In 1996, Michelle Kwan won her first Skate America title, skating to “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome. Forget seven veils. Now she has seven Skate America titles, winning every year since except for 1998, when a dispute with the ISU kept her from entering. Kwan was a last-minute replacement for Olympic Champion Sarah Hughes, out with a muscle tear. In fact, Kwan’s participation was only secured last week. At present, Kwan has not committed to a second Grand Prix event, which means that she has virtually no chance of qualifying for the Grand Prix Final held this March in St. Petersburg.
Kwan’s win briefly looked questionable after a sub-par free skate that included only four triple jumps. Her technical merit marks dipped as low as 5.4, opening the door for up-and-comers to challenge her. But with no other world or Olympic medalists in the field and just one other skater ranked within the top six in the world, no one could deliver enough to defeat Kwan.
Ann Patrice McDonough, a young upstart from Colorado Springs who nearly upset Kwan at the USFSA’s fall pro-am, pulled from sixth in the short to second overall with a strong free skate to “Madame Butterfly” that also included just four clean triple jumps.
Ukraine’s Elena Liashenko, a veteran competitor who has competed in three Olympics and eight World Championships, won the bronze medal more by not falling than by skating particularly well. Like Kwan and McDonough, Liashenko completed four triple jumps.
Jennifer Kirk of the U.S. stood second after the short program, but hopes for an American sweep vanished after she took two falls and put her hand down on another jump. She dropped to fourth overall.
The field got interesting below Kirk. Ludmila Nelidina of Russia landed a triple Axel and five other triple jumps. The triple Axel is an incredible feat of athleticism that, prior to Skate America, had only been completed by Midori Ito and Tonya Harding. What was even more remarkable is that Nelidina’s triple Axel was landed only about ten minutes after Japan’s Yukari Nakano had whipped off a triple Axel of her own. Prior to Nakano’s triple Axel, the last triple Axel landed in international competition by a woman was by Ito, now one of Nakano’s coaches, in 1992.
The referee of the ladies event, Gale Tanger, ratified both triple Axels as clean, making Nakano and Nelidina the third and fourth ladies in history to cleanly land the jump in competition. Both ladies have much work to do on achieving the “total package” necessary to contend for medals at the world level, but veterans like Kwan need to be looking over their shoulders to see what will be expected during this current Olympic cycle.
The men’s event ended on a sad note when Olympic Champion Alexei Yagudin, who won the short program, was forced to withdraw due to a hip problem. Prior to Skate America, Yagudin had been advised to quit skating by doctors due to a congenital hip disorder that causes bone to rub up against bone. Yagudin has withdrawn from next week’s Skate Canada, but he is presently scheduled to tour with Stars on Ice this winter.
The sadness over Yagudin’s withdrawal eclipsed the upset win by France’s Brian Joubert, a skater many have likened to a young Yagudin. Ranked just thirteenth in the world, Joubert landed a quad toe-double toe combination and a full arsenal of triple jumps in his free skate to “The Untouchables.” Joubert is just 18 years old, the same age as Yagudin was when he won his first world title. While that may be a lofty goal for Joubert at present, he will now be considered a favorite for a trip to the Grand Prix Final, the financially lucrative competition for the top six-ranked skaters in each discipline at the conclusion of the Grand Prix series.
Russia’s Alexander Abt, ranked second in Europe and fourth at both the Olympics and World Championships, opened strongly with a quad toe-triple toe combination but fell on his second attempt at a quad toe and went down again on a triple Axel. Though he later landed a triple Axel and four more triples, the damage had been done, and he narrowly lost to Joubert.
Matt Savoie of the U.S. took the bronze medal with a strong performance to “Ragtime” that included two triple Axels, a triple flip-triple toe combination, and two more clean triple jumps. Though Savoie said he would be attempting the quadruple toe loop for the first time, he did not include it in either his short or free programs.
U.S. Olympic Team member Michael Weiss opened with a hard fall on a quadruple lutz attempt. Throughout the remainder of his program, he completed just three triple jumps, two toe loops and a flip, and was marked rather generously for the lack of content. Following Skate America, Weiss announced that he was leaving his coach of 18 years, Audrey Weisiger, to be trained by Don Laws. Rumors about a coaching change began circulating when Laws accompanied Weiss to a pro-am event two weeks ago, but both Weiss and Weisiger denied that Laws’ role was anything other than assistant.
Canada’s Emanuel Sandhu redeemed himself from a poor short program with a free skate that included a quad toe-triple toe combination, triple Axel-triple toe combination, and a creditable attempt at a quadruple salchow. Sandhu pulled from ninth in the short to sixth overall.
The third American, Derrick Delmore, finished eighth, but achieved a personal best in the short program, where he landed his quadruple salchow-double toe combination cleanly for the first time in competition.
Russia’s Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, ranked second in the world, easily took the pairs title ahead of rising Canadians Anabelle Langlois and Patrice Archetto. Langlois and Archetto have been assisted by Olympic gold medalists Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, and the influence in their skating is obvious.
The highest ranked American team, Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, finished a disappointing sixth on the heels of the announcement that reigning U.S. pair champion Kyoko Ina has been suspended for failure to comply with U.S. Anti-Doping Agency procedures. Two up-and-coming U.S. pairs, Kathryn Orscher and Garrett Lucash of Simsbury, and Kristen Roth and Michael McPherson of Detroit, finished seventh and ninth in the field of nine.
Perhaps the biggest surprise came in the ice dance event, where world bronze medalists Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky ended up off the podium, and behind the thirteenth-ranked team of Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto. Chait and Sakhnovsky, on their third coach in three years, lacked the sharpness they had last season and were dinged accordingly, in what many heralded as the first achievement of the new judging system.
Belbin and Agosto got the crowd going with an upbeat medley of Elvis Presley tunes, featuring unique choreography and audience interaction. Their bronze medal is the first Grand Prix ice dance medal for the U.S. since 1999.
Almost overshadowed by the surprise achievement of Belbin and Agosto, winners Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov showed off the improvement they have made under new coach Tatiana Tarasova. Grushina and Goncharov’s free dance to Bond’s “Quixote” perhaps lacked the speed of second-place finishers Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov of Russia, but the increased complexity of choreography and attention to detail kept them in first place, a place they held throughout the competition.