Men's Results Pairs Results Dance Results
The Grand Prix Final held greater than normal interest this season. The Final was the last major pre-Olympics competition to pit nearly all of the Olympic medal hopefuls against each other, and was the competition of the season in which the arch-rivals in the men's and dance events faced each other for the first time. The stakes were high, then, as the top skaters in singles, pairs and dance took to the ice in this rapid fire competition.
The format for the Final differs from the standard ISU competition format and is held at warp speed. On Friday the top six qualifiers from the Grand Prix Series competed in the short program/original dance portions of the events and in the evening in the first of two free skates/dances. On Saturday the second free skate/dance was performed. The short program/original dance counts for 20% of the total and the first free skate/dance 30%. The second free skate/dance counts for 50% of the total and is the tie breaker if there is a tie in total factored place. This turned out to be the case in both the men's and dance event where the winners of the second free skate/dance won their event even though they placed second in both the short program/original dance and first free skate/dance. It would seem more logical that if one competitor wins two of the three programs they should win overall, but that is not the formula adopted. But logic has very little to do with it -- this is skating after all. In any event, the results in these two close events were good omens for the declared victors, though in practice the two men, Alexei Yagudin and Evgeny Plushenko, and the two dance couples, Shae-Lynn Bourne & Victor Kraatz and Marina Anissina & Gwendal Peizerat, might just as well be viewed as tied now leading up to the Olympics.
With the lineups at the Final looking very much like the final warmup groups anticipated at the Olympics and the Games just around the corner, the results in Kitchener offer fans and pundits alike a good opportunity to assess the medal chances of the season's top skaters.
All that remains of pre-Olympic international competition are the European and Four Continents Championships. Since many of the European countries use the results from the European Championships to finalize their Olympic teams we expect many of the top European skaters will compete again at Euros in mid-January, and their "rankings" going into the Olympics may yet change. For the top non-European skaters, however, 4C is of little interest or value (and is actually more of a distraction) and we expect few will compete in Korea at that competition. So, with that in mind, how do the skaters stack up following the Grand Prix Final?
As expected, Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya appear to be the only two skaters in serious contention for the ladies gold medal in Salt Lake City, with Slutskaya now going into the Games as the favorite. Based on their seasons thus far, if both ladies skate their current programs their best, it looks like Slutskaya would win every time. But both of these skaters are under immense pressure, and neither skates with 100% consistency so anything can happen. Last season, recall, Slutskaya was also the favorite going into Worlds but it was Kwan who took home the gold medal. Nevertheless, Slutskaya has the better programs this season and the stronger jumps when she skates clean, so the odds favor her.
While not without hope, Kwan she still has a long way to go to be fully prepared for the Olympics. Following Skate Canada her situation looked desperate. She had recently sent her long-time coach Frank Carroll packing, and was not skating particularly well. Since then her prospects have improved somewhat. Upon her return to California, she changed to her Rachmaninov short program from the 1998 season and set up camp back at Lake Arrowhead for the altitude training and seclusion it offers. Four weeks later at the Final, Kwan was skating with more confidence and her short program presentation was less stale than for the over used "East of Eden" routine she began the season with. The Rachmaninov short program, however, earned seven 6.0s at U.S. Nationals in 1998 and top marks internationally that season, but at the Final it earned her only a third place result. Her new long program is improving but still has obvious holes in it and is skated mostly like background music is playing. Her jumps are fairly secure currently but lack height, speed, and flow out of the landings. She has two months remaining to fix these problems. Achievable, but challenging without a coach.
Since Skate America Kwan has remained coachless, and over the past four weeks we have found no evidence to support any of the speculation on this subject that has appeared in the media or in chat rooms. At this point we give no credence to the idea another coach was behind this, that is involves a financial dispute with Carroll, or that it involves any other deep dark secret. As best we can determine the comments offered by Kwan in October appear to be 90% of the story, and the remainder is likely little more than something of a personal nature she does not wish to discuss publicly at this time.
With Kwan gaining momentum, the chances of Sarah Hughes displacing Kwan as U.S. Champions in January, or seriously threatening Kwan and Slutskaya for the gold medal in February seems greatly reduced. Hughes has had some good skates this season, but some rough programs as well. Her jumps are frequently cheated; but when she is on, not to such an extent that the judges feel motivated to punish her for it, and her presentation is first rate. When she is off, however, her jumps all suffer, with the Axel, Lutz and toe loop sometimes cheated on both the takeoff and/or the landing. All things considered, however, she is on track to go into the Olympics the favorite for the bronze with Maria Butyrskaya her main rival.
Butyrskaya finished fourth in the Final, coming back from minor surgery in November. Without major improvement in the next two months, fourth place appears to be the best she can hope for at the Olympics. All her jumps at the Final were barely around and were mostly landed on the toe with no flow out of the landings. Some, but not all, of this can be attributed to the limited time she had to prepare for the Final and is potentially fixable in the next two months; but illness or lack of preparedness have no bearing on her continuous use of tedious programs that are relentlessly depressing in their presentation, which negatively impacts her second mark.
One final long shot contender for a medal at the Olympics is Fumie Sugurie who was not a participant in the Final. When healthy, Sugurie has the technical and artistic skills to compete for the bronze. She is hampered, however, by damaged ligaments in both her ankles that require corrective surgery followed by extensive post-operative therapy; surgery that has been deferred to allow her to compete this season.
As in the ladies event, in the men's event there is the competition for the gold medal among two skaters with the rest chasing the bronze. Alexei Yagudin, who struggled at the end of last season has come back strong this season with two outstanding new programs. His jumps are now stronger than earlier in the year but he still is not 100% rock solid in the quads. The other aspects of his skating, however, blows the competition away. The second main challenger for the gold medal is Evgeny Plushenko, the current World Champion. His jump technique is currently without equal, but in other respects he is vulnerable. His presentation is mechanical and his programs this season unappealing. If it were just a jumping contest Plushenko would probably have a lock on the gold, but when you take into account the other elements required in programs, the basic quality of the skating, and the passion brought to the presentation things are not so clear cut. Both of these skaters not only want to win the gold medal, they want to crush their opponent in the process. The men's event should be quite a battle in Slat Lake.
At this point Timothy Goebel has now established himself as the favorite for the bronze medal at the Games. His jumps are strong enough to compete with the big boys and his presentation has slowly edged up to at least bronze medal quality. His short program this year is the better of his two programs in terms of presentation. It is not yet in the league of Yagudin's or even Plushenko's, but is a respectable effort, competitive with the men vying for the bronze medal. His quest for the bronze, however, lives or dies with the long program. While noticeably improved since last season, with at least a glimmer of a sense of the music now and not nearly so much sticking out of the tongue or vacant gaping into the air like catching flies, his free skating still relies on the quads to earn its placements. There are several men with at least occasional quads who surpass Goebel in basic quality of skating and presentation so Goebel is under pressure to skate fairly clean in the long program to win the bronze.
Of the other men in the race for the bronze medal, four have at least some chance to challenge Goebel; Russian Alexander Abt, American Todd Eldredge, Japanese Takeshi Honda, and Canadian Elvis Stojko. All four of these can outskate Goebel in the second mark on most days, and except for Eldredge, all have a reasonable chance of hitting at least one quad in their programs. Of these we currently give Abt the edge over the other three, pending results from the European Championships. Of the others, Eldredge rarely hits the quad, but has the most complete package compared to Honda and Stojko. Honda, on the other hand, mainly has to battle his inconsistency and his own head, while Stojko is hampered by a tired old body and a tired old free skating program dredged up from the past (Koto Drums).
The pairs event could shape up as a three way battle for the gold between Russians Elena Berezhnaya & Anton Sikharulidze, Canadians Jamie Sale & David Pelletier, and Chinese Xue Shen & Hongbo Zhao. As the reigning World Champions, Sale & Pelletier are the favorites, but only by the slimmest of margins over Berezhnaya & Sikharulidze. Shen & Zhao have a tougher fight on their hands. While their technical strength could put them in the thick of battle with the Canadians and the Russians, they were not particularly sharp at the Final, and the readers of tea-leaves tend to interpret their results from the Final and recent seasons to indicate the international judges will continue to hold them back in the second mark no matter how they skate. All of which leads one to think that the Chinese team will need two clean skates and some errors from the other two teams to capture the gold medal.
Dark-horse candidates for the bronze include Americans Kyoko Ina & John Zimmerman and Russians Maria Petrova & Alexei Tikhonov. They are both only long-shots, but for different reasons. Ina & Zimmerman got off to a slow start at the final but came on stronger as the competition progressed, with many observers feeling they had beaten Shen & Zhao with a strong second free skate. If Ina & Zimmerman were to skate both programs at the Games as well as they did the free skate at the Final, they deserve to be seriously considered for the bronze medal, but based on the results at the Final many question whether the international judges will give them a fair shake, or will again simply dismiss them as just another also-ran American team. Petrova & Tikhonov are looking better and generally skating better that at the end of last season, but Petrova has still been struggling with her solo jumps and throws this season, which is a major obstacle to overcome. All of the other top teams have been landing their jumps and throws solidly this season and a team is unlikely to win the bronze medal without them.
The dance event at the Final so flew in the face of conventional wisdom it's hard to know what to think until the results from the European Championships come in.
Current World Champions Barbara Fusar Poli & Maurizio Margaglio where shockingly unprepared for the Final and were dumped, rightly, into fourth place. Their performance of last year's free dance was sloppy, timid and weak, and gave the impression they hadn't skated it since Vancouver. Their new free dance was skated equally poorly and also looked in need of a major overhaul. Without major improvements, they are in deep trouble.
The French team of Marina Anissina & Gwendal Peizerat gave a strong performance of their dynamic "Carmina Burana" free dance from last year, but their current liberty/civil-rights themed program was uninteresting and fell flat. Their original dance was also subdued compared to the dances from the other teams. Nevertheless, of all the couples at the Final, their technique was the best overall which would tend to make them the temporary favorites for the games despite their second place finish overall. They would probably further cement their position as favorite if they were to drop their new free dance and go back to "Carmina Burana" for the Games.
Canadians Shae-Lynn Bourne & Victor Kraatz, who were already viewed as serious contenders for the bronze medal at the Games prior to the Final, improved their standing further with their surprising victory at the Final. Given the closeness of the result, the differing competition formats at the Final and the Games, and the fact that ISU judges appear to be afraid of Canadian fans and tend to mark Canadian skaters higher in Canada that elsewhere, it is unlikely Bourne & Kraatz have a serious chance for the gold medal in Salt Lake City. The silver or the bronze, however, seems well within their grasp.
Margarita Drobiazko & Povilas Vanagas, the 2000 Worlds bronze medalists who dropped out of the medals last season, skated extremely well at the Final. At this point they are strong contenders for the bronze medal at the games. They have to contend with a crowded field, however. The Italians have every chance of getting their act back together by February and winning some color medal, and the Russian team of Irina Lobacheva & Ilia Averbukh, who have missed much of this season, must be taken into consideration as well. If Lobacheva & Averbukh compete at Euros, that will be the first chance to realistically assess their chances for an Olympic medal.
If final predictions had to be made now, the dance event at the Games looks to us like the French team followed by the Canadians and then the Lithuanians, but all that may change after four of the top five teams go at it at the European Championships in mid-January.
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