Held outside of Seoul, South Korea, the Four Continents Championships- the alternative to the European Championships for skaters from North America, South America, Asia, and Australia- took place from January 21-27. With the opening ceremonies of the Olympics just two weeks away, most of the top North American skaters elected to skip the event in order to focus their training on the big prize. In their places, many federations sent their “B” team- skaters who will not be at the Olympic Games or World Championships this year, but whose strong performances at their national championships make them good prospects for the future. While originally intended to be an equivalent to the European Championships, where the best skaters outside of Europe would come together to compete before the World Championships, Four Continents has come to serve an entirely different purpose: to give exposure and prize money to skaters outside of the top echelon.
American Jennifer Kirk, 2000 Junior World Champion and fifth-place finisher at this year’s U.S. Nationals, is one such “B” level skater who was able to cash in on the prize money at Four Continents. With six triple jumps in her free program to “Danse Macabre,” Kirk vaulted from third place in the short program to first overall. The balletic 17-year old from Newton, Mass. edged out Shizuka Arakawa of Japan by a 5-4 judging split. Kirk’s gold medal at Four Continents is her first international victory at the senior level and a strong finish to a difficult season that began with her mother’s death from breast cancer in August.
Arakawa had a rather inauspicious beginning to her program, missing both her triple lutz and flip jumps, but she fought back to land a second triple lutz as well as a triple toe-triple toe-double loop combination at the very end of her program. Arakawa is the first person to perform that combination cleanly in competition, and only the second woman to have ever performed a triple-triple-double combination. In all, Arakawa had five clean triple jumps to Kirk’s six. While four judges awarded her first-place ordinals, she had ordinals as low as sixth from the remaining five judges.
Teammate Yoshie Onda, who was automatically granted a spot on the Olympic Team after qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, met Arakawa for the first time this season, as Onda was allowed to skip Japanese Nationals. Onda’s finish behind Arakawa, even with a mostly clean performance from Onda and a flawed performance from Arakawa, calls into question the legitimacy of the Japanese federation’s method of selecting skaters for the Olympic Games. The Japanese team for the World Championships in Nagano has not been determined, and Arakawa’s silver medal here may make her a frontrunner for one of the two spots.
The other Americans in the field, Ann Patrice McDonough and Andrea Gardiner, finished fifth and eleventh respectively. Last year’s silver medalist at Junior Worlds, McDonough will return to Junior Worlds in Hamar in her quest for gold.
The men’s event was won by Canadian bronze medalist, Jeffrey Buttle, who landed a triple Axel and six other triple jumps to take the overall title. Second in both the short and free programs, Buttle’s consistency throughout the competition kept him in first place overall. In all likelihood, Buttle will go to the World Championships in Nagano because Canadian Champion Elvis Stojko plans to call it a career after the Olympics. The top Canadian prospect at Four Continents, Emanuel Sandhu, twisted his knee in practice and immediately flew home to Vancouver for an MRI. It appears likely that Sandhu will be able to compete in the Olympics next month.
Takeshi Honda of Japan, who like Yoshie Onda was automatically qualified for the Olympics by virtue of making the Grand Prix Final and allowed to skip Japanese Nationals, was in fifth place after the short program after botching his quadruple toe loop and triple Axel attempts. Honda fought back with a solid if unspectacular free skate to climb up to second overall, but the inconsistency he displayed at Four Continents has bee characteristic of his career as a whole. Though he has the talent to win a medal at the Olympics, Honda has never displayed the necessary competitive ability.
Though the U.S. men were primed for two medals after finishing first and third in the short programs, both ended up off the podium following disappointing free skates. Reigning Junior World Champion Johnny Weir had errors on both of his triple Axel attempts and slipped behind Song Gao of China. Suffering from a case of food poising, U.S. pewter medalist Matt Savoie dropped all the way from first in the short program to fifth overall despite not receiving any ordinals lower than fourth. The third American, Derrick Delmore, finished tenth.
With no top pairs in the competition, the Chinese team of Qing Pang and Jian Tong, ranked tenth at the World Championships, easily won both programs with an athletic display of huge side-by-side and throw jumps. Canada’s Annabelle Langlois and Patrice Archetto took second while World Junior Champions Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang finished third.
The top-ranked U.S. pair, Stephanie Kalesavich and Aaron Parchem, finished fifth, ahead of teammates Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, Jr, (seventh), and Kathryn Orscher and Garrett Lucash (tenth).
Americans dominated in the dance event, taking three of the top four spots. Four-time U.S. Champions Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, whose low technical merit marks at Nationals were a cause for concern, fared far better with an international panel and won unanimously-a strong international debut for a team who missed the entire fall season due to injury. U.S. silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Belbin Agosto unanimously held off training mates Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe of Canada for silver. Even U.S. pewter medalists Beatra Handra and Charles Sinek, competing because bronze medalists Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov were ineligible to compete due to his citizenship, fared well with a strong fourth-place finish. Handra and Sinek will advance to the Olympic Games because Tanith Belbin, a Canadian, is unable to represent the U.S. in Olympic competition even though she can represent the U.S. in international competition.