Golden Skate

2009 Skate Canada Preview

The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating continues this week in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, for the final installment of competition known as Skate Canada. 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.

Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir look to continue their winning ways after a victory to open the Grand Prix in Paris, France. World Champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy from Germany will try to rebound from a disappointing performance in Paris, and will face a strong challenge from Russia’s Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov who won that event.

Likewise, Canada’s Joannie Rochette will look to get revenge on Japan’s Akiko Suzuki, while World silver medalist Patrick Chan returns to action after being sidelined with an injury for the first part of the season.

LADIES

The opportunity to qualify for the Grand Prix Final is still alive for four of the ladies competing in Kitchener.  Scoring as many points as possible is important for each of these skaters, as qualifying could come down to total score tiebreakers.  Having such pressure to skate well could motivate or hinder this talented bunch of ladies.

In what should have been just another day at the office for Canadian Joannie Rochette, Cup of China almost became the World silver medalist’s worst nightmare.  Heading into Beijing it appeared as if she would walk away with the title with relative ease, but in the short program the 23-year-old made critical errors on two jumping passes and found herself buried in seventh place.

“Of course the short program was where I wanted it to be,” Rochette explained after Cup of China, “but still it is good for me to have a gauge of where I am in this Olympic season.  I did two very costly mistakes in the short program: I was going for a triple-triple combination, and I popped the first jump of the combination.  I also popped the Axel which is a very easy jump, so I was behind by ten points heading into the freeskate.”

The five-time Canadian Champion needed some help in the freeskate and she got it in the form of dismal programs from several of the ladies who placed ahead of her. As a result, Rochette catapulted up in the standings, and salvaged the competition and her hopes of reaching the Grand Prix Final with a bronze medal.

“I was happy to come back stronger (in the freeskate), and to skate so well so early in the event,” Rochette admitted.  “Of course I am not completely satisfied with either program, but it is good not to peak so far before the Olympics.”

Rochette heads Kitchener with less momentum than she had going into Beijing, but the two-time Four Continents silver medalist is a resilient competitor who leaves her mistakes behind.  An improved short program will sit her in good stead, and a near-clean freeskate has enough transitions and choreography to propel her to a third Skate Canada title.

Rochette will earn a trip to Tokyo next month if she wins gold or silver in Kitchener.  A bronze medal would put her into a tie breaker situation that would be make it difficult for her to qualify.

Japan’s Akiko Suzuki, the surprise winner of Cup of China, will again challenge Rochette in Kitchener. Suzuki won the competition with the two best performances of her career, earning personal best scores all around.  Along the way, the 24 year-old emerged as a serious threat to make the Grand Prix Final.

The ladies field in Japan has been so stacked in recent seasons that Suzuki has been relegated to skating mostly in B international events.  Last season, she was invited to skate at NHK Trophy in her Grand Prix debut, and she skated away with the silver medal.  At her national championships, however, Suzuki placed fourth and was left off of the World Championships team.

In Kitchener, Suzuki doesn’t need to change a thing.  The formula that the 2008 Finlandia Trophy champion used in Beijing worked, and she simply needs to put out two solid performances.  A medal of any color would earn her perhaps the most unexpected of Grand Prix Final invitations of the season.

A trio of American ladies head to Kitchener each with a chance to head into the U.S. National Championships with some momentum.  Current champ  Alissa Czisny and bronze medalist Caroline Zhang both finished in fourth place in their first Grand Prix event this season, and both have an outside shot of making the Final for the second time.  Former U.S. Champion Mirai Nagasu will attempt to recover from a fifth place finish at Cup of China.

In Paris, Zhang made a few jump errors in the freeskate that kept her from reaching the podium.  In addition to being called for two jumps short of rotation, the 2007 Junior World champion missed levels on two elements that typically help her technical elements score.

“I was not very happy with my performances in Paris,” Zhang confessed.  “I thought they were very mediocre and slow.  In the break between competitions, I have worked on my triple-triple combination, and I will try to put it into my program (in Kitchener). I have also worked on expression in my freeskate especially.”

Zhang has the opportunity to earn a fourth Grand Prix medal in Kitchener, but the 16-year-old  will have to make sure that all of her jumps are fully rotated and that she earns high scores for her trademark spins.  She knows that winning in Kitchener will be an uphill battle, but remains hopeful.

“I think that Joannie Rochette is a very good skater and it will be tough for anybody to beat her at this competition,” noted Zhang. “Especially in front of a home crowd, but I am sure we will all try our best.”

Czisny earned her fourth place finish at Rostelecom Cup of Russia, which equaled her placement from 2008.  The American Champion is a gorgeous skater with every tool available to her in order to achieve success, except for competitive nerve.  When Czisny gets nervous, her skating becomes lethargic which causes her to lose rotation on her jumps.  As a result, she tends to fall and have jumps downgraded.

In Kitchener, Czisny needs to skate with confidence and power, and the rest will fall in to place.  When she skates clean, the 22-year-old is mesmerizing, and two good skates will certainly place her on the podium.

To qualify for the Grand Prix Final,  Zhang and Czisny would have to win in Kitchener to guarantee a ticket to Tokyo.  However, a silver medal could allow either skater to slip into the Final if the math works out in their favor.

Finland’s Laura Lepistö finished in fifth place at NHK Trophy with sub par performances in both phases of the competition.  The European Champion was not in good form in Nagano, and will need to improve to have a shot at making the podium in Kitchener.

In terms of qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, Lepistö’s chances are grim, as only a win would give her enough points to have a shot.  Even with a gold medal in Kitchener, she would have to hope for other skaters to falter for her to slip into the six-woman roster.

Nagasu opened her Grand Prix season by winning the short program at Cup of China with a near personal best.  However, the freeskate was another story as the two-time Junior Worlds medalist finished in a distant sixth place which caused her to plummet to fifth overall.

In that freeskate, Nagasu fell once and was called for five jumps short of rotation.  The 16-year-old has no chance of a medal in Kitchener if she has not worked out her jumping issues, but a solid performance would do a lot for her waning confidence.   For Nagasu, this competition should not be about medals, but focusing on strengthening her competitive mettle instead.

Canadian silver medalist Cynthia Phaneuf is slowly climbing back up the international ranks after returning to competition three seasons ago.  Before her hiatus, Phaneuf won the Canadian title and a trip to the Grand Prix Final, but injury and a new body kept Phaneuf away from competition ice for two seasons.

At NHK Trophy, Phaneuf continued her slow but sure comeback by finishing in sixth place – her best result in a Grand Prix event since her return. The 21-year-old seems to always skate well in Canada, and could play the role of spoiler in Kitchener with inspired performances.

Phaneuf has no shot at making the Grand Prix Final this season, but two strong performances could solidify her case for inclusion of the Canadian Olympic team.

Completing the roster are Canada’s Amelie Lacoste (7th, 2009 Rostelecom Cup of Russia), Sarah Hecken (8th, 2009 Skate America) of Germany, Sweden’s Joshi Helgesson (9th, 2009 Skate America), and Jenna McCorkell (8th, 2009 Rostelecom Cup of Russia) of Great Britain.

MEN

It has been a crazy road this year for the men competing in the Grand Prix, and there are five men with a shot at qualifying for next month’s Final.  Due to skaters like Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko competing in and winning just one event, it allows unlikely scenarios to play out for skaters to qualify to the Final.  In Kitchener, Canada’s own Patrick Chan could wreak further havoc on the Grand Prix standings by preventing another skater from qualifying should he win a medal of any color.

Chan is making his season debut in Kitchener after having to withdraw from the Rostelecom Cup of Russia in advance of the Grand Prix season due to a gastrocnemius tear in his left calf.  At the time, the World silver medalist was also feeling the after affects from a bout of the flu that he contracted during Canada’s high performance camp in Victoria, and believes that the illness contributed to the injury.

“I lost a lot of weight,” admitted the 18-year-old.  “I lost a lot of my muscle power and mass.  It brought my muscle strength way down.  I was a hard-header, and I thought that I could do the jumps that I shouldn’t have. ”

Chan has recovered since, and has returned to training for the Olympic season.

“Patrick’s recovery and rehabilitation are right on schedule,” said Michael Slipchuk, Skate Canada’s High Performance Director, after a recent visit to Florida to monitor Chan.  “He is back in full training for the event.”

Because this event is Chan’s only competition on the Grand Prix this year, he will not earn a trip to the Final next month in Japan.  However at this point, it is more important for the Four Continents Champion just to skate his programs in a competitive setting.

Slipchuk agreed.  “It’s important for Patrick to get back into competition mode and to skate his two programs in front of international judges.”

Chan is an unknown variable in this competition, and will certainly generate a lot of buzz regardless of how he skates.  The biggest test for the two-time Canadian Champion will be his triple Axels.  Last season, the Axel became less of a challenge for Chan, but old habits often return as athletes return to competition after an injury.  The short program could tell the story for Chan, and if he is able to stay in the hunt heading into the free skate, he could come out on top.

Former World silver medalist Daisuke Takahashi knows all too well the difficulty of returning to elite competition after an injury.  The three-time Japanese Champion sat out last season with his own physical issues, and returned to competition earlier this fall by winning the Finlandia Trophy. Just two weeks ago, however, Takahashi’s comeback took a downturn at the NHK Trophy where he settled for a disappointing fourth place in a very tough field.

In Nagano, Takahashi struggled with his quadruple toe loop, and it seemed to play with the rest of his skating as a result.  In the short program, the 23-year-old elected to go with an easier jump line up, but he made mistakes on a spin and a step sequence that kept him out of the lead.

Takahashi then had a disastrous freeskate. The 2008 Four Continents Champion was charged with three jumps that were short of rotation and fell twice in a lackluster effort that was almost forty points less than his personal best.

Skate Canada will be a test for Takahashi’s competitive nerve, and it will be interesting to see if he will forsake quadruple jumps in the name of clean programs.  He is one of the most talented skaters competing in men’s figure skating today, and if he skates up to his potential at this event, he will be untouchable by the rest of the field.

Takahashi will qualify to the Grand Prix Final outright with a gold medal in Kitchener, but he may have to rely on winning a tiebreaker if he finishes in second.  Finishing third or lower would likely eliminate him from the six-man roster for the Final.

The surprise at the NHK Trophy was the Czech Republic’s Michal Březina, who is in his debut season on the Grand Prix.  After winning the Junior Grand Prix Final last season, Březina could join an elite group of skaters who have qualified for the junior and senior finals in back-to-back seasons.

In Nagano, Březina won the bronze medal with personal best skating in each phase of the competition.  The Junior Worlds silver medalist placed second in the freeskate, earning the highest technical marks in the competition.  The 19-year-old is still rough around the edges, and needs to pay more attention to transitions and choreography, but his jumps are solid which should stand him in good stead throughout his career.

Winning in Kitchener or even a silver medal would qualify Březina to the Final, and a bronze medal will likely force him to a tiebreaker.  Should he finish lower than third, his hopes of qualifying for the Final will be put on hold until next season.

Italy’s Samuel Contesti will also compete in Kitchener, and he has everything he needs to challenge for the podium. The European silver medalist has a full arsenal of triple jumps, and has a playful presentation style that draws the crowd into his programs.

At Cup of China, however, Contesti faltered in both segments of the competition and had to settle for fourth place overall.  Still, the Italian Champion felt like it was a good way to kick off the season, and was excited to be invited to compete in Beijing.

“I was happy to skate in a Grand Prix event,” the 26-year-old admitted.  “I have waited that moment for four years and it was a great feeling. It was my first full competition of this season, and I think it was a good start.”

Contesti will qualify for Tokyo with a win in Kitchener, and has an outside shot with a silver medal.  However, the French-born Contesti is philosophical about his chances to qualify, and chooses to focus on improvement in his performances rather than qualifying for his first Final.

“I will try to skate my best,” Contesti said. “I never skate for the results because I think it depends too much on the performance of other skaters and of the judges. I just want to think about my performance and do my best.  My goal in Canada is to skate cleaner than I did in China, and give the maximum pleasure to the Canadian audience. After that, we will see if I can be part of the Final or not.”

France’s Alban Préaubert has been working hard to put his disappointing seventh place finish at Trophée Eric Bompard behind him.  The French bronze medalist followed up that performance with a bronze medal at the Ice Challenge in Croatia, and also finished in second place at the Coup de Nice just a few weeks ago.

“At Trophée Eric Bompard, I was penalized in the short program because my triple Axel was downgraded to a double Axel,” Préaubert explained.  “Although I think that the jump was clean, I recognize that I can make more beautiful triple Axels. In order to be sure that my results improve, it is necessary to do each element perfectly.”

Préaubert has taken everything that he has learned from competing this season and is trying to implement that knowledge in to his skating.

“I became aware in Paris that it is necessary that I try the quadruple jump because my artistic components are not sufficiently high enough to make the podium at major international events if I do not have a high technical score,” the Préaubert noted.

“I have changed my boots because they became too soft to jump high in the quadruple jumps,” continued the former Grand Prix Finalist. “There wasn’t much time to make big improvements between Paris and my other competitions, but I think that I am now ready to skate well in Canada and at Nationals in December.”

Préaubert does not have a chance to qualify for the Final this season, however, the 24-year-old can make things difficult for those who do.  He has medaled in several Grand Prix events in the past, and a medal in Kitchener could crush the hopes of someone who is on the bubble to earn a trip to the Final.

“Like any skater, I dream of winning a Grand Prix, but I am aware of the level of competitiveness of my fellow competitors in Canada,” Préaubert underlined.  “I prefer to focus on the quality of my performances and the pleasure that I get from taking the ice more than on the result.”

American Champion Jeremy Abbott will look to rebound from his performances at the NHK Trophy that could be a tall order to fill.  After skating the best short program of his career in Nagano, he put out perhaps his worst freeskating effort that included three falls and missed levels on his spins and step sequences.

In Kitchener, Abbott will try to rebuild his confidence with solid performances, and this competition could be very telling about how the reigning Grand Prix Final champion performs for the rest of the season.  Another clean short program could be too much pressure for Abbott heading into the free skate, but perhaps the 24-year-old will draw from his experience in Nagano and start to become a better competitor.

Abbott needs to focus on improving his freeskate from Nagano instead of dwelling on the near impossibility of defending his title. A medal would be a huge boost to his confidence, and he has the potential to win the event if he forgets to think while he competes and skates up to his potential. A win in Kitchener could qualify Abbott to the Grand Prix Final, but is unlikely given his recent performances.

Teammate Stephen Carriere finished in sixth place at the Cup of China, and is looking to improve on those performances in Kitchener.

“When I changed coaches, we tried to really get a good rhythm down on the Axel, so we focused on getting two good axels in the short and long,” Carriere said about his experience in China. “In Canada I just want to improve on everything- spins, footwork, program components, jump quality, performance.”

Carriere won the silver medal at Cup of China last season, and could earn another Grand Prix medal in Kitchener with improved performances.

“I really have been focusing on improving at each competition, so that I peak at Nationals,” Carriere admitted. “So my goal is to be even better than Cup of China, and knowing that it is anyone’s game in Canada is great. It should be fun.”

Sixteen-year old Denis Ten of Kazakhstan looks to improve upon his Grand Prix debut at Cup of China where he finished in 10th place.  Ten finished fourth and eighth at the Junior World and World Championships last season respectively, and has the potential to play the role of spoiler in Kitchener.

Belgium’s Kevin van der Perren has qualified for the Grand Prix Final twice, but it seems unlikely he will return to the competition this season after a fifth place finish at the Rostelecom Cup of Russia.  Van der Perren has finished as high as second place on the Grand Prix, but he would need a win in Kitchener and help from other skaters to qualify for a third time.

Completing the roster are Canadian bronze medalist Jeremy Ten (10th, 2009 NHK Trophy),  his teammate Joey Russell (9th, 2009 Nebelhorn Trophy) in his Grand Prix debut, and American Armin Mahbanoozadeh (11th, 2009 Cup of China).

PAIRS

The pairs division features a rematch of those couples that earned medals in the opening leg of the Grand Prix this season at Trophée Eric Bompard.  Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy will try to rebound from a dismal competition that resulted in their worst Grand Prix event since 2006.  Meanwhile, Russians Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov will try to expand upon their successful season debut, and win their second Grand Prix of the season.

Savchenko (25) and Szolkowy (30) opened the competition in Paris with a great short program that placed them in first by more than six points.  In the freeskate, however, the two-time World Champions made uncharacteristic errors that caused them to plummet in the standings.  Two of those errors (a fall by Savchenko on both the spiral sequence and death spiral) were flukes, and one has to imagine that experienced competitors will rectify those errors in advance of the next competition.

In Kitchener, the Germans need to put that freeskate behind them and skate the way they can skate.  Though it is rare for the three-time European Champions to skate perfectly in both phases of any competition, the difficultly and performance of their programs usually puts them on top of the leaderboard.

A win would qualify Savchenko and Szolkowy for a fifth straight Grand Prix Final, and silver medal could force them into a tie break for a spot in Tokyo.

Mukhortova (23) and Trankov (26) have improved so much in one season, but one great competition does not mean that they  are unbeatable.  The current European bronze medalists have to prove that in addition to skating a clean short program, that they can put together a series of solid freeskates as well.  In the past, a shaky freeskate has hindered the Russian silver medalists from taking their skating to the next level, and Skate Canada will be a good test to see if they have gotten that monkey off of their backs.

Any medal would qualify Mukhortova and Trankov for a second time, and that should be well within reach for them.  The interesting sidebar for this couple is that they are using music from the soundtrack Love Story for their freeskate, the same music that Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier used to win Olympic gold in 2002.  The crowd’s reaction to the program will tell Mukhortova and Trankov if using the music is appropriate for the Olympic Games in Vancouver in just a few months.

Canadians Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison finished with the silver medal in Paris with solid performances, and have decided not to change what has already proven to work for them.

“We haven’t made any changes to the programs since Paris, just working on perfecting them,” Davison admitted.  “We will need to perform the programs just as well as we did in Paris, and clean up the technical elements to aim for higher grade of execution marks.”

The Canadian crowd has been known to carry their home skaters to victory, and the former Worlds bronze medalists have programs that should get the crowd behind them.  The freeskate to The Way We Were in particular should pull at the heartstrings of the home country crowd, and Dubé (22) and Davison (23) have the technical merit to back up an emotional performance.

Placing first or second in Kitchener will guarantee Dubé and Davison a ticket to Tokyo next month, and a bronze medal could force them into a tie break situation.  Anything lower will eliminate the Canadian Champions from qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.

Americans Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett made their Grand Prix debut at NHK Trophy just two weeks ago, and skated a beautiful short program to start.  In the freeskate, however, the duo faltered and had perhaps the worst performance of their young career.

“It is the first time we have ever missed a throw in competition, so that was a little surprising for us,” Barrett confessed.  “We don’t really even miss the throw triple Lutz ever in practice. Also my jumps were off in the long, so heading into Canada we would definitely like to redeem ourselves.”

In Kitchener, Denney (16) and Barrett (25) will look to continue improving on their basic skating, and will not focus on the standings.

“I feel like we showed some nice elements in Japan,” said Barrett. “The program was an improvement from what we did last season, so we will keep working on that as the season progresses.”

Returning to competition in Kitchener is Canada’s Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay, who had to sit out last season due to Langlois’s ankle injury.  The duo is ready to regain their place in skating, however, and is excited about competing on the Grand Prix after the break.

“We are absolutely 100% heading into Skate Canada,” Hay stated. “Obviously there is always the wear and tear from our training, but as far as (Langlois’s) ankle is concerned, it is better than ever.”

Langlois (28) and Hay (26) have finished as high as fourth at a Grand Prix event, and equaling that would be a great step in the right direction for them.  However, the 2008 Canadian Champions understand that being prepared isn’t enough for success on the Grand Prix, and hope experience from previous seasons can help them in their return.

“The hardest thing about returning to the Grand Prix circuit will just be dealing with the added pressure that will comes with it,” Hay noted.  “Unfortunately it’s not something that you can practice dealing with in everyday training. It’s more of an acquired taste.  But we had the opportunity to compete (at Nebelhorn) this year, and that really helped us in preparing for the rest of the season.”

Americans Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin competed at Skate America last season, and are part of the competition in Kitchener this season.  They won their first international competition at the Ice Challenge in Austria just a few weeks ago.

“We were more excited about our performance than our placement at Ice Challenge,” said the bubbly Yankowskas.  “We worked extremely hard before going there, and came away from Graz feeling satisfied that our training is paying off. Now we are once again hard at work, pushing toward our end goals of the season.”

Yankowskas (19) and Coughlin (23) are looking forward to returning to the Grand Prix, and hope to draw inspiration from competing in Canada.

“Skate Canada will be a great event for us to take part in heading into the national championships,” Yankowskas explained.  “Skating in the last Grand Prix of the circuit held in the host country to the Olympics will be a very motivating stage for our performances. Our goal is to show the connection on the ice that we have been working hard to highlight, and to continue to show we are reliable competitors for the U.S. team.”

Completing the roster are two teams making their Grand Prix debut: the Canadian team of Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moskovitch and Russia’s Ksenia Ozerova and Alexander Enbert (24th, 2009 World Championships).

DANCE

Three teams head to Kitchener with an opportunity to earn a trip to compete in next month’s Grand Prix Final.  Depending on the final standings, all three or just two of the teams will make the trip to Tokyo.  The possibility of so many teams still fighting for those available spots will make for an exciting competition in Kitchener.

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are the favorites to win in Kitchener, and the current World bronze medalists should easily live up to those expectations.  At Trophée Eric Bompard in Paris, they defeated their closest competitors by more than sixteen points, and are looking to clinch their second Skate Canada title in three seasons.

After taking the first half of last season off due to a nagging injury in Virtue’s leg, the duo struggled to regain form that propelled them to the World silver medal in 2008.  However, Virtue (20) and Moir (22)  recovered enough to win silver at the Four Continents Championships, and ended the season by finishing third in Los Angeles.

Though their scores in Paris were not close to what they earned in Los Angeles, Virtue and Moir have started to regain the freedom and command that they once had before the injury. Where they can improve as the season progresses is in their step sequences that were all rated as level three in Paris.  Upgrading each element to level four would not only bring higher base scores for those elements, but would likely increase the program component scores as well.

The two-time Canadian Champions will earn a trip to the Grand Prix Final for a second time with any medal, and that will happen barring them withdrawing from the competition.

As in Paris, Virtue and Moir will face off against French Champions Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat.  Last season, Pechalat and Bourzat nearly made the podium at the European Championships, and also moved up to fifth at the World Championships.

Pechalat (25) and Bourzat (28) have all of the makings of a world-class team, but are hindered by level three elements in both the original and free dances.  Another issue for the former Grand Prix Finalists is that they have not earned high grades of execution on their elements, which actually caused them to fall further behind Virtue and Moir since the World Championships.

Like the Canadians, Pechalat and Bourzat have had more than a month to correct any errors in their programs and to add difficulty.  Additionally, the compulsory dance selected for Skate Canada is the Tango Romantica, which plays to Pechalat and Bourzat’s strengths more than the Golden Waltz that was skated in Paris.

Pechalat and Bourzat are too far behind Virtue and Moir to catch them in Kitchener, but it will be interesting to see how much their scores will improve.  Another silver medal will give Pechalat and Bourzat a second trip to the Grand Prix Final, and a bronze medal would likely give them the nod as well based on their score in Paris.

Italian Champions Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali opened last season in convincing fashion, winning a gold medal at NHK Trophy and qualifying for the Final for the first time.  At the European Championships, the duo won the silver medal, and they seemed poised to improve upon their fifth place finish at the 2008 World Championships.

Last year in  Los Angeles, however, disaster struck, and Faiella (28) and Scali (29) found themselves in eighth place when the dust settled after lackluster performances in each phase of competition.  So when the 2006 Olympians headed to Cup of China a few weeks ago, it was essential that they regain some of the ground that they lost in Los Angeles.

Faiella and Scali finished in third place in Beijing, but more importantly, they closed the gap between them and Russians Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, who finished two places ahead of them in Los Angeles.  Though scores from different competitions cannot truly be compared, Faiella and Scali’s score in China was less than two points behind what Pechalat and Bourzat earned in Paris.

In Beijing, Faiella and Scali missed the silver medal by missing levels on their straight-line lift in the original dance.  The element earned the couple a level two, and had they earned a level four as they did in the free dance, the extra 1.50 points would have moved them into second place overall.

Like the Canadians and the French, Faiella and Scali left points on the ice by earning lesser levels on some of their elements.  Should Faiella and Scali improve those levels in Kitchener, there will be an exciting fight for the silver medal.  Finishing in first place would qualify Faiella and Scali for the Grand Prix Final, and second place would force them to a tiebreaker for the last spot.  A bronze medal or lower will not be enough for them to earn a trip to compete in Tokyo.

USA’s Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates came away from Paris with a mixed bag of emotions.  On one hand, finishing in fourth place was about as good as the duo could have done in that field.  Conversely, a mistake on the twizzles coupled with level twos on three of four elements, put the U.S. silver medalists in sixth place in the original dance.

“In Paris, we skated very clean programs and completed our elements technically very well minus the one mistake on the twizzles,” Samuelson underlined.  “This week we’d really love to nail those twizzles, though it shouldn’t be too difficult.  We would also like to perform all our elements to the best of our ability, while demonstrating strong and mature skating.”

In the free dance, 2008 Junior World Champions also earned level two on step sequences, and finished in fifth place for that phase of the competition.  With more than a month to improve, Samuelson and Bates are ready to show that they have improved.

“During this break we’ve been working hard on the Tango Romantica,” said the effervescent Samuelson.  “We have also been improving our programs and really focusing on our footwork sequences to try to receive all level fours in Kitchener. However, for me, it is really the emotions and presentation of both programs that I would like to show an improvement in when we compete next week.”

Samuelson (19) and Bates (20) are unlikely candidates for the Grand Prix Final, but the couple are always crowd pleasers and should fare well with the Canadian audience.

“The field is stacked at Skate Canada,” said a philosophical Bates.  “It takes a lot of pressure off of us not having to worry about medaling or really any placement at all. We want to make our statement with our skating, because apart from that, you just never know what is going to happen. The skating is in our control and the rest is not.”

Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje fell in the original dance in Beijing and finished in last place in that phase of the competition.  However, the duo rebounded and finished an impressive fourth place in the free dance and sixth overall to salvage the competition.

“We had some technical difficulties in the original dance, so that is where the most improvement will come from,” Weaver admitted.  “We were proud of our free dance there, and in the time between China and Canada, we have been working on building the emotion and power of our programs.”

The Canadian bronze medalists will challenge Samuelson and Bates for fourth place in Kitchener, and this could be the beginning of a budding rivalry blooming right before our eyes.  Weaver (20) and Poje (22) have similar goals to the Americans for Kitchener, and seem determined to make a move.

“We plan on showing how much we’ve grown as a team in terms of speed, technique, and emotion,” said the well-spoken Weaver. “We’ve started the ball rolling at Cup of China, and now that we have the first competition under our belt, we will be getting stronger each time. We also want to accurately represent each dance – to show the passion and preciseness of the flamenco, and be true to the story of Phantom of the Opera.”

Samuelson and Bates’ former training mates Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell, also competed in Paris, and will make the trip to Kitchener after finishing eighth in their Grand Prix debut.

“Skate Canada is just another competitive experience for Keiffer and I,” said Madison.   “We still have a lot to learn and a lot to improve. Our goal for this event, and throughout the whole season, is to improve from our previous competitions and learn something for the next one.”

The Hubbells have made a coaching change since competing in Paris, and are realistic about how much improvement can be made in such a short time.  Interestingly, Hubbell and Hubbell now train alongside Faiella and Scali in Detroit, Michigan with Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo.

“We made the difficult decision to change coaches after training for over ten years with Yaroslava Nechaeva and Yuri Chesnichenko,” Madison explained. “So far we are happy with our decision. We are working on taking the best from both techniques and each individual coaching style to create the best results for ourselves. The small amount of time between our competitions has limited what differences we can make for Skate Canada. We will be working to grow and develop into better skaters as much as possible before U.S. Nationals.”

Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev hope to improve upon a career-best fourth place finish at NHK Trophy two weeks ago, but will have a difficult time with this roster.  The 2007 Junior World Champions have grown since their 13th place finish at the 2008 World Championships, but they have far to go to challenge for the podium in Kitchener.

Completing the roster in Kitchener is the Canadian team of  Andrea Chong and Guillame Gfeller (8th, 2008 Skate Canada) and Germany’s Carolina Hermann and Daniel Hermann (17th, 2009 World Championships).

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