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U.S. Figure Skating Seminars Shine Light on IJS Rules

by Alexandra Stevenson

(13 September 2012)  Something both weird and wonderful happened at the recent 87th annual Mid-Atlantic Championships at the Chelsea Piers complex on the west side of Manhattan. Panels of top ISU and U.S. Figure Skating officials made themselves available to explain their thoughts and the reasoning behind the recent rules changes. These experts dissected the latest developments in international competition in two fascinating seminars, in fun but extremely accurate ways.

One seminar sought to bring skaters and coaches up-to-date with not only all the latest rules but also the thought processes in developing these changes. In the second seminar, attendees had a unique opportunity to “listen in live” to the workings of a top Technical Panel. They were “mic'd” as they “officiated” while video tapes of several actual competitive performances were run, including a couple of routines from the recent Junior Grand Prix in Lake Placid.

Hearing what these top real-life panels actually say under normal rushed time restrictions, and how they must deal with those controlling the date input was fascinating. Muddying the smoothness, is the always possible changes skaters sometimes make at the last moment, performing a different element from what they listed beforehand, or just changing items around.

It was absolutely riveting and awesome to hear how the panel handled snap decisions, how disagreements were quickly resolved and how delays can occur.

Troy Goldstein, a U.S., ISU and World Technical Specialist, and ISU Certified Technical Seminar Moderator, explained, “To become a Technical Specialist you go through days of intensive study and your performance is thoroughly criticized. Several days of intensive training seminars are held in Frankfurt which are absolutely exhausting. Qualified callers are all recognized former competitors and are continually kept abreast of all and every change. It’s a rewarding but VERY hard opportunity. Some applicants do not pass and some find the responsibility too much."

“Skaters, obviously, must keep thinking and they must have Plan B in place in case a move goes wrong, like not completing a combination. That might be correctable by adding a jump later or that plan might be disastrous and result in a penalty and losing all points for that element. We have to be aware of that possibility.”

Goldstein further explained, “To be a caller is VERY difficult. You can’t afford one moment’s lack of concentration. And you have to have a VERY good short term memory. I’m completely drained at the end of an event. But I really enjoy and value the opportunity to continue to be part of the sport, and serve a what I feel is a very valuable contribution.”

Video was shown of both current competitors (from the Junior Grand Prix in Lake Placid), and older classics, including a marvelous clip of Philippe Candeloro’s unforgettable sword-fighting step sequence. “It would only have been Level 1 in today’s competition, but it would was definitely a +3 Grade of Execution,” said Heli Abbondati, the Finnish Judge and Technical Controller in Olympic and ISU Championships.

Also showing up on the panel’s monitors, placed so the whole room could see and hear what was going on, was Alexei Yagudin, who issued in a new era in men's skating with his unprecedented expenditure of energy in his step sequences in his unforgettable “Winter” routine. Abbondati said of Candeloro and Yagudin, “They were performers who captivated you and you remember those moments long after they left the competition arena. They skated with their very hearts and soul. That commitment is what we are looking for and trying to encourage in today’s competitors.”

Abbondati said there were a lot of changes made this season and she believed that this would mean only minimum changes next season. “We want skaters to be more familiar with the latest rules and have less to worry about in the Olympic season.”

New is a ten percent bonus for jumps in the second half of senior and junior short programs. Abbondati explained, “We were getting so fed up with the majority of the skaters doing their three jump elements first and then the steps and three spins. The routines were getting too much alike. This way there is an incentive NOT to follow that path.”

Also new this season is a “b” level category, to distinguish between elements that include one feature and elements that meet minimum requirements but include no features.  Prior to this season elements that included one feature received the same base value as elements that included no features. 

Coaches and skaters should have been lining up for days, fighting to get a ticket into this priceless and rare opportunity. How often does the opportunity arise for coaches and skaters to meet Susan Lynch, the Australian ISU Singles and Pairs Referee and Technical Controller, who officiated at the 2010 Games and at Worlds?

But the seminar was not sold out.

Why?  This correspondent polled a few skaters and coaches taking part in “Mids”, who mostly explained a lack of time, scheduling clashes, or the opinion that they were already up to date on the new season’s requirement. What a shame! Such thinking for not taking part in something that could have helped them with long term goals seems very short sighted.

For many years, the ISU rarely dained to speak to coaches or skaters. The ISU had a ruling that members of an international judging panel were not allowed to comment on their, or their colleagues’ marks to anyone other than the referee. Officials often lived in alternate housing and had no contact with the athletes except at draws or the Closing Banquet.

Throughout the history of the unique and beautiful sport of Figure Skating, from Sonja Henie’s first world championship win (with a panel of judges in which the majority was from Norway, her own country), up to the Salt Lake Olympic debacle, scandals have abounded. The current judging system is by no means perfect, but it is undoubtedly far fairer. Part of that is because of the feedback of the detail sheets.

But often skaters, particularly those without much experience, and new coaches fail to understand what is required of them. Gale Tanger, an American ISU Referee and Technical controller in singles and pairs, who has officiated at Worlds and the Olympic Games as a Judge and Referee and Technical Controller told the group, “I tell skaters, ‘Always make it obvious. Make the spin positions count. Don’t lose levels with sloppiness.’ Sometimes skaters just get tired during their routines and lose concentration. Today’s rules mean every moment counts.”

Tanger even demonstrated how a sideways layback might not get the Level expected. “You can’t do a layback with only ONE shoulder being dropped. Both MUST be dropped.”

The panel members agreed that there are still competitors who seem to ignore their music. Both Abbondati and Tanger showed how passionate they were over the choice of the accompaniment. Tanger said, “It is so obvious if a skater is really feeling their music, and it is so important for the audience to enjoy watching what the skaters work so hard to produce. The steps sequences are a chance to shine. Steps take 30-35 seconds. That’s a long time in the routine.

“Jumps take just a few seconds. Sometimes it’s necessary to do a double instead of a triple to get better Grades of Execution. But we don’t expect you to do the doubles for ever. You have to keep working to incorporate fully rotated triples. With spins, sometimes it’s better to go with a simpler variety, not get a higher level, but do it so well you get the maximum +3. The audience will thank you with their applause and that can really influence the component marks. You have to show you feel the music and are not just doing moves like a robot.

Roger Glenn, the noted U.S. official, was brought into the proceedings, to give his opinion. He revealed, “When I was a competitor, I wished I would get more feedback from the judges. Now they have that but I’m not completely sure we’re reaching all of them. This season, we’ve come up with component “buzzwords”, to make the categories a little more relevant to today’s generations.” Skating skills are explained as “Balance”; Transitions are “Connections”; Performance/Execution is “Delivery”; Choreography is “Design”; and Interpretation is “Feeling.”  Tanger explained, “The Common Denominator of all these Components is Movement!”.

Glenn also cautioned about relying for your viewpoint on television. “In 1998 (when Tara Lipinski won her Olympic gold in Nagano over Michelle Kwan), it was very definite for those who were there that Tara deserved her gold. However, when we returned home, we were surprised how big a controversy that was with those watching the Games on television. But what television and the small screen do not show is speed. They ‘flatten’ the event. There was no doubt in my mind that the decision was right. That is a very important fact.”

Certainly for this reporter, the seminars were an event not to be missed. And the cherry on top, was the exclusive chance to visit the private Sunset Terrace at the end of the Pier 61 jutting into the Hudson. The unique and spectacular view of the ever changing river traffic is an unforgettable sight.