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2016 Grand Prix Final

Marseille, France


Russia Dominates in Junior Final, Taking Three Titles

by Tatjana Flade

Once again Russia dominated in the Junior Grand Prix Final. 13 out of 24 qualified skaters & couples came from Russia and seven of the twelve medals also went to this strong skating country. Japan this time was only strong in the Ladies and qualified three entries. The USA continue to be leading in Ice Dance with three couples in the Final, but had only one other entry in the Men’s category. Canada did not qualify a single entry in the juniors.

The Junior Men: Aliev Skates to Gold

A year ago, the Junior Men’s free skating was full of errors as the skaters did not cope with the higher degree of difficulty. Too many attempted quads that they did not master yet. This year the picture was different. Five of the six men had at least one quad and triple Axel in their repertoire and only the youngest competitor, Ilia Skirda of Russia, did not attempt these elements, and yet there were much less mistakes. Russia by the way for the first time had four men in the Junior Final, even one more than in the Ladies category that they have been dominating for a few years now. Even the U.S. man in the Junior Final, Alexei Krasnozhon, is Russian-born and had moved to Texas only a few years ago. So Korea’s Jun Hwan Cha was the only non-Russian skater.

A year ago, Dmitri Aliev came second in the Junior Final and this year he was the only one to return. The others had moved up to the senior level or did not make it. Aliev is a strong jumper with quad toe and triple Axel, however, he has a lot of other qualities, too and decided to focus more on them, but only after he barely made it to the Final. The 17-year-old won his first Junior Grand Prix, but then his inconsistency hit again and he finished only fourth in his second event. He was lucky to qualify for Marseille and he did so only, because Andrew Torgashev (USA) messed up his free skating in the last event of the series in Dresden. “I knew how many points Andrew needed to get to go to the Final and I was watching when he competed in Dresden. When I saw that I had made it to the Final, I had tears in my eyes”, Aliev recalled. He and coach Evgeni Rukavitsin decided to change his free skating and instead to “The Man in the Iron Mask”, he is now skating to “Broken Vow” by Josh Groban, a much more lyrical piece, and they also took out the second quad toe. “The music from ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ is connected only to one man – to Alexei Yagudin. My new free is very different, but it suits me well. I feel this music”, Aliev, who trains in St. Petersburg, explained.

The 17-year-old edged out teammate Alexander Samarin for a narrow lead in the short with a clean performance that featured a triple Axel, triple Lutz-triple toe and a triple loop. The loop is the required solo jump for the juniors this season. Aliev, who in the past often struggled with nerves, was able to hold it together in the free. He produced a quad toe and two triple Axels (the second one was shaky) and five more triples, but he crashed on a triple flip attempt. The teenager got the highest component score and defended his lead to win the title with 240.07 points. “This was a difficult competition for me as the preparation has been difficult. There were some problems with my character, I was searching for myself on the ice and I am glad that I was able to overcome this barrier here. Often when I had a late starting number I skated poorly. Today it was like die or live and I chose to live”, Aliev shared.

Samarin has been competing on the junior circuit since xxxx and he was a substitute for the Final a few times. This year he eventually made it after winning his two events. He stood in second following a solid short and obviously wanted the gold, also for his coach Svetlana Sokolovskaya, who celebrated her birthday the day of the free skating. Skating to “Maybe I Maybe You” by the Scorpions, the 18-year-old risked two quad toes. He touched down on the second one and he also fell on his second triple Axel, but his other elements were strong. Compared to Aliev he looks a bit gangly on the ice, but he does have potential. “Coming to the Final has given me a great experience and at my last Final as a junior I really wanted to show everything I have worked on, everything I can do, and show the other competitors what I am capable of. It was my first time trying two quads in competition and I feel physically in much better shape than in previous competitions”, Samarin said.

Korea’s Cha is a very gifted young skater with easy, big jumps. He has a natural elegance on the ice that you cannot learn. Cha only turned 15 in October, so he is too young for senior-level competitions this year. He stumbled on the triple Lutz in the short, but then rallied back in the free to “Il Postino” with a quad Salchow and two triple Axels. His only error came when he fell on a triple flip. “The short program was really bad. But the short is the short and the free is the free. I tried to forget about the short and get into the free. It was much better than the short program. I made some mistakes, but I was still trying to do my best. I tried not to focus too much (on this being the Junior Grand Prix Final) and just try to enjoy the competition”, the student of Brian Orser noted. He could become the new face of Korean figure skating for the 2018 Olympic Games. “I don’t know if I’m ready to be the new face, not now. But I will train hard and do my best, and then maybe I’ll be ready”, Cha said.

Roman Savosin has a quad toe and Salchow and triple Axel, but his technique is not pretty and his overall skating looks rather old fashioned. His quad toes were underrotated and he didn’t try the Salchow in Marseille after all and came fourth. “This competition has been really difficult psychologically. I was really nervous and some elements didn’t work. My leg hurts a bit. It happened before this competition but I can feel it now. I did all I planned to but it didn’t come off. Now I just need to keep training”, the Muscovite commented.

Krasnozhon, a former student of Alexei Mishin, has been trying the quad loop for two seasons now. He landed one in the Final, but it was underrotated. The triple Axel and his other triples were good, though, but he was basically skating from jump to jump and went down in his footwork (5th). “I think that skate was amazing. It’s the best I’ve ever skated in my entire life. I wasn’t nervous just excited and I did everything I could do – well, apart from falling on my step sequence of course. I just relaxed. All the jumps were over and I just relaxed. All you can do about it is laugh”, she said.

Ilia Skirda only had turned 14 in the fall and he made it to the Final thanks to his strong skating and presentation skills. He is a pleasure to watch, really sold his programs (especially the free „Once Upon a Time in America“) and can come far provided he stays healthy and gets the harder jumps. Ilia enjoyed his first Final: “I’m not disappointed (about coming last) I just need to keep working hard. It’s my first major competition and there are lots of people seeing me perform for the first time. I feel a responsibility (competing in his first Grand Prix). It takes your breath away. Next time I will try to not be as nervous. I’m trying a quad Salchow in practice and it’s close. I’m now going to go to Moscow and keep working on my triple Axel and quad Salchow and see what happens. I still don’t know if I will use them for Russian Nationals, but maybe next season.”

The Junior Ladies: New "Wunderkinder"

Russia again presented two new „wunderkinder“ in the Junior Final. Each year, new girls are coming out on the circuit and do very well. This year these were Alina Zagitova and Anastasiia Gubanova. Obvioiusly, they jump easily triple-triple combos, have great spins and rarely make mistakes. Zagitova came one day later to Marseille as she had forgotten the travel permit at home she needs as a minor when travelling without her parents and she could not go on to the plane with the rest of the team. But that little delay did not affect the 14-year-old from Izhevsk that now trains in Eteri Tutberidze’s school in Moscow. Zagitova, who by the way was named after famous Russian gymnast Alina Kabaeva, won the short program clearly with an excellent performance to “Samson and Delilah”. In the free to “Don Quixote” she went for a triple Lutz-triple loop (the loop was underrotated) and nailed all her other elements with ease. “I did some small mistakes, I was a little nervous, but overall I dealt with my job and I’m very happy about that. I am overwhelmed with emotions and I can’t even describe them now”, Zagitova said. She added that she has been working on the triple Lutz-triple loop for two years. “Of course it was hard to achieve but my coaches advise me and it is starting to work out. There is still a technical mistake, but I will try to correct it.” She scored 207.43 points.

Gubanova unexpectedly fell on the Lutz in the short program, so even the Russian girls are no robots. The 14-year-old came back in her free to “Romeo and Juliet” (Abel Korzeniowski’s soundtrack) with seven triples, including a triple Lutz-triple toe and another triple Lutz-triple toe-double toe combination and claimed the silver medal. “It is unbelievable to be here for my first time, and amazing how the audience supported me, when I heard them any nerves I had disappeared and I got strength from them. I was very concentrated and I was sure I could do it. I had no doubts whatsoever”, the delicate skater said. She likes her role as “Julia” and identifies herself with it. “I think I can show her character very well because it comes naturally to me and I do not need to pretend. That is why it is one of my favourite programs, I feel very comfortable skating it. I feel music and I enjoy my programs. I have read Shakespeare and watched the film and I cried when I watched it because it touched me so much.” Gubanova trains in St. Petersburg under Angelina Turenko, a young coach.

Like the past two years, a Japanese girl took the bronze medal, this time it was Kaori Sakamoto. She was second in the short with a solid performance that featured a triple flip-triple toe. The 16-year-old missed an underrotated triple flip in her free to “The Color Purple”, but that was the biggest error in an otherwise strong performance. “This is my first junior Grand Prix Final and I am very happy to have ended up with third place. In this competition I was focusing so much on jumps and spins I was not paying so much attention to the artistic side. The skaters from Russia were very different and I realised I need to improve my expression to compete at the top international level”, the skater from Kobe analysed.

Rika Kihira attempted a triple Axel, but it was downgraded and she fell. She reeled off seven clean triples after that and pulled up from fifth to fourth. “I was very nervous before entering the triple Axel and so I couldn’t tighten my core. Even after I finished the program my legs were shaking. I wanted to give it my all and skate like I didn’t care that it was the Junior Grand Prix final but it was just impossible to do it”, the 14-year-old explained and added that she has been working on the triple Axel since she was twelve.

Elizaveta Nugumanova came in as a substitute for Polina Tsurskaya of Russia who had another surgery. The student of Alexei Mishin struggled with Lutz and flip in her programs to finish fifth. “I don`t know what happened, I wasn`t even nervous, everything was fine in training and I have never had the kind of catastrophe I had today. For this to happen at the Grand Prix Final is embarrassing. I was very confident, I am always confident, but it didn’t work today. In eight competitions this is the first time I have had this kind of failure”, she said. The highlight of her performance was a triple loop-triple loop combination.

World Junior Champion Marin Honda of Japan has had a few ups and downs in the season so far and struggles with consistency. She came down with the flu and had to withdraw before the short program.

The Junior Pairs: Mishina & Mirzoev Shine

Russia also dominated the Junior Pairs. World Junior silver medalists Anastasia Mishina & Vladislav Mirzoev confirmed their good showing from the fall and shone with clean, upbeat programs and triple jumps and throws. You never would have guessed that Mirzoev wasn’t feeling so great, especially on the short program day. They kept their fun long program “Attention les Mesdames et Messieurs”, and the audience sang along with the French song. “It was difficult at the beginning of this competition because I was a little ill, but we overcame it and we’re very pleased. We’re really happy with our performance and achieving a Season’s Best. We were nervous before the skate but no more than in other competitions. We noticed that they started singing right away. It worked out well that we kept last year’s program, it suited this competition perfectly. It gives us energy when the audience is so supportive”, 20-year-old Mirzoev pointed out.

Their strongest rivals Anna Duskova & Martin Bidar of the Czech Republic said good bye to juniors with another silver medal in the Final. „We now want to go to European and then to Worlds, trying to qualify fort he Olympic Games“, Duskova said. Their triple twist in the short was shaky and in the free „La Leyenda del Beso“ she fell on the throw triple Salchow, but they landed their solo jumps and “It was good but we also made some mistakes. But it’s not the end of the season, we still can improve.  It (the fall on the throw) is the kind of mistake I’m most afraid of. The jump is done and you landed, and the next moment you’re on your butt. But our combination, the triple Salchow-double toeloop-double Toeloop, worked really well, and we’ve been fighting for this combination the whole season”, Duskova noted.

Like Mishina & Mirzoev Aleksandra Boikova & Dmitri Kozlovskii and Alina Ustimkina & Nikita Volodin come from St. Petersburg, and all the Russian junior pairs have at least one solo triple jump. Boikova &  Kozlovskii even have the triple toe and the triple Salchow in their long program. She only fell on the throw triple Salchow, everything else was well done and they moved up from fourth to third. “We wanted to correct the mistakes we made in the short program and be more focused during our skate. We made a completely silly mistake in the throw (triple Salchow). We were ready psychologically and physically for this competition. In a week we have our National Championships so we need to keep working and make sure we can compete with the seniors. It will be our first time competing against the senior skaters”, Kozlovskii shared. They train with Artur Minchuk, who himself competed in the Junior Final a few years ago (with Anna Silaeva).

Ustimkina & Volodin were third in the short, but slipped to fourth because of errors on the solo jumps. “We lost a lot of marks on my mistakes on the jumps, our twist was a level 2 not 3 as it usually is, and we lost points on the spins. I´ve had a problem with the (side by side) jumps for a long time, I haven’t been managing them in practice or in competition since the summer. But overall I have loved being here at the Final, it is the first time we have been here and everyone has given us such a warm welcome and great support. We need to work on my jumps and our lifts now in time to compete at Russian Nationals at senior level”, Ustimkina admitted. This team is coached by former international competitor Alexei Sokolov.

Australia was represented for the first time in a Grand Prix Final (junior or senior) with Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya and Harley Windsor. Alexandrovskaya is Russian, though and they part-time train in Moscow in Nina Mozer’s school. This couple has been skating together only since last spring and made a lot of progress in a short time. They had replaced defending Junior Grand Prix Final Champions Ekaterina Borisova & Dmitry Sopot of Russia who had to withdraw as she is still recovering from a meningitis. The Australians made a few mistakes, most notably aborting the twist in the long and her fall on the throw triple flip in the short. “It was obviously not our greatest skate. Physically we felt fine but it just didn’t happen on the night. We’ve had a big season but everything here has been very last minute and I don’t want to say jet lag as an excuse but we are pretty tired and not as focused as we should have been”, Windsor said. The team had come from Australia to Marseille.

Amina Atakhanova & Ilia Spiridonov were bronze medalists last year in the Final, but this year they struggled with consistency and finished sixth. She fell from the Axel Lasso lift and they aborted the hand-to-hip lift. “Amina hurt her back when we fell during the lift and that was obvious in the second half of the program. I really don’t know what to say. We just have to keep working hard and work towards Nationals where we will try to show what we’re worth”, Spiridonov commented.

The Junior Ice Dance: Parsons & Parsons Stop Russian Wave

Russia almost would have swept all gold medals in the Junior Final, but USA’s Rachel and Michael Parsons stopped the total triumph by winning the Junior Ice Dance event. However, Alla Loboda & Pavel Drozd were leading after the short dance thanks to an excellent performance of “St. Louis Blues” and Swing. The Muscovites picked up a level four for the twizzles, the first Blues pattern and the straight line lift and a level three for the second part of the Blues and the side by side footwork. But the Parsons brother and sister were less than one point behind and had even a level four for both Blues patterns. In the free dance, Parsons & Parsons overtook the Russians thanks to a better technical score. They collected a level four for the twizzles, the lifts and the spin and skated with good flow to “Singin’ in the Rain” in a new arrangement. “This year we chose kind of a different type of program. We went for a more contemporary style which is different from anything we have ever done. We’ve been really working on telling a story rather than just the technical aspect. We’ve made a lot of progress this year establishing the flow”, Rachel Parsons said.

Loboda & Drozd lost a few precious points in the free dance as their straight line lift was rated a level three and the diagonal footwork a level two, although their interpretation of “Malaguena” was strong. “We really showed today that we skated for ourselves and each other, we skated together. The goal was to win as it is our last time in the Junior Final. The lift that got a level 3 never was in question before and always was a level 4 and that made the difference”, Drozd analysed.

Defending Junior Grand Prix Final Champions Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter (USA) this time took the bronze like they had three years ago in their debut in the Final. Their second Blues pattern merited a level two, therefore they were a bit behind in the short dance. The free dance to “Thunderstruck”, “Nothing Else Matters” and “Rock Prelude” by David Garrett was well skated, but again the Americans had only a level two for the step sequences and could not catch up. “This competition’s been really great, really fun. It’s the final so unlike the other competitions it’s not about qualifying, we can just come and enjoy the skate. This year we have taken a much bigger step towards the seniors and we can see where we end up compared to them. The performance aspect is one of the main reasons we love ice dance. We get to embrace a character”, McNamara said.

These three teams have been leading in juniors for the past two seasons and they are so close to each other in ability that when they meet next time at Junior Worlds the result could be different.

The other three couples were fresh faces in the Junior Final. Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko turned in two solid performances and looked especially good in their „Muse“ free dance. They placed fourth. Christina is Canadian, Anthony is the son of Russian Olympic Champions Marina Klimova & Sergei Ponomarenko, was born and raised in the USA and they represent the USA.

“It’s the coolest experience ever. This is our first big competition and it will really help us going into American nationals and Junior Worlds”, Carreirs said about the Final. Ponomarenko spoke about his parents: “They’re really helpful and give really good advice on how to handle competitions. They say ‘It’s no big deal. There’s always another competition ahead and you’ve just got to skate your best.’” The couple is trained by Igor Shpilband, not by Anthony’s parents.

Shpilband had another junior team in the Final with Russian-born Angelique Abachkina and Louis Thauron of France. The French couple danced to Russian Gypsy music in the free dance.

Youth Olympic Champions Anastasia Shpilevaya & Grigory Smirnov from Russia had rather low levels and therefore were sixth and last. “We earned ten points fewer than our best, so now we just need to keep on working like always. We need to work on our technical. We got level two on a couple of things like our step sequence so we just need to tidy everything up”, Shpilevaya said.