Russian Nationals Men’s Recap: The Great Chelyabinsk Splatfest of 2016

The men were a hot mess at Russian Nationals, which makes for fun viewing in the moment but lingering worry in the long run.

Mikhail Kolyada performs his free skate at the 2016 NHK Trophy
Mikhail Kolyada’s free skate at the NHK Trophy, because I am having a beast of a time finding photos from Nationals.

Russia has more talent in men’s singles than it knows what to do with, but the Russian men’s program is going through a bit of a disaster phase. Despite a long history as a powerhouse of men’s skating, Russia only got to send one man to the 2014 Olympics, and they’ve only scraped their way back to two World Championships slots since. No Russian man even came close to qualifying for the senior-level Grand Prix Final; it was the only discipline with no Russians present. Russian guys cleaned up in juniors, winning four of the seven Junior Grand Prix events and barely missing out on a podium sweep at the Junior Grand Prix Final, and they had plenty of success on the Challenger Series circuit. But at the highest level of competition, Russia keeps falling short.

One big problem is consistency. Many of the top Russians have beautiful quad jumps on their best days, but those quads are so unreliable that any successful attempt feels like a pleasant surprise. While Russian coaches seem to have taken some measures to address poor stamina, there are still too many guys who fizzle out after the second minute of their free skate. The Russian team has also had to adjust to more rigorous program components scoring; gone are the days when Evgeni Plushenko could jump and wink his way to Olympic gold with scarcely any challenging transitional moves. All of these factors justified a rebuilding period, but we’re now at the point where the construction delays are cause for concern. The men were a hot mess at Russian Nationals, which makes for fun viewing in the moment but lingering worry in the long run.

The first great performance of the men’s free skate was a redemption moment. Alexey Erokhov seemed to come out of nowhere when he won bronze this autumn at the first international competition of his career, the Junior Grand Prix Yokohama. But he withdrew from his other JGP assignment, and he’d been struggling with injuries and illness throughout the year. In his short program, Erokhov fell on his triple Axel and settled into 13th place, but he fought back hard, climbing all the way to 7th in the free skate and 10th overall. He led off his free skate with a lovely quad toe loop and a pair of clean triple Axels that showed his short program mistake was the exception, not the rule. If he wants to rise up the ranks, he’ll need to develop some more challenging choreography and present himself with a more refined, less “juniors-y” style. Still, he was clearly a class above the other men in the early groups.

The rest of the lower-ranked skaters couldn’t match Erokhov’s technical success, although a few compensated for less difficult jumps with high entertainment value. Murad Kurbanov showed up to the free skate in an electric blue suit with a white tie and knee socks and mugged deliciously to the soundtrack from Django Unchained. Ilia Skirda, the pint-sized 14-year-old who was this season’s most unexpected Junior Grand Prix Final qualifier, doesn’t compete a triple Axel yet, but his “Mr. Bojangles” short program kept its charm.

A number of relatively big names got stuck skating in the second of the three free skate warm-up groups. They served as a collective reminder that you can’t win it in the short program, but you can certainly lose it in the short. Dmitri Aliev is usually more liable to ace the short and throw it away in the free skate – that’s how he missed the podium at last season’s Junior Worlds – but at Nationals this year, he was shaky in both programs. Aliev challenged himself with a planned quad toe loop in his short program, only to double it, an error that marred what was a strong technical performance otherwise. His quad in the free skate was a stunner, though, and he hit the signature knee slide to triple flip that he missed at the Junior Grand Prix Final a couple of weeks ago. It was the easy stuff he screwed up on: a stumble on some transitional footwork, then a weird fall on a routine triple loop that sent him sliding across the ice on his chest. At his best, Aliev is a preternaturally elegant skater, with deep edges and superior core control. It was unusual to see him get so rattled, losing the character of his music and the flow of his programs. Nonetheless, the good outweighed the bad for Aliev, and he wound up with the 4th-best free skate and a 5th-place overall finish.

Last year’s surprise bronze medalist, Alexander Petrov, couldn’t repeat the feat, but he proved that he’s among the best in Russia even without a quad. A doubled lutz in an otherwise confident short program stuck him in 9th place, but in a virtual tie with Aliev and Maxim Kovtun. In the end, it was Petrov’s simpler technical content that held him to 6th place overall. His triple Axels were pristine throughout, but he kept losing speed on his landings, which prevented him from executing a triple-triple combination at any point in the competition. At no point was Petrov a disaster; he just left too many points on the table. The big positive takeaway was his components score. Petrov isn’t a flashy skater, but he’s smooth and composed. This weekend was the first time I’ve seen him rewarded justly for his quality of movement and his engagement with the music.

The most successful of the middle warm-up comeback kids was Maxim Kovtun, but that’s cold comfort for a three-time defending National Champion who lost his title. In his short program, he barely saved his quad salchow, then doubled a planned quad toe loop, missing his intended jump combination. His reputation and an engaging performance earned him high enough components scores for a 7th-place short program, although he had only the 11th highest technical score in the segment. A few months ago, I watched Kovtun recover from a similar nightmare at Skate America, and at Nationals, his free skate redemption was more thorough. He opened with a near-perfect quad salchow, followed by an equally excellent quad toe loop, as if to prove that he really can deliver both jumps under pressure. Kovtun’s stamina failed later in the program – he doubled a loop and received an uncharacteristic level 2 for his step sequence – but those gorgeous quads brought him the second-highest free skate score of the day. It was enough to snag him a bronze medal and a trip to the European Championships, but not enough to reduce the widespread perception that Kovtun’s star is fading.

Three of the six men in the final warm-up group of the free skate followed decent short programs with free skate disasters. Almost everyone made errors in the short, but bold technical choices from Artur Dmitriev Jr. and Anton Shulepov set them apart in the first round. Dmitriev’s quad toe loop-triple toe loop was a wonky mess, but he stood up on it and his other jumps, which was good enough for 5th. Unfortunately, his quad toe abandoned him in the free skate, and with little in his arsenal to make up for two failed stabs at his hardest jump, Dmitriev fell to 10th in the free skate and 8th overall. Dmitriev finished near the bottom of the standings at both of his Grand Prix assignments this year, and this poor showing at Nationals puts an ugly capstone on a rough season.

Shulepov sought attention with quad lutz attempts in both programs and actually stood up on the one in his free skate, although he lost credit for underrotation. He opened his short program with a fall, but the rest was one of the highlights of that messy morning. Even more than for his excellent triple Axel, but Shulepov stood out for his elegantly frenetic movement style. He was also the only man among the top 10 in the short program to achieve level 4s on all his spins. Shulepov also deserves credit for his music choice, Benjamin Clementine’s “Nemesis,” which makes him maybe the second skater ever to cause me to purchase a song on the spot. Sadly, he couldn’t ride his momentum into the free skate. His opening quad lutz and a punishing fall on a triple Axel-half loop-triple flip attempt sapped all his energy, leaving him gasping for most of the second half. He couldn’t even complete his final combination spin. He finished 9th in the free skate and overall. Fortunately, a pair of senior B silver medals earlier in the season should keep him on the Russian Federation’s radar.

Sergei Voronov‘s free skate implosion was even more disheartening. Throughout the season, Voronov has shown impressive stamina and jumping power for a skater pushing 30. He took home a surprise gold medal at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial and a bronze in a tough field at the Cup of China. In his short program, Voronov seemed poised to continue his remarkable season, opening with a brilliant quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination and earning the third-highest score. He began his free skate with another gorgeous quad toe, but it was all downhill from there. A fall on his second quad attempt seemed to rattle him, and he popped his next two jumps. Voronov tumbled out of medal contention, settling for a sad 7th place and one of the lowest technical scores in the entire field. The ESPN commentators immediately predicted Voronov’s retirement, although this poor performance in the wake of a strong international season ought to motivate him to push through and take one final shot at qualifying for the Olympics.

This season’s surprise Nationals superstar was Andrei Lazukin. He didn’t shake up the established order as much as Kolyada and Petrov did last year, but with one of the few clean short programs in the event, Lazukin showed that he has something few other Russian men do: consistency. He landed clean quad toe loops in both his short program and free skate, as well as all three of the triple Axels he attempted. His only major error, a fall on a triple loop in his free skate, looked like a giddy lapse in concentration once he’d realized he was in medal contention. Before this season, he’d never placed higher than 13th. It’s easy to see why he’d never made an impression in the past: he’s not much of an artist, to the point where the ESPN commentators cracked jokes about his blank face. Hopefully, his fourth place finish – and the international assignments it will surely bring in the autumn – will give him the confidence and drive to develop that side of his skating.

A few weeks ago, writing about the Junior Grand Prix Final for The Judges’ Table, I predicted that Aliev would have a breakthrough performance at Nationals and go directly to senior Worlds. It turns out I had the right idea but the wrong promising junior man. Fresh off a silver medal at the JGPF (not to mention a pair of Junior Grand Prix golds and a win at the Volvo Open), Alexander Samarin continued his streak of successes with a silver medal in Chelyabinsk. In the past, given classical warhorses and bland movie soundtracks to work with, he seemed to lack artistic talent, but a pair of rock and roll programs have brought out his personality and made his technical prowess shine. The quad toe loop in Samarin’s short program was shaky, but he hung on, and the rest was exceptional, showing off beautiful technique in his triple lutz-triple toe loop and nailing the difficult steps out of his triple Axel. What should have been an insane music choice turns out to have been an inspired one; Samarin captured its wild bravado in his performance, and the song’s speed and rhythm seemed to help his timing. In his free skate, too, a strong rock beat aided Samarin both artistically and technically. I’ve said before that Samarin is a compelling argument for just letting athletes skate to music they like, and the strategy continues to bring him fantastic results.

But no one came close to the now-unrivaled king of Russian men’s figure skating, Mikhail Kolyada. While his victory at Nationals was widely hoped for, at least among fans on the internet, it was hardly a sure thing: he missed the podium at all three of his international events this season. Granted, he’s struggled because he’s been shooting for the moon, ramping up his technical difficulty to stay competitive. Kolyada was imperfect at Nationals, too, but he looked comfortable in his skin for the first time all season. I haven’t seen him skate his short program this confidently since he won my heart at 2016 Worlds, and it was almost impeccable, save for some slightly forward landings that the judges all but ignored. If I have a gripe about his short program – a welcome repeat from last year – it’s that the jumps are too telegraphed, without enough transitional moves. Other than that, it’s a masterpiece and a delight, especially when Kolyada is feeling its zaniness like he clearly was last weekend.

Kolyada opened his free skate with a fall, but he shook it off with such finesse that it almost looked like part of the choreography. In a way, it was: Kolyada’s quad lutz is so not ready for prime time that I can only assume he’s including it to prove it’s in development. For the first time, he earned full rotation credit for it, and indeed, it was gorgeous in the air, with a clear entrance edge and loads of height. The real program began after his second quad, though, as he emoted in and out of a textbook triple Axel-triple toe loop combination. Kolyada isn’t breaking new artistic ground with this season’s free skate, and I’m counting down the minutes until the internet demands a “serious” or “mature” program from him. To some extent, the criticism would be misplaced, as Kolyada’s most valuable role in the sport is to keep men’s figure skating wacky. He has a rare, sui generis gift for translating his sense of humor onto the ice, and I’d hate to see him bottle that up. As I rewatch his programs, I’m put in mind of the late Robin Williams, whose best film roles were the ones where he channeled his madcap energy into drama. I hope that Kolyada’s next artistic move is his Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting, a program that says something profound while taking advantage of his comedian’s soul.

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