The 2008 World Junior Figure Skating Championships will take place in Sofia, Bulgaria from Feb. 25 through Mar. 2, 2008, in which over 200 young skaters/teams will be competing. This competition has served as the springboard to international success on the senior level for such skaters as Michelle Kwan (Gold medalist, 1994), Ilia Kulik (Gold medalist, 1995), and Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang (Gold medalists, 2001 and 2003). Skaters from the United States, Russia, and Canada have traditionally dominated the podium, and this year could be more of the same.
The pairs competition was to be an easy victory for Russians Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov, a team that dominated the junior scene this fall. However, a positive drug test by Larionov puts this team’s future in jeopardy as he now faces a two-year ban from competition. Bazarova and Larionov are not permitted to compete in this competition as they await word on what their fate will be. As such, teammates Ksenia Krasilnikova and Konstantin Bezmaternikh become the favorites in perhaps the weakest field in recent history.
Krasnilnikova and Bezmaternikh are the two-time and reigning bronze medalists heading into this competition, and are methodical and consistent in their approach to skating. The team finished in fifth place on the senior level at the Russian Championships, as well as the 2007 Cup of Russia. They also won the silver at the 2008 Junior Grand Prix Final. None of the other teams in the field come close to this team in terms of quality, and the students from Perm should easily walk away as the champions in this field.
Ekaterina Sheremetieva and Mikhail Kuznetsov, also of Russia, should challenge for a spot on the podium, having competed well on the junior circuit this fall and winning the bronze medal at the Junior Grand Prix Final. This team is still coming together after a season-ending injury last year when Sheremetieva broke her foot; hence, they may have run out of time to up their technical ante enough to challenge for gold.
Americans Jessica Rose Paetsch and Jon Nuss are pretty skaters who attack every move that they attempt. At the Junior Grand Prix Final, the team finished in fourth behind Sheremetieva and Mikhail Kuznetsov by less than a point. However, a technically weak short program could keep them from challenging for gold at Junior Worlds. Nevertheless, their overall quality and choreography should allow the newly-crowned U.S. Junior Champions to stay in contention for a medal.
Canadians Amanda Velenosi and Mark Fernandez have had a decent showing this season, earning a trip to the Junior Grand Prix Final and finishing 10th in their Senior debut at the Canadian Championships. This team has an outside shot at a medal in Sofia, but they will need to be perfect.
If any of the top teams falter, USA’s Bianca Butler and Joseph Jacobson could play the role of spoiler. After a disappointing fall season, this team finished a strong ninth in their Senior debut at the U.S. Championships, and proved that they could be contenders for the podium.
In what used to be an event dominated by European teams, ice dance is now becoming a tight race between teams who hail from the United States and Canada as well as the traditional superpower that is Russia. Unlike most seasons, this year’s competition doesn’t have a clear-cut frontrunner, but instead there are a handful of teams who have the potential to cha-cha away with the title. However, each of the teams who could strike gold in Sofia represent the United States, Canada, or Russia.
After winning the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, Russians Maria Monko and Ilia Tkachenko seem to be the best bet to stand atop the podium. Fifth in last year’s competition, Monko and Tkachenko have demonstrated a high level of difficulty in their programs throughout the fall season, but faltered recently at their nation’s junior championships, finishing second to Kristina Gorshkova and Vitali Butikov.
Gorshkova and Butikov, who recently won the bronze medal at the Junior Grand Prix Final, have lost ground internationally to their teammates who have shown improvement in all areas of their skating this season. Gorshkova and Butikov tend to get sloppy and often lose momentum towards the end of their programs, and will have to hope for a mistake by Monko and Tkachenko to have a chance of winning the title.
As the newly-crowned pewter medalists from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates have demonstrated that they are able to compete at a high level with world-class skaters. However, Samuelson and Bates will need to skate a much-improved Cha Cha Congelado than the one that they performed at the Junior Grand Prix Final should they want to defeat the Russians. This team’s strength is their speed and intricacy, but making mistakes in the free dance at big competitions has become a sad hallmark of their skating to this point. To win here, the team coached by Juri Tchesnitchenko and Jaroslava Netchaeva will have to be flawless from start to finish.
Dark horses who could threaten for a spot on the podium are Canadians Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier and U.S. Junior Champions Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell. Like Samuelson and Bates, Crone and Poirier finished in fourth place at their recent national championships, but they will need to capitalize on any errors that the top three teams might make should they hope for a medal.
Because of a string of injuries that cancelled the first half of their season, the Hubbells are untested among international teams this season, and must bank upon previous experience to pull them through this competition. To earn a medal, the Hubbells must demonstrate better fitness and be more concise in all of their elements than they did at the U.S. Championships.
American Adam Rippon has been setting the junior skating world on fire this season, winning almost everything in site and setting himself up as the favorite for this competition. In the off-season, Rippon worked with his new coach Nikolai Morozov on every facet of his skating, and credits a newfound discovery of body awareness for his rapid improvement. Though the 18-year-old has yet to attempt a triple Axel on the international scene, Rippon has handily defeated skaters who attempt a higher level of difficulty by executing all of his attempted elements with a finesse often absent on the junior level. Rippon won the Junior Grand Prix Final in December by 15 points ahead of the silver medalist, and if healthy, should coast to the title here.
Rippon, however, could face stiff competition in the form of his teammates Brandon Mroz and Tommy Steenberg. Mroz finished second behind Rippon at both the Junior Grand Prix Final and the U.S. National Championships, but his athleticism could propel him to the top of the podium should he land a triple Axel in both of his programs.
Steenberg is somewhat of a hit-or-miss skater, sometimes showing great promise and interesting choreography, but oftentimes falters at the big competitions. International judges like Steenberg’s European skating style, and the code of points rewards his difficult jump combinations with high marks. If Steenberg skates near his potential, the Americans could sweep the podium.
Trying to make sure that doesn’t happen is Canadian jumping bean Kevin Reynolds. Reynolds recently placed sixth at the Canadian Championships on the senior level, and is known for nothing more than his quadruples and triple Axels. Though the Reynolds has more experience internationally than the Americans, the 17-year-old does not have the security of basics and understanding of choreography that they do. Reynolds will have to skate without error should he want to challenge for a spot on the podium.
Russia’s Artem Borodulin and Ivan Bariev have the technical skill to compete with the top skaters in Sofia, but both often make mistakes when the pressure is on. Borodulin is the only skater to defeat Rippon this season in an international competition, but he has been nursing an injury lately that could keep him from challenging for the podium. Bariev struggled at the Russian junior championships in the short program, but recovered to win the title with a commendable freeskate. If either Borodulin or Bariev skate close to their potential, it could be a great fight for the podium.
The United States has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ladies who are eligible to compete on the junior level internationally. There are six ladies being left at home who could have easily been named to compete in Sofia that could have walked away with a medal. As it is, the trio of Mirai Nagasu, Rachael Flatt, and Caroline Zhang could overwhelm their competition and bring home all of the medals from this competition.
Last season, the U.S. swept the podium with Zhang coming out on top, Nagasu in second, and Ashley Wagner winning the bronze medal. As the reigning champion, it would be easy to consider Zhang a shoo-in to repeat, but both Nagasu and Flatt defeated Zhang at last month’s U.S. Championships, and are poised to battle it out for this year’s title.
Nagasu, the recently crowned U.S. Champion, is a spirited skater who has triple-triples in her arsenal, and wows the crowd with her flexibility and lightening speed. Flatt also has a triple-triple in her repertoire, but skates with a sophistication that is far more intellectual than a teenage girl should be able to muster. Zhang, the artiste of the bunch, is the pliable skater who elicits “oohs and aahs” from the audience as she melts her body into superhuman positions. Recently, however, Zhang has been getting deductions on her Lutzes for using the wrong take-off edge, and has seen many of her jumps downgraded because she is short of rotation.
It would be a shock if all of these young ladies were not on the podium in Sofia, but should any of them falter, and there are a few ladies who could step up to the plate. Japan’s Yuki Nishino won the bronze medal at the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, and can score well when she skates clean. Teammate Rumi Suizu defeated Nishino at the Japanese junior nationals, but her personal best is far below that of the Americans’.
Though Finland’s Jenni Vähämaa does not have the technical prowess that the Americans are known for, she is still a solid skater who has been turning heads this season. A tenth place finish at last month’s European Championships could give Vähämaa the confidence she needs to make a run at the podium.
Canadian Myriane Samson has pieced together a respectable season, and could also challenge for a top spot in Sofia. However, with her lesser technical content, the student from Quebec will have to hope for one of the top contenders to make mistakes in order to make the podium.