events last season, and the two they took second in? By tenths of points.

After a full season and offseason together now, Caydee Denney and John Coughlin appear far more comfortable on the ice with one another. They’ve improved in some key areas, too — adding difficulty to their death spirals, spins, and steps.

It’s not enough yet to catch Volosozhar/Trankov, but it’s a great start.

Qing Pang and Jian Tong are still a bit of a wild card. (As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I know all about being the wild card!) Not competing most of last season, to a disappointing 4th place at Worlds, they proved they still have some of the goods. The question is, can they pull out those “goods” when the skaters around them up the ante?

Both the other American teams come prepared with exquisite programs, just dying to be performed cleanly. That’ll be their goal this weekend.

Between Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir’s throws, and Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff’s lifts, these teams have guts. And they’re going for it. For someone, that’s going to pay off.

Could it be Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, instead? These two have two sets of judges scores already — one from the 3rd place finish at Nebelhorn, and the second from the French Masters. At the second event, their scores were more than 15 points higher than the previous weekend.

Maybe something’s in the air. We’ve got to have an underdog story somewhere, right?

So for those predictions …

Gold: Volosozhar/Trankov
Silver: Denney/Coughlin (out on a bit of a limb, here!)
Bronze: Pang/Tong

Spoiler alert: Castelli/Shnapir

And there we have it. THe first official previews for the first official international event.

Now, it’s go time.

Share your predictions, thoughts, questions and concerns in the comments, via twitter, or even Facebook … before, during, and after the event. I love hearing your feedback!

 

And So It Begins: 2012 US International Classic September 28, 2012

I’ve decided that life has a way of spiraling  out of control most when I’d rather be watching skating!

Okay, so it hasn’t been totally out of control. But a move and a new project at work have kept me from the US International Classic videos until, well, right now. But with Neblhorn happening now and Skate America right around the corner (can you believe it?) I’ve definitely been itching to sneak a look at some of the performances from Salt Lake City. 

This event welcomed several skaters I, for one, was anxious to see.

Lindsay Davis & Mark Ladwig, for example.

Their pairing is interesting to me. There isn’t an automatic, “this is going to catch on like wild fire” vibe from them. But, it’s still so new, there is a little bit of push and pull. They just need time. I like some of the artistic elements — a little more drama, perhaps! The technique will come along. I just hope they don’t get frustrated with the results until then.

Kirsten Moore-Towers & Dylan Moscovitch — I love this duo. She is a little dynamo. And it’s nice to see so much emotion in their skating again this year! And those throws? GORGEOUS. As soon as their short program started, I realized we’d just jumped up a level. The speed, the strength, the confidence, it was all there. A few stumbles here and there, but they have a lot to work with this season … and some pretty grand expectations of themselves.

Tiffany Vise & Don Baldwin — First comeback free skate of the season? They recovered from a disappointing 5th-place short program to leapfrog country mates Felicia Zhang & Nathan Bartholomay for the bronze. They always do something interesting and unique. It’s nice to see them skate well to go with their great programs!

How about the ladies?

Gracie Gold is precious. At such a young age, and with so little senior experience, she always looks so polished, so poised. She really takes her time with the choreography — something that often gets lost in the shuffle of point counting. She had some trouble in the second half of her free skate (which she was not happy about) but this gives her room to build. I worry, sometimes, that the expectations already on her shoulders are too much to live up to. But, she has the talent, no doubt.

Agnes Zawadski — her jumps are ridiculously gigantic. Yes, ridiculously gigantic. She skates with so much power! Sometimes it’s too much, but this early in the year? She looks in complete control. A few bobbles here and there, but nothing to be terribly concerned with. Her struggles will likely come if she has a tough competition. In the past, that has gotten to her in a big way. But this was a great victory — mentally, even more than physically — to get her on track for the year.

I have a feeling the battle in the ladies’ competitions this year is going to be something else. And at US Nationals? It could be anyone’s game! (more…)

 

Trouble in paradise: Shpilband out in Canton June 4, 2012

“Drama” and “Ice Dance.”

Are there two more synonymous words?

None that I know. Yet, typically the drama plays out on the ice in superfluous arm movements, over-the-top music selections, and gaudy costume embelishments.

Occasionally the drama comes in the form of hotly contested competition results, based on the long-standing history of biased judging. In the wake of the skewed numbers, the drama sometimes spills over into press conferences, interviews, and direct quotes, stirring the pot even more visciously … particularly in the social media age.

Drama is just a part of the game. But when the theatrics shock even those on the inside? That’s when we’ve hit an all-time drama high.

Where does this rank on the list of “Most Shocking Coaching Splits” in skating history?

Need an example? How about Igor Shpilband The Great being fired from his own rink because, according to the Detroit Free Press, the top three teams in the world gave their club an ultimatum — he goes, or we go? How’s that for insider drama?

Certainly we can’t think this is the story in its entirety. For a coaching team as flawless as Shpilband/Zoueva to split in such blind-siding fashion, there has to be something more going on.

For both of the world’s top two teams to, at different times, say the coaching situation worked because both Igor and Marina gave each team 100% and never played one against the other, then refuse to even come back to the rink until their once-fearless leader was sent on his way, tells more than the words themselves express.

Now, I’m not about to speculate on what happened or when. But Shpilband was admittedly working with a handful of other skaters, perhaps doing more on his own than within the tight-knit group that has rocketed to the top of the food chain. Surely there’s more to it than three elite teams feeling slighted.

According to the 24-hour news cycle (a.k.a. “Twitter”), Charlie White’s mother made mention that the skaters are stuck in the middle of a coaches’ feud, rather than being the instigators of the split themselves.

Not sure that makes any of this better. How unfortunate that the world’s best ice dance coaches and the world’s best ice dancers could lose something that has been pure magic over conflicting ideas, regardless of whose decision it ultimately was!

The decision, nevertheless, shakes up the rock-solid Canton Dynasty, if in no other way than that, for the first time since Davis/White and Virtue/Moir began training together, there is uncertainty.

The unknown is enough to unerve the strongest minds. And depending on how the chips fall, the commradere and chemistry of the club will likely be disrupted.

How will it impact the training atmosphere? What will be “missing” that was there with both coaches? Can the streak continue sans-Igor? Do the skaters all stick with Marina in Canton? Which younger skaters or other teams venture off to Igor’s new rink (wherever that might be) and how much does the speculation weigh on the shoulders of the current and former world champs?

… see? Who said the off season would be boring?!

What do you think happens in Detroit as we speed towards the season’s start?

 

Nice — Dance, Dance, Dance March 30, 2012