Grand Prix Final Preview

by Alexandra Stevenson

The four divisions of the Grand Prix Final this year will undoubtedly provide an interesting variety of contests. While the ice dance is a straight forward event between the worldís top six ice dance couples, poised for a tense battle to either maintain the status quo or shatter it, the singles events feature upstarts who have already stolen some of the veteransí limelight. And, in the pairs, the ranking duo is a team who got together at an age where others are retiring. They have competed in only one world championship together but, this season, they have forged ahead of the pair who has won the world title for three of the past four years.

Canada last hosted the Grand Prix Final ten years ago.

Senior Grand Prix

LADIES

The top qualifier is a Russian, Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, who is too young to be entered for the world senior championships. It is a situation Mao Asada, who has also qualified for this Grand Prix Final, knows well. The minimum age for entry for Grand Prix events is a full year younger than for the world senior championships. Tuktamisheva was born on December 17, 1996, and so cannot enter the World Senior championship until the 2013 season, when the event is in Kitchener in Ontario.

In 2005, Asada was 15 on September 25, but, to be eligible for the 2006 Olympic Games and world championship she had to have turned 15 by July 1. When Asada won the Final, beating then world champion, Russian Irina Slutskaya, there was a huge outcry. It seemed like the whole of Japan felt Asada was being robbed of the opportunity to earn a medal at the Olympics in Turin just because her parents didnít have the foresight to have her three months earlier.

If Tuktamisheva wins in Canada, that sort of outcry will surely be less. People have come to realize that young skaters, who have not developed the top heavy shape of a regular woman, do have an advantage over their competitors. And this youngster, who has earned a silver and two bronzes in the last three Russian senior championships, does have a killer triple Lutz to triple toe, which is high, clean, and rakes in the points.

Will she still be able to perform this technical feat when she grows? At the moment, she definitely does not have the gorgeous presence of skaters like Alissa Czisny, the US champion who was fifth in the 2011 world championship, or Carolina Kostner, who has won the European title three times in the past four years and took bronze in the world championship earlier this year.

Tuktamisheva certainly has the desire. At one point, each month she used to travel a 23-hour train ride to reach St. Petersburg from her home in Glasov in the Udmurtia region of Russia, to take lessons from Alexei Mishin, (Plushenkoís coach). Also qualifying were Akiko Suzuki from Japan and Alena Leonova from Russia. Americans Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner were the second and third reserves.

MEN

Patrick Chan, the Canadian world champion, who turns 21 on New Yearís Eve, was the top qualifier with wins in Canada and France. But, also in the field, is Javier Fernandez, a newcomer to these elite ranks, whose exuberant, extremely enjoyable routines stole much of Chanís thunder in Skate Canada, where he finished second, with the 2010 world champion, Daisuke Takahashi of Japan, third.

Three-and-a-half months younger than Chan, the Spaniard, who was tenth in the last world championship, now trains in Toronto with Brian Orser, while Chan takes a back seat from all the publicity and is based in Colorado Springs. It is Chanís third trip to the Senior Grand Prix Final. He is the defending champion and was fifth in the Decembers of 2007 and 2008. (He didnít qualify in December 2009. He was also fifth when he made the Final of the Junior Grand Prix back in December 2007.)

Takahashi, 25, who won Olympic bronze in Vancouver, qualified with a win in Sapporo in his home country which helped reduce the disappointment of bronze in Skate Canada. He has gone to extremes trying to gear up to get his world title back. His secret weapon is a quad flip, a jump which has never been accomplished in competition but which he says he actually feels more comfortable with that the quad toe loop.

He is a very experienced competitor, having begun his Grand Prix career with 4th place in the Junior final in the 2001 season. At senior level, he finished 3rd in the 2006 season, then was the runner-up for two years but subsequently suffered a bad injury, fought back, was 5th and then, last season 4th.

Also fighting back is Jeremy Abbott, 26, the 2009 and 2010 US champion, who was the Grand Prix Final gold medalist in the 2009 season. In 2010 he beat Evan Lysacek in the US championship by a considerable margin, but Lysacek went on to win Olympic gold while Abbott was 9th in the Games. Lysacek did not continue to the world championships in which Abbott finished fifth.

Last season, however, proved disastrous and he failed to make the US world championship team. This season, he won the Cup of China in a see-saw competition which saw him place third in both sections. He subsequently earned the bronze in the last of the six Grand Prix events, in Moscow.

In the mix is Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic, who has been fourth in the world championships for the past two years. This season, the top skaters were able to take part in three of the six competitions which form the series. Not all of the skaters took up that invitation, but Brezina did. He won Skate America, placed third in France and fourth in Moscow. The best two placings were used to determine qualification for the Final.

Yuzuru Hanyu, who was caught in his home rink in Sendai during the terrible earthquake which resulted in the relocation earlier this year of the world championships from Tokyo to Moscow, will turn 17 on December 7. The Japanese 2010 world junior champion is ranked only fourth in his country but he took the silver medal in the Four Continents Championships in Taiwan, earlier this year. He subsequently placed fourth in the Cup of China, but won the Grand Prix in Moscow.

PAIRS

Tatiana Volosozhar, 25, and Maxim Trankov, 28, who placed seventh and eighth with their previous partners, respectively for Ukraine and Russia in the Vancouver Olympics, earned silver in their first worlds together skating for Russia earlier this year. They havenít been beaten since, earning the top qualifying position for the Final with wins in Canada and France.

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who represent Germany, although she was originally from Ukraine, won the world title in three of the past four years. They were disappointed they earned only the bronze medal at the Olympics and are staying in competition because they want the 2014 Olympic gold, at which point they will be 30 and 34. To do that, they and their coach, Ingo Steuer, have determined they most learn new elements.

So they have been trying a throw triple Axel but she has been falling, a situation which put them in fifth place after the Short Program in Skate America, although they recovered the ground lost and won both the Free Skate and the overall event. After placing third in the NHK Grand Prix, they decided to give that move a rest for a while and they won the Cup of Russia.

They are also experimenting with concepts and their Free Skate, set to music from the film about the famed German choreographer, Pina, has many unusual moves which have been both lauded and criticized by skating fans.

Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, who lost the Russian national title they had held for the previous three years to the new pairing of Volosozhar and Trankov last December, are coming back from a painful period when she had shoulder surgery and he a groin problem. But they, too, are aiming for the Sochi Olympics, when she will be 32 and he 29. They, too, chose to do three Grand Prix events, winning the Cup of China and NHK, and placing second in the Cup of Russia.

Dan Zhang, 26, and Hao Zhang, 27, from China, who are unrelated, sat out last season due to his injury. They qualified with two silvers, in Skate America and Cup of China. Narumi Takahash i, 19, and Mervin Tran, 21, who represent Japan, which is her nationality, earned their place with silver in NHK and fourth in Skate Canada. Tran is Canadian and thatís where they train. Meagan Duhamel, who will turn 26 on December 8, during this event, and Eric Radford, who is already 26, earned their place with bronzes in Canada and Paris. They finished 7th in the world championship earlier this year but were second in the Canadian championships. The current national Canadian champions, Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, who were 8th in Worlds, also won two bronzes, in Skate America and Cup of China, but their point total was less than Duhamel and Radford, so they were the first reserves.

DANCE

Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first ever US ice dancers to claim the world title in Moscow last April. They donít want to let that status go, but, like last season, they have found the route forward included two steps forward and three back. Last season they settled on music from the movie Amelie for their Short Dance, but others advised them it wasnít powerful enough to showcase the complexity of the Golden Waltz Pattern Dance. They gave in and, with a completely new routine, soared ahead.

This year, a similar barrier confronted their decision to use the poignant music from the Italian classic movie La Strada for their Free Dance. Others shook their head and so, instead, they will perform to music from the beloved, energetic, outgoing fun operetta, Die Fledermaus, which translates as The Bat, and which focuses on a masked ball. Look closely and you will Davisís mask adorns her hair, since rules would not let her wear one in the usual fashion.

White explained, "Any time you have to change a program completely, itís a major undertaking. So it was a little bit of a bummer. But weíre super thrilled with the result. We enjoyed the Nino Rota routine but, in the end, it just wasnít making everybody happy." Although he declined to reveal who "everybody" was, it is believed to be the officials watching them at the Champs Camp.

They are the defending champions, having won this title for the past two years. They qualified by winning Skate America and the Russian Grand Prix. In their debut in the Final in December 2008, they earned bronze.

Of course, their training mates, the Olympic and former world champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, skating before a home audience, donít want a defeat on home soil. Although they competed in Worlds last year, her injury prevented them from training and fully showing their abilities. They have taken their Free Dance music from last year and adapted it for this yearís Short Dance.

Their Free Dance is to music from the Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire movie Funny Face and they go to such extremes to capture the reality of the classic that Virtue comes onto the ice for her warm-up in long white gloves. After the initial part of the warm-up, she lays them on the barrier. "We wanted to be true to the movie," Virtue explains. "Audrey Hepburn wears this gorgeous outfit, with the gloves, and I wanted my outfit to reflect that. Itís not practical to actually do the sort of moves we do wearing them. So they are there just to set the scene."

Though they have never won this event, although they were fourth in December 2007 and second in December 2009, they did claim the junior title back in the 2006 season. They qualified by winning Skate Canada and the Eric Bompard Trophy in Paris.

The US championship silver medalists, Maia and Alex Shibutani, at 17 and 20, are the youngest Senior ice dance competitors. They have trained alongside the top two couples, in Canton, Michigan, since 2007, and are very aware of what they need to do to challenge them. They won bronze in a tight decision in the world championship in their first entry to that event, after Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France, who were lying third, both fell during their Free Dance.

Maia said, "We have a lot to be excited about. In April, Worlds was just the cherry on top of an already great season. Weíre worked really hard since then and are looking forward to showing our improvement." This is the Shibutanisí first Senior Grand Prix Final, although they won bronze in the Junior GP final in December 2009. They qualified by winning NHK in Sapporo and coming second in Cup of China in Shanghai.

Pechalat and Bourzat, who were second in the Final last year, qualified this time around by taking second in Skate America despite his severe bronchitis and second in their home country Grand Prix. They are the oldest competitors. Pechalat turns 28 on December 22 and he is 31 on December 19. They are particularly intent on doing their best this season since the world championships will be in Nice, in the south of their home country. Whether they continue in the sport to the Olympics in Sochi in 2014, depends on how they do this season. They formerly moved to Moscow to get the best training, but this season have transferred to the Detroit SC in Bloomfield Hills where they are under the care of Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo.

Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who made a huge jump, finishing fifth in the world championship, qualified with seconds in the Canadian and Russian Grand Prix events. Weaver and Poje train alongside Pechalat and Bourzat at the Detroit SC. Also entered are the Russians, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, who were sixth in the World championship this year. They qualified by winning the Cup of China and were third in Russia.

Junior Grand Prix

MEN

Joshua Farris, 16, trains alongside Chan in Colorado Springs. Jason Brown, who turns 17 on December 16, is from Highland Park, IL, and was 9th in the US (Senior) championships. They were the second and third qualifiers in the Mens division behind Han Yan of China, who won Junior Grand Prix events in Austria and Italy. Farris won events in Gdansk, Poland, and Tallinn, Estonia. Brown won in Brisbane, Australia, and was second behind Yan in Merano.

LADIES

Vanessa Lam, 16, from Westminster, CA, was the third qualifier in the Ladies. She was third in Australia and won the Roumanian JGP which was in Brasov. She is the seventh ranked US senior lady.

PAIRS

Britney Simpson, 15, and Matthew Blackmer, 19, from Colorado Springs, who won in Poland and Austria, were the second qualifiers behind Wenjing Sui, 16, and Cong Han, 19, from China. Sui & Han also competed in the Senior Grand Prix but didnít make the Sr. Final, after placing second in Skate Canada and fifth in Cup of China.

Jessica Calalang, 16, from Glenview, IL, & Zack Sidhu, from Las Vegas, who turned 20 on October 21, train in Aliso Viejo. They were the sixth qualifiers, placing third in Estonia and fourth in Poland. The event also includes a new Canadian team, Katherine Bobak, 15, & Ian Beharry, who turned 20 on November 28. They were second in Poland and won the Estonian event. They are the only Canadians to make the JGP Final. There is also a second Chinese duo and a Russian couple in the JGP Final.

DANCE

Alexandra Aldridge, 17, & Daniel Eaton, 19, who train at the Detroit SC, are the only Americans in the Junior ice dance field, which also consists of the three Russian and two Ukrainian couples. Moscow based Ivan Bukin, the son of Andrei Bukin, who won Olympic gold in Calgary in 1988 with Natalia Bestemianova, is part of the Russian team with partner Alexandra Stepanova. (Bukin, Jr. was briefly paired with Elena Ilinykh).

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