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44th Nebelhorn Trophy Preview

by Alexandra Stevenson

(25 September 2012) 

The 44th Nebelhorn Trophy, a three-day ISU international combined with a Team competition for the "Fritz Geiger” Cup, will get underway this Thursday in Oberstdorf, Germany’s scenic southernmost town. Surrounded on three sides by the Alps, the tips of which are snow-clad all year round, with crystal clear air, and a main road which the skaters found blocked last year because the cows have right of way coming down from their summer pasture.

The U.S. has supported the event since 1971 when Dorothy Hamill and Mary-Karen Campbell & Johnny Johns won the Ladies and Ice Dance events. Then, only one ice surface existed. Although there was a roof, three sides were completely open, letting birds swoop down to startle judges. On certain days, wind surges would plague the competitors. Of course now, there are three rinks, all enclosed.

From Hamill’s victory to last year’s win by Mirai Nagasu, U.S. women have won 18 golds. U.S. men have claimed 14 golds, but, although Stephen Carriere earned bronze in 2011, the last Men's gold was in 1991. Nagasu was named as a substitute this year but Carriere is back. There have been nine U.S. pairs’ victories beginning with Cozette Cady & Jack Courtney and Tai Babilonia & Randy Gardner in 1972 & 1973 up to Brooke Castile & Ben Okolski’s win in 2006. In Ice Dance, the reigning Obersdorf champions are Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donahue. The U.S.’s growth in ice dance is clearly shown by the fact that six of the ten US ice dance wins in the Nebelhorn Trophy event have taken place since 2004.

The contest opens on Thursday with the Short Dance. Seventeen couples from 16 countries are entered this year. Returning to Oberstdorf this year is Evan Bates, who won in 2008, with his previous partner, Emily Samuelson. He and current partner, Madison Chock, are looking to redeem themselves. Although they recently won the Short Dance in the Salt Lake City U.S> Figure Skating Clasic, their free was plagued by low levels. They finished a disappointed fourth overall, brought down by a fifth-ranked free. Bates had a problem at the end of their Level 2 diagonal steps and only one of their lifts earned Level 4. They also received a timing deduction for going over on a lift, which is a common problem early in the season and generally is easily solved.

Their main opposition in the field of 17 couples from 16 countries is expected to come from last year’s silver and bronze medallists, the German champions Nelli Zhiganshina & Alexander Gazsi and Canada’s Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill with the Russian 2011 World Junior champions, Ksenia Monko & Kirill Khaliavin in the mix. Alexander Paul & Mitchell Islam, who rank fifth in Canada just behind Ralph & Hill who were fourth nationally earlier this year, will be trying their hardest to outshine their teammates. 

In Pairs, all three medallists from last year are returning to battle again in a field of nine duos from six countries. The over-whelming favorites are the Russian defending gold medallists, twice world championship runners-up, Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankov. Their younger teammates, Vera Bazarova & Yuri Larionov are likely to take silver again. The US champions Caydee Denney & John Coughlin, who teamed up in the spring of 2011, won bronze in Oberstdorf in their first international together. The Americans plan to demonstrate how much progress they have made since then. Also entered from the U.S. are Gretchen Donlan & Andrew Speroff, who teamed up in 2009 and were fourth in the US championship earlier this year. However, two pairs above them have split up, making them currently ranked second.

Trankov said they don’t expect to show off any new moves in this event. “Last year, we were very proud of the new lifts we’d devised, only to find they had been posted on YouTube and much younger competitors were copying them! It was quite an eye-opener. Now we are a little wiser. We will keep our new developments under wraps till later in the season.”

The Men's contest has the largest entry, 26 entries from 19 countries. Carriere and his U.S. teammate, Keegan Messing, face tough opposition. Favorites are from the Czech Republic, Tomas Verner and Michel Brezina, who have trained in Oberstdorf. The Czechs’ highest place in the world championships is fourth. Verner accomplished that in 2009 and Brezina, who, at 22 is four years younger than his teammate, was fourth in Worlds in both 2010 & 2011.Though both present quads, they can be unreliable. Also in the mix is Japan’s Nobunari Oda, who was also fourth in the world championship but that was back in 2006. He finished sixth in this year’s Worlds. Russia’s two entrants, Konstantin Menshov and Ivan Barier, have never made the world championship team.

The Ladies contest opens on Friday with 22 competitors from 18 countries. The U.S. entry, Caroline Zhang has pleasant memories of her winning the 2007 World Junior Championship on this site. Last year’s winner, Mirai Nagasu, is down as the US substitute. The favorite is Adelina Sotnikova, a 16-year-old from Moscow who won the 2011 World Junior title (although she was only third in that championship this past season). She is the 2009, 2011 and current Russian champion. Last season’s runner-up, Viktoria Helgesson, from Sweden, is a beautiful performer but doesn’t have Sotnikova’s jumping repertoire. Also entered is the Estonian, Elena Glebova, who may be tired from her recent participation in Salt Lake City, where she earned the minimum Short Program score for her country to enter her for the next Worlds, which is in London,ON, Canada, but missed the Free Skate minimum by 1.07. (See this site’s report on that event.) Glebova has competed in the World Senior Championships for the past six years, accomplishing her best placing of 13th this past March. 

Anticipating the result in women's figure skating has become very chance-y because the current system encourages (actually, makes it practically impossible to compete without) participants trying jumps with which they are not completely comfortable. Meltdowns, such as happened to the 2009 and 2011 U.S. champion Alissa Czisny, when she crashed into 22nd place in Nice at Worlds earlier this year, are becoming increasingly common. Yet Czisny performed brilliantly when winning the Nebelhorn event in both 2008 and 2009, and was fifth in the World Senior Championship in Moscow in 2011.

In the ladies field are also the fourth ranked Japanese, the inexperienced 19-year-old Haruka Imai; and Soknikova’s teammate, Polina Shelepen, 17, both possible future stars; along with competitors like the home country’s Sarah Hecken, 19, who has won the German national title three times in the past four years although she suffered a foot injury last season.