by Klaus-Reinhold Kany
Originally the Olympic pair skating champions Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankov from Russia had been invited to compete at Skate America and would have been the favorites for the title. But due to a shoulder injury he had suffered from for a long time, they withdraw in early October because it had not healed completely. They were replaced by the Canadian pair of Vanessa Grenier & Maxime Deschamps from the Montreal school of Richard Gauthier and Bruno Marcotte. Two more of the eight teams are also new: Annabelle Prölss & Ruben Blommaert from Germany are also competing here because their countrymen Maylin & Daniel Wende finished their career in September. The same is true for the Italian team of Stefania Berton & Ondrej Hotarek who were on the list because in June they had kept their split secret. Instead of them the Ukrainian team of Elizaveta Usmantseva & Roman Talan were nominated. But this team withdrew as well because of the difficult situation in their country and were replaced by the Austrians Miriam Ziegler & Severin Kiefer. These three alternate teams are on sixth (Canadians), seventh (Germans) and eighth (Austrians) position after the short program, but not in the top.
Yuko Kavaguti (32) & Alexander Smirnov (30) from Russia are in the lead with 69.16 points. It was their second competition. Skating to the well-known romantic music “Meditation” from the opera Thais by Jules Massenet, all their seven elements were at least good. The lift and the triple throw loop were even very good although one judge gave a -1. But one or two others awarded even a +3. All five elements with levels had a level 4. Their style has improved since the season 2012/13. They had to sit out the whole last season including the Olympic Games because Smirnov injured his knee severely in October 2013.
Kavaguti commented: "We are so, so happy to be back here in competition, therefore we were very excited today. Last season we had a program that we really loved, so to finish the season without showing it made us very sad. That's why we continued this season. While Alexander was injured I continued to train because I always hoped that he would be better and we would go to the Olympics. So I kept myself ready. That didn't happen, but that's okay." Smirnov added: "It was a very big surgery. The rehabilitation took about half a year. I had surgery in Germany and I also did my rehabilitation in Germany."
Cheng Peng (17) & Hao Zhang (30) from China are second with 62.38 points. They did not train in the morning because they could not sleep well because of the time change after their flight from China. In the competition, Peng fell on the (underrotated) triple toeloop, but the other elements were strong, especially the extremely high triple twist and the throw triple loop. They interpreted the Arabic dance from Peter Tchaikovsky’s ballet Nutcracker. Peng commented: "In our performance today we had a mistake so it was not to the level of our training. This is our second season we collaborate with Lori Nichol. She did our programs and we spent months working with her. It was a really big help for us. We also worked with other specialists, acting coaches and ballet coaches, and this really helped us a great deal."
All three U.S. pairs performed good programs and are on third, fourth and fifth place. The best with 61.08 points were the 2013 Junior World Champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier who train in Coral Springs mainly with John Zimmerman. Recently and in the summer they have also worked with German coach Ingo Steuer who moved to Florida in early October after splitting from his new pair Aliona Savchenko & Bruno Massot. Denney and Frazier did a flawless short program to music of a new version of the soundtrack “Godfather” with an excellent triple throw loop and a very sovereign lift. Frazier said: "Today was a really good start to the Grand Prix Series. That was a personal best for us, which is something to be very proud of. We just want to keep moving forward from here." Denney added: “We had a lot of fun out there today. It felt like a program we do in practice. So I was really happy we were able to stay calm.”
Frazier also spoke of training with Steuer: “Ingo [Steuer] has made stops down where we train a couple of times in the last few years. He would come for a few weeks and our coach and Ingo Steuer really bonded, they have a good relationship. That’s how it all started. Ingo’s happy to be there and we’re really excited to have him there. Denney added: He’s helped make us more mature and that’s very important for us.”
Alexa Scimeca & Chris Knierim of Colorado Springs sit on fourth position with 60.61 points. Scimeca fell on the triple Salchow and the combination spin was a bit shaky, but the triple twist was excellent and the other elements good. Scimeca said: “We have a lot of goals, but first we’d love to win nationals this year and every year after leading up to the 2018 Olympics. We’ve gotten through good days, bad days, we’re always there for each other.”
Madeline Aaron (the younger sister of single skater Max Aaron) & Max Settlage, also of Colorado Springs, are fifth with 58.41 points after a flawless and ballet-oriented program to the classical ballet Coppelia by Leo Délibes. Aaron commented: ”I think our goal today was to go out there and relate to each other and act the parts that we are portraying, and we did exactly that.”