by Alexandra Stevenson
The stars of the upcoming 2012 Hilton HHonors Skate America will undoubtedly be Meryl Davis & Charlie White, the 2009-12 U.S. Ice Dance Champions.
What, if any, effect has the Shpilband - Zoueva break up had on the U.S. top couples?
Last year’s U.S. Grand Prix saw the debut of Meryl Davis & Charlie White’s incomparable Die Fledermaus routine, definitely one of the best competitive creations this long-time observer has had the pleasure of repeatedly watching live in her 44-years of world class rink-side observation.
They are the only U.S. couple ever to win the world ice dance title, which they did in April 2011, by dethroning their training mates, the Canadian Olympic champions Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir. So why did they lose that world title in March in Nice? It wasn’t because they skated badly - quite the contrary. But the judges, noting the Canadians were back to their full potential, preferred their softer routine, set to music from the Fred Astaire movie, "Funny Face". It was a controversial decision.
In the 2011 season, Virtue & Moir were plagued with a re-occurrence of Virtue’s Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome, in which muscle growth causes pain in her shins and calves, and had to have more operations. They lost a huge amount of the practice time necessary to perform at today’s extremely demanding top level. It was an enormous credit to their abilities, that Virtue & Moir were still able to claim silver in Moscow.
Both couples were taught in tandem by Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband for many years up until just before the beginning of this season. It came as a major surprise to the skating world to learn the two extremely talented coaches had split. “It wasn’t my decision to leave Canton,” Shpilband told this correspondent. “It was a shock.”
Almost immediately after he defected from Russia in January 1990, a stunning move Shpilband later admitted was a spur of the moment action, he got a job at the Detroit Figure Skating Club. If he had waited a short time longer, the Soviet Union imploded and he could have made the move legally.
The radical action proved a success and it wasn’t that long before he was famous for putting ice dance, which was earlier regarded as the poor relative of figure skating, on the U.S. map as a highly competitive sport instead of a social pastime for adults!! He taught U.S. champions Liz Punsalen & Jerod Swallow and then matched up and guided Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto for most of their career.
Zoueva also moved to the Canton arena when it opened in December 2001. She attracted Virtue & Moir who moved down from Canada to join them. The coaches’ partnership was very fruitful with both parties claiming they spent equal amounts of time with each couple. But, for reasons which have not yet been made public, Shpilband & Zoueva’s relationship went belly up and ended with bad feelings on both sides.
Both Davis & White and Virtue & Moir plus the Shibutanis remained in in Canton, with Zoueva. She immediately brought several new coaches into Canton including 2001 world champion Maurizio Margaglio, a specialist in the intricacies of the Yankee Polka, which forms two of the five required elements for this season’s Short Dance section.
Meanwhile, within days of the catastrophic breakup, Shpilband had established a rival ice dance center not that far away in Novi. He has attracted a substantial amount of foreign competitors plus the Americans, Madison Chock & Evan Bates, who recently won the ice dance event at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany.
In this season’s Skate America, we will see Davis & White’s new Free set to the dramatic music Notre Dame de Paris.
We will also see their Short Dance set to music from the Act 1 of the ballet Giselle. (In this act, Giselle is a peasant girl and is deceived by the Prince who disguises his royalty. The villagers amuse themselves dancing and, White explains, “We use music for a Polka, March and Waltz.” Giselle, heart broken by the Prince’s betrayal, dies at the end of this act. (In Act 2 she appears as a spirit but, as Davis explains, that is not portrayed in their routine.)
The uber-fans will be analyzing every second of these new routines and will do the same when Virtue & Moir reveal their new routines next week at the second Grand Prix of this season, in Windsor, Ontario. The Canadians had planned to debut their routines in the Finlandia Trophy, two weeks ago but stayed in Canada, withdrawing at the very last moment because of Moir’s neck muscle pull.
Virtue readily admits Carmen is one of the most used pieces of music in skating but declares, “There’s a reason for that.” In Windsor, Ontario, Anna Cappellini and Luca LaNotte who placed sixth in the last world championship and were second in the recent Finlandia Trophy, will also skate perform to that brilliantly emotional operatic music, seeking to steal some of the Canadians’ limelight.
Of course, in both cases, there may be even more discussion over the relative merits of the Davis & White’s and Virtue & Moir’s Short Dances. White, who is 24, admitted, "It's going to be a good, early test. [Skate America] is going to be a good way to show ourselves at the beginning of the year, set the standard for everyone because it's the first major competition. We are really looking to do that, - to make our mark and announce to the world that we're ready, regardless of who we are competing against. That's the most important thing – to go out there and do our best, no matter who shows up."
ISU Grand Prix Facts
The prize money is awarded to winners and placed skaters/couples.
Points to qualify for the final are awarded based on place.
Pairs and Ice Dancers collect points up to 6th place.
Total prize money for Skate America is U.S. $180,000
The global prize money for the Grand Prix Final is U.S. $272,000.
Skate America, which originated in 1979, is the second oldest competition in the Grand Prix Series of six events. The oldest is Skate Canada International.
(18 October 2012) Kent, WA. The ShoWare Arena, a 6,500 seat facility which opened in 2009, is home to a junior hockey team, and has already won praise from figure skater Ryan Bradley. The 2011 U.S. champion gave a show performance here in January of this year and said it was a great location.
At the beginning of the month, Suzette Cooke, Mayor of the City of Kent, Wash., proclaimed October 2012 as “Skate America Month,” celebrating the Hilton HHonors event about to take place in this city not far from the Seattle Airport.
The northwest has been particularly kind to figure skating. Washington State and Oregon have hosted a number of skating events these past few years, when financial concerns have limited the number of applicants.
Famous skaters have come from this region, notably 1983 world champion, Olympic silver medalist and 1982-84 U.S. champion Rosalyn Sumners, who was from Edmonds, WA; Cynthia & Ron Kauffman, from the SC of Seattle, the 1966-69 U.S. pair champions and 1966 and 1967 world bronze medalists; and, of course, the sport’s “bad girl” Tonya Harding, from Portland, Oregon. However, it is still not quite the hotbed of the sport as is Michigan, Colorado or California.
Perhaps that interest in skating is encouraged by the fact that the Great Northwest often has access to CBC, which shows a lot more Canadian skating that does American television. A good sign that the event will draw a good crowd this year, was the amount of fans who turned up to watch Thursday’s practice, around 300 mainly mature, obviously knowledgeable, supportive adults.
Everett set the event’s attendance record, welcoming nearly 30,000 fans when it held the 2008 Skate America, while Spokane had the second highest attendance, 29,000 in 2002.
The first of the six Senior Annual Grand Prix events is always full of surprises. It's early in the season and some entrants are not as trained as they will be when Worlds in Canada rolls around next March. There is often a last minute replacement, who turns up and outshines the “star”. Some soon fade away, others fulfill this early potential. Entries are strictly governed by the International Skating Union and they have been cutting down on the numbers. Up until recently there were 12 singles allowed. Now it’s only 10.
Of course, the early big news was that current Olympic Champion and 2009 World Champion Evan Lysacek had pulled out, replaced by the fourth ranked American Armin Mahbanoozadeh. The 21-year-old, whose name is pronounced exactly as it is spelled, looked good in Thursday’s practice, landing his quad in his run-through. Also on the U.S. team is Jeremy Abbott, who is the current U.S. Champion, a title he has won in three of the past four years, and Doug Razzano from Chandler, AZ.
The favorite in the men's division has to be Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, at 17, the youngest competitor, who unexpectedly claimed bronze in his first entry in the World Championship last March. Hanyu, who is trained in Canada by Brian Orser, has an extraordinary story. He is from Sendai, which was the center of the 2011 earthquake. He was on the ice when it struck and the ice rink began swaying. He ruined his blades running out of the building but escaped injury.
In the audience this weekend will be Ben Agosto, who now calls Seattle his home. With Tanith Belbin, he was twice world ice dance runner-up and Olympic silver medalist. He currently teaches ice skating in this area and is the honorary competition chairperson.
Although this is U.S. champion Ashley Wagner’s first appearance in Skate America, she has been a good poster child for this event. In several publicity appearances she detailed how her grandparents lived in the northwest and how much she enjoyed summer visits to the area for several years. Born in Heidelberg, in Germany, the 21-year-old is the daughter of a retired military man, and lived in seven locations in her early years.
In only her second appearance at the world championship, Wagner finished 4th last March, after placing 16th in her previous worlds, in 2008. Her main opposition is expected to be the two Russians, the world silver medalist, Alena Leonova, and the “wunderkind” Adelina Sotnikova. This may well set up a Russian battle for gold with the young whippersnapper, Adelina Sotnikova, looking forward to challenging world runner-up Alena Leonova.
However, Leonova was a no-show today. She was flying in from New Jersey along with coach Nicolai Morozov, but they missed their flight. She is expected to arrive in time for the competition.
Wagner now lives in California and is trained by the semi-retired John Nicks. Leonova, who is also 21, and is from Moscow, has competed in four world championships but has less experience in Grand Prix events. Wagner explained that although this is her first Skate America, she has competed in the other five competitions in this series, which are held in Canada, China, France, Japan and Russia. Wagner entered her first Grand Prix in 2007, when she competed in both Canada and France.
Leonova, the 2009 world junior champion, will skate her Short Program to “You are my Destiny”, last of the ten women from seven countries. Wagner will perform seventh to The Red Violin. Sotnikova, 16, was a day too young to compete in the 2012 World Championships but has been Russian champion three times. Last year, she made a great Senior Grand Prix debut earning bronze in both her own country’s Grand Prix and in China.
At 4:30 PM Thursday afternoon, Wagner and one of the other American entrants, Christine Gao, as well as Sotnikova took the ice along for the day’s final practice. In addition to Leonova, Rachael Flatt was also missing from the practice session; however, she lives in Stanford and is thought to have had academic chores to finish.
Sotnikova was up first. Dressed in practice black, she did only parts of her routine, set to Rimski-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol starting impressively with a combination of two triple toe loops. Later there was a high double Axel and energetic steps. Sotnikova & coach Elena Vodorezova training at Detroit Skating Club for the 10 days prior to Skate America
The 18-year-old Gao, who has taken fifth place in U.S. nationals for the past three years, and competed in two Grand Prix events last season (placed 5th in China and 10th in Moscow) performed her very graceful Short Program to Kostia’s Close Without Touching.
Then came Wagner, in a white top with black tights, soaring through a triple flip to double toe with both hands over her head. Later she executed a fine double Axel followed by a split jump.
The 5-foot-3, German-born Wagner trains an average of 20-25 hours a week, just on ice. She also puts in long hours in the gym, doing cardio, running, hot yoga and swimming to enhance flexibility, endurance and strength.
All that preparation enables Wagner to produce a technically sound four-minute routine on ice. She has emerged over the past few seasons, adding a triple flip-triple toe in her short program, something she calls "a necessity."
Wagner performed well in her short and free skate programs at the pressure-packed 2012 World Championships, where she finished fourth overall. She is the current Four Continents champion and was twice (2008 and 2010) U.S. bronze medalist. She has won five medals in the Grand Prix Series.
"The public might not know how just hard of a sport it is," said Wagner. "My job is to make it look perfect and easy. But at the same time, they don't really know that we're on the ice four hours, maybe even more, a day. ... So much work goes into it."
Wagner began to skate at age 5 in Alaska. She grew up in a military family, having moved nine times in her younger years. The frequent travel and changes matured her beyond her years. "It has made me very adaptable," she said.
After Kent, there is more travel associated with a full schedule in front of Wagner as she prepares for the 2013 Worlds at London, Ontario, Canada in March and the chance to qualify for the Olympics. "I just don't want to go to the Olympics, I want to go and be competitive," said Wagner, who is ranked 12th in the world.
After her skating career, Wagner plans to pursue a career in sports broadcasting and remain in figure skating as an ambassador. She supports Classroom Champions, the Wounded Warriors Fund and Skate for Hope.
Wagner said she enjoys the opportunity to visit Kent and perform for the audience. "It's great to be coming out to the Northwest. The fans are awesome. ... Everyone is going to be able to fill it up pretty easily and make it nice and noisy. It will make for a wonderful event."
"The audience can expect great competition. We have some really top-notched skaters coming in," she said. "It's going to be an awesome event."
This is a particularly competitive field, with the Russian team of Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankov, who left previous partners to team together and have been second in the last two World Championships behind the Germans Aliona Savchenko & Robin Szolkowy, facing the Chinese team of Qing Pang & Jian Tong.
Volosozhar & Trankov recently won the gold in the Nebelhorn Trophy with U.S. champions, Caydee Denney & John Coughlin, second. Both Denney & Coughlin, and their teammates, Gretchen Donlan & Andrew Speroff, who had a not-so-good Short Program in Germany, but nearly earned bronze, say they learned a lot in Oberstdorf and are looking forward to this event.
The Canadians, Jessica Dubé & Sébastien Wolfe, withdrew, enabling the Israeli pair to be entered on October 20. The many-time British pair skaters, Stacey Kemp & David King, whose names were called in the first practice on Thursday morning, did not pull out in time to be replaced. She has been troubled with an injury caused when an off-ice lift went wrong. They are still hoping she will be recovered to compete in next week’s Skate Canada.
The event opened late Thursday morning, with the top pairs taking the ice for the first practice. It didn’t go completely smoothly. Qing Pang & Jian Tong were first up but it took a while to get their music, Elgar’s Enigma, to start correctly. The sound was somewhat muted.
The couple, who had flown in from Beijing, later explained how his knees are pretty shattered and he must ice both of them immediately after each practice. She also had trouble with her shoulder. They laughed at their statement that they were so old. (She is 32 and he 33.) “We first skated in the World Championship in 1999,” he said. “That was a lo-oong time ago. It is very hard to continue on. We can not do every event we want to.”
Later in that practice session Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankov went through their Free routine set to Ikuko Kawai’s Violin Muse. They certainly are the clear favorites and have definitely benefited from their win in Oberstdorf at the Nebelhorn Trophy three weeks ago. He said, “We had some problems in Germany but the routine is much better now, more polished.”
Trankov wore a baseball hat off the ice covering the growing out of his extreme hair do, which he showed off proudly in Germany. The lower half of his skull was practically shaved hairless while the top half stuck up in the air. There were great arguments about it from his fans, and he is obviously trying now to reverse its extreme properties.
Skating-wise, their practice in Kent showed a distinct improvement from their performance in the very south of Germany. He explained, “We like to do new programs every year, but it takes time to get them smooth. People ask why don’t we stay with one routine for two years, but we like to come up with new ideas, each one better than the one before.”
The U.S. is represented in this event by the National Champions, Caydee Denney & John Coughlin, from Colorado Springs, and Boston trained pairs, Gretchen Donlan & Andrew Speroff, and Marissa Castelli & Simon Shnapir.
There may be no one to challenge the U.S. champions, Meryl Davis & Charlie White, but Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, Canadians who were fourth in the 2012 World Championships will be doing their best. They showed off their charming Short Dance to The Sound of Music. Also trying to claim some of the limelight are the Russian couple, Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev, who won the Finlandia Trophy with a somewhat puzzling “modern dance” filled with drug-inspired angst.
ALso in the mix are Nelli Zhiganshina & Alexander Gazsi, who represent Germany and Lorenza Alessandrini & Simone Vaturi, from Italy. Isabella Tobias & Deividas Stagniunas, who train in the U.S. but represent Lithuania, withdrew on Monday too late to be replaced.
Davis & White, whose event does not start until Saturday, did not appear in the arena on Thursday. Their teammates are Lynn Kriengkrairut & Logan Giulietti-Schmitt who have competed in the national senior championships five times, advancing each year. They were fourth last January. Also representing the U.S. are the sixth ranked Americans, Anastasia Cannuscio & Colin McManus, who train in Newark, Delaware.
Davis said earlier, "Skate America is special to us because we are skating on American soil. Competition definitely varies from one venue to the next. The audience is extremely important. When you have a great audience, one that's supportive and excited, it can make a huge difference. That's what we are hoping for when we come to Kent. It's nerve racking to finally show the world what we have been working on the past couple of months."
White said, “We've had some really great experiences in the Pacific Northwest. I don't know what it is exactly attributable to, but we're expecting the same thing. It is going to be a great event.”
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