Golden Skate

2009-10 ISU Grand Prix Final of Figure Skating Preview

The 2009-10 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final will take place in Tokyo, Japan, from December 3-6, 2009. Thirty-six skaters representing eleven member nations qualified for this event by skating in Grand Prix events in October and November. Two medalists from last year’s competition return in the men’s division, while all three pairs medalists return to compete in Tokyo. Only one medalist each from both the ladies and dance division return to this season’s competition.

Skaters will compete both a short program (or original dance) in reverse order of their qualification finish, and then a free skate in reverse order of their finish in the short program. The compulsory dance will not be skated in Tokyo.

LADIES

The ladies competition is choc-full of skaters who want to be the one who finally defeats Korea’s Yu-Na Kim. In fact, Kim has not lost a competition since last year’s Grand Prix Final where she lost to the then reigning World Champion Mao Asada by a little more than two points. As the Olympic Games approach, Kim will absorb more and more pressure; so winning in Tokyo will be a great way to begin the charge into Vancouver.

Kim won the gold medal at Trophée Eric Bompard in October over Asada by more than thirty-five points. In doing so, the World Champion set new scoring records for ladies in the free skate and overall score. Kim looked unstoppable after Paris, and headed to Skate America as the overwhelming favorite.

After Kim skated to a new world record score in the short program in Lake Placid, it appeared that she would easily win her seventh career Grand Prix event with nary a challenge. However, the Four Continents Champion faltered in the free skate, falling once and making two other jump errors on the way to a second place finish in that portion of the event behind American Rachael Flatt.

Kim admitted after the event to feeling the pressure of being the favorite, and will start anew in Japan.

“I felt pressure about getting high scores than the score I got in Paris at Lake Placid,” Kim explained. “In Tokyo, I will try just my best. I’ll skate as if I am showing new programs to the audience.”

“As usually I’ve done, I will try to skate as best as I can, will not really care about achieving higher scores,” the World Champion continued. “Also, as the Grand Prix Final will be my last competition before the Olympics. I want to finish the competition with a good feeling.”

Everybody in the skating world will scrutinize Kim’s performances in Tokyo, and now that her fellow competitors don’t see her as unbeatable, the competition might start to get closer in terms of score. This will be a huge hurdle for Kim to get over as she will have not just win the competition, but come close to beating her record scores for many to see this competition as a victory for the 19 year-old.

Qualifying as the second seed for Tokyo is Japan’s Miki Ando, who also won two events to earn a fifth trip to the Grand Prix Final. Ando won her first Grand Prix title since 2006 when she won the gold medal at the Rostelecom Cup of Russia in October. The 21 year-old added another title to her resume, winning the NHK Trophy for the first time in November.

While Ando is not completely back to the form that propelled her to the World Championships title in 2007, she has been making tremendous strides in her skating this season. The Japanese silver medalist is now her country’s top prospect for a medal in Vancouver, and it is very possible that she could win her first Grand Prix Final medal in Tokyo.

And skates a beautiful free skate to music from the soundtracks of Rome, Marco Polo, and Mission Cleopatra, and could be the skater who gives Kim the biggest test. Ando is a technically gifted skater who has transformed into an artist this season – a deadly combination for her competition. Should Kim falter in Tokyo, Ando is the most likely to take advantage of the situation.

World silver medalist Joannie Rochette from Canada has struggled through the fall season, but skated well enough to qualify for this competition for the third time. After languishing in seventh place in the short program at Cup of China, Rochette rebounded to finish third overall and kept her hopes to qualify for Tokyo alive.

Rochette then competed in Kitchener at Skate Canada, and finished in first place in the short program with a strong program. However, the Canadian Champion looked out of sorts in her Samson and Delilah free skate, and struggled with her jumps throughout. In the end, Rochette could only manage three clean triple jumps, but still hung on to take the title.

“Of course winning is a good confidence boost,” Rochette said. “With each skate I feel I am getting stronger and better. Maybe I’m not perfect, but I feel there is momentum and believe that with a lot of hard work I am going to achieve my goals.”

Rochette will have to pull out all of the stops in Tokyo in order to contend for a medal, but that should not be impossible for the former Grand Prix Final bronze medalist.

“This is a perfect opportunity to skate my programs for the judges and the Japanese audience,” Rochette, 23, said confidently. “It is always my goal to perform at my best and push myself. My goal in Tokyo is to stay focused, skate my best and be on the podium.

Russian teenager Alena Leonova will compete in the Grand Prix Final for the first time in her career after winning a bronze medal in Moscow and a silver medal in Nagano.

“I’ve dreamed of entering the Grand Prix Final for a long time,” said the 19 year-old Leonova. “I’ve come a long way to get there. It’s a great honor and responsibility for me as I not only represent my country, but all of Europe as well.”

Leonova has drastically improved her results in the last year, and has become a solid contender for a medal in Tokyo. Last season, Leonova finished in fifth and seventh in her two Grand Prix events, but she hasn’t looked back since she won the Junior World title in February.

“My goals get more ambitious and tasks harder with every year,” Leonova stated. “The main thing is that I should make constant progress in my skating skills as well as in performing complicated elements.”

Leonova likes her chances in Tokyo, and knows what it will take to stand on the podium.

“Though I don’t like to make plans for taking this or that place beforehand, deep inside I dream of making the podium,” Leonova confessed. “I think I’ve got enough strength and ambition to do it.”

American Ashley Wagner competed with Leonova twice this season, wining the silver medal ahead of her at Rostelecom Cup of Russia, and then finishing behind Leonova with the bronze medal at the NHK Trophy. As a result, Wagner also qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time in her career.

“This year my main approach towards my programs is to just enjoy the moment,” Wagner, 18, explained. “I think last season I focused too much on proving myself and landing the jumps that I lost my control and focus. I feel like this new mentality has really helped me so far.”

Wagner has improved so many of the program components in her skating this season: skating with more maturity, speed, and intricacy between steps, and somehow the U.S. pewter medalist has maintained her technical elements as well.

For Tokyo, Wagner has very specific goals for her skating, and is placing less emphasis on her final placement in the event.

“I want to go out and compete strong programs, hopefully clean ones,” said the two-time Junior Worlds bronze medalist. “I want to not get the edge call on my Lutz and I want to get all my levels. I know people are watching all over so I want to show that I really am a strong competitor.”

The sixth qualifier for the competition is Japan’s Akiko Suzuki, a surprise finalist who shocked the skating world by winning the Rostelecom Cup of China over Joannie Rochette. Suzuki qualified by winning a tiebreaker over Americans Rachael Flatt and Alissa Czisny after finishing in a disappointing fifth place at Skate Canada.

Of all of the finalists in the ladies competition, Suzuki is perhaps the most untested. However, up until Skate Canada, Suzuki earned medals in all of her fall international events for the last three seasons. If the 24 year-old is able to live up to the moment in her home country, she could sneak in and steal away a medal from one of the more-seasoned veterans.

“Before the start of the Grand Prix series, I had only a vague idea that I could qualify for the Final. I just hoped to be there,” Suzuki admitted. “Just after free program at Skate Canada, I almost gave up on participating in the Final, so it was a big surprise to me to qualify. I just want to skate to express my thanks to audience. This is my goal.”

MEN

The men’s competition features two of the medalists from the Grand Prix Final last season, as well as the World Champion. All six of the qualifiers have skated in at least one Final before this, and this event could be one of the most equally matched fields in several years.

Japanese Champion Nobunari Oda is the top qualifier in the event, winning the gold medal at Trophée Eric Bompard and at Cup of China. In Paris, Oda finished in second place in the short program, but rebounded to win the title by twelve points over the Czech Republic’s Tomas Verner. The 2006 Four Continents Champion then won both portions of the event in Beijing en route to his fifth Grand Prix title.

Oda has not only been winning this season, but he has also proven himself to be the most consistent skater on the scene thus far. In fact, the only cracks in Oda’s skating has been a level one combination spin in the short program in Paris, and a singled triple Axel attempt in his free skate in Beijing.

Oda has been known to be an early season skater, and starts to fade away as the season progresses. This competition, his third career Grand Prix Final, will be a good test for the 22 year-old student as he attempts to qualify for his first Olympic team. Oda boasts the highest score of the season thus far, and could run away with the title if he can continue to skate the way he has already this season.

World Champion Evan Lysacek returns to the Grand Prix Final after missing the cut last season with sub par performances that relegated him to an alternate for the competition. Lysacek earned the silver medal behind Oda in Beijing, and then won his first Skate America title in Lake Placid to earn a trip to Tokyo.

This season, Lysacek has been pacing himself so that he doesn’t peak before the U.S. Championships, and ultimately, the Olympic Games. It has been a difficult art for the two-time U.S. Champion to to remain at or near the top of his game without taxing his body so that he can put all of his energy into the second half of the season.

“It is important for me to establish confidence in my consistency and comfort level with my new programs,” said a philosophical Lysacek. “At the same time, I don’t want to pull out all the stops just yet. I’ve been trying to build momentum as the season progresses, but stay calm and not put too much pressure to be perfect this early.”

The World Champion has been pleased with his performances thus far, and has logged the second highest score of all of the skaters who will compete in Tokyo. Lysacek has been especially satisfied with his component scores, and looks to continue his upward momentum at the Final.

“So far this season, I’ve been very happy with my components scores,” the 24 year-old admitted. “I think they reflect the tremendous time and work that have gone into my two programs. I hope that in Tokyo I can exceed the scores that I have received so far.”

The one thing that Lysacek has over the rest of the field is that he can never be counted out of the medals hunt. In fact, the U.S. bronze medalist has only missed one international podium since the Olympic Games in 2006. Lysacek will be joined by two other Americans: the reigning Grand Prix Final Champion Jeremy Abbott and three-time U.S. Champion Johnny Weir.

Abbott earned a repeat trip to the Grand Prix Final with a big win in Kitchener just a few weeks ago. Earlier in the series, the U.S. Champion had perhaps the worst performance of his career in the free skate at the NHK Trophy after a great short program. Abbott’s fifth place finish in Nagano placed him into a must-win situation at Skate Canada if he wanted a shot to defend his title.

“I did feel pressure to re-qualify for the Grand Prix Final,” Abbott confessed, “but ultimately I just wanted to skate to my potential. I’ve been working very hard on my programs, and I’m focusing on things I can control, such as skating clean programs. I’m proud of my performance at Skate Canada and am looking forward to skating in Tokyo.”

When Abbott skates with conviction, he can compete with the world’s best, but he often struggles with his nerves in competition. This season it seems that the 24 year-old has conquered that problem in the short program, but following up his stellar Skate Canada performance with another good free skate should help build his confidence as the U.S. National Championships approach.

“I think my performances at Skate Canada gave me a confidence boost,” Abbott said. “There are of course a few things to work on, but I’m pleased that I landed my quad and put together two solid performances. I want to skate two clean, aggressive programs in Tokyo. The rest is out of my hands.”

Qualifying for this competition is a huge monkey off of Weir’s back. After finishing in a disappointing fifth place at the U.S. Championships last season, the 2008 World bronze medalist came back this fall with something to prove. At the Rostelecom Cup of Russia, Weir appeared unlike his typical confident self, and he had to settle for fourth place in the standings.

“It is definitely a great boost of confidence to have qualified for the Grand Prix Final,” Weir said with a sigh of relief. “I am so excited to have the chance to perform again for my Japanese fans and for my fans around the world. This summer, after the horrible end of last season, I gave up any semblance of a personal life or life outside my craft, and focused only on my preparation for the season. I felt like I did everything to be prepared and to take back my spot on the international stage.”

“When I took the ice in Moscow my mind went completely blank,” Weir continued, “and I think the audience was able to see that in my skating. I was so angry with myself and so distraught because I literally had given up everything aside from training. The best I could do was terrible. After the event, many of my fans in Russia came to me and said wonderful words of encouragement and determination that pushed me in my mind to do better in NHK Trophy and not let my failure get to me.”

Weir then headed to Nagano for the NHK Trophy, and immediately fell ill with a sinus infection. Though the circumstances were not perfect, the illness might have given the 25 year-old something other than his skating on which to focus. As a result, he landed all of his once reliable triple Axels and ended up with the silver medal.

“I showed up in Japan very determined and in a fighting way,” said the resilient Weir. “I was happy with my comeback in Nagano, but I knew I still had a lot to work on to bring back any legitimacy to my season. With a fourth place finish in Russia I thought all chances to qualify for the Final were gone, so I am extremely happy that I accumulated enough points to earn a spot and I hope to improve on anything that has been seen from me thus far this season.”

Weir seems to have regained the confidence that he once had when he was regularly winning titles, but traveling to Asia has not been so good to Weir lately. Last December, Weir traveled to Korea to perform in an ice show, and ended up in the hospital that resulted in lost training time heading into the U.S. Championships.

Weir is now confident that he will take all of the precautions to keep himself healthy as he heads to Tokyo and back.

“I always take all proper precautions when I travel,” said the reigning Grand Prix bronze medalist. “I always take a lot of vitamin C, get my shots, drink lots of water, and keep my hands clean and sanitized.”

Oda will be joined in Tokyo by teammate Daisuke Takahashi who is returning to the Grand Prix Final after missing the entire season last year due to injury. Before that, Takahashi qualified for and won medals at three consecutive Grand Prix Finals.

The 2007 World silver medalist opened his Grand Prix campaign with a disappointing fourth place finish at the NHK Trophy. He then narrowly missed out on winning the title in Kitchener by less than two points, and had to settle for the silver medal.

Takahashi has been struggling to find the rhythm of his quadruple toe loop this season, and it has affected the way he competes. In Nagano, the former Japanese champion kept the jump in his program, and lost momentum once he missed it in the free skate. The 23 year-old then took the quadruple out of his program in Kitchener, and was able to give a well-rounded performance as a result. He could win the entire competition if he has regained command of his quadruple jump, but if he hasn’t, he should stick with what works.

World bronze medalist Brian Joubert qualified for the Final for a fourth time, but had to withdraw due to an injury to his right foot that occurred in practice. As a result, Verner will replace the French Champion as the first alternate.

Verner opened the Grand Prix season with a silver medal in Paris with two solid performances, but then faltered in Lake Placid and had to settle for fifth place. The 2008 European Champion can compete with the world’s best when he is having a good day, but he can also bring up the rear when he has an off day.

Having Verner in the competition should come as no surprise to anyone as he has all of the qualities of a top skater. The many time Czech Champion needs to remain focused and take one element at a time. If he is able to do that, the 23 year-old could easily win this competition.

PAIRS

The pairs competition boasts a talented roster of six teams who have won a combined six World Championships, 18 World Championships medals, seven European Championships medals, and 17 Four Continents Championships medals. It will be the first meeting for many of these teams this season, and could be one of the most thrilling pairs competitions in several years.

Qualifying as the top seed in their celebrated return to eligible competition is the two-time Olympic bronze medalist team of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao. The duo made their season debut at home at the Cup of China, and easily outdistanced their closest competition to convincingly take the title. All of the technical elements that made Shen and Zhao a powerhouse team for so long were as strong as ever, and the programs were executed with their signature flair.

“We are very happy that our coming back has been going well,” Shen admitted. “We have been trying hard to produce the perfect programs. We are confident that we could achieve our best standard.”

Shen and Zhao then headed to Lake Placid to compete at Skate America, and skated away with another title with little resistance from the rest of the field. This time, however, despite an improvement in score, Shen and Zhao made errors in the free skate that marred an otherwise spectacular performance.

Shen (31) and Zhao (36) have shown that they are strong contenders once again, and could come away with an unprecedented sixth Grand Prix Final title if they have their way.

“We hope to be able to perform the perfect programs,” Zhao admitted. “We treat the Grand Prix Final as the warm-up event for the Olympic Games. We have won the Grand Prix Final five times in the past so we are not nervous about competing in the event.”

Shen and Zhao will have a tough road ahead to win the title in Tokyo, and their teammates Qing Pang and Jian Tong could provide them with some of the strongest resistance in reaching that goal.

Pang and Tong are the reigning Grand Prix Final Champions, and are typically well trained for this event. The 2006 World Champions earned their way to Tokyo with a win at the Rostelecom Cup of Russia in Moscow, and another win at the NHK Trophy in Nagano in which the duo logged their career personal best total score.

“We admit that our performances this season are better than the previous ones,” Tong admitted. “We have made lots of effort to raise our standard. For example, we solved our injury problem first this year. Although the pain still exists, it is not as horrible as before. We also spend more time on things related to training this year as in the past we spent quite a bit of time on just having fun.”

Pang (29) and Tong (30) have looked stronger and more focused in their skating this season, and that is a dangerous prospect for the rest of the field. The reigning Four Continents Champions have a harmonious blend of technical prowess and artistic subtlety that scores well with judging panels when they are near the top of their game. In their twelfth senior international season, Pang and Tong still have no problem with staying motivated to remain at this level of competitiveness.

“We really love this sport,” shared Pang. “We have tried hard to do our programs well and through seeing our performance we hope to attract more Chinese people to fall in love with figure skating. At the same time, we do realize that we could do better. For example, up to now we still do not have an Olympic medal. We really hope to accomplish our dreams at the 2010 Games.”

But Pang and Tong will have more to contend with than just their teammates. The two-time and reigning World Champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are looking rock solid after a shaky beginning to their Grand Prix season in Paris.

Savchenko and Szolkowy headed into Paris as the overwhelming favorites to win their second title in Paris, but after a wonderful short program, the duo fell apart in the free skate. In total they fell twice, missed another element completely, and faltered on a fourth element. The end result was a fourth place finish in the free skate and a bronze medal in the event.

Heading into Skate Canada, the European Champions were looking for redemption, and came armed with a brand new free skate to the music from the soundtrack of Out of Africa.

“After Paris on the way home I got the idea to use this music and I finished the cut 3 o’clock in the morning,” said coach Ingo Steuer. “The next day I brought this music to the rink, but (Savchenko and Szolkowy) said ‘no’. We started with another new program, but after one hour I stopped, because they could not do what I wanted. Then I put the CD with Out of Africa in the player, and I was skating the program in front of them to give both the feeling. After they both said to me, ‘let’s start’.”

In Kitchener, Savchenko (25) and Szolkowy (30) again won the short program, and then skated perhaps the performance of their lives with their new free skate. Not only did Savchenko and Szolkowy win the title and qualify to compete in Tokyo, but they also broke Shen and Zhao’s almost five year-old record of highest total score for a pairs team in an ISU event.

For Tokyo, the World Champions will not make such drastic changes as they did for Skate Canada.

“We will change some small things in the program,” Szolkowy told Golden Skate after Skate Canada, “Things we know that aren’t working perfectly. The order of the elements is good for us.”

Russians Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov took advantage of Savchenko and Szolkowy’s misfortune in Paris, and earned their first Grand Prix title along the way. The European bronze medalists then finished behind Savchenko and Szolkowy in Kitchener with a silver medal, and earned their second consecutive trip to the Grand Prix Final.

In season’s past, Mukhortova and Trankov have struggled with putting a complete competition together so that they can be solid contenders for medals in big events. Last season in particular, it seemed like the former Russian Champions would never skate a clean free skate to go with their often-stellar short programs. That has been the biggest improvement in the duo’s skating this season- the ability to put two solid programs together in one competition.

“We haven’t done anything special to become more consistent,” Trankov admitted. “We’re just working hard.”

Mukhortova (24) and Trankov (26) have great basic skating, and are beginning to start looking like potential medal threats in the big competitions. Skating in Tokyo will be a huge test for this young team, but they remain focused on themselves as they approach one of the most important competitions of their careers.

“Clean skating is the most important thing,” Trankov said matter-of-factly. “For me, that is more important than making the podium or the final result.”

Another Chinese team, Dan Zhang (24) and Hao Zhang (25) have also qualified for Tokyo, and this will be their seventh consecutive Grand Prix Final. Zhang and Zhang have won medals in every Grand Prix Final for the past four seasons.

To qualify for Tokyo, the World silver medalists won the silver medal behind Shen and Zhao at Cup of China, and then followed that up with a disappointing bronze medal performance in Lake Placid at Skate America.

“After Skate America we have made adjustment to our program, raised the grade, and we are training more in order to achieve good physical power,” Hao Zhang explained. “Our goal in Tokyo is just to achieve a good result.”

Completing the competition roster are the Russian champions, Yuko Kavaguti (28) and Alexander Smirnov (25) who finished with silver medals behind Pang and Tong at both Rostelecom Cup of Russia and NHK Trophy. The European silver medalists have placed fifth at the last two Grand Prix Finals, and will look to improve that standing in Kavaguti’s home country.

At NHK Trophy, despite a difficult fall on a throw quadruple Salchow attempt in the free skate, Kavaguti and Smirnov earned a career personal best total score en route to the silver medal. To place well in Tokyo, the World bronze medalists would be wise to try to skate clean and save the big tricks for the Olympic Games.

DANCE

The dance competition will be a showdown of two teams who train together on a daily basis fighting for the right to be top dog at home. Meanwhile, an interesting rivalry is developing between two other teams for the bronze medal, who have traded placements in recent seasons. No matter who comes out on top, the competition will be jammed packed with difficulty and the desire to win.

In Grand Prix Final tradition, the compulsory dance will not be competed in Tokyo, and less inexperienced teams could take advantage of those with strong compulsories with strong original and free dances.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States narrowly edged out their training partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir for the top seed for the Grand Prix Final. Both teams have won two events apiece on the Grand Prix this season, and they are separated by less than a point in total score in their two events.

Davis and White opened their season with an easy win at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, and then headed to Rostelecom Cup of Russia with plenty of momentum. In Moscow, the American Champions took the title by outdistancing the silver medalists by more than thirty points. Along the way, the duo earned a career high score in the free dance.

In Nagano at the NHK Trophy, Davis (22) and White (22) earned new personal best scores in the compulsory dance, original dance, and total score en route to another victory – this time by more than twenty points.

What is clear this season thus far for Davis and White is that they are prepared to compete with just about anybody that crosses their path. However, there is room for improvement in both their Indian folk original dance and in their Phantom of the Opera free dance. In Moscow and Nagano, the Four Continents Champions left points on the ice notably in their circular steps in both programs, and could upgrade this element to level four to increase their scoring potential.

Virtue (20) and Moir (22) won the opening competition on the Grand Prix in Paris with a convincing sixteen point win over fellow qualifiers Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France. The Canadian Champions followed that up with another win over the French Champions in Kitchener, this time by more than nineteen points. Virtue and Moir established a new personal best in the compulsory dance along the way.

Like their training mates, Virtue and Moir have missed earning points in their programs. In their Flamenco original dance, for example, the Four Continents silver medalists have struggle with their step sequences – earning level two on the midline steps at Skate Canada.

The two teams head to Tokyo in a virtue tie. If the scores from the compulsory dance are omitted from the total, Davis and White have a narrow .19 points of an edge over Virtue and Moir if each team’s top score is examined. Davis and White seem to have the upper hand in the original dance, while Virtue and Moir have the higher score in the free dance. Regardless of who comes out on top, it will certainly be an electrifying battle for the gold medal.

Pechalat and Bourzat qualified for their second Grand Prix Final with the two silver medals that they earned behind Virtue and Moir. They have struggled with the twizzles in their country folk original dance, earning only level three in both competitions. In addition, the French Champions have had some difficulty with the step sequences in their Requiem for a Dream free dance.

“We still have to improve physically in the free dance,” Bourzat admitted. “We still can do stuff in practice that we cannot show in competition. I think that it will help us by not having a compulsory dance in Tokyo because that is not our strong side.”

After finishing fifth at the World Championships last season, Pechalat (25) and Bourzat (28) returned to competition this season hoping to improve in every competition.

“I think just making it to Tokyo is already something,” said Bourzat. “Only the top skaters will compete there. This year is quite a mess so far, but we still can show that our result (at the World Championships) was not because of luck.”

Pechalat and Bourzat have a great shot at winning a medal in Tokyo, and will likely have to fight off Great Britain’s Sinead Kerr and John Kerr to make that dream become reality.

“Starting with fresh marks will be a chance for us to get a medal there,” Bourzat proclaimed. “Even if it’s going to be huge fight for us.”

Kerr and Kerr have qualified for their first Grand Prix Final after putting together the most successful fall season of their careers. After winning their second consecutive title at Finlandia Trophy, the brother and sister duo captured the bronze medal in Paris where they earned a new personal best score in the compulsory dance.

At NHK Trophy in Nagano, the European bronze medalists won the silver medal behind Davis and White, their best finish in a Grand Prix event ever.

“We are really excited about qualifying for the Grand Prix Final,” John admitted. “It was one of our goals at the beginning of the season so it feels good that we have achieved it.”

Sinead (31) and John (29) also skate a country folk original dance and have a very slight edge over the French in terms of score this season. However, the British Champions have been plagued with level two calls on several elements in both the original dance and their Linkin Park free dance this season, and will have to increase those levels to be able to stay competitive with the French overall. But Kerr and Kerr remain optimistic about their chances.

“We always look at improving on our own personal performances,” John explained. “If you do that then good results usually follow.”

The Italian team of Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte are perhaps the surprise of the dance world this season, qualifying for their first Grand Prix Final, and making quite a name for themselves as a result.

The Italian silver medalists opened the season with a silver medal win behind Davis and White at Rostelecom Cup of Russia in Moscow. Cappellini and Lanotte then followed that up by narrowly winning another silver medal in Lake Placid at Skate America.

While a medal is somewhat out of the question for Cappellini (22) and Lanotte (24), the experience of competing with the World’s best once more before the Olympic Games should help them prepare for the future. The duo has an entertaining Italian folk original dance, and shares a part of their free dance music with Pechalat and Bourzat.

The final team that will compete in Tokyo will make the trip due to the withdrawal of Americans Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, winners of Cup of China and Skate America. The World silver medalists were forced out of the competition after Belbin was asked to take a week’s break from strenuous physical activity following oral surgery. The first alternates for Tokyo, Russia’s Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski declined the invitation to compete due to Khokhlova’s recent bout of the flu. So, the Canadian silver medalists Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier will make the last minute trip to Japan.

“Well at first it didn’t really sink in at all, as we have always wanted to go to this competition,” Crone said of learning that they would compete in Tokyo. “Then nerves came due to the fact we were taking some down time working on show numbers until Wednesday. Somehow though, we both feel really comfortable and ready to compete. We have had a rest period since (NHK Trophy) so that will benefit us for sure. Overall we are super excited to be there and compete with the best of the best, and also be back in Japan.”

Crone (19) and Poirier (18) are the only competitors to have missed the podium in one of their events – a fourth place finish in Moscow after Poirier fell ill during the competition. However, a bronze medal at NHK Trophy gave the 2008 World Junior Champions the confidence that they need to compete again in Japan.

“We hope to just go out there and get the levels we were missing in both Grand Prix events,” Crone said rather philosophically. “We have changed some of our program, so we want to test the new stuff out and see if it will fix the missing levels. We just want to go out and have two clean performances and hope that we can expand our passion for our programs so that the audience and judges can feel our movement like they are actually doing it.”

Crone and Poirier are far off pace to be in medal contention in Tokyo, but are just happy to have the experience to compete at the Grand Prix Final so early in their careers.

“I think that with our sport you have to be ready for anything to happen,” Crone said. “I feel that this will be like any competition, and the fact that we found out so late has positive things that come with it. We won’t have time for nerves, we can just go on auto pilot and do what we train everyday back at our home rink. This is a good thing for us to experience. It is a learning curve that might reoccur later on in our career, and as I always tell (Poirier), ‘expect for the best, prepare for the worst.'”

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