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2015 Four Continents Championships

North American Dominates Dance Event

by Tatjana Flade

(17 February 2015)  The ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships exist since 1999 and long seemed to be the stepchild among major events such as the European, World and even World Junior Championships. Four Continents never got as much attention and coverage, top skaters tended to skip the event and fans weren’t as interested. The 16th edition of Four Continents in Seoul, Korea in mid February was different and showed how much the event has grown and gained prestige. The level of competition was very high, especially in the men’s event, and three of the four new Four Continents Champions can be regarded as top favorites for the upcoming ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Shanghai next month.

Four Continents came to Korea for the fifth time already (no other country has hosted the competition more often), but for the first time to Seoul. The event took place in Jeonju in 2002 and 2010, in Gangneung in 2005 and in Goyang City in 2008. The Mokdong Arena is located in Seoul, not far from a subway station and has two ice rinks. However, the hotel was outside Seoul in a newly developed area and the bus ride from and to the arena took 25 minutes up to an hour depending on traffic. This is always tiring for skaters, coaches and officials, but apparently no suitable hotel was close by. There were no major glitches in the organization and the competition run smoothly. The local Korean OC was supported by the ISU event staff, headed by Peter Krick.

Figure skating never was a big sport in Korea, only Yuna Kim drew the masses. Without her – she didn’t even drop by to present medals – the rink was never full. The best draw was for the Men’s and Ladies free skating as well as for the gala on Saturday and Sunday. However, some die-hard Kim fans were in the arena and held up banners to protest against the result of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games when Adelina Sotinkova beat Kim for the gold. Their banners read messages like “Sochi robbers”, “We don’t forget Sochi”, “ISU needs reform”. Whether you agree or not with the result from Sochi, it is a bit redundant now to still complain about it. In any case it was positive that these fans were allowed to voice their opinion and they were not stopped from holding up their banners as it might have been the case in other countries.

The ice dance event has been dominated by Canada and the USA since the very first Four Continents. So far all medalists were Americans or Canadians. This is no surprise as the discipline is not as well developed in the other countries that participate in the event. USA and Canada sent three teams each (that occupied the top six), China had three to begin with (but Yiyi Zhang & Nan Wu had to withdraw after the short dance as she was injured), while Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan and Mexico sent one couple each. However, none of these teams actually train in the country they represent. The Japanese-French combination Emi Hirai & Marien de la Asuncion trains in France, the Korean-Russian team Rebeka Kim & Krill Minov is based in Moscow, Russia and the Mexican brother-and-sister team Pilar and Leonardo Maekawa-Moreno has moved to Canada and the USA for training. The Kazakh dancers Karina Uzurova & Ilias Ali finally used to train in Russia and are in Detroit since this season.  The Japanese dance champions Cathy and Chris Reed withdrew prior to the event as he once again is injured. Australia and Uzbekistan that sometimes had a team in the past were not represented this time.

Obviously the ice dance competition focused on the duel between the two top teams this season, Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje and USA’s Madison Chock & Evan Bates. They met for the third time after Nebelhorn Trophy and Grand Prix Final, and so far Weaver & Poje came out on top each time, but in Seoul they edged out their U.S. rivals buy just 1.28 points.

Chock & Bates won the short dance over Maia and Alex Shibutani and Weaver & Poje. The U.S. Champions looked very smooth in their “Don Quixote” dance and had good levels, but no level four for the Paso Doble. Madison felt that this was their best short dance of the season, and indeed they did get a seasons and personal best with 70.38 points. Her partner agreed.  “I think it was an improvement even from US Championships a few weeks ago. Every time we compete we get a little more comfortable with the program”, he said. Bates also had dyed his hair darker. “This season specifically the Paso Doble for me is a character I’ve been working to really fulfill – the matador, the man that has to be strong. For me that just means to put on a matador hat, to look the part and for me this was changing my hair colour a bit in style and just to carry off the character a little bit better”, the dancer explained.

The Shibutanis had even a higher technical score, as they got one more level four (for one Paso section). Their characteristic program to “Asturias Variations” and “The Last Corrida” actually deserved maybe higher scores especially for choreography and interpretation as the siblings were spot on and able to bring across the character of the music. They achieved a personal best of 69.65 points. “Today was actually a little bit of a challenge. I think it was a different experience for us. We have to go back and watch the video but I think we skated really well considering, we were very focused throughout our program and I think the performance level has been increasing as the season is progressingand we are very excited with obviously how we skated but even with the result, too, going into worlds”, Alex pointed out.

Weaver & Poje on the other hand looked somewhat hesitant and slow in their “La Virgen de Marcarena” and his twizzles especially seemed slow. The Technical Panel with Sylwia Nowak-Trebacka and Francesca Fermi evaluated the twizzles and the second Paso Doble part with a level 2. Although the World silver medalist still had the highest component score, they sat in third with 68.31 points and were obviously disappointed with their levels. “The hard part about the SD especially this year is that even the smallest details can make a world of a difference. We’re already looking into making this better so that we can get all the kinks out here in time for the World Championships”, Kaitlyn said. “It’s (the level twos) a little unusual, but ever caller is different, every caller is like a thumbprint. They are looking for everything that might be a little bit different. You have to make sure you please them all. Each time we skate right now we’re able to give more and not hold back and really attack this Paso (Doble) and we felt like we did that in the performance today”, she added.

The Canadians fought back in the free dance though and overtook the Shibutanis and Chock & Bates to take their second Four Continents title since 2010.

Weaver & Poje really attacked their “Four Seasons” (in an arrangement by Max Richter) and even though Andrew had a scary moment in the twizzles, they overall performed very well and had excellent levels – level 4 for everything than the footwork which was a level 3. Their free dance scored 109.15 and overall they had 177.46 points. “It wasn’t easy coming from behind, but that’s a position that we’ve been in for seemingly our whole career so it was nothing new to feel like we had to fight for this free dance. We are so well trained at this point that we just had to go out and do what we had to do every day. There is a little bit of extra gusto in there, because the desire to move up and that helped us to perform today. We didn’t want to save anything, we just wanted to let it go. We didn’t want to feel like we held back in any way”, Weaver shared. “We won in Korea in 2010 that was definitely at a different point in our career. That’s when we just missed the Vancouver Games and we were very deflated. Four Continents served as a turning point and it was our way to prove ourselves that we want to fight and come back from this disappointment. From that point on we knew what we wanted and we wanted to become a different team from what we were back then. Now that we’ve won the Championship again and it being in Korea is very special and it’s a full circle”, Poje observed.

Chock & Bates had the same levels as the winners but were marked a little lower on the component score and also on the execution of their elements so that they slipped to second with a free dance score of 105.80 and total score of 176.18 points. “Today wasn’t our best skate but it was definitely a solid performance. We’re happy with the week we’ve had. We had good skates and good practices. It’s great to go to the world championships with some fire in our bellies”, Chock noted. “Looking at the way the season has gone for us, we have a lot to be proud of. Even here we were happy with how we skated. But we know it’s going to need to be better at worlds and I think it can be. We just made a bunch of changes in both programs and we have five or six weeks before worlds. This is the first time competing with the changes in the free dance in particular. It’s so new, it’s a bit nerve racking. Having the six weeks of training at home will benefit us. We’ll skate better at worlds”, Bates commented.

The Shibutanis have worked on their Waltz program and improved the technical level, however, Alex stumbled on the twizzles (level 3). “It was a little bit uncharacteristic today. I was very surprised that that happened, the twizzles are one of our strongest elements. We can do them with our eyes closed. Everything else felt really good. We finished the program with good energy.  We’ve taken a step up since the National Championships. It was a successful outcome of the week after all”, he said.

The siblings scored 101.14 points (still a personal best) and accumulated 170.79 points.

Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier finished fourth with 162.25 points. The Canadians achieved a personal best in both short and free dance. They put out strong performances. The short dance is especially inspired by ice dance legend Christopher Dean who works with them and the free dance is ballroom-oriented to music from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “A Street Car Named Desire”.  “I think it is such a fun program for us”, Poirier said about the free dance. “We really enjoy doing it. And we're just so pleased with how much the characters have progressed throughout this season. For us the big challenge was that we wanted to get out of our comfort zone and learn how to be a new type of character. We've never done a romantic program before. So for us that is what this year has been about. It's been about learning to portrait those kinds of characters. And I really hope it was believable”, he continued. The kiss at the end for sure looked real.

World Junior Champions Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker (USA) can look back at a successful first senior season. They won a bronze medal at the Grand Prix NHK Trophy and finished fifth in their debut at Four Continents (149.98 points). Obviously they still look a bit juniorish in comparison to the other teams, but at 18 and 21 year old they are even still junior eligible. The couple from Detroit skated well in both programs in Seoul and moved up one spot in their “Romeo and Juliet” free dance. “It's been a great experience. We really wanted to put just a last great performance for our first senior season and we both feel like we really just run out and laid out a great solid performance, where we did everything we could and we had a great time and told a great story”, Hawayek commented. They are first alternates for the World team and will keep training and also start to prepare for the next season.

Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam slipped from fifth to sixth after he fell on a transition in the free dance to “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel (149.92 points). The team had changed the free dance following the Grand Prix series, originally they had skated to a Frank Sinatra medley. “We felt like we had a really good performance for the first few minutes, and then a little loss of focus and you saw what happened”, Islam said. “We really loved our previous free dance, but we weren’t quite getting the traction we were hoping with it. Everybody was saying how beautiful it was, but we were kind of stuck with how to make it grow and to make it better. So we knew we needed to change things up. We started over and came out with a great new free dance”, Paul explained.

Shiyue Wang & Xinyu Liu were the top Chinese team and had solid performances. They finished 7th with 130.95 points. Emi Hirai & Marien de la Asuncion of Japan came 8th at 122.67 points. While they were happy with how they skated they regretted to have missed the minimum score for Worlds. So if the Reeds are not fit by the end of March, Japan won’t have a dance team in the competition.

Korea’s Rebeka Kim & Kirill Minov were a little shaky in the short dance but skated with more confidence in the free dance to “Phantom of the Opera”. Strange enough the Korean Skating Union did not invite them to the Exhibition Gala.