Golden Skate

2007 Russian National Figure Skating Championships Preview

The 2007 Russian National Figure Skating Championships will be held Jan 3-7 at the Ice Arena in Mytishi, Russia. Over the past several seasons, Russian figure skaters and ice dancers have lost their dominate position in the sport as a whole. In a roundabout way, this change might have been beneficial for a new generation of the Russian skaters.

Unlike their older teammates Elena Sokolova or Ilia Klimkin, who spent their best years in the shadow of such phenomenal skaters as Irina Slutskaya, Evgeni Plushenko, and Alexei Yagudin, the younger skaters such as 2005 World Junior Champions Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov and 2006 Russian Junior Champion Arina Martinova face no insurmountable obstacles on their way to becoming Russia’s #1. The 2006-07 Grand Prix series, however, showed that at the moment no one is eager to carry that burden. The only exception to that rule is in the ice dance discipline.

Ice Dance

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin began their career with a 15th place finish at the 2003 World Championships, moved up to 10th place in 2004, were 8th in 2005, and almost repeated that finish in 2006 (7th place). Some specialists hinted that the team deserved better, but was held down by its “Number Two” status in Russia.

So far, the results of Grand Prix series seem to support this opinion. Finally free from the “Number Two” stigma as a result of improved power and confidence, Domnina and Shabalin began the season by upsetting 2006 Olympic Games silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto at Cup of China. They nearly repeated this achievement at Cup of Russia despite an uncharacteristic fall by Shabalin in the Original Dance (OD).

Domnina and Shabalin also won the only medal for Russia at the Grand Prix Final in St. Petersburg, finishing 3rd overall and defeating current World silver medalists Marie and France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in the Free Dance (FD). Their FD to Polovetsian Dances by Borodin is a complete opposite of the aerial Waltz of Spirit from last season, featuring Shabalin as a wild barbarian with raccoon tails hanging from his waist and Domnina with a fake platinum braid as a tender captive submissive to his wild energy.

According to Shabalin, the idea of this dance belongs to their long-time choreographer and former folk dancer Sergei Petukhov, who proposed it by describing the costume he envisioned for Shabalin. The idea appealed to Shabalin so much that he immediately decided that he “absolutely had to do it”. So far, their combination of attack, power, and confidence is rewarded with high program component scores, and barring total meltdown, the team should face no difficulty in winning the Russian National title this year.

However, two-time Russian National bronze medalists Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski refuse to let Domnina and Shabalin be the lone leaders of the Russian ice dance. The students of Irina Zhuk and Alexander Svinin first made themselves noticed at the 2006 European Championships where their performance of Flamenco Bolero was one of the highlights of the FD event. This year, they are probably stirring more talks among fans and specialists than any other team.

The programs Khokhlova and Novitski have prepared for the new season are so unorthodox that they make people question the definition of ice dance and wonder how much one can deviate from the traditional concept of ballroom or ballet dancing. Their OD to Tango Jalousie is powerful and passionate, but bears no resemblance to either the Argentine or European styles of tango. Their FD to Aranjuez Mon Amour is filled with effortless intricate lifts and complex connecting moves, but seems to be purposely eschewing traditional dance holds and positions.

Despite the controversies surrounding them, Khokhlova and Novitski have improved their standings by defeating USA’s Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov (who are currently ranked 9th in the World) at the NHK Trophy and Grand Prix Final events. With the gold and silver medals all but having the names engraved on them, the only intrigue of the Russian Nationals competition is who will manage to win the bronze medal and a trip to the upcoming European Championships in Warsaw.

Early in the season, predictions pointed at Domnina and Shabalin’s training mates Anastasia Platonova and Andrei Maximishin as the favorites. The team began the season by defeating the more experienced American team of Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre at the Karl Schaefer Memorial, and placing a respectable 5th in their first ever Grand Prix event at Skate Canada. However, three shaky performances and a 9th place finish at Cup of Russia cancelled those early achievements and put them back in the mix with other teams such as Natalia Mikhailova and Arkadi Sergeev and Ekaterina Rubleva and Ivan Shefer.

2006 Junior Worlds silver medalists Mikhailova and Sergeev are one of the most experienced teams in Russia. They have competed in Juniors internationally since the 2000-01 season, but have only managed to win a Junior World silver medal in their final year of Junior eligibility. Following this success, the team left their long-time coaches and joined Elena Tchaikovskaya’s group, only to leave her for Alexander Zhulin later in the summer.

The result of these moves does not look promising. Mikhailova and Sergeev failed to make a bold statement in their Grand Prix events, finishing 10th at Skate America and 8th at Skate Canada, loosing all important points due to low levels of some of their elements. The rumors suggest that they have suffered from the fact that Zhulin has been involved in the Skating with Celebrities TV project throughout the fall. Though the show is over, it is felt by some that the team has not had enough time of the undivided coaches’ attention that they need before Nationals.

The dark horses in this race are Ekaterina Rubleva and Ivan Shefer, who also changed coaches and joined the Svinin and Zhuk camp. They had to withdraw from both their Grand Prix assignments this season as Shefer needed to have his appendix removed a week before Skate America. He wasn’t fully recovered enough to compete at Cup of Russia.

Pairs

The other Soviet powerhouse, the Pairs discipline, doesn’t fare quite as well. Two seasons ago, the future of Russian pair teams looked secure. Yulia Obertas and Sergei Slavnov won the silver at the 2005 European Championships and Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov won the 2005 Junior Worlds title. The Olympic season, however, showed that the optimism was premature. Obertas and Slavnov slipped to 4th at Europeans, 8th at Olympics, and finally their career lowest – 8th at Worlds, despite the absence of several higher ranked teams. Mukhortova and Trankov finished an unspectacular 12th at their senior Worlds debut. Clearly, changes were in order and they were not long in coming.

Mukhortova and Trankov were the main news-makers of the summer. The team left their long-time coaches Ludmila and Nicolai Velikov and joined the Tamara Moskvina camp. At first they appeared inspired and encouraged by the change. In fact, things worked out so well that Moskvina’s other team, Obertas and Slavnov, decided that they were getting the short end in the deal and left her for the Velikovs. It didn’t last long. No sooner had Moskvina left Mukhortova and Trankov unsupervised, the team had a major quarrel and split. Eventually however, they resolved their differences, but it was too late: They lost the precious training time and the support of their coach. Moskvina allowed them to remain in her camp, but relegated them to her assistant Artur Dmitriev.

With Dmitriev spending most of the summer in Moscow while taking part in a celebrity skating TV show, Mukhortova and Trankov received very little coaching. They finished a disappointing 5th at Skate America and an even more disappointing 7th at Cup of Russia, where they were forced to interrupt their LP performance because Trankov pulled a hip muscle. Between the injury, personal issues, and problems with coaches, the season appeared to have come to an end for the former World Junior Champions. However, the Russian media reported in December that Mukhortova and Trankov started to work with Oleg Vasiliev. The National Championships will be the first test of this new collaboration. Too early perhaps to expect any drastic changes, but given the state of the field, a medal isn’t out of their reach if they skate up to their potential.

Obertas and Slavnov fared only marginally better thus far this season. They began by capturing the bronze medal at Trophee Eric Bompard, due in part to a weak field rather than their own brilliance. However, their disastrous performances at NHK Trophy, where they failed to execute a single clean jump element, put an end to their hope of qualifying for the Grand Prix Final in their hometown. During a broadcast after their LP, one could hear a devastated Obertas muttering something to the effect, “It’s the end”, while Velikova offered a mildly reassuring, “No, my dearest, it’s just a new beginning.” Nationals, the first competition since then, will show which of them was right. The team has the goods to be competitive internationally and their programs this year suit them well, but their recent performances lacked the fire which used to set them apart from the other skaters.

Meanwhile, Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov, persuaded by the Russian Figure Skating Federation to remain eligible for another season, postponed their preparations for the new season in favor of taking part in the Skating with Celebrities TV show. Tikhonov admitted that when they signed the contract, they fully expected to be among the first to be voted out, and therefore had no worries about getting ready for their Grand Prix events. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Petrova only got voted off a week before Trophee Eric Bompard (their first event of the season), while Tikhonov, skating with the actress Anna Bolshova, remained in the show till the final round taped a week before the Grand Prix Final. The reason for success? A complete makeover. The skaters whose solemn image often overshadowed their technical proficiency, suddenly developed a completely new personas for the show. Their acting skills, sense of humor and rapport with the audience made them an instant crowd favorites.

However, with the autumn spent traveling between Moscow (where the show was taped) and St. Petersburg, Petrova and Tikhonov had very little time to prepare for the season. Still, their overall level allowed them to win the Trophee Eric Bompard and finish second in a close competition with Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy at Cup of Russia. As a result, they became the third Russian pair team to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. It was at this event, however, that disaster struck.

In the LP, Tikhonov missed both jumping passes, while Petrova fell two times for no apparent reason, forcing the team to miss one of the lifts and the combination spin. Despite the fact that their Moonlight Sonata performance in St. Petersburg was more inspired than either in Paris or in Moscow, the team finished dead last. With three more shows to do between the Grand Prix Final and Nationals, including one at the outdoor skating rink at the Red Square, the team is unlikely to improve their technical level. However, their overall class should be enough to let them easily defend their National title.

The only team which has demonstrated the potential to perform on the same level is Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov. However, the team was forced to withdraw from Nationals after Kawaguchi injured her ankle on a fall from a throw in practice. The doctors prescribed a two or three week rest, so depending on the level of performance of the leading teams in Mytishi, a trip to Warsaw may be not out of question for this new and promising couple.

Other teams with a chance to medal are Elena Efaieva and Alexei Menshikov, a senior team from Perm, and the Junior World bronze medalists Ksenia Krasilnikova and Konstantin Bezmaternikh, who missed the gold at this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final by 0.03 points.

Ladies

After years of dominating the European circuit, the Ladies discipline is back to being the weakest link of Russian figure skating. While there is either a clear-cut leader(s) or number of strong promising contenders in the other three disciplines, it appears that the Ladies discipline will be decided not by the brilliance of the performances, but by the fewer number of mistakes.

On paper, experienced Viktoria Volchkova and Elena Sokolova should be the leaders of the National team, but their skating this season hasn’t really done much to support this claim. Volchkova, who was forced to withdraw from the Torino Olympics due to an inflammation of her arm, and who is still recovering from a series of surgeries, has never developed the skills necessary to compete under the New Judging System. Volchkova’s strong basics and the spring of those few jumps she manages to land clean, are the only advantages she has to offer. Combined with the lack of consistency in executing a basic “no 3+3” program, it is sadly not enough to make a statement even on the European level.

Sokolova, whom many expected to take the leading position in the absence of Slutskaya, isn’t faring much better. After the fiasco in Torino, where she missed two jumps in her Short Program (SP) and finished 18th in this part of the competition, Sokolova appeared to loose the determination and drive which helped her to win silver at both 2006 Europeans and 2003 Worlds. This season, she isn’t even attempting the full arsenal of triples, settling instead for the triple toeloop-triple toeloop combination in the SP (which she popped to 3-2 at both GP events) and a triple loop out of steps. Still, given the state of the field, Sokolova would have to skate even worse than her previous performances this season to finish off-podium at this event.

Unfortunately the younger generation, which was expected to take advantage of the weak field, also failed to impress the international judges this fall. 2006 Russian Junior Champion Arina Martinova was expected to challenge Sokolova for the leading positions in the National team. The specialists reasoned that, unlike both Volchkova and Sokolova, she seems to be well prepared to compete under new rules – she is flexible, has solid spins and spirals, and should have no problem achieving higher levels and grades of execution for her non-jumping elements.

However, this prediction hasn’t materialized. Despite the fact that Martinova’s spins looked by far the best among all Russian skaters, she failed to gain enough “features” for higher levels because she did not hold the positions long enough. Combined with severe problems with jumps, she finished 7th at both Cup of Russia and NHK Trophy. Still, she is entering this event as one of the favorites and, based on her participation in a senior Grand Prix, is one of the most experienced skaters in the field.

A dark horse in the Ladies event is two-time Russian National bronze medalist Lilia Biktagirova. Coming off a back injury which forced her to withdraw from the Junior Russian Nationals last year, Biktagirova had an unspectacular start of the season finishing 10th at a Russian Cup event. However, despite her young age, she already has a reputation of being a “later in the season” skater. A year ago, she bombed at JGP events but proceeded to skate two strong programs at senior Nationals, earning her second consecutive bronze medal. If her current physical condition is anywhere near that of last season’s, Biktagirova should have no problems winning another medal (despite the relative lack of refinement) based on the strength of her jumping skills alone.

A number of Junior skaters, such as Margarita Tertichnaia (bronze medalist at JGP Oslo), Ekaterina Kozireva (bronze medalist at JGP Romania and 4th at JGP The Hague), Aliona Leonova (winner of two Russian Cup events), Ksenia Doronina, Katarina Gerboldt, Nina Petushkova, and others may capitalize on the lack of strong rivals, but their own inconsistencies make it difficult to predict the results of the competition.

Men’s

The Men’s discipline have about the same chances of becoming the highlight of the entire event – or a complete disaster. Unlike the other disciplines, there are no clear favorites here and three out of five to six competitors could win a medal and a trip to Warsaw. Sergei Dobrin, Ilia Klimkin, and Andrei Griazev have already had two “skate-offs” at Grand Prix events and also met each other at the national Russian Cup competitions.

The results were mixed and no one had convincing victories, but overall, Dobrin seems to be the best of the three and a favorite to win the title. He won the bronze at Trophee Eric Bompard, finished second in the LP at Cup of Russia (even though the disastrous performance in the SP left him in the 8th place overall), and defeated his opponents at two Russian Cup events. His main asset this year is his attempt on the quadruple salchow. He has one planned in the SP (in combination with a triple toeloop), and two more in the LP. So far the success rate is pretty good: the callers have recognized all his attempts as quads (even though some of them looked pre-rotated) and he managed to stay vertical on most of them.

Landing a clean triple Axel, however, is quite another story. Dobrin has a history of problems with this jump, and put in one program with exhausting quad attempts, the Axel seems to be a lost case as he has popped many in his attempts. In addition, the student of Zhanna Gromova obviously lacks the stamina to perform two quads and a full arsenal of triples in the LP. The fact is highlighted by his decision to keep both programs from last year. This season’s performances of his Mask of Zorro routine look pale in comparison to the powerful and sharp performances of the same program a year ago. Still, his determination and willpower, which helped him to push through the programs no matter how tired he was, has served him well in the past and will most likely earn him a medal at Nationals.

Dobrin’s main rival for the title is 27-year-old Ilia Klimkin. The 2004 European bronze medalist is the most experienced skater in the field, but his misfortunes in recent years has prevented him from fulfilling his potential. Finally recovering from most of his injuries and surgeries, Klimkin announced earlier this year that he has regained the inspiration that was missing from his skating last year and that he is skating purely for his own enjoyment this season. Despite this statement, he clearly does not plan to rest on laurels and let the others win the National title without a good fight. He also plans to do a quad jump in both the SP and LP, but his success with the quad toeloop isn’t as good as Dobrin’s.

Despite rather decent results at the GP events (4th at Trophee Eric Bompard, 3rd at Cup of Russia), which made him the highest ranked Russian in the standings, Klimkin’s performances at those events left much to be desired. In Paris, he failed to execute even one clean jump in the LP, stepping out, putting a hand down, popping, or just falling on all of them. In Moscow, he missed a couple of jumps and his quad attempt in the LP was downgraded by the caller. Still, his experience and good presentation skills are likely to be enough for a medal at the National Championships.

Andrei Griazev, the third participant of this early in the season “duel”, is struggling with consistency. In the past, the student of Tatiana Tarasova and Elena Vodorezova (Buianova) often had problems skating two clean programs in one competition. This year, unfortunately, he seems to regress to the point of having troubles skating even one program without mistakes. His SP performances in both Paris and Moscow were downright disastrous and his LPs, while technically better, were no where as good as they could have been as they lacked the power and attack which used to distinguish him in the past. In order to rectify the situation, he employed the services of Rudolf Zaiganov, a sports psychologist, who helped Alexei Yagudin in 2002. His performances in Mytishi will determine if was helpful. Based on his overall skating level, presentation skills, and power, Griazev certainly belongs in the top three, but he has to skate up to his potential.

Two other participants of the senior Grand Prix series, Alexander Uspenski and Sergei Voronov, also have good chances to win a medal if they skate clean. Voronov, the 2006 Junior World silver medalist, had shaky start this season at Skate America and Skate Canada, but in the past, his consistency in executing jumps has helped him a lot. Uspenski had more impressive results (5th at Cup of China, 6th at NHK Trophy), but his marks were not in the same league as those of World’s Top 10 skaters he met at those events, and he failed to skate clean programs. Still, he is currently one of the most artistic skaters in Russia and his musicality and easy flow across the ice can help him on the international level if he ever develops the presence of the ice to match them.

Another contender is Andrei Lutai, winner of the Karl Schafer Memorial and two Russian Cup events. His ISU rating wasn’t high enough to warrant an invitation to the GP series, but his performances at the National competitions were impressive. Lutai is the only skater to breach the 200 points in the first tests of the New Judging System in Russia.

The list of competitors also includes a number of strong Juniors, like Artem Boroludin (JGP finalist), and Vladimir Uspenski, younger brother of Alexander, who won the bronze medal at JGP in Oslo.