Skate America, the premier international event conducted by the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), began a new era of figure skating with the incorporation of the new cumulative points judging system – known as the Code of Points (CoP). The first event of six of the Grand Prix series was held at the Sovereign Center Arena, October 23-26, in Reading, PA.
US National champion, Michael Weiss, won his first Skate America title and started a successful event for the host country that claimed three of the four gold medals in Reading. Takeshi Honda of Japan came in second, followed by China’s Min Zhang.
Weiss took the lead in the short program, benefiting from the mistakes of his competitors, albeit a lot of mistakes in the men’s event overall. Performing to Henry V, Weiss under-rotated and two-footed his quad toeloop combination, which was then downgraded to a triple by the technical specialists of the event. The 27-year-old followed with a triple Axel and triple Lutz and followed through with well-centered spins.
Honda had a disastrous short program, popping his quad toeloop and falling on the Axel. He was lucky to place fourth.
Zhang stood in second after his short program which featured a triple Axel, a triple-triple toeloop combination (instead of his planned quad-triple) and a shaky triple Lutz.
Andrejs Vlascenko of Germany had a clean short program, but did not attempt a quad, opting for a triple Axel-double toeloop combination. The choreography of his routine to a rocky version of the Russian folk song Moscow Nights was exquisite and showed off his skating skills.
In the free program to a medley of American military music, Weiss did a triple-triple toeloop combination (instead of a quad-triple) and he hit a triple Axel-triple toeloop as well as four more good triples, but he popped his second Axel. His quadruple toeloop was again under-rotated and two-footed and counted only as a triple. That meant that Weiss had four triple toes, and subsequently two did not receive any points.
“The strategy is always to go out and do everything,” Weiss answered when asked if his comfortable lead after the Short Program affected his strategy. “But the thinking was a bit different,” he continued. “When I popped the quad (toeloop), I still stuck a triple toe to it. A triple-triple toeloop combination is rewarded by the new system. I probably wouldn’t have done that under the old system. It wasn’t my best (performance) at all, but a program that I skated well.”
Honda looked a lot better in his new free program to Warsaw Concerto. He landed a quad toe right at the beginning as well as a triple Salchow, triple Axel-double toeloop combination, a triple Lutz and triple flip. But the two-time World bronze medalist stumbled on a second quad toe, doubled the loop. Honda scored 136.62 points for his free program versus the 133.09 points of Weiss, but it was not enough to move ahead.
“I was upset about yesterday, but it was just a bad day,” the 2003 Four Continents Champion said. “I messed up the short program, but now I’m eelaxed,” he smiled.
Zhang started well into his long program to Danse Macabre, hitting a good triple Axel-triple toeloop combination and a quad Salchow, but the quad toeloop eluded him again – he tripled it twice. The reigning Four Continents silver medalist was ranked only fifth in the free skate but held on to third place.
Vlascenko struggled in the long program with his jumps and slipped to fourth.
USA’s Scott Smith recovered from a faulty short program and was third in the free program. He pulled up to fifth.
The new judging system was expected to create more movement in the ice dancing standings, and that’s exactly what happened in Reading. Out of ten couples, only one (Xiaoyang Yu and Chen Wang of China) remained in the same spot throughout the event.
The 2002 World Junior Champions Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto took their first senior title by winning Skate America. They were second after a solid Compulsory Dance (CD) as well as the Original Dance (OD). Their “Swing Combo” consisting of a Jitterbug, Blues and Swing which contained intricate footwork and captured the mood of the different dances very well. The young team chose Westside Story for their free dance, and it brought them the victory. The program was well done and highlighted by innovative lifts. Belbin and Agosto won the free dance and overall.
“We’re very proud, this is our first senior title,” Belbin said. “Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow were the last US ice dance couple to win Skate America, and it’s an honor to be in their shoes. We feel confident going into our next event and know what we have to work on.”
Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov of the Ukraine were considered to be the top contenders. The experienced couple won the Austrian Waltz with a good performance of this difficult compulsory. However, a little mistake in the OD cost them dearly. Grushina slipped on a twizzle in the side-by-side footwork and the Ukrainians finished only third in that portion of the event.
They did better in the free dance to Hanging Escape – a dramatic piece by Alexander Golshtain about war and peace and dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war in Iraq. But the program looked a bit rough and the footwork was labored. “Yesterday, we felt how the system works,” Goncharov said. “Today, we skated well and had just a few little mistakes.” The husband-and-wife team scored well in the program components (skating skills, transitions, performance, choreography, interpretation) and moved up to second place.
French Champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, who stood in third place after the Austrian Waltz, were rewarded first for their excellent OD to a Boogie Woogie and Blues that contained a lot of difficult steps. Their free dance, a lyrical program to Merlin about magic and sorcerers, contained excellent lifts, but the French were out of sync in one of their twizzle series.
Although the program was nice and had flow, there was no real change of mood or rhythm in the music and the expression never really changed. This was reflected in the second mark, and Delobel and Schoenfelder finished third overall. “We made three mistakes, and it was reflected immediately in the marks,” Schoenfelder commented. “We still received good marks, and we think when we do everything correctly in our dance, our marks will be even better,” Delobel added.
The Italian team of Frederica Faiella and Massimo Scali had a few technical errors and finished fourth, but their programs are very expressive. USA’s Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov have improved a lot since last season and came in fifth. Their footwork might have been not the most difficult but it was executed well.
Sasha Cohen has been regarded as a huge talent ever since she won the silver medal at the 2000 US National Championships. Although she has everything she needs to make it to the very top, her lack of consistency held her back in the past and she finished fourth at the World Championships last year as well as the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Last season, Cohen won the Grand Prix Final which was a big step forward for her. Cohen, who turned 19 the day after the Ladies’ event, looked very solid in Reading and won clearly ahead of USA’s Jennifer Kirk and Japan’s Shizuka Arakawa.
Cohen led after the short program. Skating to last year’s Malaguena, the American started with a triple Lutz-double toe but stepped out of the second jump. Not losing her focus, she completed a triple flip, an excellent change of edge flying camel spin and a double Axel. The long program to Swan Lake was probably one of the best for her in competition.
Cohen produced five triple jumps including a triple Lutz-double toeloop and a triple flip-double toeloop, only her second flip was two-footed. The crowd was, of course, waiting for her spectacular spirals and wasn’t disappointed – Cohen delivered with a few new positions in her spins. “It’s really great to start the season with two titles, but I’m more proud of the how my training has been going. I’m enjoying myself every time I go out to compete. I want to give a performance to the audience every time,” Cohen commented.
In 2000, Jennifer Kirk and Sasha Cohen were together at the Junior World Championships in Germany. While the American media focused only on Cohen, Kirk was the one that skated very well and took the title. Since then, she had been struggling with consistency and was also hampered by injury, but she did win the 2002 Four Continents Championships. Kirk turned in two strong performances and won her first medal at Skate America. The crowd loved her interpretation of Chicago in the short program, and she landed a triple Lutz-double toeloop combination, a triple flip and a double Axel.
Kirk’s long program to The Bat featured seven triples including a triple-triple toeloop combination (but she pre-rotated the first toeloop which can almost be called a toe-Axel) and two combination spins. “This was my best long program since I won Junior Worlds (in 2000),” a smiling Jennifer Kirk told the media. “My triple Lutz wasn’t so good in the warm up, but once my music started, I went into my zone. I never want to scale back, I want to go out and fight.”
Arakawa stood in second place following the short program where she produced a triple Lutz-double toeloop combination, a double Axel and a nice combination spin that finished in a donut-position, but she stepped out of her triple flip. The Japanese national bronze medalist had planned an ambitious long program to Turandot with a triple Lutz-triple toeloop combination but did a triple-double instead. Her nervousness affected her, and after she hit a triple Salchow and triple flip-double toeloop combination, she fell off the edge of her loop and stepped out of her second Lutz.
“I’m always good in practice, but when the competition came, I was nervous. I wanted to do a triple-triple combination, but I didn’t have enough height for it,” the Japanese explained. But she had a double Axel and a solo triple toeloop. Arakawa was not able to hold on to second place with that and came in third overall.
USA’s Amber Corwin apparently had studied the code of points system since her disappointing performance at Nebelhorn Trophy in September. She was definitely improved, and the fourth place in Reading was a success for her. Viktoria Volchkova of Russia, who was one of the favorites heading into this event, apparently wasn’t ready yet. She missed her triple flip in both programs and made some other errors in her free skating to finish sixth. Susanna Pöykiö of Finland also struggled with her flip and her Salchow in the free program. She was fifth.
In the Pairs event, Qing Pang and Jian Tong of China won their first Grand Prix gold medal and narrowly beat the reigning World bronze medalists Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov. Both teams turned in a clean short program. The Chinese impressed with their high throw triple loop and twist, but the Russians had the better side-by-side triple toeloops, great polish and their throw loop was perfect as well.
In the long program, Pang and Tong ran into trouble when Tong crashed on the double Axel in the sequence with a (shaky) triple toeloop. Later into the new program to Variations on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rakhmaninov, Tong stumbled out of the double Axel and Pang fell out of the backwards outward death spiral. However, the pair completed a triple twist, a triple throw loop and Salchow as well as two one-armed Lasso lifts, but their final combination spin looked sloppy. The door seemed wide open for Petrova and Tikhonov.
Performing to The Circus Princess by Emmerich Kalman, the 2000 World Champions started strongly, reeling off a side-by-side double Axel-triple toeloop sequence, a throw triple loop (but it had a lean in the air), a somewhat low triple twist, a side-by-side double Axel and three good lifts including a hand-to-hip lift with an original exit. But Petrova apparently ran out of gas towards the end of the program, double-footing the triple throw Salchow and barely keeping up with her partner in the straight line footwork.
Although the Russian team won the free skate, it was not enough to pull up to first place. “We skated well two thirds of the program, but we have to work on the last third,” Tikhonov said. “It helped us a lot that we skated this new program in exhibitions before. We really like this program, and we had a lot of people who helped us with it.”
Only a difference of 0.12 points separated Petrova and Tikhonov from Pang and Tong, and most people felt that the Russians should have deserved the victory. Although Pang and Tong made three errors, Petrova and Tikhonov had 2.30 points less in the technical score. When analyzing the detailed results, one can see that Pang and Tong picked up extra points for their throws (higher grades of execution) and had two more difficult lifts, which was enough to top Petrova and Tikhonov’s element score and to stay ahead of them by the thinnest of margins.
“This was the first time that we’ve skated our new program in competition, and we felt nervous,” Tong explained. “Hopefully we’ll do it a lot better the next time. After we came second in the free skating, we were very surprised to win the event.”
Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang didn’t make any major mistakes in their bluesy short program, but they are lacking the polish and the skating skills of their competitors. They landed side-by-side triple toeloops and a big throw triple loop, but were ranked fourth behind Canada’s Utako Wakamatsu and Jean-Sebastien Fecteau who had a bad landing of the throw triple Salchow.
The Chinese’s free program to Gräfin Maritza (like the Princess of the Circus an operetta by Kalman) featured an amazing triple twist, a double Axel-triple toeloop sequence, throw triple loop and Salchow as well as a side-by-side triple Salchow, but lacked attention to detail in the exits of their lifts and their footwork. The reigning World Junior Champions still moved up to third and captured their first medal at the senior Grand Prix. Wakamatsu and Fecteau had a shaky performance and slipped to fourth. US Champions Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn skated a nice long program to Les Miserables that included a triple toe-double toe combination and a beautiful throw triple Salchow.
Skate Canada, the second event of the Grand Prix series, will be held Oct 30 – Nov 3 in Mississauga, Ontario, at the Hershey Centre.