Summer Skating: Men’s Roundup

Image via Johnny Weir’s Instagram.

The summer skating deluge continues, and like everyone else, I’m not remotely caught up. Canada held a series of summer regional meets, with most of the country’s top athletes showing up at one or more. There was a significant club competition in the United States every weekend from mid-July through mid-August. The season’s first senior B internationals, the Asian Open and Philadelphia Summer International, attracted athletes from a wider range of countries than ever before. South Korea held a qualifying event, showcasing its growing depth of talent and creating a pecking order of top contenders. Russia and China have both held test skates, too, although video wasn’t permitted at those events, perhaps in a quest to save fans’ sanity.

Meanwhile, some of us have jobs and families, not to mention new episodes of Game of Thrones to watch.

But South Korea has loftier priorities than letting fans get their beauty rest. They’re hosting the Olympic Games in about six months, and they need to both select a national team and drum up local enthusiasm for one of the marquee sports of the Winter Games. Korean athletes are unlikely to take home any Olympic medals in figure skating, but they’ll draw as much media attention as the top contenders. With all this in mind, South Korean figure skating organized a sort of summer Nationals. The stakes were highest in the ladies’ field there; only four men competed at the senior level. But the men’s results suggest that the season will play out differently for Korea than most of us expected.

Jun Hwan Cha had the misfortune to arrive injured to the summer test event, although that misfortune might turn out to benefit him in the long run. Even with the many jump errors in his free skate, it’s clear that he’s the finest men’s skater that South Korea has produced to date. It’s what happens in between the messy jumps that sets him apart: he maintains speed and flow through choreography that leaves him little room to breathe. Holst’s Planets is too big a piece of music for most athletes of any age, so it’s remarkable that the 15-year-old Cha carves such a range of emotion out of it. His third-place finish at this test event relieves him of the responsibility of fighting for an Olympic spot at the Nebelhorn Trophy, which will give him time to rest his body and prepare mentally for the season to come. It’s a hell of a time for a senior debut, and Cha doesn’t look as ready as I’d hoped. By October, though, I have to imagine he’ll be a very different skater.

Cha might have arrived as the headliner of the men’s competition, but by the end of the Korean test event, June Hyoung Lee had stolen all his thunder. Even though Lee is a three-time national champion, he looked like a long shot to win this. His jump arsenal tops out at a triple Axel, and despite significant achievements as a junior, he hasn’t yet made his mark as a senior-level international competitor. Judging from the unsteadiness of his hardest jumps, that will most likely continue to be true, although he shouldn’t have too much trouble securing a spot on the Olympic roster for a Korean man. Lee’s jumps might need work, but he’s made impressive strides as a performer. Fans buzzed about his joyful “Bohemian Rhapsody” free skate – especially the air guitar moment in the choreographic step sequence – and the program is not just a crowd-pleaser, but a potential magnet for higher components scores. The choreography is unusually dense with turns and edge moves, to the point where Lee often seemed to be fighting through the thicket of transitions. But that’s not a bad place to be in the summer. As Lee gets a better handle on his steps, he’ll pick up his speed and find it easier to time his jumps. By winter, this will be TV ready, and at worst, we’ll get to enjoy it at Four Continents.

The Glacier Falls Classic took place on the other side of the Pacific, in California, but the American men (and a few international competitors) were having as much trouble staying on their feet as the Koreans were. Jason Brown showed that his Hamilton short program is coming along nicely. His free skate, to a custom musical composition, looked like a rough draft, punctuated with intentional double jumps and the occasional scramble to remember his choreography. Grant Hochstein’s jumps eluded him as they did at Skate Detroit, although his programs were no less lovely. Sean Rabbitt nearly stole the show with a spirited “Tequila” short program, but it was also clear that his technical content can’t keep pace with his showmanship.

I am left with the pleasure of taking Ross Miner seriously, and hoping that I get to continue to do so as the season progresses. He was strongest in his free skate, a slightly revised version of the Queen medley he used last year. He almost held onto his quad salchow in the free, and the jump looked high and secure in the air. But the program I’m embedding is his new short program, because it’s weird, and it’s growing on me. He’s pretty much guaranteed to be the only man skating to Macklemore this season, and it looks like he paid more attention in hip hop class than most of last year’s ice dancers. The song packs a lot of emotional and stylistic range, which is great for a skater whose programs often sell his artistic abilities short. Still, that salchow will be the thing to make or break Miner this season, and it will likely define how he ends his competitive career.

I’m covering Canada’s Minto Summer Skate without embedding any programs because the organizers have been extremely diligent about eradicating video clips from the internet. The men’s event is out there, if you know where to look, but I don’t want to draw any undue attention to the uploaders. In juniors, Conrad Orzel was the star, attempting four quads in his free skate, including a fully rotated quad lutz. Sure, he fell on three of those four attempts – including the lutz – but the successful one, a huge quad toe-triple toe, was a promising sign for an athlete who’s technically gifted as well as a pleasure to watch. Among the many fine senior-level performances, my favorite under-the-radar athlete was Bennett Toman. Although he faltered in the free skate, he came promisingly close to a quad toe-triple toe in his short program, and he maintained a strong connection with his music even when recovering from errors.

Canada’s biggest junior phenom, Stephen Gogolev, competed at the senior level at Minto – and won. He’s twelve years old and has a fairly consistent quad salchow, which is astounding, but he’s also a great argument for holding skaters back in juniors until they can mature both physically and artistically. His score of 218.28 would be low at a senior international, and it only would have been good enough for 5th place at Glacier Falls. But it keeps pace with the tops of the fields at most Junior Grand Prix events, which is where he’ll want to be this season. And while he has unusually secure edges and fundamentals for a skater his age – or any age – he needs some time to learn to interpret music and leave an impression as a performer.

Those quad salchows put Gogolev ahead here, but he also had other skaters’ messy performances to thank. Roman Sadovsky was solid in the short program, but in the free skate, he lost his stamina after the halfway mark. Julian Yee stretched himself artistically with a beautiful short program to “To Build a Home,” but his upgraded jumps aren’t quite under his feet yet. Finally, let us shed a tear for Nam Nguyen, who struggled with jumps throughout the competition, failed to break the 200-point threshold, and generally looked like a shadow of his former self. His short program features a rock cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that could be this season’s strangest music selection (although he has some competition from Ross Miner in that regard) and simpler choreography than senior men can get away with these days. It would be foolish to count him out, with his level of talent, but too many others have begun to pass him by.

Keiji Tanaka had scant competition at the Asian Open, even with multiple jump errors in his short program. His free skate was stronger, but it’s a repeat of his signature Fellini program from last year – a wise choice, considering the likelihood that he’ll be the third man on Japan’s Olympic team. This short program puts him even more in Yuzuru Hanyu’s shadow than usual, as he’s skating to a Gary Moore song that is not “Parisienne Walkways” but sounds a lot like it. Fortunately for Tanaka, this ends up highlighting the distinctiveness of his artistic voice. Showmanship seems to come naturally to Tanaka, and he projects his choreography outward like he’s commanding us to notice him. The quality of his jumps gives me pause – he saved his quad salchow so narrowly that I gasped along with the audience – but Tanaka tends to peak later in the season. He’ll probably give us one or two clean renditions of this program, and I can’t wait to see what it looks like when he slays it.

The Philadelphia Summer Championships have grown into a full-fledged senior B international, although American athletes still dominate. Like the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, the event is really two concurrent competitions, with a lower-stakes club meet running alongside the international meet. The winner of the club event was nonetheless a foreigner, and a fairly big name, as Japan’s Daisuke Murakami found it an ideally low-keyed environment to put this season’s programs in front of some judges. It’s a good thing he kept his season debut to a small stage, because his triple Axel is giving him a world of trouble. He fell on the jump in his short program, then on both attempts in his free skate. On the other hand, he pulled off a terrific quad salchow in his short program, and the judges appreciated his crisp, centered spins and expressive movement. Murakami’s greatest strength is how poised and musical he looks even when he’s having a bad jump day.

The international competition in Philadelphia was such a dumpster fire that Ukraine’s Yaroslav Paniot squeaked out a silver medal despite squirrely jumps and free skate components scores in the low 60’s. Paniot stood up on a quad flip in his free skate – barely – and one of his few moments of true loveliness was the quad toe-triple toe combination that followed shortly after. The lack of complexity in Paniot’s choreography will limit him more and more as the season progresses. His technical elements score in the free was by far the highest of the event, but his PCS were fourth from the bottom in a 13-man field.

Still, Paniot looked good in comparison with Max Aaron, who threw two wild single Axels in his free skate and fell on quad attempts in both programs. Alex Krasnozhon won the short program, but it wasn’t on the strength of his quad loop, which was downgraded so hard that he would have been better off performing a clean triple. He melted down completely in the free skate, receiving downgrades for both quad attempts, falling twice, and generally looking like he wanted to die. June Hyoung Lee barely resembled the champion of his domestic test event, with so little speed entering his jumps that he didn’t have a prayer of staying on his feet. Andrew Torgashev looked all grown up with his elegant Moonlight Sonata short program, but he popped his flip, missed his required jump combination, and had a spin invalidated, probably for not executing a proper flying entrance into it. He got some redemption with a third-place free skate, although he fell on one quad toe loop attempt and tripled the other.

Alex Johnson lacked the technical difficulty to contend for a medal, since he competes only triple jumps, and his triple Axel was a bit of a mess in both programs. He did nail a signature triple lutz-half loop-triple flip in his free skate, although errors elsewhere in the program held him to fifth place overall. Nonetheless, Johnson was one of the most enjoyable athletes to watch in Philadelphia. His short program music is the same twangy electro-pop tune that Shoma Uno used a couple of seasons ago, but Johnson’s interpretation is entirely different from Uno’s. Johnson’s irony-tinged club moves got the crowd squealing, but there’s some raw sensuality in there, too. It’s fun to watch a veteran artist at work, and what he lacks in technical explosiveness, he makes up for in extended body lines and versatile expression.

The star of the Philadelphia Summer International – and the winner – was longtime second-stringer Timothy Dolensky. He fell on his quad salchow in both programs, but he got full rotation credit for the one in his free skate. From the way he rolled out of it, he might have given it too much power. A summer coaching change seems to have helped his jumps in general; I don’t think I’ve seen him perform a better triple Axel-triple toe loop. There’s a double Axel just after the halfway point of the program that looks like a placeholder for something bigger, as well. But Dolensky’s biggest advantages came from his well-roundedness. He earned maximum levels and strong grades of execution on all of his spins and steps, and his most choreographically intricate program to date is bringing him higher components scores. He’s taking a bit of a risk by skating to lyrical folk-rock in both programs, but he relates to this type of music so beautifully that he’s showing himself in his best light by doing so. It’s rare to see an athlete make so many smart strategic moves at once, and that’s the kind of approach that keeps Dolensky in the conversation even though the American men’s talent pool is overflowing.

Back in Canada, at the Championnats Québécois d’Été, Nicolas Nadeau performed the equivalent of a “Submitted for your Olympic consideration” ad, blowing away the rest of the field by 22 points and putting down one of the summer’s highest scores at any event. Some of that was old-fashioned domestic judging inflation; Nadeau is a terrific performer, but I doubt he’ll see any 9.25’s for Interpretation internationally. Still, in a country whose men’s skaters have excelled mostly at failing to live up to their potential lately, it was great to see two clean quad toe loops. Nadeau sat out much of last season, recovering from injuries, so I’m glad he’s bringing back his bonkers Elvis free skate. Comedy is a hard sell in a competitive program, but when Nadeau has his head together – as he did here – he uses it as a vehicle for great emotional range and musicality. But he hasn’t yet proven that he can deliver this kind of performance consistently.

It’s hard to decipher from Kevin Reynolds’ season debut, a week later at the Super Series Summer Skate in Burnaby, BC, whether he’ll remain the favorite for the Olympic opportunity that Nadeau is gunning for. Soon, this program will feature two quads and a big triple Axel, but it seemed like Reynolds planned this as a choreography test run. Looking at the construction of the program, I can see why he needed one: it’s by far the most challenging short program that Reynolds has competed. It’s also flat-out fabulous. To earn extra points, Reynolds holds most of his jumps until the second half and instead begins with two spins, elegantly timed to a long drum solo in what might be the most interesting minute of figure skating I’ve seen this summer. The benevolent cousin of things that should not be jazz is things that were already good jazz, and all that drumming brings out a musical sensitivity that I haven’t seen from Reynolds before.

Next on The Finer Sports: Can you believe the Junior Grand Prix starts this weekend? Yeah, me neither.

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