2006 Skate America Preview

The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating kicks off this week with Skate America in Hartford, Connecticut. Skate America is the first of six events where figure skaters earn points to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, held this year in St. Petersburg, Russia from December 14 – 17.

Grand Prix entrants are seeded by world rank and may participate in two point-scoring events. As the one exception, top pair teams may elect to participate in a third, non-scoring event. Winners of each competition receive 15 points, silver medalists 13 points, bronze medalists 11 points, all the way down to 3 points for eighth place (pairs are awarded up to 6th place).

The ladies event promises to be the top draw at Skate America with World Champion Kimmie Meissner taking on Grand Prix Final Champion Mao Asada. Asada, who defeated all of the eventual Olympic medalists on the Grand Prix last season, was a few months too young to go to the Olympics, leading to outcries among fans that the best skater in the world would be unable to compete.

While conventional wisdom in January said that Asada, with her rare triple Axel and triple-triple combinations, would likely dominate the next four years, two things happened in the following months. First, the previously infallible Asada failed to defend her title at the World Junior Championship. Then, Meissner, who was fifth at the Olympics, rallied to win the World Championship in her first appearance with flawless performances, including a triple-triple in the short and two in the free.

Meissner again plans to include two triple-triple combinations in her free skate, and to reintroduce the triple Axel, which she has landed only once (at 2005 U.S. Nationals) and did not try last season. Asada is also pushing the technical limits, with two planned triple Axels as well as a triple flip-triple loop combination that no other woman has ever landed successfully. The showdown at Skate America will likely go to the phenom who lands more of her planned jumps, and a recent team competition seems to indicate that Asada may have the edge.

In all likelihood, the rest of the women will be fighting for the bronze medal. Tenacious competitor Emily Hughes, who replaced Michelle Kwan in the Olympics, is ranked highest in the world among the remaining competitors. However, Japan’s Miki Ando, who had a disastrous season last year placing just sixth at her own Nationals, seems to be back in top shape. Ando has moved from the U.S. back to Japan and seems to have regained the form she had when she won the World Junior title and placed fourth in the World Championships in 2004.

But those ladies may very well have to worry about another Asada, Mai, sister of Mao. The elder Asada has been overlooked in the shadow of her sister, but is an elegant skater with command of the harder jumps. Previously criticized for underrotating jumps, she seems to made significant progress in this area based on her appearance in a recent team competition.

Other “dark horses” are Finland’s statuesque Kira Korpi, Switzerland’s Sarah Meier, and Texas-based Katy Taylor.

U.S. champion Johnny Weir elected other Grand Prix events, leaving two-time World bronze medalist Evan Lysacek as the leading American entrant. Lysacek’s chief competition should come from Japan’s Nobunari Oda. Oda initially won Japanese Nationals last season, yet later had to give back his medal (and his trip to the Olympics!) after a scoring error was discovered. Oda went on to place fourth at the World Championships, right behind Lysacek, but again violated the scoring system with too many repetitions of jumps. If he can stay within the rules, Oda has an excellent chance at willing, as his pure technique is a favorite of judges.

The bronze medal is wide open. Top contenders include Belgium’s Kevin van der Perren, Belarus’ Sergei Davydov, France’s Alban Preaubert, and Scott Smith of Boston, Mass. At competitions this early in the season, the result among these very inconsistent men will likely come down to who is in the best shape. History may favor Smith, who showed good form at the recent U.S. team competition with Japan and Canada.

Plagued by withdrawals, the pairs event is down to just eight entries. Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin are the top-ranked pairs and favorites to win the event. Inoue and Baldwin, famous for their throw triple Axels at Olympic and Worlds, will have to effectively manage the level of risk in their program in order to win. They often “go for broke,” with mixed results, but have been more hit than miss for most of the past year.

Poland’s Dorota Zagorska and Mariusz Siudek, competing in Skate America as a non-scoring event, are Inoue and Baldwin’s strongest challengers. Former bronze medalists at the World Championships, Zagorska and Siudek have the world’s best lifts but are weak jumpers.

The remaining American teams – Naomi Nari Nam and Themi Leftheris and Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent – should be aiming to capture the bronze medal against a field of largely newer and/or unproven team.

In the dance event, U.S. Champions and Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto opted to skip Skate America for later GP events after touring with Champions on Ice all summer. With most top dance teams using their home-country event to build momentum (and hype), skipping Skate America is a risky strategy. Belbin and Agosto will make their debut in two weeks at Cup of China.

World Champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviyski of Bulgaria are the headliners and heavy favorites for the dance event at Skate America. It is unlikely that any the remaining teams (none ranked higher than ninth in the world) will challenge.

Americans Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov, second at Nationals for the past two seasons, will be facing challenges from abroad and at home. Hot on their tails, Sinead and John Kerr of Great Britain were just one spot below Gregory and Petukhov at Worlds and are crowd favorites wherever they go. Teammates Morgan Matthews and Maxim Zavozin, who won the World Junior title for the U.S. two years ago, could also pose a threat to Gregory and Petukhov in an attempt to upset the applecart of U.S. rankings. Chantal Lefebrve and Arseni Markov, a Canadian-Russian team that competes for Canada, could also factor into the standings.

The next Grand Prix event (Skate Canada) will be held in Victoria, British Columbia, November 2-5, 2006.

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