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2017 Skate America - Pairs Short Program

Lake Placid, NY

A treasure trove of golden moments at 2017 Bridgestone Skate America

By Liz Leamy

(29 November 2017)  The 2017 Bridgestone Skate America competition was a magical weekend in so many ways, which only seemed logical, as this major International Skating Union Grand Prix event took place in Lake Placid, New York, the historic Olympic village where, among many things, the U.S. hockey team defeated Russia in one of the most intense and exciting competitive showdowns in modern-day sports history, at the 1980 Winter Olympics where they famously won the gold medal.

Last week, many of the sport’s premiere singles, pairs and ice dance contenders made their own lasting imprint on this picturesque and breathtaking mountainous locale when they faced off against one another in hopes of racking up all-important points in this year’s ISU Grand Prix series to try to qualify for the Grand Prix Final to be held in Nagoya, Japan December 7th-10th.

Without a doubt, every one of these world-class athletes displayed their amazing level of technical acumen and artistry, something that seemed to be very much appreciated by the crowds on hand.

Ultimately, the spectators at this year’s Skate America emerged as the competition’s real star, as members of this contingent (who numbered a total of anywhere from 2,400 to 3,500 individuals per session) cheered, clapped and displayed appreciation for the efforts, programs and skills of the athletes, something that seemed to designate this as an particularly special experience for everyone.

“It was fun to perform at this arena and we’re very happy to skate here in Lake Placid,” said Victoria Sinitsina of Russia, who placed third in the dance event with her partner, Nikita Katsalapov.

Maia and Alex Shibutani, who claimed gold in the dance event agreed, and said it was also exciting to compete in Lake Placid with all of its Olympic history.

“It’s really special in an Olympic season that a Skate America is being held here,” said Maia at the post short-dance press conference Saturday afternoon. “[The whole Olympic theme is everywhere], just look at the banners on the walls,”  Maia said this as she pointed to the blue, yellow, red, white and green banners featuring the Olympic rings covering one of the main walls of the 1980 practice rink, which had been transformed into a press conference and media area for this event.

For the Shibutanis and so many others who have competed, skated and participated in events at Lake Placid over the years, this locale is indeed a place of many good memories.

According to the brother-sister team, who are the reigning U.S. titlists and are three-time World medalists, being at Skate America at this locale was especially significant for since this was where they first made their competitive debut together at the Lake Placid Ice Dance summer event in the Juvenile division more than 13 years ago.

“It’s special for us to return and reflect upon what we’ve accomplished [since then],” said Alex, 26, who said, when he and Maia, 23, competed at that event, they were ultra-focused on performing their Cha Cha (a dance from the beginner levels) at optimum level. “It’s been an amazing journey. We’re very grateful for all the experiences we’ve had and it’s really ice to be here.”

Certainly, all weekend long, there were many ‘golden’ moments like this, which in turn, made this Skate America one of the best in recent memory.

The kindness, courtesy and enthusiasm of all those involved with this competition, including the U.S. Figure Skating staff and officials, Lake Placid arena volunteers and representatives, spectators, shuttle bus drivers and area locals was not only very much appreciated, but also infectious, which made for a warm and welcoming atmosphere all around.  The picturesque village of Lake Placid, with its bustling Main Street, rich Olympic history, friendly residents and beautiful pastoral backdrop put its positive mark on the character of the event.

The dedication of the coaches at this competition, particularly those with skaters representing the U.S., was fully displayed. All weekend long, it was clear that members of the U.S. World and Olympic coaching contingent, including Mark Mitchell, Peter Johansson, Jim Peterson, Tammy Gambill, Rafael Arutunyan and Marina Zoueva, were a lynchpin of this competition.  So much of the superior standard of the American skaters could be attributed to their outstanding level of commitment, aptitude, professionalism, wisdom, humor and heart. 

The camaraderie among the U.S. skaters throughout the competition was impressive and heartwarming to observe. During one of the men’s press conferences, for example, Adam Rippon and Nathan Chen cited the importance and power of training together at the same rink, Lakewood Ice, in Lakewood, California, where they both work with Rafael Arutunyan.  “It’s super exciting that Adam and I made the [Grand Prix] Final,” said Chen, who won the event. “We’re teammates and we train together.” Rippon, meanwhile, said, “For American skating, this says a lot. We’re here [with the goal of challenging] for medals in singles and the team event [at Pyeongchang in February].”

Throughout the entire weekend, U.S. skaters could be seen, during their off time, taking photos and talking with fans or just sitting in the stands watching and cheering on the other competitors. During their ‘on’ time, they were focused, cool, calm and collected and also gracious with members of the media. After the men’s last press conference, Rippon, who won the free skate and scored silver overall, spent almost an hour of his time chatting and fielding questions from reporters, handling himself in such a thoughtful, intelligent and engaging manner, which spoke volumes about his character.

The humility, honesty and willingness of the athletes to speak openly about their thoughts and goals regarding their skating at this event was noteworthy. Aljona Savchenko, the two-time German Olympic bronze medalist with former partner Robin Szolkowy, who won the pairs event with Bruno Massot was, like Rippon and so many other athletes here, kind, honest and interesting during her interviews with reporters.

It was especially compelling to hear Savchenko discuss the journey of her partnership with Massot and how she’s just taking everything ‘day by day’ this (Olympic) season.  “I want to enjoy being here [now],” she said about being at Skate America.  “I’m very excited to be here at Skate America,” said Rippon. “It’s always fun to be [at this competition] and skate in front of a home crowd. "It’s my first time here in Lake Placid and it’s just a fantastic place,” said Sergei Voronov of Russia who placed third in the men’s event.

The range of different personalities among all the skaters competing at this event was fascinating. Gabrielle Daleman of Canada, who placed sixth in the ladies competition, is a brunette firecracker with the look, manner and personality of a classic Hollywood movie star. At the same time, she is also quite hilarious and has a great sense of humor. The two Japanese contenders, Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto, who finished first and second in the ladies competition respectively, both resonated of such innocence and purity in their delivery at the press conferences, yet were also businesslike and direct.  On discussing her short program, Miyahara was frank and said after placing first in the Short Program, “I’m really happy to get today’s points, but I’m not really satisfied with today’s performance. I have a lot of things to do,” reflecting her tremendous work ethic.

It was exciting to see so many of the sport’s icons at the arena, as well as on Main Street and the lobby of the official hotel, the Crowne Plaza, located on a hill right behind the venue on Olympic Drive. At the men’s free skate on Saturday, Ari Zakarian, the international agent and his good friend, Evgeny Plushenko, the 2006 Russian Olympic gold medalist, whose student, Serafima Sakhanovich of Russia, was fifth in the ladies event, drew a lot attention when they were sitting in the stands watching the competition, and graciously interacted with the fans

 Finally, it was great to see the dedication and commitment of the U.S. Figure Skating staff and representatives who were at booths providing fans with information and guidance related to becoming involved with sport. They also had fun giveaway items such as magnets, pens, key chains and stickers, as a means to help promote the sport that were a huge hit.