2009 Skate America Preview

The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating continues this week in Lake Placid, USA, for the fifth installment of competition known as the Skate America. Sixty skaters representing 16 countries will compete in the competition, attempting to earn points towards qualification to the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final to be held in December in Tokyo.

American ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto are hoping to win for a second time, as is the Chinese pairs team of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao. Korea’s Yu-Na Kim should continue to dominate the ladies field with a win in Lake Placid, and World Champion Evan Lysacek looks to harvest his first Grand Prix gold of the season.

LADIES

The ladies competition should be a walk in the park for World Champion Yu-Na Kim of Korea.  In seven Grand Prix events, Kim has won six titles, and in three tries, she has won the Final twice.  At her first competition this season in Paris, she broke the world records for the highest free skate and overall total in a competition.

Of those in this competition who have competed on the Grand Prix so far this season, Kim, 19, has outscored her closest rival by more than 50 points.  Barring a meltdown of epic proportions or Kim withdrawing from the competition, the World Champion should come away with her seventh Grand Prix title in Lake Placid.  The more interesting story in Lake Placid, perhaps, is the fight among the other eleven ladies in the field for the silver medal.

The most poised of the also-rans is American Rachael Flatt, who placed fifth at the 2009 World Championships in Los Angeles.  In Beijing, Flatt finished fifth in both sections of the event, and fourth overall with uncharacteristically shaky performances.  Flatt’s strength is that she lands her jumps, but in Beijing, the U.S. silver medalist made three errors in the free skate and one in the short program.

Lake Placid will be a good test for Flatt in that she has the opportunity to medal in a very close field of competitors.  A typical skate from the 17 year-old should place her on the podium, but performances similar to those in Beijing will continue the 2008 World Junior Champion’s competitive disappointments.

Teammate Alexe Gilles shocked many in Paris earlier this season by skating a gorgeous short program and finishing less than a point behind former World Champion Mao Asada.  Gilles, 17, ended up in fifth place in Paris and earned new personal bests in each phase of the competition.

Gilles is a strong technical skater who could surprise everyone again with two solid performances.  Heading in to Skate America, the Junior Grand Prix bronze medalist feels like she is more competitive than ever before.

“Going into Skate America I am way more confident than I was in Paris,” admitted the 2008 U.S. Junior Champion.  “Hopefully I can use that confidence to help my performances. In the short I am really working on the components, and in the long I am working on getting it clean with all my triples including the triple-triple.”

Former European Champion Julia Sebestyen is having a resurgence of sorts after five years of disappointing results in international competitions.  In Moscow, the Hungarian won the short program before imploding in the freeskate to finish in sixth place overall.

Sebestyen has huge jumps that are a thing of beauty, but often the two-time Grand Prix Finalist is unable to control the landings.  The 28 year-old has not medaled on the Grand Prix since 2006, but this could be her chance to climb back onto the podium.

Like Sebestyen, Japan’s Fumie Suguri has seen better days.  The three-time World medalist started a comeback of sorts last season, medaling in both of her Grand Prix events and earning her first trip to the World Championships in three years.  This season, however,  the 28 year-old is struggling with her jumps and does not seem prepared to compete for medals.

In Beijing, Suguri finished in a disappointing seventh place with a score more than 30 points less than her personal best.  A top five finish in Lake Placid would be a step in the right direction for the three-time Four Continents Champion, but it appears as if this might be the last time that we see her in international competition.

Georgia’s Elene Gedevanishvili is the wild card in this competition, and could make things tough for the front runners.  Gedevanishvili, 19, is wildly inconsistent, but can finish near the top of the pack when she skates well.  If she skates like she does in most competitions, Gedevanishvili will be in the hunt after the short program, but history shows she may falter in the freeskate.

Estonia’s Elena Glebova (16th, 2009 World Championships) returns to the Grand Prix after a successful campaign at the international “B” events this season.  Glebova finished ninth at the Nebelhorn Trophy and clinched a spot for her country at the Olympic Games.  Just a few weeks ago, the 20 year-old followed that up with a fourth place finish at the Ice Challenge in Austria.  A medal is out of the question for Glebova, but exceeding her best finish (sixth) at a Grand Prix event is certainly not.

Susanna Pöykiö from Finland returns to action after withdrawing from the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow due to injury.  Earlier this season, Pöykiö finished 10th at the Finlandia Trophy and did not look to be in good form.  If the 27 year-old shows up to compete in Lake Placid, she will be skating to regain her confidence rather than for medals.  A top five finish would a triumph for the two-time European medalist.

After a three year hiatus from competition, American Sasha Cohen is scheduled to compete in Lake Placid. The Olympic silver medalist was also entered in the event in Paris, but withdrew from the competition citing injury.  Should the 2006 Olympic silver medalist make the trip to Lake Placid, it will be interesting to learn how her skating has evolved since her last eligible competition.

Whether Cohen is prepared to contend for medals is anyone’s guess, but should she compete, her presence will certainly cause quite a stir.  The big question, however, is if Cohen has recovered from her injury in time to participate in the competition, and if she hasn’t, will the former U.S. Champion withdraw in time for a replacement to be named.

Editor’s Note: Cohen withdrew on 9 Nov. Emily Hughes will take her place.

Rounding out the roster in Lake Placid is Germany’s Sarah Hecken (7th, 2009 Junior World Championships) in her Grand Prix debut, Joshi Helgesson from Sweden (4th, 2009 Junior World Championships) also in her Grand Prix debut, and Tugba Karademir from Turkey (21st, 2009 World Championships).

MEN

USA’s  Evan Lysacek will make the trip to Lake Placid, and will attempt to win his first Skate America title in six tries.  The World Champion last stood atop a Grand Prix podium in 2006 when he won the Cup of China title in Nanjing.

This season, Lysacek bears the burden of being the hunted, but so far he has not let it affect his skating.  In his first assignment of the season in Beijing, he looked well prepared and seemed comfortable in his role as reigning World Champion.  However, the two-time U.S. Champion admitted to dealing with nerves in the free skate, and had to settle for a silver medal behind champion Nobunari Oda from Japan.

“I felt nervous,” Lysacek explained.  “I think that was stemming from how much I really like and care about (this program) and the amount of training that has gone into this program.  I think as the year progresses towards the Olympics, this program is going to turn into something even better.”

In Lake Placid, Lysacek should win the title with similar performances, but he would improve his chances if he has worked on upgrading his step sequences and landings on combination jumps.  The 24 year-old seems poised to take on that challenge, and should wow the home crowd. A medal of any color should be enough to clinch a berth in the Grand Prix Final, but Lysacek will want to go into the event as an event champion.

“I look forward to Skate America and hopefully improving on this performance.”

The biggest threat to blocking the Lysacek from claiming the title is 2008 European Champion Tomáš Verner. The Czech is also coming off of a silver medal winning performance in his first Grand Prix of the season in Paris, and like Lysacek, had to watch as Oda ascended to the top of that podium.

Verner does not have the intensity and attention to performance of Lysacek, but he boasts a stronger arsenal of jumps.  Though the 23 year-old has been known for being wildly inconsistent in past seasons, this season Verner seems to have controlled his skating more than in the past.  In addition to his silver medal in Paris, he won the title at the Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria, just a few weeks ago.

To challenge Lysacek and earn a second consecutive trip to the Grand Prix Final, Verner must stay calm and focus on each element.  If Verner succumbs to the pressure, as he is often prone to do, he will struggle to take a spot on the podium.  Like Lysacek, a medal of any color should be enough to take him back to the Grand Prix Final, but winning the event would be a great statement as the Olympic Games approach.

American Ryan Bradley hopes to recover from a disappointing ninth place finish in Paris to open his competition season.  Before Paris, Bradley had hoped to make a run for the Grand Prix Final, but he was unable to match that goal with his skating.  In Lake Placid, 2007 U.S. silver medalist hopes that changes to his programs will help him to salvage the Grand Prix for him.

“I have changed my footwork since Paris,” the 25 year-old said. “We slowed things down to make them a little more edgy, and I am really excited about the switch. I am extremely motivated. I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder that keeps pushing me every day to get to where I need to be.”

In Paris, Bradley put a quadruple toe loop in both of his programs, which turned out to be his best jump of the competition.  However, he understands that there is more to earning medals than landing a quadruple jump.

“I do feel like my quad is one of my best jumps,” Bradley.   “I want to go out and do two clean programs like I have been doing in practice, and finally show that I belong with the best in the world.”

Bradley’s training mate Brandon Mroz will also make the trip to Lake Placid.  The U.S. silver medalist had high hopes for this season’s Grand Prix, but he faltered in his first assignment in Moscow and finished in seventh place.   Mroz skated a great free skate in Moscow, but made mistakes on every jumping pass in the short program that took him out of contention from the start.

Mroz plans a quadruple toe loop in his short program, and it might be too large a burden for him to undertake.  It is important for the 18 year-old to regain confidence in the short program, and a less challenging jump could allow him to skate to a better result.  Should he be able to stay in the hunt after the short program, the two-time Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalist has a great chance of making the podium.

France’s Florent Amodio opened his Grand Prix campaign with a disappointing ninth place finish in Moscow.  After defeating his countryman Brian Joubert in the French Masters earlier in the season, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the French silver medalist.

“Russia was really difficult for me,” admitted the Brazilian-born Amodio.  “I skated with bad boots and I had no feeling in my feet when I wore them.  I couldn’t skate like I do every day in practice.  I was ready for this competition, but I wasn’t able to do my job.  That’s life, and I will just take it as a good experience.”

“Now I have new skates that work for me,” continued the 19 year-old, “and even though I have not had a lot of time to adapt to them, I am ready to show people how I can really skate.”

In Lake Placid, Amodio needs to show the world what he can really do.  At his best, Amodio has beautiful edges, line, and shows incredible maturity for such a young skater.  The Junior Grand Prix Final Champion also has beautiful jumps and spins that can earn him high technical element scores.

“I’m going to approach the Skate America like every competition,” Amodio said.  “I have to do my stuff!”

Canada sends two men to Lake Placid – Kevin Reynolds and Shawn Sawyer, who finished fourth and fifth respectively at their national championships.  As far as skaters go, Reynolds and Sawyer are polar opposites.  Reynolds (19) is the technician – a skater who depends on landing quadruple jumps to propel him to the top because everything else is deficient.  Sawyer (24), on the other hand, is the artist who struggles to manage the big technical elements.

Neither Reynolds nor Sawyer has a great chance at the podium in Lake Placid, but they are both noteworthy for what they contribute to skating.  Reynolds has some of the most exciting jumps in the world, and could school most of the rest of the field in how to land a quadruple jump.  Sawyer is beautiful to watch with world-class stretch and edges that glide effortlessly through the ice.  However, if the top skaters falter, Reynolds could jump his way to the podium.  Likewise, if there are mistakes by other skaters and Sawyer is having a good jump day, he could surprise everyone and make the podium.

Adrian Schultheiss from Sweden finished in fifth place in Moscow just a few weeks ago, and is an entertaining skater who skates to Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up among other music in his free skate.  Schultheiss finished in 18th place at both the European and World Championships last season, but the American crowd should find him exciting to watch nevertheless.  The two-time Swedish silver medalist is a risk taker, but his technical merit will keep him from reaching the podium.  A top five finish for the 21 year-old would be a satisfying result.

Four men of vastly different resumes make their season Grand Prix debut in Lake Placid.  Leading the way is Russia’s Andrei Lutai (23) who was 10th at last year’s World Championships and 8th at the European Championships.  Lutai was scheduled to debut at the Rostelecom Cup of Russia, but was pulled from the competition after poor performances in the Russian Cup Series.

China’s Jialiang Wu (24) was also pulled from his first assignment this season, the Cup of Russia, after failing to earn his country a berth to the Olympic Games at the Nebelhorn Trophy.  Wu’s 19th place finish relegates the Chinese men to being the fifth alternate for the Games.  The two-time Chinese Champion finished 28th at the 2009 World Championships.

Japan’s Yasuharu Nanri, 12th at last year’s Four Continents Championships, returns to the Grand Prix for the 5th year.  Nanri (24), who finished in fourth place at the Japanese championships last season, has never finished higher than eighth place in a Grand Prix event.

Igor Macypura from Slovakia returns to the Grand Prix after finishing 24th at the World Championships in Los Angeles.  Last season Macypura finished 9th at Skate America, and he opens his competitive season in Lake Placid.

PAIRS

The big story in the pairs division in Lake Placid is Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao from China as they build towards their fourth Olympic Games.  Just two weeks ago in Beijing, the two-time Olympic bronze medalists won their first competition back from semi-retirement in convincing fashion. In winning Cup of China, Shen and Zhao defeated teammates Dan Zhang  (24) and Hao Zhang  (25), the reigning Olympic silver medalists, by more than ten points.

Shen (30) and Zhao (36) competed in Beijing as if they had not missed a beat, and seem poised to contend for another Olympic medal.  In Lake Placid, the three-time World Champions need not change anything from what they did in Beijing.  Small improvements in attention to detail in choreography could make a huge difference in the overall impression of the programs, but Skate America is Shen and Zhao’s competition to lose.

A medal of any color will guarantee Shen and Zhao a 10th trip to the Grand Prix Final, which ties Russia’s Irina Slutskaya’s record for most appearances in the competition.  Shen and Zhao are worthy of such an historic accomplishment, and should easily see that milestone come to fruition.

Just as in Beijing, Shen and Zhao will skate against  Zhang and Zhang for the title.  Zhang and Zhang struggled in Beijing with the solo jumps, but were never really in contention for the title.  The The World silver medalists lack the intangible ‘it’ factor of their veteran countrymen, and will have to make sure that everything is executed cleanly and at the highest level if they hope to challenge.

This season Zhang and Zhang’s programs appear to lack spark, and in particular, Dan Zhang does not look comfortable on the ice.  This couple has all of the makings of a championship team, but they have yet to relate to each other in their programs.  However, while they may not be able to challenge Shen and Zhao for the title, they are so technically sound that they should earn the silver medal with relative ease.

Ukrainians Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov  and Americans Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker will battle it out for the bronze medal.  Both teams are coming off of a bronze medal in their first Grand Prix this season – the Ukrainians in China and the Americans in Russia.

Volosozhar (23) and Morozov (30) have the more impressive resume, finishing as high as fourth at both the European and World Figure Skating Championships.  In addition, the 2008-09 Grand Prix Finalists have a season’s best of more than 10 points higher than that of McLaughlin and Brubaker.

McLaughlin (17) and Brubaker (23) are looking at the Grand Prix as a tune-up for the rest of the season, realizing that it might be too much to ask for perfection so early in the year.  In Russia, the two-time U.S. Champions skated an impressive short program, but faded in the free skate.  Should they hope to win a medal in Lake Placid, they will have to hope for two clean skates and perhaps a mistake by one of the top teams.

Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Craig Buntin got off to a rocky start in their first Grand Prix of the season.  In Beijing, Duhamel (23) and Buntin (29) finished fourth overall, but they struggled with solo jumps in both segments of competition.  The Canadian silver medalists have the potential to medal in Lake Placid if they are able to skate as they have in previous seasons.

The American team of Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig (7th, 2009 Cup of China) will join former U.S. Champions Brooke Castile and Benjamin Okolski (4th, 2009 Nebelhorn Trophy) in Lake Placid.  Completing the roster is the British duo of Stacy Kemp and David King (13th, 2009 World Championships).

DANCE

The dance field in Lake Placid will be one of the less intriguing of the Grand Prix as there is a distinct difference in quality of those who will challenge for the podium.  It is likely that fourth through sixth place will be the most heated part of the competition as the top three teams have distanced themselves from the pack (and from each other) already in this young season.

Americans Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto will look to return to the top of the Skate America podium after losing their stronghold on the title last season.  A win in Lake Placid would give them a record fifth title at Skate America, and would also earn them a sixth trip to the Grand Prix Final.  Two weeks ago in Beijing, the Worlds silver medalists easily won their eighth Grand Prix title, and should come away with another title in Lake Placid.

In China, it was evident that the four-time World medalists had worked hard over the summer to improve their overall skating.  Belbin (25) in particular has greatly improved her leg line, and their Moldavian folk original dance fits her perky style.  Agosto (27) seemed somewhat lethargic in the original dance in Beijing, but he recovered well to skate an inspired free dance.

In Lake Placid, it is important that 2006 Olympic silver medalists continue to grow into their programs, particularly by showing technical improvement in the original dance.  In the free dance, which Belbin has called the most difficult of their career, the team needs to show more passion to match the technical difficulty of the dance.

The five-time U.S. Champions will be challenged once again by Russia’s Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski.  The two teams faced off in Beijing, but the European Champions were not equipped to threaten Belbin and Agosto’s run to the title.

Khokhlova and Novitski skated well in Beijing, but they were far from their personal bests.  The Russian Champions incurred three extended lift deductions in the competition, but those are relatively easy fixes from one competition to the next. In terms of talent, Khokhlova (24) is infinitely more advanced than Novitski (28), and the duo needs to address this should they hope to advance in the standings internationally.

The bigger problem for the former World medalists lies in their overall packaging.  The choreography in Khokhlova and Novitski’s original dance lacks the maturity that is needed at this level, and their costumes detract from instead of enhancing their performance.

Khokhlova is rightfully featured in their Meadowlands free dance, but again, the costumes are so overpowering that it is difficult to appreciate the dancing.  And in Novitski’s case, the bright red costume highlights his inability to match his partner’s superior line and attention to detail.

The Italian team of Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte are fresh off a silver medal winning performance at the Rostelecom Cup of Russia just a few weeks ago. They are making a steady climb up the international ranks, and are poised to make their first Grand Prix Final if they are able to overtake the Russians for the silver medal here.

An off-season coaching change to celebrated French coach Mariel Zazoui looks to be the right choice for the Italian silver medalists.  They  have made tremendous strides in their skating this season, demonstrating increased speed, intricacy, and attention to detail in all facets of their skating.  In stark contrast to Khokhlova and Novitski, Cappellini (22) and Lanotte (24) are packaged perfectly, and skate programs that the audience can understand.

American bronze medalists Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre are looking to improve upon their sixth place finish in Paris in the first event of the Grand Prix.  In Lake Placid, Navarro (28) and Bommentre (25) have the opportunity to earn their highest placement on the Grand Prix, but they will have to skate up to the challenge.

“(In Paris) we lost a lot of points technically in the free dance,” Navarro explained.  “We have been drilling and drilling the free dance elements since then and have made a change to one lift.”

Navarro and Bommentre skate an Afro-Brazilian original dance that sets them apart from the competition, and the duo have painstakingly studied the genre to ensure that they are as true to the Capoeira Angola dance as possible.

“Our Brazilian specialist, Jeannine Osayande, put us through a semester’s worth of education,” said an enthusiastic Navarro.  “We learned how to play the drums, danced outside to live music, and ate Brazilian food.”

The 2008 Four Continents bronze medalists are always crowd favorites, but they must pay attention to the technical aspects of their programs.  Oftentimes, Navarro and Bommentre leave a lot of points on the ice when they get wrapped up in the performance.  In Lake Placid the duo has an outside shot at a medal, so being cognitive of the technical elements will be paramount to their success.

Teammates Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein had a rocky start to their Grand Prix careers, finishing in a disappointing eighth place at Cup of China.  The Junior World Champions aspired to finish in the top five in Beijing, but quickly learned that success on the Grand Prix is difficult to come by.

“Let me just say it was a great learning experience for us,” said Zuerlein with a smile.  “We made some very silly mistakes, especially in the free dance, so we will try to fix those. For example, we need to hold our spin longer to get level four.”

Chock (17) and Zuerlein (21) are excited to compete in Lake Placid, and should improve on their standing in China.

“We are most looking forward to skating in front of our home crowd,” Zuerlein admitted.

Another American, Caitlin Mallory, will compete under the Estonian flag with her partner Kristian Rand.  Skate America will be the Grand Prix debut for the Olympic-bound Mallory and Rand.

“I am very excited to skate my first Grand Prix in America,” Mallory said.  “I have competed many times in Lake Placid while skating for the United States, and it will be really fun to be back.”

Mallory and Rand, both 22, have a tough road ahead of them should they hope to contend for a medal, but they will likely be remembered instead for their original dance.

“We chose Estonian folk music for our original dance because Europeans are being held in (Rand’s) hometown of Tallinn, Estonia,” said an enthusiastic Mallory.  “We knew that skating to the folk music of Estonia would gather a great crowd response. Folk dancing and songs are a very important part of Estonian culture, and it will be an exciting experience to share our program with Estonia and the rest of the world.”

Israel’s Alexandra Zaretski and Roman Zaretski finished fifth in Beijing, and will compete in Lake Placid as well.  The duo siblings struggled in the original dance in China, and will have to increase their levels should they hope to improve their standing.

Russians Kristina Gorshkova and Vitali Butikov finished in seventh place in Paris, more than 30 points away from the podium.  A top five finish in Lake Placid would be a huge victory for the 2008 Junior Worlds bronze medalists.

Completing the roster will be the French team of Zoe Blanc and Pierre-Loup Bouquet (10th, Trophée Eric Bompard) and China’s Xiaoyang Yu and Chen Wang (9th, Cup of China).

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