Goyang City, South Korea will be center stage for both the Junior and Senior Grand Prix Final. The event will take place December 10-14, 2008 at the Seongsa Ice Rink. It will be the first time the International Skating Union (ISU) merges both divisions at the same time, and promises to be a memorable competition.
The six-event Senior Grand Prix (GP) circuit began in October with Skate America in Everett, Wash., and ended in November with the NHK Trophy in Tokyo, Japan. Approximately 40 men, 41 ladies, 33 dance teams, and 30 pair teams competed for points throughout the series, with only the top eight skaters/teams in each discipline earning a spot to the Final.
A very talented sextet of ladies will challenge for the title of Grand Prix Final Champion, and this season, the competition is deceptively closer than ever.
Leading the charge is two-time and defending champion Yu-Na Kim (18) from South Korea. Kim has proven herself to be the one to beat in every competition that she has entered since she burst onto the international scene a few years ago. However, the talented jumper has been plagued with injuries that always seem to break her stride come the World Championships.
This season, Kim has shown no evidence of injury, and has decimated her competition in both of her events. In winning both Skate America and the Cup of China, Kim outdistanced her competition; including former World Champions Kimmie Meissner of the United States and Japan’s Miki Ando, by twenty points or more. Armed with a triple flip-triple toe combination that rivals any of the world’s top men, Kim combines gutsy technical elements with world-class skating skills that leave her competition in the dust. This competition is surely Kim’s to lose, and she should focus on her own skating rather than those who are chasing her for the title.
Though it is no surprise that Canada’s Joannie Rochette (22) has qualified for the Final, the gusto in which she clinched her spot has created a buzz among the skating community. Rochette opened her international campaign with a win in her home event by earning 25 more points than silver medalist Fumie Suguri of Japan. In her second event, Rochette faced reigning World Champion Mao Asada (18), and established herself as a serious threat for any podium this season by defeating the Japanese champion with relative ease.
Rochette has always been a beautiful skater with difficult choreography, but it wasn’t until this season that the four-time Canadian Champion began to level the playing field with tough jumping passes. Rochette’s rise to prominence has been steady, but this season she has catapulted herself into the spotlight. Should Rochette skate like she did in her qualifying events, she could find herself standing atop the podium with a gold medal around her neck.
Asada has been struggling somewhat this season, changing coaches and
training locations in the off-season, but should not be counted out in this competition. The 2006 Grand Prix Final Champion looked rusty in her opening competition against Rochette in France, showing signs of vulnerability in the short program in particular. Asada’s tendency to get an edge call on her Lutz jump resurfaced in that program, and the reigning Four Continents Champion did not even attempt the jump in her free skate. Earning the silver medal behind Rochette was a wake up call for Asada, who most thought would be as dominant as her Korean counterpart.
In Japan, however, Asada looked more prepared, and showed why she won both of the ISU Championships that she competed in last season. Asada still has not put a Lutz into her freeskate, but she was credited with a clean triple in her short program. To compensate, Asada has added the triple Axel to her freeskate, and earned positive grades of execution for the element in this competition. Asada also attempted the jump in combination, but was slightly short of rotation and received the dreaded ‘<‘ from the technical caller. Still, Asada looks more like the champion that she is, and will likely give Kim a run for her money on Kim’s home turf.
Italy’s Carolina Kostner (21) qualified for her second consecutive Grand Prix Final, but she had to work some magic to make it happen. The European Champion opened her season in Canada in disappointing fashion, limping to a fourth place finish with a score more than 30 points behind Rochette.
Kostner had to win her second event (Cup of Russia) to claim a spot on the six-lady roster, and she was able to do that with much improved performances than in Canada. Still, Kostner’s total score in Russia was not even close to the top three qualifier’s scores, and the notoriously sloppy skater will have to return to form that helped her to capture two consecutive European titles.
Two other Japanese ladies round out the roster for the Grand Prix Final, and have an outside shot of breaking into the top three with a good competition. Yukari Nakano (23) is competing in her third Grand Prix Final, and will face her teammate Miki Ando (20) – a four-time qualifier. Nakano and Ando both use music from the ballet Giselle for their freeskate, and are on a level playing field as technical skaters.
Nakano separates herself from the field on the strength of her spins and attention to detail in her choreography, while Ando, a weak spinner, presents a powerful image on the ice with an avant-garde approach to choreography. Either of these ladies could stand on the podium, and this competition could provide some interesting insight into the upcoming Japanese National Championships.
The men’s field at this year’s Grand Prix Final represents an interesting collection of artists and technicians who truly represent the World. The top qualifier is Canadian Patrick Chan (17), who opened his season with an easy victory in his home event in a field depleted by the retirement of World Champion Jeffrey Buttle and injury withdraw of Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi.
Chan’s rise to prominence has been meteoric, but it is well deserved. The Canadian champion is becoming a reliable performer who has some of the best basic skating in the world. In France, Chan out-classed a notably stronger field, including Skate America Champion Takahiko Kozuka and former World Champion Brian Joubert. In qualifying for his second straight Grand Prix Final, Chan has established himself as a bona fide favorite heading into this competition, and could be the first Canadian to win the title since Elvis Stojko in 1996.
Kozuka (19) stunned the skating community by defeating perennial favorites Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek on their home turf at Skate America. The Japanese silver medalist followed up his win in the U.S. with a second place finish in France. Armed with a fairly consistent quadruple toe loop and the energy of a puppy, Kozuka has propelled himself into the international spotlight, and taken himself out of the shadows of his more experienced teammates. Kozuka is oftentimes a scrappy skater, but he is a consistent jumper with extremely friendly code of points programs that should serve him well in this competition.
Weir (24) is also competing in his second consecutive Grand Prix Final. In his first event at Skate America, the U.S. silver medalist made small mistakes in his freeskate that cost him the title. In Japan, he was forced to wear silver again due to Japan’s Nobunari Oda’s grand return to competitive skating. True to form, Weir whittled away points in his freeskate that cost him a shot at the title.
Weir has made a habit of losing points by omitting double toe loops at the end of planned combinations in his free programs, which as a result, has cost him several titles in the last couple of seasons. Should Weir hope to become the first American man to stand atop the podium at this event, he will have to skate smart and clean. Weir has zero margin for error on his jumps, but his textbook skating will keep him in the hunt for a medal.
France’s Joubert (24) is returning to the Grand Prix Final for the fourth time after a year away from the competition. Joubert opened his season at home with a disastrous short program in which he missed two of the three jumping passes in the program. After finishing in fourth place there, Joubert went into the Cup of Russia the following week a very hungry skater. The reigning World Silver medalist rebounded with an easy win in a tough field, and showed that he can still compete for titles.
Joubert has been having difficulty with his consistency in recent years, and will need to bring his A-game to this competition. The most technical skater of the competition, Joubert could attempt as many as three quadruple jumps in his freeskate, but he would be better served to focus on skating clean programs if he wants to contend for the title.
USA’s Jeremy Abbott (23) opened his 2008-09 campaign by turning the skating world upside down with an impressive win at the Cup of China. Abbott’s previous highest finish in a Grand Prix event was fourth, but most noteworthy was the fact that he was in contention for a medal from the start of the event.
Abbott has historically slow starts in the short program, and usually makes a dramatic charge to move up in the standings in the freeskate. In Russia, Abbott went back to his roots and had to dig himself out of a hole in the freeskate. He finished in fourth place after a strong freeskate, and qualified for his first Grand Prix Final.
Abbott has all of the tools and weapons that he needs to be a champion, but he must focus on skating clean and controlled programs if he hopes to stand on the podium.
The most inconsistent performer of the bunch is the Czech Republic’s Tomas Verner (22). The reigning European Champion finished 15th at last year’s World Championships, and could finish in either first or sixth place at the Final. He has put together his most consistent season thus far, harvesting bronze in China and a silver medal in Russia.
Verner can jump with the best in the world, but often melts down in the glare of the spotlight when it counts the most. The many-time national champion is still rebuilding his confidence to this point, and this competition will be a test of his mental strength. Physically, Verner is ready to be back in contention, but he will have to harness his demons should he want to establish himself as a favorite heading into the World Championships.
In recent years, the Chinese have dominated the international pairs scene, but that dynasty is beginning to look conquerable. Germany’s Aljona Savchenko (24) and Robin Szolkowy (29) are the reigning World Champions and haven’t lost a competition in over a year. This season, the Germans seem poised to continue their winning ways, opening their season with a hard-fought win at Skate America, and following that up with an easy victory in France.
Savchenko and Szolkowy have a tendency to assemble programs that showcase their modern style, but the programs are often so challenging that they make a handful of tiny errors that mar their performances. The two-time European Champions have programs this season that yet again set themselves apart from the field, but they must not be sloppy in this competition should they hope to win.
The top ranked Chinese team of Dan Zhang (23) and Hao Zhang (24) appear to be in the form that has helped them to be on or near every major podium for the last several years. Though the reigning World and Four Continents silver medalists have qualified for their sixth straight Grand Prix Final, they have yet to convert those opportunities into a win in this competition.
Zhang and Zhang opened their 2008-09 campaign at home by winning their ninth Grand Prix title, and followed that up with number ten in Russia. However, the Olympic silver medalists have not improved in the last few seasons, and are losing ground on the teams who they once defeated quite easily. Not only will Zhang and Zhang be hoping to overcome the tough German team, but there is a bumper crop of up-and-comers nipping at their heals. One of those teams is Yuko Kawaguchi (27) and Alexander Smirnov (24) from Russia.
In only their third season of competition together, Kawaguchi and Smirnov are moving up the ranks quite quickly. Last year, the Russian Champions qualified for this competition in their first try, and will look to improve on their fifth place finish this season. They opened the season with their first big international win in Canada, defeating the reigning World bronze medalists in the process. In Russia, the The European bronze medalists struggled in the short program, but recovered to win the freeskate and the silver medal behind Zhang and Zhang. This team is still working out some of the kinks in their skating, but is improving rapidly from competition to competition and could overtake the Chinese in the standings.
China’s Qing Pang (28) and Jian Tong (29) are also losing their international luster. Since winning the World Championships in 2006, they have been in a steady decline, finishing fifth place at last year’s World Championships. The reigning Four Continents Champions opened their season with a disappointing bronze medal-winning effort in China, and followed that up with a relatively easy win in Japan.
However, the dominance that Pang and Tong once enjoyed is long gone, and they are in danger of becoming another team of also-rans. This competition could mark the end of this team’s ability to remain competitive for championship medals, or it could be the beginning of their return to prominence. The Chinese Champions always have beautifully difficult programs, but everything depends on them being able to get the job done when the pressure is on.
Qualifying for their first Grand Prix Final is the Ukrainian team of Tatiana Volosozhar (22) and Stanislav Morozov (29), the training mates of World Champions Savchenko and Szolkowy. The Ukrainians are coming on strong this season, winning their first medals in the Grand Prix (silver in China and bronze in Russia) and propelling them into the international spotlight.
Two seasons ago, it seemed that Volosozhar and Morozov would be contenders for medals at the World Championships, placing fifth at the European Championships and fourth at the World Championships. However, the Ukrainian champs suffered from inconsistency last season, and finished ninth at the World Championships. This season, they have demonstrated a newfound confidence and surety in their elements, and are looking as if they could make some noise in this competition. Morozov will have to skate up to the level of his partner if this team has any hope of being competitive for the podium.
The final qualifiers for this event are Russia’s Maria Mukhortova (23) and Maxim Trankov (25), the reigning European silver medalists. At Skate America, the young team skated a mesmerizing short program that put them in great position to upset Savchenko and Szolkowy. However, in the freeskate, the duo imploded, falling three times, and finishing in a distant third place. In France, they once again skated a good short program, and pieced together a respectable freeskate that helped them to earn the silver medal and a trip to their first Grand Prix Final. The current Russian silver medalists will have to improve in their freeskate should they hope to be competitive in this field, but will likely be in the hunt after the short program.
It was an interesting fall season for Ice Dancing on the Grand Prix circuit. Five teams won gold medals in the series, placements changed from event to event, and three teams qualified for their first Final at this level.
World Champions Isabelle Delobel (30) and Olivier Schoenfelder (31) of France are the top qualifiers, and the only duo to win both of their events. However, the European silver medalists looked anything but unbeatable.
At Skate America, Delobel and Schoenfelder won by little more than a point after finishing in second in the free dance to USA’s Tanith Belbin (24) and Benjamin Agosto (26). In France, after struggling in the original dance, they finished in third place behind two teams that they have beaten quite handily in the past, but managed to win the title.
Combining the French Champions’ inconsistency thus far this season, and the fact that their strength, the compulsory dance, is not part of this competition, Delobel and Schoenfelder might struggle to make the podium at this event.
Qualifying in the number two position are European Champions Oksana Domnina (24) and Maxim Shabalin (26). After winning the European title last season, the Russians withdrew from the World Championships so that Shabalin could recover from a knee injury. This season, the team came to the Grand Prix armed with a renewed spirit and a new coaching team and won their first event out of the gates at Cup of China.
Following that narrow victory over training mates Belbin and Agosto and teammates Jana Khokhlova (23) and Sergei Novitski (27), Domnina and Shabalin headed into the Cup of Russia as favorites. However, Khokhlova and Novitski showed improved programs in Russia, and relegated Domnina and Shabalin to the silver medal. Domnina and Shabalin are competing in their fourth consecutive Grand Prix Final, and can never be counted out of the medal hunt in any competition.
Khokhlova and Novitski are zapping all of the momentum that their teammates seemingly have lost during the last year, and have the potential to improve on their fifth place finish at last year’s Final.
After a difficult bronze medal winning performance in China, the Russian champs showed up at their home event ready to challenge for the title with vastly improved skating, and corrected some of their elements to garner higher levels. The result was their first win of a Grand Prix event, and the Worlds bronze medalists demonstrated why they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the world’s elite. Khokhlova and Novitski should challenge for a spot on the podium, and could win the whole thing if they skate cleanly.
Surprise qualifiers Federica Faiella (27) and Massimo Scali (29) of Italy benefited from the withdraw of Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir form the Grand Prix circuit this season, and won their first title in Japan in their absence. The Italian champs opened their season by winning the silver medal behind Delobel and Schoenfelder in France, and easily qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.
While the Italian champs are always exciting to watch, their programs are not as difficult as some of the other teams’, and they often fall victim to unfortunate and silly mistakes in their programs. To finish on the podium here would be a major coup, so look for them near the bottom of the leader board.
Meryl Davis (21) and Charlie White (21) are also making their Grand Prix Final debut, and much like Faiella and Scali, they are the beneficiaries of Virtue and Moir’s unfortunate withdraw from the circuit.
At Skate Canada, Davis and White easily claimed their first Grand Prix title in a depleted field that left them with nary a challenge from the rest of the competitors. However, in Russia, they had to contend with the top two Russian teams, and quickly faded in the standings with a horrific eighth place finish in the original dance. The U.S. silver medalists rebounded to finish second in the free dance and third overall to earn a spot in the Final.
Davis and White will have to skate with much more confidence and accuracy than they have to date should they hope to hang with the top teams, but it is likely that they will never challenge for the podium in this competition.
Teammates Belbin and Agosto snuck in to qualify for their fifth Grand Prix Final, but they were much more competitive than their qualifying position might suggest. After a disappointing season last year, the five-time U.S. Champions changed coaches, and now train in Delaware with Russians Domnina and Shabalin.
With improved basic elements and lifts, Belbin and Agosto showed up to Skate America ready to challenge the World Champions for the title. The result was a narrow victory for Delobel and Schoenfelder, but Belbin and Agosto served notice that they weren’t ready to fall by the wayside. At their next event in China, Belbin and Agosto faced their training mates, as well as Khokhlova and Novitski, in perhaps the toughest event of the circuit. Belbin and Agosto lost the gold medal to Domnina and Shabalin by a mere .36 of a point, but showed great improvement in all areas of their skating.
Ironically, Belbin and Agosto are the sixth qualifiers for this event, but have the highest combined score of any team on the circuit. With similar programs to what they have already skated, the 2006 Olympic silver medalists will be in the hunt to win this event, and should be back in the international spotlight when the skating is done.