Strange and interesting judging was the talk of the figure skating world following the ISU Grand Prix Final, which took place in Kitchener, Canada from December 13-16.
Canadians Shae-Lynn Bourne and Viktor Kraatz’s Michael Jackson medley earned them the gold medal and the title of crowd favorites. Initially, the scoreboard listed Anissina and Peizerat as the overall winners, and the capacity crowd roared to its feet when the correct standings were announced later in the competition. The Canadians have not defeated the French in a major competition in nearly four years. Ranked only fourth in last year’s World Championships, Bourne and Kraatz earned scores up to a perfect 6.0 for presentation from the U.S. judge, but they will face a tougher, primarily Eastern European judging panel at the Olympics.
Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat had beaten Bourne and Kraatz soundly at Trophee Lalique, but the French team’s “Liberta” free dance lacked athleticism and received a rather lukewarm reception from the crowd. Anissina and Peizerat dominated in both the original dance and the first free dance, for which they resurrected their World Championship-winning “Carmina Burana” program; however, the final program was worth 50% of the score and also acted as the tiebreaker. Their equal factored placements to Bourne and Kraatz was the cause of the initial confusion. Since Bourne and Kraatz had the higher placement in the most important phase of the competition, they narrowly edged out Anissina and Peizerat for gold.
Finishing third were Lithuanians Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas, who held off World Champions Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio of Italy. The Italians’ unceremonious drop to fourth place is unheard of in the world of ice dancing. The legendary coach who helped them to victory in 2001, Tatiana Tarasova, now devotes most of her time to Bourne and Kraatz. With sub-par programs and a less than positive response from the judges, Fusar-Poli and Margaglio perhaps need some better coaching input prior to the Olympic Games in February.
Canada also won the pairs event, with Jamie Sale and David Pelletier trading victories with Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. Sale and Pelletier won a 4-3 split in the short program, but the reverse happened in the first free program after the Canadians made uncharacteristic minor wobbles. Their final round free skate, a reprise of their 2000 long program to “Love Story,” won unanimously and received two 6.0s from the Canadian and U.S. judges. The only question is which program will be skated at the Olympics.
Dethroned World Champions Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze kept the event tight in the first two rounds, but a splat on the throw triple salchow, the same element they had missed in the first program, took them out of contention in the second long program. Although they debuted a new free skate to Massenet’s “Meditation,” they also have yet to decide whether they will skate this program or last year’s Charlie Chaplin themed program at the Olympics.
China’s Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao were placed a very generous third with a free skate that contained several errors. The Chinese would have been third overall even if they were placed fourth in the free skate, but Americans Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman turned in an excellent clean performance that was overlooked by many of the judges. Aside from having two side-by-side double Axels to the Chinese’s zero and two clean throws to one, the Americans had a more interesting, polished, and secure program to “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”
The controversial judging continued in the ladies event, where World Champion Michelle Kwan somehow lost the free skate to archrival Irina Slutskaya despite out-jumping and out-skating her. Kwan downgraded her planned triple toe-triple toe combination to a triple-double but managed six clean triple jumps before going down on her final triple toe in her “Scheherazade” free skate. Even a new more difficult combination, the triple lutz-double loop, did not help Kwan.
In comparison, Slutskaya had four clean triples and one slightly flawed triple with several shaky landings and slight missteps. Many in the arena thought that even World bronze medalist Sarah Hughes had out skated Slutskaya. In the end, three judges had Slutskaya third and four had her first, rendering the audience speechless. Slutskaya dominated the short program and initial free skate with unanimous ordinals and perhaps received some leeway from the judges on account of this.
For sixteen-year old Hughes, the final free skate was a day of redemption. With seven triple jumps, including the only triple-triple combination of the competition, Hughes delivered the performance of her career, serving notice that she will be an odds-on favorite for a medal at the Olympics in February.
The least controversial event was the men’s competition, where Russian rivals Alexei Yagudin and Evgeny Plushenko each turned in excellent, crowd-pleasing programs with an arsenal of triple and quadruple jumps. Despite a premature exit from a Biellmann spin, Plushenko narrowly won the short program when Yagudin put his hand down on the triple Axel. In the initial free skate, Plushenko was able to capitalize on having two clean quadruple jumps to Yagudin’s one, again narrowly coming out ahead. The tides turned in the final round, however, when Yagudin’s “Man in the Iron Mask” brought the house down.
Plushenko tried valiantly in a debut of a new free skate to selections from Cirque du Soleil and Moulin Rouge with the only imperfection being a double three turn between his quadruple toe loop and triple toe loop. However, a majority of judges seemed unwilling to put this program on the same level as Yagudin’s in terms of presentations, giving Plushenko his first loss against Yagudin in ISU eligible competition since the 2000 World Championships.
American Timothy Goebel took the bronze medal, an important leap in his quest for an Olympic medal, as the only man to land two different quadruple jumps (toe loop and salchow). Teammate Todd Eldredge struggled with the quadruple toe loop, falling hard in the second free skate, tripling it in the first free skate, and taking it out of the short program.
The Grand Prix Final is the last major international before the Olympic Games, with all skaters moving on to their Nationals later this month and in early January. European skaters will also have one final test-drive at the European Championships. Top North American skaters are not expected to skate at the Four Continents Championship in Seoul, Korea two weeks before the Olympics.