by Alexandra Stevenson
(11 January 2013) More people learn to skate in Canada, proportionate to their population, than any other country in the world. Of course, a goodly proportion of them never “graduated” from hockey skates, but many of them have wives and/or daughters who have, at the very least, learned the basics of the grace on ice sport.
This has meant that, way back in the days of the very boring school figures and compulsory dance, the only country in the world to have a significant attendance for these sections in competition was Canada. That peaked in 1984 when even the compulsory dance tickets for the Worlds in Ottawa, which Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean won, and for which they got a maximum mark, were being scalped.
Even today, the average Canadian attendee at a figure skating event, will almost certainly have a far greater appreciation of the sport than in any other country. It is also why the organizers have arranged for extra activities, including monitors outside the Budweiser Arena for those who aren’t able, or couldn’t afford to get a ticket, will not be left out of the celebration!
It also means that their national bias is palpable. If twice world champion Patrick Chan doesn’t retain his title, they’ll be wide-spread disappointment, although not quite as intensive as if Olympic champions and twice world ice dance champions, Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, don’t receive gold. The intensity of feeling for Virtue & Moir is compounded because London is where Virtue was born, and her partner is from Ilderton, which is close by, and this is where they learned to skate and started on their competitive path.
The event is considered important enough for the country’s top statesman, the Governor General, His Excellency, the Right Honorable David Johnston and his wife, to be presenting the medals on Friday.
A CUT-DOWN EVENT
Last year’s World championships in Nice, France, took longer, since the event included elimination rounds. At that point, every member nation of the International Skating Union was entitled to send one entrant regardless of standard.
Such a policy had some good results. Yao Bin & Luan Bo were the first ever Chinese competitors to enter the world championship. They were woefully unprepared, and well under standard throughout their career, placing last but by increasingly less margin through their three appearances at the world championships 1980-82, and at the 1984 Olympic Games.
At that point, China was completely sealed from foreign contact, and the only help they had in learning their skating skills were photographs of skaters. But, from that humbling, embarrassing start, he became a great coach, teaching others what he had seen, but could never do. Almost single handedly, he engineered the progress of China to the top of pair skating.
The head of the International Skating Union has often spoken of his hopes that the sport would similarly expand to places like India and South America. But, with television companies less willing to pay for rights, the organization is having to cut costs. Many countries only receive funding for a sport, if they can show they have a competitor at world level. The new policy definitely sets up a discouraging block for them.
To eliminate competitors, certain minimum technical scores have been set that competitors must achieve at recognized “Senior B” internationals in both Short and Free programs. These numbers were set at very high levels, and were reduced in early February for all but the ice dance division, in which 29 couples from 21 nations have qualified.
The pairs standard was cut back by a full four points for each of the two sections, and even so the field is only 18 pairs from 10 countries. The “Ladies” standard was dropped by two points in each section, and 35 entrants from 27 countries have qualified. The “mens” standard for their Short program was dropped by three points, and their Free Skate requirement by five points for their Free Skate. Thirty five entrants from 26 countries have qualified.
In total 164 competitors representing 42 countries are participating as compared to 54 at last year’s world championships.
According to Bill Bolland, the Volunteer Coordinator responsible for 540 willing, enthusiastic helpers, this is the biggest sporting event in the history of the Canadian city of London. (His volunteers even include some of the stars’ (Virtue & Moir’s) relatives. Bolland explains the city, which is Canada’s 10th (or 11th according to your source) largest metropolitan area (pop. 464,000), earned the approval of Skate Canada for its bid based on their experience with three previous Canadian and international Synchronized Skating events in 2005, 2007 & 2010.
In turn Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir acknowledge their good fortune. Moir explained, "Tessa and I say we feel like the luckiest (not-so-young) kids. We got a home Olympics (Vancouver) and now we have a hometown world championship, which is virtually unheard of (unless you live in a capital city)."
However, this comes at a cost. The 11-year-old Budweiser Arena is warm and inviting, but there are only 7,000 seats, and some of those, at the sides of the raised Technical panel and officials platform, have limited view. The necessary installation cuts off their view of the other corner on their side.
As usual, the pairs event will be the first completed. Representatives from a mere ten countries will execute their Short Program on Wednesday afternoon and their Free Skate on Friday afternoon. Defending champions Aliona Savchenko & Robin Szolkowy, Germany, are in line for their fifth world title in the past six years. (They didn’t win in 2010.) But she has had a troubled season. Although they won the Skate Canada Grand Prix in Windsor, she was suffering from a bad cold which she couldn’t seem to shake. They did not take part in their second Grand Prix due to a severe sinus infection and so did not make it to the Final.
The Germans were decisively beaten in the recent European championships in January by the Russians, whom they had bested in the last two world championships, Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankov. These Russians had been the defending champions in Zagreb, since the Germans had pulled out of the event the previous year in Sheffield due to Savchenko’s injury.
Before this world championship, Volosozhar & Trankov, who train in Moscow, wisely, had spent time getting used to the time change practicing in New Jersey. On Monday morning, he appeared in baggy, grey trousers and warm-up clothes for their practice, along with teammates, Vera Bazarova & Yuri Larionov, to show off a few tricks. However, he declined to speak to the press. Bazarova & Larionov are definitely medal possibilities. They were second in the Grand Prix Final but withdrew from the European Championship due to his wrist injury which hindered his ability and stability in the lifts.
The third Russian pair, the aging Yuko Kavaguti, 31, & Alexander Smirnov, 28, who train in St. Petersburg, had not yet arrived in Canada. They chose to leave their long flight till the last possible time to try and get around jet lag. Though they earned bronze twice in the world championship, in 2009 & 2010, they have been losing ground and were 4th in 2011 and 7th in 2012.
Also getting a little long in the tooth are the Chinese 2006 and 2010 world champions, Qing Pang & Jian Tong, who won silver in 2007 and bronzes in 2004 and 2011. They are competing in their 15th world senior championship. The two 33-year-olds, who are romantically involved, are suffering from chronic injuries. Though their technical skills may not be what they were, they still are able to present spectacular twist moves. They have been working with choreographers to develop more grace, and that helped bring them bronze in the Grand Prix Final in December in Sochi.
Determined to improve their fifth at last year’s worlds, the Canadian and Four Continents champions, ho placed fourth in December’s Grand Prix Final, Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford, who have only been skating together since the end of the 2010 season, have rustled up home support, but they may be facing walls that are just too high to vault.
Their teammates, Kristin Moore-Towers & Dylan Moscovitch are also eager to get started and show what they can do before a home country crowd. They finished second in Osaka at the Four Continents championship, while the new U.S. champions, Marissa Castelli & Simon Shnapir, earned bronze.
Castelli & Shnapir are thrilled with their new elite status. On Monday, after their first practice in the Budweiser Arena, Castelli admitted, “We started this season with certain goals, and they got higher as time went on. By December, we wanted to win the national title, and now we are ready to go to greater heights. The atmosphere here is great.”
They are from the Boston area and have had the support of noted historian, author and former international office holder, Ben Wright. Shnapir, who was wearing a large band aid on his left palm, which he shrugged off, as a very minor slash of from a skating blade, said, “He has told us of skating in previous eras.” His partner added, with amazement in her eyes, “He remembers the Fifties!”
Their teammates are Alexa Scimeca & Chris Knierim, silver medalist U.S. silver medalists from Colorado Springs, who have made rapid rise in “only eleven months together.” Scimeca explains she is delighted to be in London. “Everything we hoped for is happening. This is different from what we are used to. We are thrilled. The ice is a little bit softer here, but it’s early in the week, and it may get harder.” Softer ice slows can slow skaters down a little. “But this is just the first practice so it’ll probably change through the week.”
Their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, said Knierim’s former partner wanted to go to California but he didn’t want to move from Colorado. Scimeca was Sappenfield’s first choice as a replacement. The well-known pairs instructor, who made her name early in skating in part because of her circus expertise made her familiar with the mechanics particularly of twist moves. “Since then, they have had a lot of experience. She does have a (foot) injury, which caused them to withdraw in Japan from the Four Continents Championship, but it’s mostly pain free and she’s had therapy.”
DANCE - BATTLE OF THE ICE DANCE TITANS
There are no other couples in the same league as the top two in this event.
Tessa Virtue, 23, and Scott Moir, 25, are not only home country but home town defenders of this title. However, they sit with their crowns perched very precariously on their heads.
Their main adversaries are Meryl Davis, who turned 26 on January 1, & Charlie White, 25. In 2011, Davis & White became the first ever Americans to win the world ice dance title since the event’s creation in 1952. They were last beaten in competition when Virtue & Moir took back the world title from them in a decision which was NOT close, but which was VERY controversial in the 2012 world championships in 2012 in Nice.
Davis & White, the Olympic silver medalists in Vancouver, have dominated the U.S. championships for the past five years, and have gained gold in the Grand Prix Final for the past four years. They are a more athletic breed than the more traditional “dance-y” Virtue & Moir.
Fans are very intense in their preference for one couple or the other. The current system has definitely made the sport far fairer. However, there is still a degree of subjectivity about ice dancing. This is what makes it special.
Both couples teamed up when really young, in 1997, and started training together at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Michigan, in 2003. They were coached by both Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva until a split between the coaches led to Shpilband’s ouster and move to the Novi rink last April.
Neither couple appears to find it extraordinary that they spent so much time training together. White jokes, “We like to keep an eye on each other. If one does some extra training, you can be sure the other does too. It keeps us on our toes and motivated.”
But this season has been hard for Virtue & Moir. Even in their national championship, they received deductions, and then they had a disastrous time in Osaka at the Four Continents Championships. Virtue suffered a leg cramp about three minutes into their Carmen routine. The referee allowed them to stop for three minutes and then finish the final minute of the program.
Moir later explained, “We were just trying to hand on for the last minute. I know when I have a cramp, I can barely get up off the washroom floor in the middle of the night. So to finish a Free Dance isn’t the easiest thing. I know if it hadn’t happened we would have had higher marks and brought the crowd to their feet.”
What was very controversial about that marking is they were given some awards of “10”, the maximum possible, which critics thought was outrageous, since that award gave no indication of the flawed performance. Virtue has previously overcome surgeries to correct pain in her shins due to compartmental syndrome. She said she believed the cramping was due to overtraining.
“We were really pushing it in training, really trying to improve on our speed and power. The intensity of our training sessions had increased significantly. While that’s a great thing, I think we forgot to take care of the details and the routines of the past couple of years that make us feel good and healthy and let our bodies recover a bit. It was a cumulative effect with the jet lag and dehydration, we have to let our bodies have time to recover.”
Meanwhile, Davis says they’ve had their most enjoyable season ever, “both on and off the ice. We feel we've made continued growth throughout season, which is really what we've striven for. We're excited and can't wait for the World Championships."
And they have stayed healthy which, White explains, “is hard to do at this level. We make a lot of effort to make sure we are having fun and really enjoying our programs. It makes a big difference."
They both stress, "Across the board, we feel stronger than we have before."
How do you put together a program you like? White said, “Part of it is luck, and part of it is good coaching. Each (program) is built upon the last. We're really feeling like it's the most well-rounded of all our programs. It brings everything to the table, and that's what makes it great. That's going to give us our opportunity to win Worlds.
"I think we have different moments in our past that we have favorite performances, but I think we really like all of our programs and appreciate them for what they did for us in our career. It's hard to compare them because you put so much work into them. I think every year the program we're doing at the time is probably our favorite because we're putting so much into it and I think we feel that way this year, as well."
Both couples are aware that the success they have had, has brought more attention to ice dance. Moir said, “I know even in the Ilderton Club, there are a lot more ice dance teams than there used to be, and maybe that’s because people watched us on television, and liked the idea that to be a competitive skater, you had options other than singles and pairs, and that ice dance has its social side as well.
“You know, I heard after (Jayne) Torvill & (Christopher) Dean won their Olympic gold, all sorts of people flooded the British ice rinks just to pretend for a short while they were ice dancers.”
Last year’s world bronze medalists, Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat, from France, had to withdraw from the recent European championships in Zagreb, which they had won in the previous two years, because of his groin injury. They have been back training at the Detroit Figure Skating Club, with Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo, but their enforced time off no doubt has cost them dearly.
Also back after injury are Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje of Canada, who were fourth last year. She broke an ankle slamming into the rink barrier and was off the ice from December 14 to February 7. Their teammates are Piper Gilles, who formerly skated for the USA, but is now partnering former Canadian champion, Paul Poirier, and they are making their debut in this event.
The Russians, particularly the new European champions, Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev, who had been second for the previous two years, had a bad time in last year’s world championship when they finished seventh, but are hoping they can step up to claim bronze. Their teammates, Elena Ilinykh &Nikita Katsalapov, were fifth last year and Ekaterina Riazanova & Ilia Tkachenko, ninth.
Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte, Italians who were sixth last year and now train with Igor Shpilband, are also hoping to advance.
In the mix are Maia & Alex Shibutani, American siblings who won bronze in the world championship in Moscow in 2011 but were only seventh last year after a fall.
Madison Chock & Evan Bates, who placed second in the U.S. national championships, are making their debut in this event.
MEN - Three Times Too Much for Home Country Defending Champion?
Patrick Chan, who turned 22 on New Year’s Eve, says he is confident about defending the title he has won for the past two years, but is probably under more pressure than he’s ever experienced. After winning his second Worlds in Nice last year, in one of the least understood moves in figure skating, he basically fired Christie Krall, the coach he had adopted after his less-than-stellar expected showing in Vancouver, which was the result of an injury and illness that plagued his whole season and led to his disappointing fifth place finish in the Olympic Games.
Krall had basically tailored an existing “Dart Fish” computer analysis program which helped Chan move into the quad era. But now he says he doesn’t need a coach repeating to him the same thing every day. There are also rumors and back stories indicating his love of high altitude training in Colorado, away from the daily, sometimes overwhelming recognition he elicits when in Canada, has soured in favor of the comradeship of Canadians Jeffrey Buttle and David Wilson, who created his programs.
The six-time Canadian champion is now based in what may, or may not, be a temporary arrangement at the Detroit Figure Skating Club and Kathy Johnson has moved from Colorado Springs temporarily to oversee his training.
Chan has a history of not doing well early in the season and that certainly was the case this time. He fell four times showing off a new routine in Japan, in an event created for that country’s main television station. He finished sixth and last.
In his next event, he was beaten by Javier Fernandez, 21, from Spain in both the Short and Long programs in the Skate Canada Grand Prix in Windsor, a city which is across the river border with Detroit.
Fernandez, who trains with Brian Orser in Canada, went on to pull a surprise clear victory in the recent European championship, showing off three quads. However, in practice on Tuesday in London, he was not skating well.
Last year’s world silver and bronze medalists, Daisuke Takahashi and Yazuru Hanyu, showed they are capable of beating Chan by earning first and second places in December’s Grand Prix Final which was held in Sochi and was the tryout for the 2014 Olympic figure skating arena. Takahashi became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic figure skating medal when he earned bronze in 2012. A few weeks later he also became the first Japanese to win the Mens event in the World Figure Skating Championship.
However, he lost his national crown in December. He was lying second after the Short Program and won the Free Skate but not by enough to overtake Hanyu. In the recent Four Continents championship, in which Hanyu, who is 18, was second, Takahashi, who will turn 27 on March 16, was seventh.
U.S. champion Max Aaron, who turned 21 on February 15, is making his debut in this event. He, unexpectedly, seized his moment in Omaha to dethrone previous three-time U.S. national champion Jeremy Abbott, who finished third. Based on last season’s results, the U.S. was permitted only two mens competitors. The maximum is three. Aaron arrived in London looking very pleased if a little puzzled. “I’ve waited a long time to get here. In the U.S. they said I was more of a “European” type of skater rather than (the flashier) North American model.”
The 5’8” Aaron, who is from Scotsdale, Arizona, but trains with Tom Zakrajcek in Colorado Springs, completed two quad Salchows in his national Free Skate. Quads are the future, his coach claims. “I don’t think you are going to win a medal here without quads plural,” Zakrajcek said.
Aaron explained he has been to Canada many times, but as a hockey player! “This brings back great memories. The last time I was in this country was in 2006 for a hockey tournament in Vancouver. We were the first U.S. team to win that event. I was playing with the Phoenix Firebirds’ bantom AAA team and I got the winning goal. It was awesome and it fueled my love of competition.”
However, he recently told reporters in a teleconference, that, after missing some jumps and placing eighth in the 2012 U.S. championship, he wondered if he had a future in this sport. He stopped training for a couple of months. He said later, “I never want to leave anything unturned, and my figure skating career was unturned. I decided to come back fully and give it everything I had, to never let someone else tell me what I can or can’t do.”
Of course, he’s very familiar with Chan’s routines, since he’s trained in the same facility with him for the past almost three years. Aaron said, “He told me the Canadian figure skating fans are like they are for hockey in the States, really vocal, so I’m looking forward to giving them my best.” Aaron will skate his short program 21st, immediately following the Russian newcomer, Maxim Kovtun, a 17-year-old quad expert who gave a sensational showing with this season Junior Grand Prix Final. In the recent European championship, Kovtun finished fifth.
Ross Miner, from Boston, made his debut in Worlds last year in Nice, placing 11th. He was runner-up to Aaron in Omaha. He drew to show his Short Program last of the 35 men immediately following Chan, who will no doubt receive a roof-blowing reception however he skates. Miner, who turned 22 on January 24, is trained by Peter Johansson & Mark Mitchell.
Miner landed his first quad in competition in the NHK Japanese Grand Prix event. That brought him the bronze medal. He said, “It was fun to do it there because the Japanese are very knowledgeable and there was a big buzz in the crowd about it.”
Of course, the Canadians are also thrilled that Kevin Reynolds has made a huge step forward when his command of quad jumps enabled him to soar from sixth place after the Short Program to win the recent Four Continent Championships in Osaka, Japan. Reynolds has been jumping multiple quads for several years but often not getting credit for full rotation.
There are an usually high number of old-timers hanging on for what they hope will be “their moment”, including Brian Joubert, the sexy 28-year-old Frenchman who won this title in 2007 and skated the best he has in years when he earned fourth place in last year’s Worlds. Joubert’s many year reign in France was ended when he was bested for the national title by Florent Amodio, 22, who will perform his Short Program in this event immediately following his team mate. (The previous two years, Joubert had not taken part in his national championship.)
LADIES - Yuna Kim, A Force to be Reckoned With
Canada holds many pleasant memories for the amazing 2010 Olympic champion, Yuna Kim, who rocketed into a life of celebrity-hood as the acknowledged top sporting royalty in South Korea, when she won Olympic gold in Vancouver. She is now the most recognized person in that tiny country, and cannot go outside without a battery of “protectors” guarding her against flocks of too-adoring fans. She serves as an official spokesperson for the Olympic Games in 2018, which are in her own country.
Her practices here in London are being minutely dissected. Can she win back the world crown she won in 2009? Her practices have been impressive, particularly her straight-backed, solidly rotated and confidently landed triple Lutz to triple toe combinations, which make her look as if she had never stopped full time competition.
Exhausted from a battery of public commitments after her success in Vancouver in 2010, she still gained silver in the World championship a few weeks later in Torino, and then was second again in Moscow in the 2011 worlds. She did not compete last season and her only prior competitions this season were the NRW Trophy in Dortmund, where she met the required minimum point totals to enter the current championship, and her national event.
Experts on Tuesday said they were impressed by her physical readiness for the event, but a championship means the mind as well as the body must be ready to cope.
Will nerves appear under actual competitive conditions? Some feel that she has lost that out-going spark of connection with the audience, and that her skating may have a glossy exterior but there is no heart.
On Tuesday evening, although she has a good command of English from her years of training with Brian Orser in Toronto, she spoke through an interpreter. She said she was greedy for competitive success. “I am human, after all! I want to do well, and I want to win as much as anyone. I feel the pressure to live up to people’s expectations but I am trying not to burden myself too much.
“I used to worry about myself because I’d missed competition for nearly two years. But I regained my confidence after those two events.”
Both Kim and Asada first rose to fame in Kitchener, which is only 64 miles from London. In those world junior championships in 2005, Kim finished second, a considerable distance behind the Japanese jumping sensation, Mao Asada. (Asada sparked massive interest in her country because, later that year she won the Grand Prix Senior Final but could not be sent to the Olympics or world senior championship because she was too young.)
But, a couple of weeks after that world senior championship, in the 2006 World Junior event, Kim decisively dethroned Asada snatching the world junior title. Both are now 22. Asada, who is twenty days older than Asada, won the world senior title in 2008 & 2010, but, subsequently, had difficulty with her triple Axel and placed only sixth in the past two Worlds. She says she has that jump back in her repertoire. If so, she could be unbeatable, in part because her routines this season have have matured and garnered a lot of praise.
But last year’s champion, Carolina Kostner, who became the first ever Italian lady to win the world crown, cannot be completely dismissed. The now 26-year-old successfully defended her European title recently. Hers has been a long, up-and-down path. In her initial entry in the world championship, in 2003, she finished a promising 10th, then 5th and then gained the bronze. But she was only 12th in 2006, after a disappointing Olympics, where she was ninth.
She nearly left the sport, but did return and finished sixth in 2007 and earned silver the following year. But then the roller-coaster again took a plunge. World in 2009 were in Los Angeles and she moved there to train. But she left the arena in a flood of tears after singling jumps and finishing 12th.
Her Olympic performance in Vancouver the following year dumped her in 16th place. At that point, she nearly threw her skates on the rubbish heap, but since Worlds were back in her own country, she decided to try just one more time. In Torino, she redeemed herself somewhat with a sixth place, and things began to look brighter. In 2011 she won the bronze medal, and in Nice gold, pulling up from third after the Short Program to win by a substantial 5.66 points.
Last year’s runner-up, Alena Leonova, from St. Petersburg, 22, is competing in her fifth world championship but she has never been Russian champion. This season, she was only seventh in her nationals and was not entered for the recent European championship. She is now trained by Nikolai Morosov. In practices here she has not been impressive.
It appears likely she will be overshadowed her by her youthful team mates, Adelina Sotnikova and Elizaveta Tukamysheva who are both 16. This is their debut in this event. They recently placed second and third in the European championship.
Sotnikova, who is from Moscow, However, was is the Russian 2009, 2011 & 2012 Senior champion, but was only third in that event this season. Previously, she did not meet the required the age requirements.
Akiko Suzuka, Japan, who will be 28 on March 28, is a late-bloomer who placed third last year after being 11th in her only previous world championship in 2010.
The twice U.S. champion, Ashley Wagner, who was a surprise fourth in last year’s world championship, after taking part in the event only once before, not permitted to carry her skates on board (security procedures insist they could be used as weapons) arrived in London from Los Angeles via San Francisco without these very necessary pieces of equipment. However, her arrival was very late at night on Monday so she was probably not going to practice for her early morning Tuesday scheduled session on the practice rink and the skates were delivered in time for the evening practice in the main rink. It was an annoying part of modern life, but, though worrying, did not cause other problems.
Gracie Gold, who turned 17 in August, is from Illinois. She is making her debut in this event after gaining silver in the U.S. Senior championships the year after she won the U.S. Junior title & made an impressive international debut, earning silver in the World Junior Championships. Both Gold, and the new Canadian champion, Kaetlyn Osmond, who turned 17 on December 5, are being touted as the “faces of the future.
HTML Comment Box is loading comments...