2017 Asian Winter Games Recap: Triumph of the Improv Quad

It is lovely to finally have time to write about figure skating. In terms of relevant blogging, I missed the window on the European and Four Continents Championships, although I watched both and had very strong opinions at the time, most of which have been swept out of my memory in a mixture of mounting job responsibilities and dread for the future of my country. But I took a break last weekend to watch the men’s free skate at the Asian Winter Games, and during the week, I caught up enough on the ladies’ event to say a few words about that, too. So here are my hot takes, while they’re still lukewarm.

The Asian Winter Games is an oddity among skating events. Held every four years, it’s a sort of mini-Olympics for Asian athletes. In addition to figure skating, there’s curling, snowboarding, ice hockey, and more. Because it took place only a week after Four Continents this year, a lot of the bigger names in figure skating sat it out, especially those nursing injuries: Yuzuru Hanyu, Satoko Miyahara, Wakaba Higuchi, and Wenjing Sui and Cong Han all rested instead of making the trip to Sapporo. On the other hand, because the AWG doesn’t require minimum technical scores, it included skaters from countries we don’t normally associate with the sport. In the men’s event, the crowd clapped encouragingly for an Indian skater as he struggled with double jumps. Tumblr giddily shared photos of Zahra Lari of the United Arab Emirates, whose costumes beautifully incorporated a hijab. North Koreans Tae Ok Ryom and Ju Sik Kim took bronze in an otherwise predictable pairs event. Australians placed fifth in both ladies’ and men’s singles, a promising development for a country that has put some resources into being taken seriously in the sport.

That fifth-place finish, by Kailani Craine, spoke more to the messiness of the ladies’ event than to Craine’s accomplishments. Few athletes at the AWG were more consistent than Craine. She lost some credit on her jumps for underrotations and incorrect takeoff edges, but she made no major errors in either program. And while she doesn’t have the difficulty to compete with the skaters at the very top, technically or artistically, Craine was more committed to her music than anyone else in the field. She was, above all, fun.

Less fun was Rika Hongo, the sole Japanese lady, who held onto second place in the short program despite a fall, almost entirely on the basis of her program components. But even Hongo’s superior performance quality and challenging choreography couldn’t save her in the free skate: she popped four jumps, barely stayed on her feet through two other landings, and generally brought her underwhelming season to an ignominious end.

Hongo’s mirror image in the short program was China’s Ziquan Zhao, who finished a surprise third in the segment. She began and ended strong, with an effortless triple toe loop-triple toe loop and a graceful Biellmann spin, but the middle fully accounted for the big gap between her components score and Hongo’s. She struggled to build speed and maintain edge control in her steps, and although her delicate music suited her, she connected so little to it that it seemed incidental. Still, it would have pleased me to see this talented but inconsistent skater snag a medal. Unfortunately, inconsistency got ahead of talent in Zhao’s free skate. She fell on her two most difficult jumping passes, placing a miserable 10th in the segment and a disappointing 7th overall.

While Zhao and Hongo unraveled, two ladies with so-so short programs rallied onto the podium. Elizabet Tursynbaeva, the tiny powerhouse from Kazakhstan, popped the opening lutz in her short program, leaving her with an invalid element and a low, but not insurmountable, score. That lutz dogged Tursynbaeva again in the free skate, although she rotated it. She looked a bit rattled in the spins that followed, but she found her composure in the second half of the program, earning bonus points for all three of her jump combinations. Earlier in the season, Tursynbaeva’s Princess Mononoke program had gotten the best of her artistically, but in those last two minutes, she found the wolf-riding forest warrior within. She rose from 6th in the short program to an overall bronze medal.

Zijun Li didn’t rebound as hugely after the short program as Tursynbaeva did, but she didn’t have to. Both of her programs looked clean at first glance, so her silver-medal finish probably disappointed her fans. But Li fell prey to her usual picky technical problems: she suffered three underrotation deductions in her free skate, plus an edge call on her triple lutz. To my eye, the judges were generous about Li’s rotations, if anything. That lutz looked like a full downgrade to me – she began her rotation before taking off, either a symptom or the cause of her edge problem – and I wasn’t sure about the triple flip late in her program, either. Nonetheless, Li gave a beautiful, understated performance, a reminder that for some skaters, simplicity and elegance is personal style.

Not that you’d know any of this from the incompetent commentary on the YouTube stream. Twitter was on fire with ridicule, posting screenshots of Wikipedia pages being read out verbatim and begging the organizers to hire Ted Barton next time. There was an alternative commentary-free stream linked from the event website, but I was apparently one of a minority of viewers who got it to work.

I can’t say whether the Korean commentary was better, although it was certainly ecstatic as Dabin Choi ran away with the gold medal. She came out just short of perfection in her free skate, with some weirdness on a relatively easy triple salchow late in the program. Her big-ticket jumps were extraordinary, though, especially the giant triple lutz-triple toe loop that opened her graceful free skate. Earlier in the season, most fans wrote Choi off, as she placed near the bottom of the rankings at both of her Grand Prix events and missed the podium at South Korean Nationals. She’s roared back in the post-season, however. A week ago, she came in fifth at Four Continents with a career-best score, and she outdid herself again in Sapporo.

In terms of components, Choi has a lot to work on; her innate musicality and stage presence shine, but she doesn’t yet have the skating skills to build momentum through intricate moves or enter her elements from challenging transitions. Her performance potential was clearer in her short program – an of-the-moment medley of songs from Steven Universe and La La Land – but copyright jerks have eradicated it from the internet. Her Dr. Zhivago free skate is safe and conventional in comparison, but there’s more than a little Michelle Kwan in Choi’s body lines. And in a competition rife with rotation errors, Choi’s jump technique stood out as uncommonly secure. She launched far higher into the air than the other ladies, then rotated so fast that she has extra time to return to the ice. In the past, Choi has seemed to overwhelm herself with her own power, losing control of her rotation. It’s not clear whether she has that problem squared away for good, but her success this weekend was a major breakthrough nonetheless.

The men

The ladies’ event got ugly, but it didn’t hold a candle to the carnival of mishaps that was the men’s event. With the exception of Yuzuru Hanyu and Keiji Tanaka, the best Asian men were all in attendance, and that seemed to inspire them to go for broke. Among the top contenders, nobody came close to a clean performance, as they fell, popped, and flailed their way through punishing technical content and exhausting attempts at components upgrades. In the end, gold was decided by the slimmest of margins, and every fan watching the live stream had a bone to pick with some aspect of the results.

The biggest nightmare of the weekend was Denis Ten. Three years after his Olympic bronze medal, he’s looked decidedly past his prime this season, even at the events where he’s skated well. Injuries and a coaching change have interrupted his training this season, and it showed not only in an abundance of jump errors but in his disengaged performances. Ten landed only one clean jump in his free skate, a late triple lutz that came as a relief, and finished an undignified tenth overall.

The most confident free skate came from a relative unknown, Malaysia’s Julian Zhi Jie Yee. He has such a gift for captivating a crowd that at Worlds last spring, spectators booed his relatively low short program scores. That charisma doesn’t translate to program components, and in terms of skating skills and transitions, that’s justified. Yee’s choreography is noticeably simpler and more open than many others’. I do wish the judges would give him more love for interpretation and performance, though, and they’re starting to; a few brave judges gave him 8.00’s in those categories. Until Yee masters a quad, he won’t rise above his status as a noble mid-lister, but even that is a major achievement for the first Malaysian to make any kind of mark on the sport.

Uzbekistan’s Misha Ge rebounded from a messy short program with a nearly clean free skate that showcased his exquisite performance quality. His Nutcracker choreography draws on the classic ballet cleverly, and the strong jumps brought that out. Ge left out his unreliable quad, prioritizing execution over difficulty, and that priced him out of the top 5. Although his musicality and presence are a big hit with viewers, he can’t rely on components scores: his lack of speed and relatively simple transitions held down his second mark, as usual. The result was a kind of disappointment that Ge’s fans are all too accustomed to. It’s still a performance worth watching, but unfortunately, I can’t find video that hasn’t had the sound erased.

Brendan Kerry’s spirited Pirates of the Caribbean free skate has similarly fallen prey to copyright jerks. Like Ge, he’s still getting held down in components, another example of a skater who’s delightful to watch but doesn’t have the intricacy or fundamentals to compare with the best in the field. On the other hand, Kerry nailed his hardest technical content, landing a total of three quads, one in the short program and two in the free skate. Earlier in the season, Kerry couldn’t hide the gleeful shock when he stood up on his hardest jumps, but he looks far more certain of them now. Fifth place at this event should be a big confidence booster for him, and for Australian figure skating, although it also reflects how much work he still has ahead of him before next year’s Olympic Games.

The only skaters to beat Kerry were the ones he didn’t have a prayer of catching, as top men from Japan and China made it a fight for the podium between two rival countries. That fight had two clear tiers, with Takahito Mura and Han Yan duking it out for bronze. Between the two, Yan triumphed, although I found myself more absorbed in Mura’s performances. Mura will never be a great artist, and he’s the kind of skater who can only work in difficult technical content if his choreography gives him lots of breathing room. He’s also never managed to carve out a signature performance style, often letting himself get overshadowed by quirky costumes. His restrained black outfit let his actual skating shine through more than usual. Of course, it helped that he drilled out two near-perfect quad toe loops and a gorgeous triple Axel in the opening minute of his program. Stamina got the better of Mura in the second half, bringing some dodgy landings, but his overall air of competence made this the most satisfying of the top four free skates.

Han Yan suffered criticism for years for his lack of completeness as a skater. Until recently, he was all jumps and no finesse, and it looked like he’d hit a wall in terms of complexity, unable to maintain momentum through a free skate with challenging choreography. Yan has taken that criticism to heart, focusing on fundamental skating skills and on-ice presence. As a result, he hasn’t upgraded his jump content in awhile, but he’s transformed himself from an awkward technician into a smooth, controlled performer. He’s taken the Javier Fernandez approach, working in lots of opportunities to breathe but using them as showcases for his ability to build speed out of nowhere. He’s not yet in the same class as Fernandez artistically, but he almost tied Shoma Uno in components, receiving especially high marks for his performance and interpretation. The judges seemed to think more of his edge depth and control than I do – he wobbles, and I worry – but it’s remarkable how he’s reinvented himself. Now, if he could just get his triple Axel to cooperate. He landed a great one in combination at the top of his free skate, but a popped attempt later in the program eradicated any chance of a surprise silver or gold.

In the end, it came down to the two front runners. Born just 10 weeks apart, Shoma Uno and Boyang Jin have been neck and neck for their entire international competitive careers, pushing each other to master the most difficult jumps that physics will allow. Until recently, Jin had the advantage in that respect, as he fired off quadruple lutz-triple toe loop combinations more easily than most men complete double-doubles. That signature jumping pass didn’t look so hot in his short program, although he hung on, and his other two jumps were solid. He earned only so-so grades of execution even on his cleanest elements, though, because he tends to telegraph his jump entrances and to grab his landings forward on his toe pick before checking out. And while Jin’s Spider-man program is a delicious slice of cheesecake – one of my favorite men’s routines this season – I understand why the judges are hesitant to reward Jin’s goofy mugging with high components scores. Jin has trouble maintaining his Peter Parker charm when he’s setting up for a jump, and he’ll stay slightly behind the components curve until he learns to stay in character. Still, his performance quality has improved so steadily that in a couple of years, I suspect we will have forgotten it was ever a problem for him.

Shoma Uno lost the short program to Jin by 0.43, a remarkably slim margin considering that Uno missed an entire jump. He stepped out of his quad toe loop so badly that his fingers brushed the ice, which means he had to skip the second jump of his planned combination. A clean quad toe-triple toe would have netted him upwards of 15 points; the mistake brought him only 6.30. It should be impossible to make up that much ground, but Uno’s routine is so packed with difficulty that he showed up Jin in a number of respects. Uno enters his triple Axel from a spread eagle and checks out into a cantilever, which not only got the crowd roaring but earned 2.65 points more than Jin’s attempt at the same jump. (Uno also got a bonus for performing the jump in the second half of his program.) The judges probably had an easier time relating to Uno’s classical music and lyrical style, but he also maintained the character of his interpretation throughout and showcased fast, deep edges. That brought Uno a big components advantage. He also cleaned up on his non-jump elements, receiving perfect levels and high grades of execution for his spins and steps. And that, kids, is how you break 90 points with only three jumps.

In case you’re new here, I’ll admit before I get into Jin’s free skate that I’m a bigger fan of Uno and am excited that he won. But when he did, I messaged a friend that I wasn’t sure Uno deserved it. Other skating fans expressed far greater certainty that Jin was robbed of a gold medal. Amazingly, it would have been Jin’s first senior-level victory at a major international event. His narrow loss – Uno beat him by just 1.62 in the free skate and 1.19 overall – reflects the same advantages in components, non-jump elements, and grades of execution that saved Uno’s short program.

Jin’s defenders argue that his free skate was cleaner and more polished than Uno’s overall, but on a second watch, it’s easy for me to see how Jin fell slightly behind. His choreography creates lots of opportunities for him to show off skating skills, and often, he doesn’t execute them to their fullest. Right at the top of Jin’s free skate, he glides on a back outside edge, then does a rocker onto a forward outside edge. It’s an inherently pretty move, but Jin’s free leg isn’t fully turned out in the first half of it, and he skids to hold the edge in the second half. It’s the kind of small error I’m attuned to because I watch a lot of ice dance, and it has far less impact in singles – but it added up to a four-point components deficit. Jin is more likely to be kicking himself for popping his planned quad salchow, but that missed jump was an isolated goof. In a program that featured two fabulous triple Axels and one of Jin’s best quadruple lutzes to date, the little things held him back.

So we’re left with Shoma, who was the very definition of a beautiful disaster. Every time he performs his “loco, loco, loco” free skate, it seems to go to his head a little more. Uno has already gained a reputation for improvising jumps to make up points at the end of his free skates, and nobody has succeeded so greatly with this reckless strategy since Oksana Baiul threw in an extra combo and won an Olympics. Uno’s second quad toe loop might have been the magic bullet that earned him gold in Sapporo, or it might have been the wild triple salchow-half loop-triple flip that cost him a second fall but nonetheless boosted his score. Uno is the rare skater who keeps such good track of his prior elements that he can improvise without losing points for repeated jumps.

But his adaptability was only one factor in his success. Uno’s natural flexibility, control, and speed mean his components stayed high even when falls interrupted the flow of his program. And while falls are costly, they don’t hurt as much as popping a jump. Jin got only 1.30 points for the double salchow that should have been a quad, but Uno’s quad loop, even with an underrotation deduction and -4.00 grade of execution, still brought him 4.40. Uno’s program was riskier than Jin’s in every way, from the pair of punishing quads in the opening seconds – his quad flip was a beauty – to the full-tilt choreographic step sequence near the end. With so many powerful skaters at the top of the men’s field these days, there’s no room for safe choices. The approach sometimes backfires for Uno, but more often, it works out. The Asian Winter Games marks the fourth major international gold medal of his career, and the third time he’s beaten Jin head to head this season.

Next on The Finer Sports: field guides for the World Junior Championships.

2 thoughts on “2017 Asian Winter Games Recap: Triumph of the Improv Quad”

  1. Missed Asian Winter Games. Really glad you were one of the few who had the privilege. As always, great review writing which I am always happy to read. Love your syntax and the way you make words fall down on paper. By the way, during US Nationals, I could’ve sworn I heard the NBC trio banter about phrases: Why I Drink and On The Rise. Or, I could have had too much to drink during Ladies Singles.

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