The 2009-10 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating continues this week in Moscow, Russia with the Rostelecom Cup. Approximately 60 skaters from 18 countries will attempt to earn points towards qualification to the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final to be held in December in Tokyo. Japan’s Mao Asado looks to be the first skater to qualify for the Final after winning the silver medal last week behind Korea’s Yuna Kim.
The ladies competition will likely be a battle between Japanese teammates Mao Asada and Miki Ando. Both have a World Championship title on their resume, and this competition could give one the psychological edge over the other.
Asada competed last week in Paris, and despite winning the silver medal, struggled in both of her programs. In her short program, Asada popped her triple Axel into a single Axel-double toe combination, and found herself far off the lead heading into the free skate. In the free skate, Asada had the opportunity to redeem herself by skating well, even if she was out of contention for the title. However, the former World Champ struggled throughout her program, falling once and landing just four clean triple jumps.
“I was able to do the triple Axel in the long program and to overcome this hurdle,” Asada said. “Now I want to do the triple Axel in the short program in my next competition in Russia. The mistake in the short program was crucial and I don’t want to make any mistakes. The long porgram was better and in Russia I want to continue like this.”
Though Asada won a medal in Paris, the 19 year-old will have to regroup in Moscow in order to start gaining ground on World Champion Yuna Kim. Asada’s jumps look to be a mess, and she lacks the confidence in performance that she displayed just a few seasons ago. It will be an intriguing competition to say the least for the Japanese champion, and could say a lot about her chances as the Olympic Games approach.
Conversely, Ando is coming off a stellar 2008-09 season that culminated with a bronze medal over Asada at the World Championships. The 2007 World champion seems to be building confidence, and she could establish herself as the clear leader of Japanese ladies skating with a win over Ando in Moscow.
Ando will debut two new programs in Russia; a short program to Michael Nyman’s Queen of the Night, and a free skate to a medley of music from the soundtracks of Marco Polo and Rome. Ando performed the free skate at the 2009 Stars, Stripes, and Skates benefit in September, and the program was magical. Not only did Ando look to be in great shape at the benefit, but she also presented a mature skating style reminiscent of Michelle Kwan.
Ando is seeking a fifth trip to the Grand Prix Final, and her first Grand Prix gold medal since Skate America in 2006.
Americans Alissa Czisny and Ashley Wagner are both potential medal threats, but each skater has her own set of challenges to overcome.
After winning the 2009 U.S. title in January, Czisny struggled at both the Four Continents and World Championships, finishing behind her teammates in each competition. She often struggles with competition nerves, and rarely skates up to her potential. Even in winning the Nebelhorn Trophy earlier in the season, Czisny struggled in the free skate and could only muster a 6th place finish in that portion of the competition.
Czisny will skate to soundtrack music from The Mask of Zorro for the short program and last year’s Doctor Zhivago for the free skate. Should the 22-year-old wish to contend for a medal, she will have to keep her nerves in check, rotate her jumps, and stay vertical. Otherwise, her world-class spins will not be enough to keep her in contention in this tough field.
U.S. pewter medalist Wagner has a great head for competition and is a hard worker. However, the 2009 World Junior bronze medalist is often plagued with underrotating her jumps, and that is what keeps her from reaching the upper echelon of skating’s elite.
Last season, Wagner made a coaching change to address her shortcomings, and believes that she has made significant progress in her skating as a result.
“Over the past year (coach) Priscilla (Hill), (choreographer) Irina (Romanova) and I have been working on my skating skills,” Wagner explained. “Irina has done an amazing job this year with both of my programs, so hopefully people will see smoother skating as well as more expression and character throughout my program. Overall, I am a lot more mature in my skating and I feel that I have more of the “total package” this year.”
Wagner is excited for her season to begin, and is looking forward to showing her new programs in Russia.
“I have been waiting for this season my whole entire career, and now that it is actually here, it almost doesn’t seem real,” gushed the 18-year-old. “Priscilla and I are just taking everything one step at a time. I’m really trying to just focus on myself because I’m the only person I’ll be able to control. I just have to get my head wrapped around both programs and skate with confidence and I feel that this year will work out for me!”
Wagner will skate to music from the soundtrack Once Upon a Time in America for her short program, and to Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances for her free skate.
Germany’s Annette Dytrt is just excited to be competing in Moscow as she was added as a late replacement for American Kimmie Meissner (who withdrew from the competition two weeks ago).
“I am very happy to get this Grand Prix, because I was little sad to have just one of them,” said the excited five-time German champ. “I was hoping to get Paris maybe, but now it’s Moscow and this is so great too!”
Dytrt is coming off a disappointing 2008-09 season that was plagued by injury, but is confident that she is ready to skate at a competitive level once again.
“I had some problems with the meniscus in my knee, so I couldn’t train for some weeks,” Dytrt explained. “I tried, but it was my landing leg, so it was really hurting when I skated. Now I am still not in my best shape, but I will try my best in Moscow.”
Last year, Russia’s Alena Leonova burst onto the international scene winning the Junior World title as well as placing 4th and 7th at the European and World Championships, respectfully. Last month, the 18-year-old opened her season with an impressive win at the Finlandia Trophy, winning both portions of the event in a strong field. Leonova is a definite medal threat in Moscow, and could be the first Russian lady to medal on the Grand Prix since 2005.
Finland’s Susanna Pöykiö (3rd at last year’s European Championships), struggled at Finlandia and placed a dismal 10th with a score far below her personal best. When Pöykiö lands her jumps, her skating is sublime, but she struggles with consistency and will struggle to reach the podium in Moscow.
Former European champ Julia Sebestyen (8th, 2009 European Championships) has failed to reach the form that she had earlier in her career, but she did perform credibily at the Nebelhorn Trophy last month. Canada’s Amelie Lacoste (10th, 2009 Four Continents Championships), Great Britain’s Jenna McCorkell (20th, 2009 World Championships), Russians Katarina Gerboldt (6th, 2009 European Championships), and Oksana Gozeva (9th, 2009 Junior World Championships) complete the competition roster.
The big story in Moscow is the return of 2006 Olympic Champion Evgeni Plushenko to competition after a three-season hiatus. Plushenko has been lured out of retirement in order to compete for a second Olympic title, and he will make his season debut at this competition.
Plushenko brings with him some lofty expectations, and this competition will be a good test to see if he is fit and mentally prepared to return to the upper echelon of skating. Though no solid evidence has been presented to the public, it is rumored that Plushenko has taken his comeback very seriously, and is near peak form. That spells trouble for the rest of the field, but it will be interesting to see if the three-time World Champion will be able to reacquaint himself with the rigors of competing for an entire season under the new judging system.
Plushenko has selected Concierto de Aranjuez for his short program, and will return to his roots by performing to music by Edvin Marton for his free skate.
Trying to defeat the Olympic champion will be a group of men who are hungry for medals.
American Johnny Weir is returning to international competition after a 10-month break after failing to make the Four Continents or World Championships team last winter. Weir has remained with his coaches, Galina Zmievskaya and Victor Petrenko, but the 2008 Worlds bronze medalist has enlisted the help of David Wilson to construct his new programs.
Wilson selected Raul DiBlasio’s I Love You, I Hate You for Weir’s short program, and a selection of music that brings together the theme”Fallen Angels” for the free skate. Weir was quoted as saying that he feels that this free skate is the best program that he has ever had.
The three-time U.S. Champ headed to Russia well in advance of the competition in order to acclimate to the time change, and to reacquaint himself with the country he calls a second home. In order to challenge for the gold medal, or even a spot on the podium, Weir will have to demonstrate that his technical skills are sharp and prove that he has been working hard over the summer.
Takahiko Kozuka shot up the leaderboard last season, medaling in all of his international competitions minus the World Championships where he placed sixth. The Grand Prix Final runner-up has world-class skating all around, and is always in the hunt for medals if not the gold.
This season, Kozuka will skate to Bold as Love by Jimmi Hendrix for the short program, and to a guitar concerto by Michael Kamen for his free skate. The Four Continents bronze medalist needs to bring his A-game to Moscow if he hopes to challenge the likes of Plushenko and Weir, but he is a lock for the podium.
Another American, Brandon Mroz, could play the role of spoiler in Moscow. The 2009 U.S. silver medalist has all of the technical tools that he needs to reach the podium, but he will need all of them if he hopes to do so. Mroz jumps so quickly that his quads look like triples, but he still needs work on the overall packaging of his programs.
Mroz has planned a peppy short program of music by Tito Puente, Perez Prado, and Terry Snyder, and has a more traditional free skate to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 Romance in F Major.
Newcomer Florent Amodio from France and veteran Kevin van der Perren of Belgium could very well steal the show from the pre-event favorites. Amodio is fresh off the junior circuit, winning the Junior Grand Prix Final last season, and is already showing signs of greatness on the senior level.
Amodio is the 2009 French silver medalist, and the he also won the French Master’s in Lyon earlier this season over teammate Brian Joubert. The 19-year-old has a full arsenal of triple jumps, and has a mature style already in his young career.
Van der Perren seems to always be in the hunt for medals when he competes, but has been plagued with injuries throughout his career. The Belgian champion competed earlier this season in Finland, and placed a disappointing 12th behind skaters that he normally defeats. Van der Perren will have to be healthy and skate cleanly to win a medal in this field.
Other participants include Finland’s Ari-Pekka Nurmenkari (27th, 2009 World Championships), Shawn Sawyer from Canada (12th, 2006 Olympic Games), Sweden’s Adrian Schultheiss (18th, 2009 World Championships), and Gregor Urbas of Slovenia (21st, 2009 World Championships). Two Russian men, Artem Borodulin (13th, 2009 European Championships) and Ivan Tretiakov (2nd, 2009 Nebelhorn Trophy), complete the roster.
Current World bronze medalists Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov of Russia are looking for their second career Grand Prix win this week in Moscow, but will face a tough challenge from 2006 World Champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong from China.
Kavaguti and Smirnov have been moving up the international ladder since teaming up in 2006, and are poised to improve upon their silver medal finish last year in Moscow. The Russian champs are risk-takers, and as a result, often make mistakes in their programs. At the World Championships in Los Angeles for example, Kavaguti and Smirnov attempted and fell on a throw quadruple Salchow which cost the team the silver medal.
The European silver medalists have kept their The Swan program from last season, and will use a medley of Strauss’s Blue Danube and Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale for their free skate. To win in Moscow, Kavaguti and Smirnov should focus on skating cleanly rather than going for the high risk elements.
Pang and Tong have struggled since winning back-to-back medals at the World Championships in 2006 and 2007, but typically skate well on the Grand Prix. In fact, the duo has medaled in 17 consecutive Grand Prix events, and have qualified for five Grand Prix Finals.
After a fourth place finish at Worlds last year, Pang and Tong are hungry to return to the podium at international events, and could upset the Russians. The current Four Continents and Grand Prix Final Champions will have to nail their side-by-side jumps to win the title in Moscow, but will remain in the hunt for medals even if they do not. The strength of their basic skating skills and big tricks should be enough to put them on the podium.
Two-time U.S. Champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker return to the Grand Prix circuit for a third season, and look to continue their streak of medaling at each of their events.
“Our goal for Russia is going to be a goal that we carry with us throughout this entire season,” commented Brubaker. “We want to prepare ourselves well enough for each competition so that going in we know and have the confidence in ourselves that we can put out two very respectable programs. When we train on a daily basis, we know that not every program is going to be clean. We set the goal of zero to one, sometimes up to two mistakes in a competition. It’s about the whole package.”
In the spring, McLaughlin and Brubaker left longtime coach Dalilah Sappenfield in Colorado Springs, and sought the tutelage of John Nicks in Aliso Viejo, Calif.
“It has been an honor to work with Mr. Nicks,” said Brubaker. “He has the experience and the talent to help a team reach their goals. The biggest change this season has been in our training habits. We have been training much more efficiently in practices, and feel that we are preparing ourselves much better for this upcoming year. This has really helped us get off to a good start this year so far.”
McLaughlin and Brubaker will skate to an instrumental version of Unchained Melody for the short program, and will tackle the music from the soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire for their free skate.
The much anticipated return of the Russian team Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov to the international scene will finally happen in Russia. The duo has been serving out a suspension for a doping violation by Larionov that kept them out of competition for 18 months.
Little is known about the progress of the 2007 Junior World silver medalists, but an invitation to this event speaks volumes about their federation’s confidence in them as a team. As such, Bazarova and Larionov are the dark horses in this event, and could surprise everyone with a medal winning performance in their home country.
Canadians Mylène Brodeur and John Mattatall typically skate credible programs in all of their competitions, and have an outside shot at winning a medal in Moscow. The Canadian bronze medalists defeated the Americans at the World Championships in Los Angeles, so bettering them here would not be uncharted territory.
Rounding out the roster are the Estonian team of Maria Sergejeva and Ilja Glebov (17th, 2009 World Championships), Nicole Della Monica and Yannick Kocon of Italy (18th, 2009 World Championships), and Anastasia Martiusheva and Alexei Rogonov from Russia (2nd, 2009 Junior World Championships).
The ice dance competition could have been the scene of one of the most intriguing match ups of the Grand Prix this season, but it was not meant to be. Originally, current World Champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin from Russia were to face off against the young American team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White who placed fourth at the same championships last season.
The Russians have not competed in a full season of international events since their 2006-07 campaign, mostly because of Shabalin’s chronic knee problems, and last week the duo withdrew from the Grand Prix circuit this season for the same reason. With the announcement, Davis and White become the clear favorites to claim the title in Moscow.
The American champions have planned an interesting Original Dance for this season, and look forward to presenting a different side of themselves with the program.
“Marina Zueva brought the idea of skating to an Indian folk dance,” White explained. “After doing a bit of research, we realized how different and fun this program could be. We worked with a traditional Indian dance specialist and immediately fell in love with our choice. I think our enjoyment of the program really shines through when we perform it.”
Davis added: “Charlie and I began working with an Indian Folk dancer in Ann Arbor, where we attend school at the University of Michigan. We explained to the direction that we wanted to do with our OD and she brought in some pieces of music for us to listen to. We worked on and off the ice with her all summer, learning different types of Indian dance, and developing the unique feel that is so characteristic of Indian dance. With what we learned, Marina and Igor (Shpilband) were able to put together a program that we’re very excited about and really enjoy performing.”
The duo settled on a childhood favorite for their Free Dance.
“Meryl and I have been fans of the Phantom of the Opera since we were both very young,” White admitted. “The music really speaks to both of us. It’s been a really great fit, and we have a great feeling about how it has come together.”
Even though the World Champions will not be present, the ambitious skaters’ goals have not changed.
“We (were) prepared to go up against the World champs, but do not plan on changing our plan according to who our fellow competitors may be,” said a confident Davis. “We always go into competition with the focus on ourselves, and Cup of Russia won’t be any different.”
Chasing the Americans is a crop of up and comers who are hungry for international success, and could make for a very interesting competition for the silver medals.
Leading the way is the Italian team of Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte who placed 10th at the World Championships in Los Angeles last season. The duo has been on the cusp of a break through on the Grand Prix for several seasons, and even won a silver medal at Skate Canada in 2007.
Cappellini and Lanotte have a selected an Italian-themed Original Dance, choosing to skate to Rossini’s lively patter song La Danza and De Curtis’s romantic Torna a Surriento. In stark contrast, Cappellini and Lanotte will skate an addiction-themed Free Dance to music from the soundtrack of Requiem for a Dream.
With Domnina and Shabalin’s withdrawal, the Italians are essentially the number two seed in the event. Winning the silver medal could set the duo up for a potential trip to the Grand Prix Final, but the Italians will have to hold off a charge from the Canadian silver medalists Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier, who have been climbing the international ranks quite rapidly.
The 2008 Junior World silver medalists burst on to the senior international scene last season by winning the silver medal in their first Grand Prix event in Canada. Crone and Poirier followed that up with an impressive fourth place finish in Paris before earning their first trip to the World Championships where the placed 12th. This season, Crone and Poirier are motivated to do even better.
“We have been working on improving everything we learned from last season,” Crone said. “We just hope to be able to do three clean performances and skate to our best ability. We know that we can accomplish that, and hope for our season’s best to be higher than last year’s.”
Crone and Poirier will skate a flamenco-themed Original Dance, and have selected an instrumental version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for their Free Dance.
The Lithuanian tandem of Katherine Copely and Deividas Stagniunas will be returning to Moscow for the third consecutive season, which the team sees as an advantage.
“With each visit to Moscow we have become more familiar with the city, the rink and restaurants,” Copely noted. “It almost feels like home – a very comfortable competition atmosphere.”
Copely and Stagniunas have finished as high as fifth at this event, and could improve upon that this season with two new programs that they feel will stand out in the competition.
“Our costumes and music for our Original Dance are traditional Lithuanian,” said the American-born Copely. “The upbeat polka tempos make this dance fun to perform. Not many people are familiar with Lithuanian culture and we are honored to introduce it to the skating world.”
Copely continued: “In our Free Dance we are portraying Tony and Maria from West Side Story. This music has always been a favorite of mine and I think it is well suited to our skating style.”
A trio of Russian teams could find success on home ice, but will have a difficult time challenging the favorites for medals. However, a trip to the Olympics might be on the line as each of these teams has an equal opportunity to get a head start in claiming Russia’s third Olympic berth.
The new team of Ekaterina Riazanova and Ilia Tkachenko seem to be the most poised to place well in Moscow. Riazanova won the Junior Worlds bronze medal last season, while her partner won the same medal in 2005. In their international debut, Riazanova and Tkachenko narrowly lost out to the Lithuanians for the bronze medal, but looked impressive nevertheless.
The duo will skate a traditional Russian Original Dance that will likely be received well by the home crowd, and could push them ahead of Copely and Stagniunas. Their Free Dance is to the soundtrack to the film Master and Magarita, based on the Mikhail Bulgakov novel.
World Championship competitors Ekaterina Rubleva and Ivan Shefer have slowly improved on the Grand Prix over the past two seasons, but only placed as high as sixth at Skate America last season. The Russian silver medalists have the upper hand in experience, but it seems that Riazanova and Tkachenko have more potential for success in the long run.
The third Russian team, Anastasia Platonova and Alexander Grachev were just added to the roster replacing the World Champions. Last week in Finland, Platonova and Grachev won the silver medal with a competition score that is higher than either of their teammates’ personal best, and they could be the Russian team to watch in Moscow.
Lucie Mysliveckova and Matej Novak of the Czech Republic (21st, 2009 World Championships), the brother-and-sister team of Carolina Hermann and Daniel Hermann of Germany (17th, 2009 World Championships), and Alla Beknazarova and Vladimir Zuev of the Ukraine (13th, 2009 European Championships) round out the roster.