The United States will be hosting the International Skating Union (ISU) World Figure Skating Championships for the first time since 2003 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The event begins on March 24th with a record 216 skaters representing 52 nations. In addition, three countries (Montenegro, Ireland, and Brazil) are making their ISU World Championship debut.
The ISU World Championships are always an important competition, but in the year before the Olympics, skaters compete to earn their country spots to compete in the following year’s Olympic Games. With that added pressure, this event should provide for a dramatic week of triumphs and disappointments.
The ladies competition could be the most tightly contested battle of this World Championships with a handful of ladies who have the potential to rock the house if they skate up to their abilities.
After finishing in third place in her first two trips to the World Championships, Korea’s Yu-Na Kim seems poised to make the jump from also-ran to gold medalist this season. Though the Four Continents Champion has yet to be perfect in any competition thus far, there is a sense that Kim is building to something special in Los Angeles.
In Vancouver, Kim’s short program was so head and shoulders above any other that she was able to finish third in the free skate and still win the title. When she is on, Kim is mesmerizing, and when she is off, she is still superior to most of the field.
Kim’s friendly rival, Mao Asada of Japan has had some great moments combined with some lackluster moments this season. As the reigning World Champion, Asada has often skated with the burden of that title on her shoulders, and has succumbed to the pressure that many champions have discussed in the past.
Asada narrowly defeated Kim at the Grand Prix Final, but at the Four Continents Championships, she skated a horrible short program and finished third overall behind Kim. Anything but another title will be a disappointment for Asada, but she will have to skate two consistent programs in order to challenge Kim.
Canada’s Joannie Rochette has been quietly improving from season to season, and is finally beginning to make a dramatic splash on the international scene. Fresh off winning two titles on the Grand Prix circuit last fall, as well as a silver medal at the Four Continents Championships, Rochette looks like she is ready to compete for a medal on the World stage.
The five-time Canadian champ has added technical difficulty to her programs this season, and continues to push herself artistically from one competition to the next. Should either Kim or Asada falter, Rochette will be there to benefit from their misfortune, and could defeat them even if they don’t make a mistake.
Reigning silver medalist Carolina Kostner has been plagued with inconsistency this season, making errors in just about every competition that she has entered. As a result, the Italian Champion lost her European title this year, and her personal best is more than 20 points less than either Kim’s or Asada’s. Kostner is usually rewarded with high program component scores, however, she will have to land all of her triple jumps to be in contention for a spot on the podium.
Switzerland’s Sarah Meier has been struggling with a back injury all season, making only two early-season appearances that were somewhat disappointing. Last year’s surprise European silver medalist is a beautiful skater that would be a joy to see again in the top six, and only time will tell if her back will be able to stand up to the rigors of competition.
Japan’s Miki Ando is the 2007 World Champion, but she has been dealing with injuries that have stagnated her career in recent seasons. Ando has all of the technical goods to be competitive with the top skaters, but often lacks the confidence to breakthrough to the top level once again. The Japanese Federation kept Ando home from the Four Continents Championships in order to give another skater competition experience, and it will be interesting to see how her skating has progressed since the Grand Prix season.
European Champion Laura Lepisto of Finland may not have a shot at the podium, but she is developing into a tough competitor that could make waves should the favorites falter.
Former World silver medalist Fumie Suguri looks to make a glorious return to the World scene after a two-year absence. Suguri is a longshot for the podium, but is a hard worker with years of experience that could help her if she is in contention.
Canada’s Cynthia Phaneuf and Americans Alissa Czisney and Rachael Flatt, who round out the top 10, will have their hands full with this field.
The roster of men competing at the World Championships is void of four of the top five finishers from last season and five of the top ten. Reigning champion Jeffrey Buttle of Canada has retired, bronze medalist Johnny Weir of the U.S. failed to qualify for the competition, fourth place finisher Daisuke Takahashi of Japan has been absent the entire season due to injury, and former World champ and fifth place finisher Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland has also retired.
So with the field depleted of so much talent, one might expect the competition to be quite poor. France’s Brian Joubert, the reigning silver medalist could be seen as the obvious favorite, but several skaters have made dramatic improvements since last year, and Joubert will have to fight hard just to make the podium.
Joubert is making his eighth appearance at the World Championships, and is looking to medal in his fourth consecutive season. The 2007 World Champion started off the season with a disappointing fourth place finish at Trophée Eric Bompard, but rebounded to win Cup of Russia the following week. He then headed to the Grand Prix Final, but had to withdraw after the short program when he sustained a back injury.
Joubert headed to the European Championships as a big question mark, but was able to win his third title quite handily. The pre-event buzz here is that Joubert is nursing yet another injury, but he somehow manages to pull together strong performances when he needs to.
Canada’s Patrick Chan is perhaps the most improved skater of the season, winning both of his Grand Prix events before struggling at the Final where his triple Axel went missing in action. However, he rebounded at his own national championships, and went on to destroy the competition at the Four Continents Championships.
Everything that the two-time Canadian champ does is first rate, but if his triple Axel escapes him here, he will struggle to remain competitive. Chan has earned the highest score of the season thus far, some 12 points higher than his closest competition, and poses the most serious threat to Joubert’s charge for a second crown.
After missing last year’s championships due to injury, USA’s Evan Lysacek returned to the international scene in disappointing fashion. He missed the Grand Prix Final as he was only able to manage two bronze medals in his qualifying events, and then he struggled to finish third at his national championships – his worst finish in five years.
Heading into the Four Continents Championships, many counted Lysacek out of the mix, and focused their attention on the newly-crowned U.S. Champion, Jeremy Abbott. As Abbott struggled, Lysacek quietly pulled together his personal best total in the event, and took home the silver medal ahead of both skaters who defeated him at home. Lysacek is still rebuilding his skating momentum, and a medal here would give him some much needed confidence heading into the Olympic season.
With the absence of Takahashi, eyes are beginning to turn towards his teammate Takahiko Kozuka as the next great hope for his nation. Kozuka has been consistently strong all season, winning Skate America and harvesting silver at Trophée Eric Bompard to earn his first trip to the Grand Prix Final. At the Final, Kozuka shocked even himself by winning the silver medal, and followed that up with a bronze medal at the Four Continents Championships.
Kozuka has everything that one could ask for in a skater: great basics, interesting choreography, and difficult technical elements, but at times, Kozuka gets lost in the moment and makes mistakes. The Japanese silver medalist will have to bring his A-game to be a legitimate contender for a medal here.
Abbott will be competing in his second World Championships, and he has created a lot of buzz about his chances for a medal with a shocking win at the Grand Prix Final in December.
After several seasons of wasted potential, Abbott seems to have his nerves in check, and followed up his win at the Final with his first national title. The Jeremy Abbott of old showed up at the Four Continents Championships, however, placing a disappointing fifth. He will have to skate like he did in Korea to mount a charge for the podium, however, after an 11th place finish at last year’s championships, a top five finish would be a victory for Abbott.
Belgium’s Kevin van der Perren always seems to be in the hunt for medals at the big events, and could challenge the top men should any of them make mistakes. Van der Perren does not have a lot to offer between the major elements of his skating, but his super consistent jumps often propel him onto the podium.
After struggling with injuries and disappointing finishes on the Grand Prix this season, van der Perren pulled it together at the European Championships, earning the bronze medal. All of the top skaters should be looking over their shoulders for van der Perren, but without mistakes from them, he will not be a factor.
The surprise of the season thus far has been the resurgence of former French competitor and now Italian Samuel Contesti. This season, he made his first trip to the European Championships since 2005, making a big splash by winning the silver medal. Contesti offers strong jumps and a different look than any other of the top skaters on the ice, and could play the role of spoiler for any of the top skaters even if they skate well.
Russia’s Sergei Voronov, along with Joubert’s teammate Yannick Ponsero and the Czech Republic’s Tomas Verner should round out the top ten. Canada’s Vaughn Chipeur, USA’s Brandon Mroz, and Japan’s Nobunari Oda could also be dark horses in this competition.
The pair’s competition features a number of teams that could challenge for podium finishes even if the skating itself is not of the highest quality. No single duo has dominated the international scene this year, and that could provide the backdrop for a dramatic event with some surprises at the top of the leader board.
The obvious favorites heading in to the event are the current World Champions Aljona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany. The three-time European champions have perhaps the most interesting programs in the world, somehow mastering the art of blending their stories within the difficult task of earning points in the new judging system.
However, inconsistency often mars Savchenko and Szolkowy’s programs, and if other teams hold it together, the German champs will be vulnerable as evidenced by their third place finish at the Grand Prix Final this season.
After a disappointing season last year, China’s Qing Pang and Jian Tong are coming on strong heading into this competition. With three international wins this season, including the Grand Prix Final and the Four Continents Championships, the 2006 World Champions have the competitive mettle to stand atop the podium once again.
After struggling with injuries that affected her ability to land her jumps, Pang is on the mend and is looking stronger than ever. Two clean performances by Pang and Tong should easily unseat the Germans, but they will have to also contend with other teams that are beginning to show signs of greatness as well. One of those teams are countrymen Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang.
Zhang and Zhang, however, appear to be having issues in relating to each other on and off the ice this season. Dan Zhang has been looking completely disinterested as she skates her programs – perhaps as a result of injuries that have been plaguing the Four Continents bronze medalists. It appears that the team just don’t execute their elements with their typical amplitude and flair. Should the reigning World silver medalists present programs like they did at the Four Continents Championships, they may not make the podium.
Russia’s Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov are perhaps the most dangerous skaters on the international scene at the moment. The young duo has a short program that could be remembered as one of the best in history, but the European bronze medalists have just not been able to deliver in the free skate.
However, the quality of each element that the 2007 Russian champs executes is first rate. Without error, there is nobody in the world who can challenge the European bronze medalists.
Teammates Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov are another up-and-coming team that is starting to win international medals rather consistently. After narrowly missing the World Championship’s podium last season, team has medaled in each of their events save the Grand Prix Final. However, the Russian Champions have a tendency to get clumsy at times in their programs, and this could result in their downfall.
The defending bronze medalists, Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison of Canada, have had an up and down season, missing the Grand Prix Final, but winning the silver medal at the Four Continents Championships last month. The Canadian champs are beginning to gel as a team artistically, but they are sometimes held back with one or two major errors in a competition. With clean skating, this team could easily repeat as medalists as they are perhaps the most balletic team on the international scene at the moment. However, even one major mistake will likely keep them off the podium in this tight field.
Ukraine’s Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov have an outside shot at a medal after having their best international season to date. Fourth place finishes at the Grand Prix Final and the European Championships should not only provide the confidence that this team needs, but should also have them salivating for a medal after coming so close.
Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Craig Buntin, as well as American champs Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, will challenge for the top five, but each team will need to be at the top of their game to be major players in this field.
The way that things have been going in the world of ice dance this season, the medals podium could be comprised of skaters who were simply able to remain healthy in all phases of the competition.
Already reigning World Champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France have withdrawn in order for Delobel to properly heal from shoulder surgery she had just a few weeks ago. Last year’s silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada sat out the fall season after Virtue had surgery on both of her legs, and the duo struggled at the Four Continents Championships last month.
The fourth place finishers from last year’s championships, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto of the U.S. are coming back after an injury to Agosto’s back that forced the team to withdraw from the Grand Prix Final and robbed them of a chance to compete for their fifth consecutive US title.
With each of these teams nursing injuries this season, it has propelled the reigning bronze medalists, Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski of Russia into the role of favorites. A very fiery and passionate team on the ice, Khokhlova and Novitski are the newly crowned European Champions. The team is taking advantage of a depleted field, but are not winning by default. The Russian champions are finally out of the shadow of their teammates Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, and earning scores that could win a World title.
Like many of the other top teams, Domnina and Shabalin have also been plagued with injuries, but for much longer than the others. Shabalin has been dealing with knee issues for a couple of seasons now, and even had to skip this competition last season. At the beginning of this season, the 2008 European Champions returned to competition, but looked as though the injury had taken its toll on their competitive nerve.
Domnina and Shabalin recovered to win the silver medal at the Grand Prix Final, but were forced to with draw from the European Championships after Shabalin injured himself in a fall during the Compulsory Dance. This competition is “do or die” time for the team, as they risk losing any momentum that they have created in the last couple of seasons. A poor showing here could prove to be too much to overcome in the long term.
Virtue and Moir are a huge question mark in this competition. The Canadian champs certainly have the technical prowess to win a World title, but Virtue’s confidence seems to be shattered by her injury. Virtue fought for every element at the Four Continents Championships, and received constant medical attention off-ice throughout the week. This competition could be a matter of just not having enough time to recover from the injury to properly train their programs. However, if there is any team that will come out fighting, it will be this young duo.
Belbin and Agosto made a coaching change in the off-season, and had hoped to start dominating their competition with improved basics this season. Though the five-time U.S. Champs barely qualified for the Grand Prix Final, they amassed the highest point total of any team heading into that competition.
After getting injured at the Final, Belbin and Agosto were questionable for the World Championships, but were cleared to compete just recently after being monitored by U.S. Figure Skating. Should they be in the form that they were earlier in the season, Belbin and Agosto could pose a serious threat to the win the title this season.
Like Khokhlova and Novitski, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White have also been thrust into the spotlight this season. After winning their first Grand Prix title in Canada, Davis and White went on to qualify for and win the bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final. A win at the U.S. Championships, and then at the Four Continents Championships, should give Davis and White the push that they need to challenge for the World podium.
Davis and White skate difficult and entertaining programs, and are being rewarded with high scores. A medal here would be a huge triumph for them, and is definitely within reach.
Should any of these teams make mistakes, withdraw, or show up unprepared, Italians Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali, the European silver medalists, are poised to step into the role of spoiler. Great Britain’s Sinead Kerr and John Kerr have won medals in every event that they entered this season, and are hungry for success on the Worlds stage. Meanwhile, France’s Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat have been quietly mounting a campaign of their own for a World medal, and could find themselves in the hunt with their superior free dance.