Golden Skate

2010 World Junior Figure Skating Championships Preview

The 2010 ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships will take place in The Hague, The Netherlands from March 7-14, 2010 at the Ice rink De Uithof. More than 200 skaters representing more than fifty member nations will skate in the competition.

This marks the second time that The Hague plays host to this competition. Competition begins on Tuesday, March 9th with the Pairs short program, and culminates on Saturday, March 13th with the Ladies freeskate.

LADIES

Five of the eight ladies from the Junior Grand Prix Final will compete in The Hague, including the three medalists. As a result, the ladies should prove to be one of the most competitive events in The Hague.

Leading the way is the Japanese Junior Champion, Kanako Murakami, who has won every competition that she has entered this season. In her two Junior Grand Prix appearances, Murakami defeated her closest opponents by more than eighteen points, and pulled out a win at the Junior Grand Prix Final as well. A win on the senior level at the Graz Ice challenge in October sets Murakami up as one to watch, not just in The Hague, but as she progresses in her career over the next couple of seasons.

Murakami includes six triple jumps in her freeskate, and upgraded her jump combination at the Junior Grand Prix Final to a triple toeloop-triple toeloop in the short program. Her biggest weakness is her triple Lutz jump, for which she has not earned full credit for this season due to an incorrect edge take off. The 15-year-old nevertheless looks poised to earn a medal in The Hague, and could win it all if she skates as well as she has the rest of the season.

The only skater to defeat Murakami on the junior circuit this season is Russian Polina Shelepen, who managed to outscore Murakami only in the short program at the Final. Shelepen won both of her events on her way to the Final, but nearly missed qualifying for The Hague after an abysmal short program at the Russian Junior Championships. The 14-year-old was in tenth place heading into the freeskate, but rebounded with a stellar freeskate to earn the third berth on the Russian team here.

Shelepen is a strong jumper and has a traditional Russian skating style that judges reward with excellent scores. In The Hague, Shelepen is a strong bet for the podium, but she will have to keep herself in the hunt after the short program. In this strong field, Shelepen could find herself too far back to recreate her comeback from the Russian Junior Championships.

The bronze medalist from the Junior Grand Prix Final, USA’s Christina Gao, has improved greatly since moving to Canada to train alongside Olympic Champion Kim Yuna under the tutelage of Brian Orser. Gao won two bronze medals on the way to qualifying to the Final, and is perhaps the biggest threat to Murakami’s stronghold at the top of the junior skating scene.

“Since the Final, I have replaced my first jumping pass with a triple (toeloop)-triple (toeloop) combination,” Gao said recently. “I just want to go there and do what I do in training because training has been going really well.”

Gao exploded onto the scene at the U.S. Nationals in January, finishing in fifth place on the senior level, and was named as an alternate to the Olympic Team. The 15-year-old was rock solid in Spokane, landing a triple-triple combination in both of her programs, and drew comparisons to a young Michelle Kwan with confidence and attack. Gao will take this competition in stride, and plans to treat it just like anything else that has been thrown at her this season.

“Junior Worlds will just be a another competition for me,” Gao admitted. “I’m glad I did get to be a part of the Junior Grand Prix circuit, the Final, and (US) Nationals because it gave me good experience. I love competing, so I will definitely enjoy this competition!”

U.S. Junior Champion Agnes Zawadzki could also prove to be a factor in the medal hunt in The Hague. After missing the U.S. Championships last season, Zawadzki came roaring back this season, winning the junior title by more than twenty points over her closest competitor.

“I think I have become stronger in many aspects of my skating,” Zawadzki said of what she improved since last season. “I have also had more time to better myself as a skater. Nothing has changed since I’ve become [Junior] National Champion. I’m still the same person and I work even harder to achieve even greater success.”

Zawadzki skates big, and has the control to back up the power. In Spokane, the 15-year-old skated with the ease of a seasoned competitor, and landed five clean triple jumps (she doubled her first Lutz attempt) in her freeskate. For Junior Worlds, Zawadzki will again attempt six, and could be the dark horse of the event.

“I am doing the same programs I did at Nationals,” she offered. “My goal is just to skate my best and take in all the new experiences.

Joshi Helgesson, the three-time Swedish Junior Champion will compete in the event for the third time, and is the top finisher to return from last year. The 16-year-old just missed the podium last season by finishing fourth, and hopes to improve her standing this year. No Swedish woman has ever stood on the podium at the World Junior Championships.

“My experience last year was amazing. I did two good programs and it felt great. I hope that I can do the same or even better this year in The Hague,” Helgesson explained. “My competition goal here of course is to skate as good as I can. It would be really nice to skate two clean programs.”

Helgesson competed on the Grand Prix this season on the senior level, and is coached by her mother, Christina. In The Hague, the Swedish silver medalist will have a lot of support in the audience to help her reach her goals.

“My dad is coming to watch me skate the freeskate,” Helgesson said. “Angelica Olsson from Sweden is also there as a competitor as well Alexander Majorov, who will compete in the men’s division. I have family and friends back in Sweden who are very supportive of my skating.”

American pewter medalist Kiri Baga and training mate Canadian Kate Charbonneau will make their World Junior Championships debut together in The Hague. Both skaters are coached by Charbonneau’s mother, Lorie, and are excited to be competing in The Hague.

“When I first heard I was going to Junior Worlds I was so excited,” Baga said enthusiastically. “My coach and I spent a couple days going over my goals and such, and I got past the shock. Every day since then I’ve just felt more and more confident.”

“I know what’s out there and I know that if I skate two great programs, I can place well and be happy,” Charbonneau added. “The nerves at Junior Worlds will be much less then they were at my Junior Grand Prix in Poland because I feel so ready and I have been skating really great.”

Baga and Charbonneau took different paths to reach the same goal of competing in The Hague. Both competed on the Junior Grand Prix, Baga won both of her qualifying events and finished seventh in December’s Final. Baga was poised to win a medal at the U.S. Championships in Spokane in January, but had to settle for fourth place after a difficult freeskate.

“I was disappointed, but I also felt ready to move on,” Baga said of Spokane. “It definitely lit a fire in me. I may have felt a bit sorry for myself at first, but after that I used my disappointment as motivation to get better. I wasn’t expecting to go to Junior Worlds this year, and I’m so lucky to get another great experience under my belt. I feel like this is putting me on the right path for years to come.”

Charbonneau finished in eighth place in her first Junior Grand Prix this season, and then rebounded to win the silver medal at her second. After winning the Canadian Junior title last season, Charbonneau competed as a senior for the first time at the Canadian Championships and finished in seventh place.

“I would love to come in the top ten in The Hague because I feel like that is what I am being sent there to do,” Charbonneau explained. “Canada chose me to go to Junior Worlds because we need to be able to send two girls next year instead of just one. I have a job to do there. I would love to medal as well, and I think that if I skate two great programs, I will be able to do that.”

Other skaters to watch include the Russian Junior National Champion Polina Agafonova, who medaled in one Junior Grand Prix this season, as well as the silver medalist from that competition, Anna Ovcharova, who was fifth in the Junior Grand Prix Final.

The ladies skate their short programs on Friday, and the medals will be decided on Saturday after the freeskate.

MEN

The men’s competition will not be as packed at the top as the other divisions, but the top performances should be quite exciting to watch.

Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu seems to be the man to beat for the title in The Hague. The 15-year-old won both of his Junior Grand Prix events, and scored a new personal best of 206.77 points in winning the Final in his home country in December.

Hanyu is the two-time Japanese National Junior Champion, and finished 12th in this competition last season. This year Hanyu has proven to be rock solid in each of his competitions, and attempts eight triple jumps in his freeskate. The high school student jumps the triple Axel in both of his programs, and includes two in his freeskate. A medal is a sure bet for Hanyu, and it could be gold if he continues to skate at the level that he has demonstrated all season.

Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten could very well be Hanyu’s biggest competitive threat in The Hague. The 16-year-old is by far the most experienced skater competing in The Hague in any division.

Ten has competed at the Junior World Championships three times, and finished fourth last year. Additionally, he has competed in the Four Continents Championships twice, the World Championships (8th, 2009) once, and in the recent Olympic Games (11th). This season alone, Ten has competed internationally six times, and could be the most exhausted skater in all of figure skating.

“This year is really tough for me,” Ten admitted. “I have trained without holidays and have no time to go home to Almaty. I spend all my time in Moscow, and I’m a bit tired. I came back to Moscow the day after my free program at the Olympics and started preparing for Junior Worlds. I don’t feel bad, and I want to try another junior competition because I have missed competing on this level this season.”

The world traveler has all of the makings of a champion as he skates with big jumps, competent spins, and mature presentation. A medal in this competition would be a huge milestone for the young skater, but Ten doesn’t dwell on it.

“It would be great, but I don’t want to think about medals,” Ten explained. “I think it would be great not only for me, but also for my country. I’m really proud to be first man from Kazakhstan competing in big competitions like the Olympic Games. It’s great to make a history for Kazakh Figure Skating and it’s a big honor.”

If Ten is able to resist giving in to fatigue, he could win this competition, but a medal of any color would be a first for his country.

A trio of Americans could also provide some interesting scenarios in the competition, each one different from the next, but all threaten to snatch medals from the grips of other competitors.

Grant Hochstein leads the way for the American contingent, after finishing in seventh place at the U.S. Championships in January. In the fall, Hochstein debuted on the Junior Grand Prix earning a medal, and earned a spot in the Final where he ultimately finished in fifth place.

“This year I’ve really learned a lot about my skating and have definitely grown as an athlete,” Hochstein admitted. “Each competition I have been making great progress and improving every single time. I think it has given me a renewed confidence and by using that confidence to focus on me and on my own skating, I have been able to have success.”

Hochstein opened the season as a relative unknown. His best result was a surprise pewter medal at the 2009 U.S. Championships on the junior level, but he has emerged as a contender for a medal in The Hague with steady and increasingly more difficult performances.

“I couldn’t be more excited to be going to Jr. Worlds. I’m just going to try to take it all in and enjoy every single second,” Hochstein said. “I want to know that when I get off the ice I did the very best that I could. I never again want to get off the ice regretting how I skated, and to this point in the season, I haven’t regretted anything. Being able to show off my hard work is what I really hope to do.”

Hochstein, 19, admits to wanting more than just good performances, however.

“Obviously I hope to be on the medal podium, but for me there is much more to this Championships that just that. Like I said earlier, I didn’t really expect to be in this position, so it’s all sort of icing on the cake at this point. I would be very satisfied finishing in the top six, but I am definitely hungry for a medal.”

Hochstein’s teammate Armin Mahbanoozadeh will also compete in The Hague after finishing in eighth place at the U.S. Championships. Mahbanoozadeh competed on the Grand Prix this season, and has not competed as a junior since last year’s U.S. Championships where he finished 6th.

“My junior freeskate is identical in layout to my senior one with the exceptions of having only one step sequence instead of two and being 30 seconds shorter,” Mahbanoozadeh explained. “My coach and I have also tweaked some of the transitions to make them more difficult.”

Mahbanoozadeh has a strong record on the junior circuit, qualifying for and winning medals at two Junior Grand Prix Finals. The 18-year-old is armed with strong programs, and has mastered the triple Axel this season that should stand him in good stead among this field.

“I would love to set a new personal best score at this competition,” admitted the high school graduate. “That’s my main goal. If it comes with a medal, that’s great, but if not, then that’s okay too. I’ve been working very hard and am healthy, so I am definitely going to try my best. After being on the alternate list for this competition for a few years, I’m ready to make my first Junior Worlds experience a good one.”

Mahbanoozadeh is looking forward to representing the United States for the last time this season, and hopes to renew friendships that he has cultivated over the past few seasons with other skaters.

“I love traveling to compete for Team USA. Our team spirit is always so supportive, yet electrifying. After two years on the junior circuit, I’ve made a lot of friends from all over the globe and I’m looking forward to seeing many of them next week.”

The third American who will compete in The Hague is Keegan Messing, the quirky 18-year-old who uses his yoyo tricks to relax before skates in competition. In addition to his huge jumps, Messing skates with a charm that rallies the audience to get behind him.

“I would really love to skate clean in this competition,” Messing admits. “This being my first Junior Worlds, I just want to go out there and have fun, and hopefully entertain the crowds and the judges at the same time.”

Messing was entered into the competition after Ross Miner, the 2009 U.S. Junior Champion withdrew due to injury. Messing received the call that he would be competing in The Hague, but had mixed emotions.

“First I was bummed that (Ross) was still hurt pretty badly, but then I was really excited about being able to go.”

Messing jumps triple Axels as if they are his easiest element, but he doesn’t depend on them for the bulk of his score. For this competition, Messing made some changes that he felt would benefit him with higher scores and entertain the audience as well.

“In the Junior Grand Prix I had the slow footwork, but I changed that to the faster one since I’ve been earning level 3’s on it. The crowd really gets into it, and I love that footwork.”

Messing is the dark horse for a medal in The Hague as he can be mesmerizing when he skates his best. In Spokane at the U.S. Championships, former World Champion Elvis Stojko sought Messing out to encourage him to continue on his path.

“He told me, ‘Don’t Change! You’ve got a great future ahead of you’,” Messing shared. “Meeting Elvis was the highlight of the competition for me.”

Chinese skater Nan Song is also a strong medal threat. The 19-year-old won two medals on the Junior Grand Prix this fall, including one gold, and won the silver medal at the Final in December. Along the way, he won the short program at the Final and scored 204.99 points overall.

At the Four Continents Championships in January, Song earned a new personal best of more than 209 points while placing sixth, and could win it all in The Hague with similar performances.

Skaters who have an outside shot at a medal include Artur Gachinski, the 16-year-old Russian who placed sixth at the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, and Alexander Majorov from Sweden who finished in 13th place in this competition last season.

The men skate their short programs on Wednesday, and close out their competition on Thursday when the medals will be awarded after the freeskate.

PAIRS

The pairs competition will perhaps be the most unpredictable of the entire competition in The Hague. There are as many as eight teams that each have a shot at the podium in this very tight field, and the skating level should be much improved from the Junior Grand Prix circuit last fall. Many of these partnerships are less than a year old, and the added benefit of time promises to strengthen their performances in The Hague.

The Chinese duo of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han burst onto the junior international scene in the fall, winning both of their Junior Grand Prix qualifying events by more than fifteen points each. The 14- year-old Sui and 17-year-old Han made easy work of the field at the Junior Grand Prix Final in December as well, winning the title by a little more than fourteen points.

Sui and Han have proven that they are the favorites heading into The Hague, and have the technical chops to overpower this young field of promising skaters. Difficult moves such as a throw triple flip, split triple twist, and a double Axel combination have earned Sui and Han a personal best score of 164.84 points.

In The Hague, the duo will skate to traditional Russian music for the short program, and a Hollywood-inspired free skate to music from a Charlie Chaplin film. The difference in music genres allows the team to showcase their versatility as emerging artists among a field of stars of tomorrow.

Though the Junior Grand Prix Final Champions may be the front runners for the title, there are also several other teams who could step up and find themselves standing atop the podium by competition’s end.

Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran from Japan have been the closest to catching the Chinese team in head-to-head competition this season. At the Junior Grand Prix Final, 18-year-old Takahashi and 19-year-old Tran earned the silver medal behind Sui and Han, but they never really challenged the duo for the title.

Since that competition, however, the Japanese Champions have been training well, and are confident about their chances in The Hague.

“Since the Junior Grand Prix Final, we have worked very hard on choreography, stroking, and the quality of our lifts and twist,” Takahashi explained. “We hope to skate both programs clean and with passion, and hope to win the gold medal.”

Takahashi and Tran do have the edge over their rivals in terms of experience, which could help them to reach that goal. This will be the third Junior World Championships for the duo, and this season they also had the opportunity to compete on the Senior Grand Prix, as well the Four Continents Championships where they finished in fifth place.

“Since this is our last competition for the season and last time to skating these programs, we want to make this competition the best competition so far,” Takahashi said of their goal in The Hague. “We both love skating and are very hard workers so we improve every day.”

Another Chinese team, Yue Zhang and Lei Wang could also provide some tough competition for Sui and Han. At just 17 and 21- years-old respectively, Zhang and Wang already have a wealth of experience under their belts. The duo has Grand Prix, Four Continents Championships, and World Championships appearances on their resume, and they placed third at December’s Junior Grand Prix Final. This will be their third consecutive appearance at the Junior World Championships, and this is their best (and final) shot at a medal.

Zhang and Wang have the best shot of all of the competitors to upset Sui and Han, but they will have to be better than they have been all season to make that happen. A podium finish is well within reach, but it has been for three seasons now, and Zhang and Wang have yet to cash in on their potential.

U.S. Junior Champions Felicia Zhang and Taylor Toth teamed up just last spring, and earned the opportunity to compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit in the fall. After a sixth place finish in Poland, Zhang and Toth struggled to an 11th place finish in Germany. However, the duo was still learning how to skate with each other, and showed remarkable improvement at the U.S. Championships where they won the title.

“It was an eye opener for us,” Zhang said of the team competing against the best juniors on the fall circuit. “Seeing them compete has been a motivation for us, and we have just been building upon each competition. Based upon our performance at Nationals, we believe that we have a chance to medal, and we have been working so hard to show the world the best that we can be.”

In Spokane, Zhang (16) and Toth (21) were rock solid, landing side-by-side triple toeloops, two throw triples, and solid lifts in the freeskate. The duo also showed clean and mature skating between the elements, creating a complete performance that set them up for a run for a medal in The Hague.

“As a team, we were very young when we competed on the Junior Grand Prix this summer,” Toth explained. “We plan to show how much we have grown and how dedicated we are to get to the podium. We respect all of our competitors and it is always exciting to compete against such talent.”

Another new team, Kaleigh Hole and Adam Johnson from Canada also debuted this season on the Junior Grand Prix. Fifteen-year-old Hole and twenty-one year-old Johnson opened with a win in Lake Placid, and qualified for the Final with a third place finish in Belarus. At the Final, Hole and Johnson finished in fifth place, but we just five points from earning the bronze medals.

“We have two throw triples now- the sal and the loop,” Hole said from her home in Canada. “We are also doing two side-by-side triples in the freeskate. Our goal is to podium. We want to skate as well as we can so that we can also allow Canada to have three spots to Junior Worlds again next year.”

Hole and Johnson are strong jumpers, and could rack up points in the technical elements side of the scores that could help them reach their podium goal. Their short program to Roxie’s Suite by Danny Elfman shows a flashy side to the refined duo, and is the key to their success in The Hague. To earn a medal, they will have to be close to the leaders after the short program to fully take advantage of their jam-packed freeskate.

“I am looking to forward to the whole experience,” Hole explained of her hopes for her time in The Hague. “Competing against the best junior teams in the world, meeting new people, and touring another country in the world is a great way to end our season.”

Two Russian Teams also have a shot at the podium in The Hague after earning high scores at the Russian Junior National Championships. Tatiana Novik, 15, and Mikhail Kuznetsov, 21, finished in fourth place at the Junior Grand Prix Final in December. The duo finished in second place at the Russian Junior National Championships, and could be a factor when the chips have fallen.

Ksenia Stolbova, 18, and Fedor Klimov, 19, qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final this season and finished in a distant seventh place. However, the duo looked much improved at last month’s Russian Junior National Championships, and easily defeated Novik and Kuznetsov with an impressive 167.18 points. Should Stolbova and Klimov skate similar performances in The Hague, they could be in the hunt for a medal.

Rounding out the list of contenders are the U.S. Junior silver medalists and Junior Grand Prix Finalists Britney Simpson and Nathan Miller. After finishing in sixth place in the Final, Simpson (13) and Miller (21) headed to the U.S. Championships as the heavy favorites. However, a difficult freeskate relegated them to the second spot on the podium.

Since that competition, however, Simpson and Miller have been working tirelessly to improve their programs in hopes of a strong finish in The Hague.

“We have made some changes in both programs,” Miller recently explained. “For the long we now open the program with a double Axel-double Axel sequence. We have also changed our throw double loop to a triple, and added a feature to our solo spins to make it a level 4, which we do in the short as well. The only other change in the short is the difficult exit on our lift. We changed it to make it smoother and show a cleaner line in hopes of higher grade of execution.”

Simpson and Miller have high hopes heading into The Hague, and are focused on accomplishing one more goal in their last junior eligible competition.

“It would mean a lot to us to medal,” Simpson said. “Not because it’s our last competition in the junior ranks, but mainly because we’ve put in so much work this year and it would be great to see all that work pay off in the end.”

The pairs will skate the short program on Tuesday, and the medals will be awarded on Wednesday evening after the freeskate.

DANCE

It used to be that in the world of ice dance, that once you made it to the top, you stayed at the top. Talented teams would stay together in order to benefit from attrition among the ranks due to things such as retirements, injuries, or in the case of the junior ranks, aging out.

Since the implementation of the Code of Points in figure skating, ice dance has become as predictable as the weather. Medals are being won based on what is done on the ice and not on the reputation of dance teams from one competition to the next. For this reason, the ice dance field in The Hague will be exciting to watch.

Reigning Junior World silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the United States come into this season as the overwhelming favorites to take the top step on the podium at this event. The season started out as expected- two wins on the Junior Grand Prix circuit that earned the siblings their second straight berth into the Junior Grand Prix Final.

At the Final in December, Maia (15) and Alex (18) skated well, but they were relegated to the bronze medal behind two Russian teams who are emerging as strong rivals for the young Americans. In order to be better equipped to compete with the Russians, the American Junior Champions went home after the Final and worked on making their programs more competitive. They used the U.S. National Championships as a springboard to test out the changes.

“We increased the difficulty of our lifts and fine-tuned our footwork sequences and transitions with the aim of enhancing our speed, power, and precision,” said the elder Shibutani. “While we were pleased with how we skated at Nationals, since that time, we have really taken ownership of the changes, and are looking to hopefully deliver peak performances in The Hague.”

One advantage that the reigning silver medalists might have over the rest of the field is the competitive training environment in which the duo trains on a regular basis.

“Without a doubt, watching (Olympics gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White) deliver such inspired performances and attain such wonderful success at the Olympics is a source of inspiration,” Alex explained. “The inspiration for us, however, comes from so much more than just the past couple weeks. It comes throughout the year, training alongside them. We see how dedicated they are, and how hard they work—day in, and day out.”

Shibutani and Shibutani head to The Hague armed with a strong Japanese folk original dance and a passionate Tango free dance. The duo has strength in their elements, but also present their programs with both attack and refinement. A podium finish is expected in this talented field, but in order to harvest gold, they must skate well.

“We have been focused on getting stronger, becoming smarter competitors, better performers, and demonstrating our growth in maturity,” Alex said of their preparations. “We’re really hoping to put out three strong performances that will reflect the hard work that we and our coaches have put in throughout the season.”

Ksenia Monko and Kirill Khaliavin have improved dramatically in their third season on the junior circuit, and are now bona fide contenders for a medal in The Hague. After debuting on the Junior Grand Prix in 2007 with two bronze medals, Monko (17) and Khaliavin (19) failed to progress in the standings in the 2008-09 season. This fall, however, the Russian Junior Champions have won everything in sight, including two Junior Grand Prix gold medals as well as the Final in December.

Monko and Khaliavin are strong dancers who typically earn high technical marks in competition to compliment their strong component marks. Their strength lies in earning strong grades of execution in their elements, and they have two strong programs in their Ukrainian folk original dance and their Blues free dance. Their teammates and domestic rivals Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov are nipping at their blades, and they will have to skate aggressively to win the title in The Hague.

Ilinykh (15) and Katsalapov (18) teamed up in the spring of 2008, and have been rocketing up the standings ever since. After a fourth place finish at the Russian Junior Nationals in 2009, they debuted on the Junior Grand Prix in impressive fashion by winning their two assignments. The duo followed that up with silver medals at the Final in December and at the 2010 Russian Junior National Championships last month.

Ilinykh and Katsalapov are elegant skaters who skate with passion and elegance. One might say that in comparison to the technical style of Monko and Khaliavin, that Ilinykh and Katsalapov are the artists. As this team grows, their technical elements are starting to match the level of their component marks (in terms of style if not in score), and should be strong contenders for a medal in this competition. Ilinykh and Katsalapov need to ensure that they do not take themselves out of the running with a poor showing in the compulsory dance, their weakest phase of competition.

The first year team of Ekaterina Pushkash and Jonathan Guerreiro, also from Russia, are another team to watch in The Hague. Guerreiro (18) is the reigning Junior Worlds bronze medalist with his former partner Ekaterina Riazanova, while Pushkash (17) finished sixth last season with Dmitri Kiselev.

“The experience is a little different, because now we are having to build our way up to the top within a year while last season we were already in established teams going into the Junior Worlds,” Guerreiro confessed. “Nevertheless, we are confident in ourselves and the work we have done, and we are ready to show it [in The Hague].”

While Pushkash and Guerreiro are a little rough around the edges, improvement has come quickly for the Russian Junior National bronze medalists. Two medals- one gold and one silver- on the Junior Grand Prix qualified the duo for the Final where they finished in a distant fifth place. However, Pushkash and Guerreiro took giant steps forward in their skating last month when they won their country’s junior bronze medal.

“First of all would be to make sure we skate the best we can in all three dances and to score a personal best in all the segments,” Guerreiro explained. “Another small goal that we have is to try and make a big impression with our (Russian folk) original dance, which we have changed in some parts. Throughout the season, this segment seemed to be the weakest part of the competition for us, so we hope to get it right this time.”

U.S. Junior bronze medalists Piper Gilles and Zach Donohue will also compete in The Hague after a tumultuous season leading up to this competition. In their first season together last year, Gilles (18) and Donohue (19) qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final, but had to withdraw due to injury. After winning last year’s U.S. Junior bronze medal with strong performances, it appeared as if Gilles and Donohue would return a repeat trip to the Final this season.

This season started out with a disappointing fourth place finish in their first assignment on the Junior Grand Prix, and the team decided to make a coaching change before their second assignment in Germany. A bronze medal in Germany was redemption of sorts, but Gilles and Donohue wanted more of themselves, so they worked diligently with their new coaches Elizabeth Punsalan and Angelica Krylova to create a new original dance in preparation for the U.S. Championships.

After U.S. Nationals, where they won a second consecutive bronze medal, Gilles and Donohue felt refreshed, and have been working hard to improve even more for this competition.

“This season has definitely had its ups and downs, but we feel a lot more confident after competing well at Nationals,” Gilles said recently. “We have changed some of our steps in our circular step sequence and in our mid-line sequence to try and get more points in our free dance. Also we have changed our twizzles in our original dance to try and get a level four.”

Making the Junior World team was especially satisfying for Gilles, who was thrice named as an alternate for the squad, and will be quite the event for the Gilles family in The Hague.

“It means so much to me to be able to go,” Gilles admitted. “I’ve always wanted to go ever since I went to Slovenia to watch my brother compete in Junior Worlds. Somehow I always came up a little short, but now I can go and compete instead of sitting in the stands.”

Gilles further explained, “My mom has family in The Netherlands, and so some of my third cousins are planning to come see me skate on Saturday. When I am done competing, I am going to Amsterdam for two days and I am planning to have dinner with more cousins that I have never met.”

Another team to watch is the American Junior silver medalists Rachel Tibbetts and Collin Brubaker who won a silver medal on the Junior Grand Prix this season. Italians Lorenza Alessandrini and Simone Vaturi earned two medals on the Junior Grand Prix last fall, and finished in seventh place at the Final.

The ice dancers compete their compulsory dance on Tuesday, with the original dance on Thursday and free dance con Friday.

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