The brainchild of former U.S. medalist Scott Williams, the American Open is the only professional competition that is truly open to all professional skaters. As host Brian Boitano put it, it is a “competition for the skaters run by the skaters.” The scoring system is a unique hybrid with six former skaters assigning scores solely to individual categories, such as jumps, footwork, and originality, and three “celebrity” judges who assign scores based solely on audience appeal.
This year’s edition of the American Open takes place in a full-size arena, the First Union Center in Philadelphia, for the first time. The field is also the most competitive to date, with five Olympic or World medalists competing.
Night One-Technical Programs
The event began with the dance competition, where 1998 Olympic silver medalists Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov took first place with 69.1 points out of a possible 70, the second-highest score earned among any of the competitors. Performing many of the required elements of an eligible free dance, such as a clockwise circular footwork in closed position, Krylova and Ovsiannikov danced with joy and precision to the soundtrack from Dr. Zhivago. Even a minor bobble on their opening lift was an insignificant error that didn’t stop two of the three audience judges from awarding a perfect 10.0.
Jones/Ortogero, the only other dance couple, did their routine to Let’s Get Loud.
Following the dance event, the ladies took to the ice. In the first group, Caryn Kadavy put down a challenge with her crowd-pleasing “Lion King” program, completing a double Axel, triple loop-turn-double toe combination, and double flip to earn a final score of 67.1. After an excellent warmup, Olympic bronze medalist Lu Chen fell on her triple loop but rebounded to land a triple toe and double Axel. Nevertheless, it was not enough to put her ahead to Kadavy, who took her lead into the second group.
Rory Burghart came between Kadavy and Chen, vaulting ahead of Chen based on the “originality/creativity” and “professionalism/entertainment value” scores. Her program opened with a fall on the triple lutz, but she rebounded to complete a triple toe and her trademark split jumps.
Lucinda Ruh followed, making errors on three of her four jumps but drawing a perfect ten for her superb spinning ability. Ruh’s score of 68.1 narrowly edged out Nicole Bobek, who opened with a spectacular triple lutz (albeit off an inside edge) only to miss every other jump in her program to “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” Bobek’s impressive circular step and spiral sequences drew the highest footwork mark of the night, 9.9, giving her a total of 68.0 overall.
But the skater of the night was the last performer, Canada’s Josee Chouinard. Skating to Leann Rimes’s “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” Chouinard landed a double Axel and triple toe-double sequence and stepped out of credible attempts at a triple lutz and salchow. Earning no score lower than 9.7, she is firmly in the lead with 68.7 points.
The pairs took the ice after a ten-minute intermission, and the event was dominated by Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko, who skated to a techno version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Despite stepping both stepping out of their side-by-side double Axels, their spectacular tricks, including a split triple twist, throw double Axel, and “banana” lift into a one-handed detroiter, wowed the judges and audience alike.
Unique to the American Open, round one of the show act competition featured everything from hula hoops to a tattooed man eating popcorn in a tutu. Champions on Ice stars Vladimir Besedin and Alexei Polishuk debuted a new program where both were dressed as miners. Their death-defying flips and headstands earned them six tens and the highest overall score of the night, 69.6.
An unheralded team, Violetta Afanassieva and Pete Dack, also earned some perfect tens thanks to their inventive work with neon hula-hoops. They stand 0.4 ahead of Victor Barishevtsev, who came out eating popcorn, wearing hockey skates, and prancing around in a tutu that showed off the tattoos on his forearm. The final event of the night, the men’s competition resulted in a tie between 1994 Olympic Champion Alexei Urmanov of Russia and the man who edged him out for the bronze medal at 1994 Worlds, Viacheslav Zagorodniuk of Ukraine. Urmanov’s program to “Georgian Variations” earned him higher marks for spins, jumps, footwork, but Zagorodniuk’s fun interpretation of “Greased Lightning” got the nod on originality/creativity, entertainment value, and audience appeal. Both men completely slightly flawed triple Axel combinations, attesting to the high level in this competition.
Craig Heath earned third place with spins that surpassed even Lucinda Ruh’s. His scratch spin blurred, drawing loads of applause from the audience, which didn’t care that he stepped out of both of his triple jumps. Heath was appropriately marked down by the jumps and footwork judges, but a 9.9 from the spin judge and high scores from the originality and audience judges kept him ahead of Stars on Ice favorite Steven Cousins.
Night 2- Artistic Programs
The second night of competition began with the pairs artistic program, which was once again dominated by Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko. Skating to Bolero, they wowed the audience with their spectacular flexibility moves, and they gave the judges an impressive array of actual pair elements including a throw double Axel followed by side-by-side double Axels – a sequence of moves that no other pair in the world attempts. Earning four perfect tens, they easily maintained their lead from the technical program.
Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov remained a solid first to win the dance title, skating to an interesting but somewhat controversial program to Last of the Mohicans complete with headdress and spear. Laughter from the audience was perhaps not the desired effect, but the program earned scores from 9.8-9.9 to give them the title with an overall score of 138.3.
Jones/Ortogero performed a nice artistic program to music from the soundtrack Evita.
In the men’s event David Liu was the first of the contenders to skate, performing an abstract program entitled “Rituals of 7” that the actual judges liked far better than the celebrity judges. Ending with a slide on a briefcase, the judges’ scores ranged from 9.5 to a perfect 10, while the celebrities went no higher than 9.4.
Viacheslav Zagorodniuk, tied for first after the technical program, dropped all the way to fourth with a program to “Men in Black” that received poor scores for originality and entertainment value despite containing one of only two triple lutz jumps done by the men.
Craig Heath finished 0.1 behind Zagorodniuk but edged him out for third overall based on the ordinal scoring system used to determine the results. With a blindingly fast scratch spin that blurred, and a catch-foot flying camel done in a layover position and on the inside edge, Heath deservedly received a perfect 10 from the spin judge.
Winning the artistic program and pulling up to second overall, Steven Cousins’s “Belfast Child” was the performance of the entire competition. Technically complete with a triple flip and two triple toes in a sequence, Cousins received a perfect 10 for entertainment value and three perfect 10s from the audience judges.
Cousins’ surge in the artistic program was not enough to overtake Alexei Urmanov, who earned 10s for footwork and originality with his “Prince of Egypt” program. Not as popular with the audience, Urmanov’s program lacked the intensity of Cousins’s and finished below it in that phase of the competition, but the two-night total still favored Urmanov by a full point.
A similar occurrence took place in the ladies event, where Nicole Bobek placed second in both phases of the competition to win the overall title. Once again, Bobek opened with a clean triple lutz only to single and double both attempts at the much easier triple toe loop. Skating an elegant program to “Imagine,” Bobek’s true personality came out in the last minute where she changed into a tank top, donned some sunglasses, and hammed it up to a fast-paced version of “Give Peace a Chance.”
After placing only fifth in the technical program, Rory Burghart won the artistic program to place second overall with a mesmerizing skate to Aretha Franklin’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Both elegant and elegiac, the program was filled with Burghart’s trademark variations on spins, spirals, and split jumps. Embodying all of the best qualities about professional skating, Burghart drew perfect 10s for originality/creativity, professionalism/entertainment value, and audience appeal.
Lucinda Ruh dropped to third after receiving a 9.1 for jump content in her program to “Love Won’t Make It Right.” With perfect 10s in spinning and originality, as well as 9.9s from the audience judges, Ruh lost to both Bobek and Burghart by the narrowest of margins. The only lady to not to compete a double Axel or triple jump, Ruh could not close the gap even with her spectacular spins, some of which rotated nearly thirty times.
The leader after the technical program, Josee Chouinard, captured the fancy of the audience with a mime program set to Dvorak’s “Humoresque,” but skating early and doubling out on her two planned triples ended up dropping her off the podium entirely.
Thus concluded the American Open, or as host Brian Boitano put it, “skating version’s of Star Search.” One can only hope that the high level of technical and performance ability throughout the competition will motivate promoters to stage more events that take advantage of this incredible talent pool.