Figure Skating: From the Boards

The Final Countdown: Pairs and Dance December 5, 2012

We’re just a few days away from the Grand Prix Final kicking off as a “preview event” of sorts for the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russian. And, the contenders are all very much aware of this, I promise you. Everyone wants to get a glimpse at what it might be like to skate in Sochithe arena where new Olympic champions will be crowned. And, this is that chance, albeit under a teensy bit less pressure.

Still, the energy will be high as the conclusion of the Grand Prix series gets underway.

It’s been an interesting season. We’ve had moments of brilliance and competitions as tight as ever, in some cases. Most of the stops along the way produced high-quality skating. It is, after all, the buildup year to the Olympics. Everyone is starting to make that extra push.

But, there were a few let downs, too. This isn’t a recap, though. If you’re looking for that, check the posts from a few days back. It’s all there: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

This, though, should be quite good.

PAIRS

The way I see it, each of the pairs competing here are primed for the performance of the seasons. We haven’t seen too many magical pairs moments yet this year, especially from the top teams. But, with three Russian teams in the Final, two Canadian teams, and just one Chinese team, there’s been a shift in the power houses of the Pairs world. Notably absent, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy who didn’t not qualify after skating in just one event.

Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov have yet to wow me this year. But, they do still hold the top international score. When they put the pieces together, they are hard to beat. They are just so good.

Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov continue to steadily climb towards the top. They’re not there yet, however. This is a great chance for them, though, to stake their claim to a spot on the podium — here, and heading towards Worlds.

The third Russian team is, surprisingly, not considered a medal favorite. Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov have struggled to match last year’s brilliance that, too, fell off a bit towards the end of the year. Perhaps this is their time to jump back into the upper echelon of Pairs teams?

I see a team like Qing Pang and Jian Tong and am blown away. Not by their technical brilliance these days, but by their undying passion for the sport. Why, after all these years and all the medals and titles won, do they still need to push themselves? Why would they delay their wedding in order to compete, when they openly admit their bodies often don’t cooperate anymore? How can they still perform such difficult programs? But, even more impressive, is the emotion with which they skate. That was something I always found a bit lacking in their skating, but the older they get and the they compete “for the love of the game,” as they say, the more joy shows in each move.

It’s beautiful, not matter where they finish.

And how ’bout those Canadian teams? Are we witnessing the rebirth of the Russia vs. Canada pairs rivalry? Not quite yet, perhaps, but by the time they return to Sochi? Possibly.

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are living proof of determination directing results. These two know what they want and have developed a formula for how to get it. No, they can’t yet compete with Volosozhar and Trankov. But they put themselves in medal contention in every event the enter. In fact, they have a chance here to knock off the veteran Chinese team and land on the podium. It would be an upset, but we’ve certainly seen one or two of those at a Final before, haven’t we?

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovtich have a longer way to go. I’m not entirely convinced this season’s programs are the best vehicle for their skating, but they continue to fight and make something of each event. They are in the Final after a tie-break gave them the last spot. So, there’s really no pressure. That might be just the situation they need to excel.

PREDICTIONS

Gold: Volosozhar/Trankov
Silver: Bazarova/Larionov
Bronze: Duhamel/Radford

ICE DANCE

Have I mentioned I love this event?

There isn’t a team scheduled to compete that doesn’t deserve to be there. There are, however, teams that didn’t make the Final that arguably should be in Sochi right now. That’s besides the point, though. And now it’s all about these top six couples.

Again, Russian is well represented with Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev and Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov set to take the ice in front of the home crowd.

Both teams are much improved. Both have dances that don’t quite make sense to me, but perhaps they appeal more wildly to a Russian audience? Both teams have two second-place finishes this season, and would love to make the podium. However, there are some pretty tough challengers standing in their way.

The same could be said for Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte. They are divine. I adore their unassuming charm as well as their ability to sell a character-driven piece as well as anyone in the business. Their improvements this season are quite impressive, and they continue to make me believe they could be a contender in the near future. Again, though, the top three teams in the world are pretty set in stone at the moment.

Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat are another team — similar to Pang and Tong — that wow me with their consistent improvement and commitment to a long-term plan. I often struggle with the far-out nature of their creativity, because I don’t know that it translates as well as they’d like it to. But, I admire their dedication to maintaining artistic integrity despite the demands of the system. They are much improved technically, but still not quite where they’ll need to be to break up the top two.

Speaking of the top two …

It wouldn’t be ice dance without a little drama, eh? For my take on the wide-swinging pendulum of opinions on Meryl Davis and Charlie White’s free dance vs. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s free dance, check this piece out. I present my own opinion, but also give you the bare facts and numbers, in case you could care less about my private opinion.

These two teams have made each other better, that is the one thing I can, without a doubt, guarantee. As they continue to push one another, they in turn push the entire sport.

I’m amazed when I watch them both, because of the complication of each piece of choreography. There are no simple movements in their programs. No easy steps. No basic strokes. And yet, they combine the difficulty with basic skills that make it all look remarkably easier than it actually is. Plus, you add the layer of story telling and passion and connection and emotion … there’s so much to the package — for both teams — that I don’t know how they pull it all off.

They’re like machines … with pretty costumes and powerful expressions.

Every conversation about these two should start with the simple fact that both teams are extraordinarily good at what they do.

Side note: anyone else wonder what differences we’d see in this rivalry if they didn’t train together? It’s an interesting thought …

PREDICTIONS

Gold: Davis/White
Silver: Virtue/Moir
Bronze: Pechalat/Bourzat

Tomorrow: Ladies and Men

 

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…

 

Nice — “Nice” recoveries! March 31, 2012

 

Nice, Take Two: Pairs Preview March 24, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Better late than never — GPF wrap up December 19, 2011

I know it’s delayed. And, I know it’s long. But, I figured the end of the GP series deserved a video blog update!

This season has been a lot of fun. Not the cleanest GP season ever, but fun, nonetheless. And, I am quite excited to see some of the head-to-head battles at Worlds.

Congrats again to the GPF medalists!

“See” you after the new year!

 

A Look Ahead: Grand Prix Final (Part 2) December 8, 2011

The drama has already begun from Quebec City. Chan is taking some heat for his comments about his Chinese heritage, Mao Asada unfortunately has withdrawn (to return to her critically ill mother in Japan).

With the event now less than 12 hours from beginning, let’s take a quick look at the Pairs and Dance events.

Dance

Much ado has been made about the showdown between training mates Virtue/Moir and Davis/White. Perhaps, rightly so.

The Canadian Olympic Champs Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have had two solid (and easy) wins thus far this season. They have the advantage over their competitors in the short dance, and they’ll need it to take down the Americans. Their Funny Face free dance isn’t their strongest ever, but they keep making improvements. I want to see them 100% in the moment because that’s the biggest strength of a program like this — the character.

One thing's for sure -- some spicy sambas will heat up the ice!

If they don’t live up to that, Meryl Davis and Charlie White will gladly pounce on the opportunity. They’ve had some issues with the short dance this year, but even then their scores have been very close to Virtue and Moir’s. Plus, their free dance is spectacular. I love what they’ve done with the music, the classic route they’ve taken, and the quality that oozes from every move. Yes, I love this program. But I think it works for them because it highlights their strengths. And, it just might give them gold.

Nathalie Pechelat and Fabian Bourzat always seem to be right on the brink of greatness. Still, they can’t quite keep up with the big guns. Personally, I felt they had better programs last year. However, they certainly had more polish and attack at their second event than the first. That’s a plus. They look good to medal here.

Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev have had a bit of a yo-yo season. Good skates, and rough skates. They have the potential to pull in strong scores, but there always seems to be something off with these two.

They’ll have a battle on their hands with Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. These two are having an impressive season. No, they haven’t won every event they’ve entered. But they’ve made marked improvements since their first event. That’s just what you want in a long season. They may be playing this just right (plus, I love their FD.).

Then there’s the Suibutanis. I have a soft spot for these two. Always have. However, this season they aren’t quite matching up to the (admittedly high) expectations I had for them. Their programs are beautiful, no doubt. But their technical content isn’t on par with their top competitors.

Podium:

Davis/White
Virtue/Moir
Fabian/Bourzat

Pairs

Again, we have quite the battle on our hands.

Reigning World Champs Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy may be packing that throw triple axel. But, the two times they’ve tried it this season, it hasn’t worked out too kindly for them. Their programs are strong, their elements are strong. But if they go too big, they might take the gold out of their own hands.

Trying to regain the upper hand, Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov are searching for their own consistency. I think their short program is one of the most artistically stunning of the pairs season thus far, and I was a big fan of their long program last year. I just want to see the same committment to the choreography in the later as there is in the first. That, and clean elements.

The pairs competition is sure to bring the drama between the top four!

Also in the gold medal mix are Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. After Worlds this year, I was fully convinced they were going to be the ones to beat this year. And it started out that way. But, they haven’t put together clean enough programs often enough to be considered favorites. Still, they have what it takes.

There’s very little room for error among the top three.

Then, there’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. I adore them and the spark they bring to the ice. They have such a solid grasp on what they want for this season and they seem determined to reach every goal. They’ll be fighting for a podium spot, for sure.

Standing in their way is China’s Zhang and Zhang. Where the Canadians have spark, the Zhangs have power. They follow in the Chinese tradition of strong elements, but they don’t often skate perfectly clean or with much passion. They may still have the edge over the Canadians here, but only if they clean things up from earlier in the year.

Don’t forget young Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran. I don’t expect that this is their time to medal. But it is a good chance to see how they match up to the top teams in the world. They have the best polish of the young teams and some technical elements that are spectacular. I’m looking forward to seeing them develop.

Podium:

Savchenko/Szolkowy
Kavaguti/Smirnov
Volosozhar/Trankov

Due to the problem of having a “real job,” I will likely miss the short programs entirely. However, I’ll catch up as quickly as possible, and be ready for some live twitter action come Saturday!

Good luck to all the competitors in Quebec City.

 

Breaking it down: Rostelecom Cup November 28, 2011

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

I’m getting ahead of myself.

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

Meryl and Charlie … and everyone else

One of the more tender moments of their FD.

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

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

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

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

Nix the triple axel, take the gold

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

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

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

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

Gold.

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

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