Golden Skate

2007-08 Grand Prix Final of Figure Skating Preview

The Torino Palavela in Italy will take center stage once again as the premier place to watch world class figure skating from December 13- 15, 2007. It will be the first time that Torino plays host to the International Skating Union (ISU) Grand Prix Final of Figure Skating (GPF), which promises to be a memorable competition.

The event could mark the changing of the guard in figure skating as none of the reigning World Champions will be competing; hence, a younger generation will emerge as challengers for podium finishes in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada.

The six-event GP circuit began with Skate America in October in Reading, Penn., and ended nearly two weeks ago with NHK Trophy in Sendai, Japan. Approximately 40 men, 43 ladies, 34 dance teams, and 23 pair teams competed for points throughout the series, with only the top six skaters/teams in each discipline earning a spot to the GPF.

LADIES

After winning her first world title earlier last year with spectacular performances, Japan’s Miki Ando seemed like a sure bet to qualify for this competition. However, in a pre-season competition in her home country, the current World champion re-injured her long-ailed shoulder and lost precious training time leading up to this season’s Grand Prix of Figure Skating.

The 19-year-old started off with a silver medal at Skate America with shaky performances, and then seemingly imploded at the NHK Trophy just two weeks ago to relegate her to the second alternate for this competition.

Bottom line, Ando does not have the spring in her jumps that she had when she won her World title, and appears to lack the competitive sparkle in her eye that her countrywoman Mao Asada has.

Asada, just 17 years of age, is already making her third trip to this competition in as many tries. Standing just one step below Ando at last year’s World Championships, Asada won both Skate Canada and Trophée Eric Bompard to qualify for the GPF.

This season, Asada is noticeably focusing on the program component scores while demonstrating a new maturity that she once lacked. In the process, however, the Japanese champion has become a vulnerable jumper in that she has yet to skate a clean short program and is receiving edge deductions on her Lutz jumps. Despite winning the short program at Trophée Eric Bompard, she was in tears due to a mistake that she made on her opening combination jump.

Asada’s biggest weakness this season might be her confidence, and with an entourage of cameramen recording her every move, she might have difficulty living up to the hype that has been created around her.

The lady who has been head and shoulders above everyone else this season has been Asada’s rival, Yu-Na Kim of South Korea. Kim and Asada have been trading placements back and forth for several seasons now, and it appears that this season will be Kim’s turn to win. In both of her outings this season, Kim destroyed the competition by more than 24 points overall. In qualifying as the top seed for this competition, Kim also outscored her nearest competitor by 20 points.

What makes Kim so dominant is that she has consistent and high scoring jump elements that are deliciously placed between sophisticated choreography and transitional moves. The 17-year-old should easily win this competition and set herself up to improve from her bronze medal finish at last year’s World Championships.

Qualifying for her first senior GPF is USA’s Kimmie Meissner. The 2006 World champion seems to have developed a sense of calm to her skating over the off-season, opening her 2007-08 season with a win at Skate America in which the field included both the reigning World and World Junior Champions.

The key to Meissner’s success at the GPF will be her ability to cleanly land her Lutz combination and triple flip in the short program. Since the 18-year-old does not have the goods to match some of the other ladies on program components, she will need to skate perfect programs to have a chance at the title.

Japan’s Yukari Nakano had perhaps the most difficult path to clear to qualify for this year’s final. At Skate Canada, Nakano came in second overall behind teammate Asada despite landing a triple Axel in the long. The same thing happened at Cup of Russia when she competed against Kim. When looking at the bigger picture, however, the Japanese bronze medalist would have easily won Skate America or NHK Trophy with either of her performances.

Nakano has improved every facet of her skating this season, but has not corrected the leg wrap that could be responsible for keeping her placements lower than some might think they should be. Still, the 22-year-old is a beautiful skater with effortless power and a quiet consistency that should stand her in good stead among this field.

Normally a late-season bloomer, Italy’s Carolina Kostner has shown promise early in the competition season. After finishing third at the Cup of China, the current European champion took the gold at the final qualification competition in Japan. Kostner will have to continue to harness her power if she hopes to do well in this field, as well as depending on the top skaters to make mistakes, in order to have a chance to win.

USA’s Caroline Zhang earned the last spot in the GPF by earning a bronze medal at Skate America, her first senior Grand Prix event, as well as a silver at Cup of China. The quintessential “baby ballerina” brings a Sasha Cohen-type of flexibility to her skating that has quickly become the hallmark of her talent. In addition, the 14-year-old executes difficult spins that are rewarded with high levels and positive grades of execution.

However, Zhang has been struggling lately to get full rotation on her triple jumps. Additionally, she has used the wrong take-off edge (for which she was penalized) for every single one of her Lutz jumps executed in both programs at both GP events. Should the current World Junior champion be able to correct this recurring theme in her skating, she might very well skate off with a medal at this competition.

MEN

Current World champion Brian Joubert started his season with a bang, winning the gold at Skate Canada in early November. However, as the Frenchman prepared for his second competition that would take place in his homeland, he grew ill. In the end, Joubert was forced to withdraw from his second event due to a virus, and was mathematically eliminated from earning a spot to compete in Torino.

The top seed for the event is Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi, the silver medalist from last year’s World Championships. Choreographer Nikolai Morozov has armed the 21-year-old with highly entertaining and code of point-friendly programs which showcase his ability to execute difficult choreography.

Most notably, Takahashi has a show-stopping straightline step sequence in his short program that is sure to bring the house down. However, the Skate America and NHK Trophy champion has had difficulty in landing the quadruple toe so far this season. He will need it to win the title in this very close field.

This competition also marks the return of USA’s Johnny Weir to the upper echelon of competitors in men’s figure skating this season. After a dismal 2006-07 season that saw the three-time U.S. champion slip to third at his national championships, Weir made a coaching change to Galina Zmievskaya from his longtime coach Priscilla Hill.

Weir credits his coaching change and improved work ethic for helping him to become the most consistent men’s skater on the scene this season thus far. The 22-year-old has not only eclipsed his personal best score twice this season, but he has only made one minor jump mistake in Grand Prix competition thus far. Weir struggles to compete with the men who jump the quad in the short program, but utilizes his consistency and sheer artistry to close the gap.

Canada’s Patrick Chan, who qualified as the third seed for the GPF, is easily the surprise of the men’s field this season. Last season, the 16-year-old finished in 5th and 7th in his Grand Prix events and claimed the silver medal at the World Junior Championships. This season, however, Chan is competing with his recently added triple Axel that complements his old-fashioned edges and on-ice charm.

After winning the bronze medal at Skate America, Chan took command of the competition at Trophée Eric Bompard and harvested his first senior international gold medal. The student of Don Laws and Ellen Burka needs to skate cleanly to have a chance at the title, but he has proven that he belongs in this competition.

Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland has been struggling with his jumps so far this season, but used everything else to qualify for this competition. The former World champion arguably has the best programs this season by a long shot, but has been unable thus far to land the high-scoring jumps that are needed to win titles.

Lambiel did not attempt a triple Axel in either of his two events in this series (due to re-learning the approach of the jump) and has struggled with his money jump – the quadruple toe loop. Should the 22-year-old’s Axel make a dramatic return, he will easily win this title as his program component scores are far superior to anyone else in the field.

The final two competitors, USA’s Evan Lysacek and Belgium’s Kevin Van der Perren, have their work cut out for them if they hope to stand on the podium. Lysacek has been hit or miss on the quadruple toe loop in competition and seems to focus most of his energy on that single element in his programs. The U.S. champion does have a dramatic new freeskate to music from Tosca, but he will need to be clean in this competition to medal.

Van der Perren has skated well so far this season, but has stamina issues that he must overcome in order to be competitive. With his skating largely dependent on jumping, the 2007 European bronze medalist’s lack of program components will be exposed in this very competitive field.

PAIRS

The pairs competition should provide for an interesting peek into what the future holds in store for this discipline. With the absence of the celebrated World champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China from eligible competition, there lies a new generation of skaters chomping at the bit to take over. In this competition, the most obvious couple who could take over the throne are Shen and Zhao’s countrymen, Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang.

Zhang and Zhang have two world medals and an Olympic medal already in their trophy cases, but the team struggled last season and missed the podium at last year’s World Championships. However, this season the duo are skating like champions and easily defeating their closest competitors on the Grand Prix circuit. At this point, if the 2006-07 Grand Prix Final bronze medalists skate anywhere near their potential, they should win the gold without a challenge.

If anybody were to have the mettle to challenge Zhang and Zhang for the title, it would have to be the German team of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. Perhaps Savchenko and Szolkowy aren’t the most consistent team, but what they lack on that front, they make up for on execution and originality. Everything that this team does is big, bold, and different than anyone before them.

Szolkowy is a physically strong partner who has the brawn to give his partner the freedom to create stunningly difficult shapes in the lifts. The 2007 European champions take artistic risks that push them to the limit just short of disaster, but somehow they are able to make it all work for them. If this team can execute clean solo jumps, they just might have a shot at winning this competition.

Former World Champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong of China are starting to come alive this season after struggling for most of last season. Pang in particular is looking stronger than she has in the recent past, and no longer appears to lose as much steam at the end of their programs. Still, the 2007 Four Continents silver medalists somehow seem dated and bland – even if their technical merit warrants high scores. This team should easily make the podium, but will have to count on mistakes from their teammates and the Germans if they want to snatch the title.

Three teams have qualified for this competition for the first time. Canadians Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison lead the way after a successful campaign in which they harvested one medal of each color in their three assignments. After defeating Pang and Tong for the gold medal at Skate America, the reigning Canadian champions won a silver in their home country.

While Dube and Davison do not have the big tricks that make them stand out from the others, they do possess a classic style that more than makes up for it. This team has a natural passion for pairs skating that resonates throughout the competition arena, and although it would be a surprise if they finished higher than third at this event, look for them to be in the hunt for a medal come Vancouver 2010.

In just their second year as a team, USA’s Keauna McLaughlin (15) and Rockne Brubaker (21) of the United States are a promising pair who are making waves at a very young age. However, the current World Junior champions just don’t have as many miles under their belts as the other teams and are still coming together as a pair to work as one unit. What stands out about this team is how big they skate- everything is big and open, but mistakes invariably start to creep into their programs that will surely keep them from making the podium at this event.

Russia’s Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, coached by Tamara Moskvina, are another second year team rapidly rising. The high-scoring technical elements are this team’s strength – in fact, Kawaguchi and Smirnov have been attempting a throw quadruple Salchow this season and are very close to landing it. In contrast to the other teams, however, the Russians are slow across the ice and lack an emotional connection between each other. This team is developing quite nicely, but they should not threaten for a medal in this event.

DANCE

The two top teams from last year’s World Championships are not competing this season, which opens the door for USA’s Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. The current World bronze medalists have been flawless thus far this season, earning two gold medals on the Grand Prix circuit to qualify for this competition just behind their French rivals, Isabel Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder.

Belbin and Agosto are more prepared this season than they have been in recent years, and are starting to demonstrate a growth of maturity on the ice. This year’s free dance to selections by Chopin showcases this team’s strength- their ability to relate to each other and move as one unit as opposed to individual skaters.

However, the Russian duo of Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin may have defeated Belbin and Agosto at the Cup of China had it not been for a mistake made on a dance spin in the free dance. And with training mates Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir outscoring the Americans on the Grand Prix circuit, it is do or die time for the U.S. champions. They will have to show improved technical elements and hope for higher program component scores in order to win this competition.

Delobel and Schoenfelder are in a similar boat to Belbin and Agosto. If they don’t produce results this season, it is likely that they will be surpassed by younger and more code of point-friendly teams who are already nipping at their blades. The French champions, known for their innovative themes, have some of the most difficult lifts in the world, but they skates like they don’t get along, and that has plagued their component scores for the past several years. Delobel and Schoenfelder will have to skate a blinder to win this competition.

Domnina and Shabalin are on the verge of having a competitive break-through, and this could be the forum in which that could happen. While looking strong on a technical level this season, the top two teams are beginning to look vulnerable compared to that of the 2007 European silver medalists. In the Russian tradition of skating with speed and dramatic flair, Domnina and Shabalin need only to skate clean to have a shot at this title. The judging panels are ready to give a win to this team, and it is looking more likely that it could happen here.

Young upstarts Virtue and Moir are looking more like seasoned veterans than a team competing in their sophomore season on the Grand Prix circuit. The Canadian silver medalists have been earning huge scores this fall, and could be the dark horses at this event. What makes this team special is their innate ability to not only skate the difficult rhythms that ice dancing requires, but to also utilize this ability to interpret each rhythm with every fiber of their being. Virtue and Moir could make the biggest splash yet at this event, winning the whole enchilada, and making themselves the early favorites for Olympic Gold in 2010.

France’s Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat and Russia’s Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski should not pose a threat to the podium, but are entertaining nevertheless. Bourzat will undergo surgery to repair a torn meniscus immediately following the competition, but the team is still planning to compete for the experience.

Pechalat and Bourzat have an avante-garde free dance that represents different levels of insanity that is truly innovative and interesting.

Khokhlova and Novitski are building a case for themselves to move up the rankings ladder, and should have a respectable showing at this competition.

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