by Tatjana Flade
Successful Olympic Test Event at Four Continents in Korea
A year before the Olympic Winter Games the Four Continents Championships in Gangneung at the South Korean east coast were an important test event. Currently the region of PyeongChang hosts several test events in different sports such as speed skating, ski jumping and luge. The new Gangneung Ice Arena looks like a white UFO landed in the Olympic park, just a few minutes walk away from the speed skating oval and an ice hockey arena. As always at Olympic Games, figure skating and short track skating are sharing the venue, therefore the rink has the typical padded mats as boards – what also figure skaters appreciate when the fall and crash into them. The rink with a capacity of 12,000 left an excellent impression. It is friendly and many rooms such as the press conference room have windows and day light. The distances are short and many skaters praised the atmosphere in the building. The practice rink is in the basement.
Nathan Chen "quads" His Way to Gold
Nathan Chen continued his success this season and won the gold, landing a total of seven quadruple jumps in both programs and setting two records: He is the first skater to perform four different quadruple jumps (Lutz, flip, Salchow and toeloop) as well as the first to land five quads in one free skating in an international competition. He had already accomplished this feat at the U.S. National Championships in January. In Gangneung, two quads were a bit wobbly.
“It’s definitely a good step in the right direction. The Final definitely motivated me and gave me the idea that I’m technically competitive with these guys. I never felt that way throughout the beginning of the season. So that gave me a lot of motivation, a lot of energy going into Nationals. Nationals was something I needed to set up for myself, to make sure that I was able to do these. I didn’t necessarily need to do the number of quads that I did, but it was something that I wanted to prove to myself”, the 17-year-old said. “Going into Four Continents, it wasn’t the peak of my season, Worlds is obviously the peak of my season, so I wasn’t sure about the number of quads I’ll do, but when the time came I was motivated by these guys and I decided to throw them in and it played out for me. I made some little mistakes here and there, but it’s something we’ll fix and work on. I think it’s a great experience to be able to compete against these guys and then do the number of quads that I’m doing, with all the nerves and the different sorts of pressure I’ve never dealt with before”, he continued.
Chen (and by the way Yuzuru Hanyu as well) did actually more quads than triples in their free skating. The U.S. Champion landed five quads and three triples, the Olympic Champion did four quads and three triples. That’s a first. In Gangneung 11 men risked a total of 48 quads. 32 quads were landed (25 of these had a positive GOE, the others were wobbly or with a little mistake like a touch down). The remaining 16 quads were executed poorly, fallen or under-rotated.
However, in Chen’s programs the focus on the jumps is obvious and his components are still too hight compared to other skaters such as Patrick Chan or Yuzuru Hanyu. The quads are impressive, no questions, but how “well balanced” is the program when he does four jumps, the choreo sequence, another four jumps, then the spins and the footwork? Components of nine and higher for transitions, composition and interpretation that he received from the majority of judges, are too high. Some judges are probably carried away by the impressive jumps.
Hanyu would have been a worthy champion as well, but he popped a planned quad Salchow into a double in the short and also in the free program, what cost him a lot of points. The Japanese star produced two nice quad loops, quad toes and also one quad Salchow in the free and the triple Axel was as usual probably his most beautiful jump. The 22-year-old has a well balanced program and excellent skating skills. He won the free skating, but it was not enough to take the title.
“To be honest, I wanted to win. This my third silver medal at Four Continents. I feel I’ve been growing as a skater every year and I think this is the silver medal I had most fun with”, Hanyu said. “Before going on to the podium I looked at Nathan and I felt envious. I wanted to win. But he did five quads and two triple Axels, maybe some of them were not totally clean, but I felt like I want to congratulate him from the bottom from my heart”, he added.
Shoma Uno has joined the multiple quad club, first by becoming the first to land a quad flip and now by adding the quad loop by to his repertoire. However, the 19-year-old missed the triple Axel in the long program.
Defending champion Patrick Chan made too many mistakes this time. He crashed on the quad toe in the short program and stumbled on the combination triple Lutz-triple toe. The three-time World Champion started well into the free with quad-triple toe and triple Axel, but he missed the quad Salchow, the second toe and some more errors followed. “I started great with a strong quad toe and the triple Axel. The Sal (Salchow) and the second toe, looking on the video it seemed a little under-rotated. Those are things that I think that I need to work a little on the snap off the ice, being a little more efficient. That’s something I can work off the ice as well as on the ice”, the Canadian noted. He finished fourth.
Boyang Jin of China for the first time went for a quad loop, but he fell on it and struggled also with some other jumps to come fifth. Jason Brown decided to forgo the quad that he was unable to train due to a leg injury. He missed the triple Axel in the short and lost steam at the end of his otherwise beautiful free program, stumbling on some jumps (6th). Misha Ge, like Jason Brown very popular with the fans, did not go for a quad either and turned in solid programs (7th). The 25-year-old said that maybe this is his last competitive season. Denis Ten withdrew, because he competed at the Universiade the week before and at the Asian Winter Games the week after and didn’t want to do three competitions in a row.
"Cinderella" Mai Mihara Takes Ladies Gold
In the 2015/16 season, Mai Mihara was a promising junior skater that competed in the Junior Final. But then she was diagnosed with arthritis. The teenager overcame the illness and fought her way back. “A year ago at this time I couldn’t even stand up and walk and to be able to compete at the Four Continents and to be selected for the World team is something just incredible”, the 16-year-old commented. Mihara produced two clean performances and came away with the title in her debut at the Championship. “I find it hard to believe that I won. It’s great that I finally became the Cinderella on the ice. My goal here was to skate clean both in short and free and finish my programs with a smile. I’m glad I was able to achieve that”, the Japanese skaters said.
Gabrielle Daleman took the lead with a strong short program that included a triple toe-triple toe combination. She made two errors in the free (popped a loop and stumbled on a double Axel), but it was enough to hold on to the silver medal, her first medal in a major international event. “It was a new experience leading after the short at such a big championship like Four Continents, I’ve never done it before. It was a great learning experience. I said to my coaches that I was very nervous and they just said ‘use those nerves and do what you do every day in training, keep the rhythm of the program and just let your body take over. And that’s exactly what I did today. I’m very proud of what I did. Yes, there were a few mistakes, but I put those behind me and kept the program going. So I’m ready to go home and fix those (mistakes),” the Canadian said.
American Mirai Nagasu is another "comeback kid“. At U.S. Nationals the 23-year-old ranked fourth, missing out narrowly on the team for Worlds, but she got Four Continents when Ashley Wagner withdrew. In Gangneung, Mirai was the top American lady, beating clearly the new U.S. Champion Karen Chen and also U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell, who both will go to Helsinki. Nagasu stumbled on the loop in the short, but her free to “The Winner Takes It All” was clean with seven triples and she pulled up to third. ”Last year I won the silver medal, but I think this year the bronze means more to me. The performance I was able to put out tonight was just amazing. It felt magical. These are the moments we work so hard for every day. For it to come to fruition has been very gratifying.”
Before the event, ISU Grand Prix Finalist Kaetlyn Osmond looked like the top favorite, but inconsistency plagued her again. She fell on the double Axel in the short and took three hard falls in the free to slip from second to fourth. Osmond has a lot of power and big jumps, and when she skates well she is a candidate for top placements, but she has apparently problems keeping her focus. “I’ve been getting a lot better at when I miss an element, be able and refocus and get back my feet underneath me. Today that just didn’t happen, but it’s a learning experience and something I’d like to work on going into Worlds, come up with new techniques for it. The next four weeks are just going to be a lot of training, a lot of run-throughs and just picking through every possible thing that I can to make everything perfect and maybe a couple of more trips to my sports psychologist”, the Canadian Champion said.
Dabin Choi of Korea turned in two strong performances without major errors to place fifth. Bell and Chen made several errors and ranked sixth and 12th. Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan finished third in the short program but struggled in the free and plummeted to eighth.
Virtue & Moir on Top Again
Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir continue to dance on the top and won the title. Moir had a little wobble in the partial step sequence in the short dance. Their Prince short dance is fantastic, the Canadians capture the character of the dance perfectly. The 2010 Olympic Champions earned a personal best for their lyrical free dance to “Latch“, but they remained critical of themselves. “It certainly didn’t feel our best in certain ways. We have really improved the program. We made a few technical glitches, but ultimately that comes down to training. We know that these programs are so well trained that even on worst days it’s not the end of the world”, Virtue said.
“Another title, but another great learning experience, we’ve said all along this entire comeback for us was just leading up the Olympic Games. So having the opportunity to simulate things here in this venue was really important to us and really magical and I think this will help us a lot moving forward, getting home, being able to visualize the venue and the surrounding areas. It’s a great advantage”, she noted.
Defending champions Maia and Alex Shibutani turned in two excellent performances as well, but they had a few lower levels than Virtue & Moir in the short dance. In the free dance, the World silver medalists earned the same good levels as the Canadians and scored a personal best. “I’m so proud of how we handled this entire week. It was really thrilling competing in the Olympic venue and the two performances we did this week were a great preview to really test what it could be like a year from now”, Maia Shibutani said. “It really feels like our programs are starting to come into their own. We’ve been doing a lot of great work this season and we’re just looking forward to continuing to train for Finland. We have quite a bit of time now, so we’re ready to go home and train”, she continued.
Madison Chock & Evan Bates had a strong competition as well, making no mistakes. Their free dance "Under Pressure“ by David Bowie and Freddie Mercury is probably the most modern of all top teams and sets them apart. “I think we’ve built a really strong momentum for ourselves, especially this season. The programs that we put out at this event have been our best so far and so we can only keep this going and skate our best at Worlds”, Chock commented. “We’re really excited to be traveling to Helsinki, Finland. That was actually where our first international competition together was, so things are kind of coming full-circle for us this season. We’re really excited for that”, she added.
Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue had a strong short dance, but in the free he made two costly errors in the circular step sequence and the twizzles in the free dance. They were ranked sixth in the free dance, but held on to fourth place. Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje had some technical issues in the short dance when he was shaky in the twizzles and only the lift garnered a level four. The passionate free dance to “Concierto de Aranjuez” went better, but the Canadians couldn’t overtake their competitors and remained in fifth place. “We feel like we belong with the top teams in the world. We need to do some work before the World Championships, but we have plenty of time. We never lose hope, we’re fighters, we’re underdogs. We’ll go back to work and show up stronger next time”, Weaver said.
Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier wanted to fight for the podium in Gangneung, but their ambitions ended in the short dance when Piper’s fall left them in seventh place. The Canadians moved up one spot with a strong free dance.
As usual at Four Continents, North American teams occupied the top six places. Asian teams are catching up, but they are not yet quite a the level of the Canadians and Americans. Shiyue Wang & Xinyu Liu of China, Korea’s Yura Min & Alexander Gamelin and Kana Muramoto & Chris Reed of Japan were solid teams ranked seventh through ninth.
The Pairs that Came Back
The pairs event was highlighted not only by excellent performances, but also by two touching comeback stories.
Wenjing Sui & Cong Han had entered their first competition this season after she had surgery in both feet last spring. You didn’t really notice their long break and the two-time World silver medalists skated really well and the only glitch was her fall on the side by side triple Salchow in the free program. They even did their quad twist. But more importantly, the young team has improved the artistic side of their performances. Their “Blues for Klook” short program and the free to "Bridge Over Troubled Water“ are very expressive.
“First of all I am lucky to be back”, said Sui, who spoke in English at the press conference, explaining that the used the time off the ice to study the language. The long program has a special meaning to her. “This is the first time we’re going to tell our story in the program. When we chose the long program, everybody loved it, the coach and (choreographer) Lori (Nichol) loved it. The lyrics describe our experience after the operation. It was such a hard time. My life was very painful and I was crying every day. My partner helped me a lot and encouraged me. He said things will get better and you’ll get back soon. When I came back to ice rink he was afraid that I was in pain, but I said that’s okay. It’s just like the lyrics said, we help each other and work together”, she revealed.
World Champions Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford still look for the perfect performance this season. He went down on the triple Lutz in the short program, something that happened rarely. There was no fall in the free, but the throws and the triple Lutz-double toe combo were not clean, other elements were well executed. “I think today was one of those fighting skates for us which is kind of the feeling for us so far this season. Considering how were feeling going into this long program we’re both very proud of ourselves that we fought through and managed to stay on our feet and did some very good things. It’s always a bit of up and down through the season and we’ll take this as a step up towards the World Championship in March”, Radford said. Duhamel by the way adopted a little dog through an animal rescue organization that she and her coach and husband Bruno Marcotte took home to Canada.
Liubov Ilyushechkina & Dylan Moscovitch often had problems with the solo jumps, but this time there were no major errors except for an under-rotated triple Salchow in the free. However, Iliushechkina fell on the throw triple loop. Their reward was the first ISU Championship medal for the Russian-born Ilyushechkina and her Canadian partner, the bronze. “It is very exciting for me to win the medal for the country which I love the most and which I am passionate about. I got to compete at Europeans once and got fifth. This is my third Four Continents and the first Championship medal. It gives me a nice feeling and the goosebumps about the improvements we’ve made as a team and about the all the way I went to get to this point. It definitely sets up the excitement for the next big steps”, she said.
Xiaoyu Yu & Hao Zhang put out a very good short and sat in second. The Chinese couple risked the quad twist for the first time in the free, but she did only double-double toe and overall the ISU Grand Prix Finalists looked a bit slow. They dropped to fourth. “The quad twist cost a lot of energy”, Zhang said. Cheng Peng & Yang Jin made an uncharacteristic error in the short when she missed the side by side spin, but came back with a clean long.
The other big comeback story was the return of USA’s Alexa Scimeca Knierim & Chris Knierim. They, too, did not compete yet in the season as she underwent abdominal surgery. The couple, married since last summer, had a few bobbles and he doubled the toe in the free, but that was the biggest error. Scimeca & Knierim justified their selection for Four Continents and were the top ranked U.S. pairs team. It was their first competition as husband and wife. “I think it feels different, I really do. And I think it might have to do with everything we’ve been through this year with my illness. It was coincidentally around the same time that we got married, but with all we’ve gone through together, it really is a different place. It feels like nothing can harm us”, Alexa said. “It’s actually kind of funny because the storyline is from Ghost, and Chris dies in the middle of the program and becomes the ghost who skates with me throughout the rest. I think it’s funny because our roles were swapped in a sense this summer because I was the one who was sick. But he was still my guardian angel throughout everything and whenever we skate this program in practice at home, I always get lost in his eyes. I’ve never felt more protected in my life”, she went on, talking about the free skating (6th).
Kirsten Moore-Towers & Michael Marinaro provided comeback story number three. Moore-Towers had suffered a concussion and the team missed the Grand Prix series, but competed at Nationals. She fell on a triple Salchow in the free and also touched down on the throw triple Salchow (7th).
U.S. Champions Haven Denney & Brandon Frazier showed off strong lifts, but she fell on a triple Salchow in the short and on the double Axel in the free (8th). Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya & Harley Windsor of Australia gave a respectable debut at a senior-level Championship and finished 11th. Korea had entered three teams. The best of the three were the brother and sister Su Yeon Kim & Hyungtae Kim (12th).