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 eight-event Junior Grand Prix (JGP) circuit began with JGP Courchevel (France) in August, and ended in October with the JGP John Curry Memorial in Sheffield, Great Britain. Approximately 121 men, 173 ladies, 72 dance teams, and 35 pair teams competed for points throughout the series, with only the top eight skaters/teams in each discipline earning a spot to the JGP Final.
As in past seasons, American and Japanese ladies dominated the Junior Grand Prix, winning all eight events, and capturing 18 of the 24 medals awarded. Leading the way is an impressive quintet of American ladies who could sweep the podium if they skate up to their abilities.
The top qualifier, Kristine Musademba (16) won events in France and Spain, and is making her second trip to the Final. Last year, the U.S. Junior pewter medalist finished fourth in the Final, but she has demonstrated an increased technical soundness as well as the confidence that comes with experience that could propel her to the podium in Korea. Musademba struggles to hold the outside edge on her triple Lutz at times, and has been called for underrotating the jump as well. However, she is a tough competitor, and should take her first step onto the podium in this competition.
Another American, Alexe Gilles (16), is also making her second trip to the Final. After winning a silver medal in Mexico, Gilles rallied to win the event in South Africa to qualify for her second Final. Gilles, last year’s U.S. Junior Champion, has been struggling in the short program of late, and could take herself out of medal contention with a poor showing in the short. She has been one of the few skaters to attempt and land a triple-triple combination on the circuit, and could earn high scores if she is successful.
USA’s Amanda Dobbs (15), a newcomer to the Junior Grand Prix, opened her international campaign with a win over Gilles in Mexico, but had a disastrous short program in South Africa that put her into 12th place. With a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude, Dobbs skated a great free program, and benefited from the mistakes of the rest of the field to win that portion of the competition – along with the bronze medal. Dobbs has an outside shot at a medal, but has lesser technical content than most of the field. As such, she will have to skate cleanly and depend on the mistakes of others to propel her into podium position.
Americans Becky Bereswill (18) and Angela Maxwell (16) are also making their first appearance at the Final, and could prove to be formidable competitors who could walk away with hardware around their necks. Bereswill has been nipping at Musademba’s blades all season, placing second to her in France and Spain. Bereswill’s strength is her component scores, and could do well here with technically strong performances.
Maxwell’s placements are a misrepresentation of what she really did on the ice in her events in the Czech Republic and Great Britain. In fact, Maxwell scored well enough in her events that had her scores carried over to the other events, she could have won five of the six events in which she did not compete. The U.S. Junior silver medalist has a fight in her skating that should help her compete with the Japanese skaters whose scores blew the rest of the competition away.
Japan’s Yukiko Fujisawa (13) and Kanako Murakami (14) could provide tough competition for the U.S. Team. Fujisawa was perhaps the most consistent performer in the series, scoring above 148 points in both of her events, and winning a gold medal at the Czech Republic event. In Great Britain, teammate Murakami had the performance of the series, scoring over 150 points, and relegated Fujisawa to the silver medal. This tandem has the potential to score big in South Korea, but the experience of the American ladies might be too much for this young duo to overcome.
Canadian Diane Szmiett (18), the final qualifier, will have her hands full with this field after earning the lowest scores of all of the other competitors. However, Szmiett is an experienced competitor, and is the only one on the roster who has competed at the Junior World Championships.
The Junior men should provide for the most compelling competition of the series, with eight men who could light up the arena with great performances – any of which could walk away with the title of Junior Grand Prix Final Champion.
The top qualifier is USA’s Richard Dornbush (17), the reigning U.S. Junior pewter medalist who has made great improvements in his skating this season. Dornbush opened his season in Mexico, and won the gold medal there by more than 20 points over his nearest competitor. In South Africa, Dornbush again stood atop the podium, but he made some uncharacteristic mistakes in the free skate resulting in his margin of victory to be significantly smaller. In this tough field, Dornbush will have to skate like he did in his qualifying events, but his skating is very code of points friendly, so that will stand him in good stead with the judges.
Returning to the Final for the second consecutive season is Dornbush’s teammate Armin Mahbanoozadeh (17). After winning the bronze medal here last season, Mahbanoozadeh had a disappointing national championships, but he is in great form this season as evidenced by his second place finish in France and a win in Spain. Though he didn’t attempt a triple Axel in his qualifying competitions, he is consistent with his jumps that keep him in contention for a medal at every event in which he skates.
Alexander Johnson (18), another American, qualified for his first Final by winning the event in the Czech Republic and harvesting bronze in Great Britain. Johnson is a consistent performer, but like Mahbanoozadeh, has not attempted the triple Axel in either of his events. When Johnson skates clean, he brings the house down, but he will have to focus on not popping his jumps should he hope to be on the podium.
France’s Florent Amodio (18) and Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten (15) might be the surprises of the junior circuit this season. Though Amodio placed 10th at last year’s World Junior Championships, he was not successful in his previous three campaigns on the Junior Grand Prix. However, with a respectable bronze medal winning performance in his home event and a big win in Great Britain, Amodio could play the role of spoiler for the top qualifiers. Amodio’s score of 193.34 was the highest score earned by any man on the Junior Grand Prix.
Ten, 16th at last year’s World Junior Championships, was seen as cannon fodder heading into this season, but he quickly proved that his skating had improved in the off-season. After finishing fourth in France, he surprised everyone by winning the event in Belarus. To be competitive here, Ten will have to be perfect, and somehow manage to earn full credit for his edge-called flip jumps. Still, the youngest competitor in the competition could win over the audience with his youthful exuberance and sheer joy of skating.
Russia’s Ivan Bariev (17) and Canada’s Elladj Balde (18) round out the roster of qualifiers for the Final. Bariev is making his second consecutive appearance in the Final after winning silver medals in the Czech Republic and South Africa. The key to Bariev’s success in this competition is the short program, which has been a bit of a puzzle for him so far this season. If he skates cleanly, it will set him up for a charge in the free skate, which he won in both of his events.
Russian-born Balde might struggle to stay competitive with this tough field. his scores have not been competitive with the rest of the field to this point, but he did improve by over 25 points from his first even to his second. If he has continued to improve at the same rate, Balde could be a factor.
Replacing the injured Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic is Russia’s Artur Gachinski (15). Gachinski is making his second appearance in the Final in as many attempts, and could be a threat to win the whole thing if he lives up to his potential. After winning the silver medal in Spain, Gachinski seemed poised to qualify for the Final outright. However, a disappointing performance littered with uncharacteristic poor code of points skating put Gachinski in fourth place overall in Great Britain, and relegated him to the first alternate position in the field. Brezina’s misfortune may be Gachinski’s opportunity to showcase his triple Axels, but he will need to upgrade the levels on his elements so that he challenge for a medal.
Leading the Russian stronghold is the team of Lobov Iliushechkina (17) and Nodari Maisuradze (20), the reigning World Junior silver medalists. Armed with a throw triple flip, Iliushechkina and Maisuradze set the bar for the rest of the field earning scores that would be competitive on the senior circuit. In fact, the young team made their senior Grand Prix debut at the Cup of Russia this season, placing fourth.
On the junior circuit, Iliushechkina and Maisuradze won big in the Czech Republic, and followed that up with an impressive win in Belarus. The young Russians are the favorites heading into this competition, however, they will not be able to rest on their laurels as their teammates have the potential to defeat Iliushechkina and Maisuradze on any given day.
Teammates and reigning World Junior Champions Ksenia Krasilnikova (17) and Konstantin Bezmaternikh (20) could prove to be too much for the leaders to overcome. Krasilnikova and Bezmaternikh are also the defending Junior Grand Prix Final Champions, but have struggled since opening the series with a win in Mexico. In Belarus, the duo had to settle for fourth after a free skate laden with errors that threatened to keep them out of the competition. However, Krasilnikova and Bezmaternikh have had ample time to upgrade their low-scoring elements, and could show up in similar form that helped them to dominate the junior scene last season.
The other team to win an event this season was Russia’s Anastasia Martiusheva (13) and Alexei Rogonov (20), who won the event in Great Britain after earning bronze in Mexico. This first-year team, in their only year of junior eligibility, scored a whopping 151.10 points on their way to winning in Great Britain, and have the technical elements to compete with their more experienced teammates.
Sabina Imaikina (15) and Andrei Novoselov (19), another Russian team, earned silver medals in the Czech Republic and Great Britain events in their second season on the Junior Grand Prix. Teammates Ksenia Ozerova (17) and Alexander Enbert (19) won the bronze medal in the Czech Republic and silver in Belarus. Both teams have scored well in their events, and will be ready to snatch a medal of any color away from their more seasoned teammates should they falter.
Narumi Takahashi (16) and Mervin Tran (18) are the first Japanese pair to qualify for any Grand Prix Final, but are still in the early stages of development as a team. Trained in Canada, Takahashi and Tran placed fourth in Mexico and earned their first international medal, a bronze, in Great Britain. China’s Yue Zhang (15) and Lei Wang (20) finished fifth in Mexico and third in Belarus, but do not have the technical content to compete with the likes of the Russians.
The last team to qualify for the Final were Americans Marissa Castelli (18) and Simon Shnapir (21). The reigning U.S. Novice bronze medalists placed fourth in both of their events, but their scores are far off the pace of the Russians. Castelli and Shnapir would do well to enjoy the experience, and try to skate well for themselves. In their last year of junior eligibility, they will need to garner as much international exposure as they can to propel them to a successful senior debut next season.
Americans dominated the dance competition this year, winning six of the eight events, and earning four of the eight spots in the Final. Interestingly, all eight teams who have qualified for the Final have at least one more year of junior eligibility, and could be a preview of next year’s Final as well.
The top qualifiers are Madison Hubbell (17) and Keiffer Hubbell (19), the U.S. Junior Champions and winners of this competition two seasons ago. Last season, however, the siblings were sidelined for much of the season, and could not defend their title in Poland. The Hubbells dominated the competition in their return to the Junior Grand Prix, winning the events in Mexico and South Africa, and set themselves up as the favorites to win their second Junior Grand Prix Final title. While the Hubbells demonstrate technical mastery on most of their elements, they overwhelm their competition with superior component scores. As the highest ranked team returning to the junior ranks from last year’s Junior Worlds, the Hubbells have the momentum and skill to win this competition.
Teammates Madison Chock (16) and Greg Zuerlein (20) might have something to say about that if they have their way. In only their third season together, Chock and Zuerlein have propelled themselves into the spotlight with polished programs replete with elements characteristic of a team with much more experience. Chock and Zuerlein won events in Italy and Great Britain to qualify for their second consecutive Final. This will be a showdown of sorts between the two powerhouses of junior international dance, and will determine who has the judge’s momentum heading into the Junior World Championships later in the season. If Chock and Zuerlein can improve their speed, the Hubbells might find themselves chasing their rivals in the future.
Another American team, siblings Maia Shibutani (14) and Alex Shibutani (17), made their international debut this season in impressive fashion. After winning the opening event in France in convincing fashion, the U.S. Junior pewter medalists finished second in Spain. The Shibutanis are improving quickly, but are sometimes hindered by their immature look on the ice. Their coach, Igor Shpilband has masked this weakness by using choreography that suits this young team. While they have been impressive this season, it would be a minor upset should the siblings with this event over their more experienced teammates.
After qualifying for last year’s Final, Russians Ekaterina Riazanova (17) and Jonathan Guerreiro (17) went on to place sixth in their first World Junior Championships behind the Hubbells. This season, Riazanova and Guerreiro opened with a silver medal in Italy behind Chock and Zuerlein, and defeated the Shibutani’s to harvest gold in Spain. The young Russian team has the power and technical goods to compete with the top American teams, but will have to pay attention to their levels should they hope to win this competition.
The team who placed just behind the Russians at last year’s World Junior Championships, Alisa Agafonova (17) and Dmitri Dun (19) of the Ukraine, have also qualified for their second consecutive Final. The Ukrainians opened with a win in Belarus and also won silver in Great Britain. However, Agafonova and Dun have not scored well enough to be considered threats against the top qualifiers, and it would be considered a victory to slip in for a bronze medal.
Canada has been well represented in recent seasons, having won medals at the last four World Junior Championships. Kharis Ralph (16) and Asher Hill (19) have qualified for their first Final, and look to carry on that legacy. Though the young team won silver medals in both France and Mexico, their skating is not as polished as some of the other qualifiers, and they will struggle to stay in the hunt for a medal in this competition.
Qualifying in eighth place and earning their first trip to the Final, are Russians Ekaterina Pushkash (16) and Dmitri Kiselev (19). The duo opened their season by placing second in a weak field in Belarus, and followed that up with a fourth place finish in Great Britain. The Russians are just not in the same league as the top teams, and will probably find themselves at the bottom of the standings throughout the competition.
Since the American team of Piper Gilles (16) and Zachary Donohue (17) withdrew from this competition due to injury, another Russian team, Marina Antipova (16) and Artem Kudashev (18) were invited to compete as first alternates. Antipova and Kudashev earned a silver medal in the Czech Republic, but faltered and finished fourth in a tougher field in South Africa. Like their teammates Pushkash and Kiselev, this team will struggle to be competitive in this tough field, and should chalk this one up to experience.