Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships Recap: All Aboard the Rhumba Train

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter perform their free dance.
Photo via ice-dance.com.

Skating fans are used to busy weekends, especially in the era of live streams and YouTube. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a weekend in July so crammed with skating, though. Between July 27 and 30, fans had to choose among the Glacier Falls Classic, a high-profile American club competition; a South Korean test event that determined assignments to the Junior Grand Prix and Olympics qualifiers; and Minto Summer Skate, a Canadian pre-season event with an impressive roster, especially in men’s singles. I’m working my way through videos of those events, and if I get through them before the Challenger Series begins, you can count me as one very determined and sleep-deprived skating fan.

What kept me away from that wealth of attractive choices was my favorite summer skating event, the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships. Why do I love it so much? For one thing, as the name implies, it’s nothing but ice dance. That makes it a more manageable and focused event than most, and it gives me a chance, early in the summer, to hone my eye for pattern dance checkpoints and clever attempts to respond to ice dance’s ever-changing rules. For the past few years, it’s featured the most competitive ice dance fields of the pre-season, making the Challenger Series look like the bush league in comparison. This year was stronger than ever before, not only because the international portion of the event is drawing more and more prestigious competitors from abroad, but because there are so many incredible American teams. It’s a USFSA test event in an Olympic year, in the United States’ most stacked discipline, and everyone was trying to rhumba their way into the national federation’s good graces. Before last weekend, the reigning top three American teams looked like they had their tickets to Pyeongchang booked, but several young teams brought skills and scores that could make American ice dance far more interesting than expected. Meanwhile, the top juniors proved that the four-year cycle to come will be both crowded and unpredictable. And that’s just the Americans; there were plenty of strong statements from the international competitors as well, including a Russian surprise.

I’m just covering the most notable routines in this post, but I live tweeted the heck out of this thing. If you missed it and now want my mostly accurate play by play (with brief digressions about laundry and Cabaret), I Storified the whole thing.

Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit weren’t the first to skate, but their short dance is a useful example of where I see the required Latin themes going this season. My knowledge of Latin ballroom dance is 10% classes I took in junior high and 90% devoted So You Think You Can Dance viewership, but apparently, that puts me ahead of a fair number of ice dance coaches. Throughout the weekend, teams with lovely, lyrical styles proceeded stiffly through their Rhumba patterns, either struggling with or not bothering with the hip and butt movements that make Latin dance look Latin. I wouldn’t have pegged Pogrebinsky and Benoit for Salsa King and Queen, but their musical interpretation was among the best of the weekend. It helps that Benoit is an un-self-conscious showman, and that Pogrebinsky moves with a natural shimmy. They skated like they’d been paying attention in dance class, picking up the nuances of posture and timing, but also like they’ve embraced the style. At this point in the season, their performance quality is way ahead of their technical precision, though. The judges rightly docked them on both levels and grades of execution for their pattern dance and step sequences: they often drifted from their intended edges, and their free legs didn’t always match. Their curve lift, however, is magnificent, a floating spiral that has the makings of a signature move.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter are definitely back. Eagle-eyed ice dance fans knew it after their pattern dance, which they executed perfectly – they were the only senior team to earn a level 4 – and with stunning speed and ice coverage. I was initially perplexed that they lost a level for what looked like a spectacular pass of twizzles, although they might need one more position to earn full credit. That, plus a little slide out of line on the second set, took away from what is normally one of their strongest elements. They didn’t even try for traditional Latin ballroom, but they were loose and engaged, a variation that worked for me. The judges, however, weren’t as enthusiastic, and placed them a few tenths of a point below both Parsons & Parsons and Pogrebinsky & Benoit in components. The gap wasn’t huge, but it suggests that their unconventional style might hinder them this season, especially since judges are often disinclined to reward first-year seniors for artistry. Their chemistry has always come off more as intense friendship than smoldering romance, and they’d be wise to figure out how to adapt that to the Rhumba before autumn rolls around.

As a sibling team, Rachel and Michael Parsons have a tougher row to hoe than most of their competitors this season. It’s hard to stay on the right side of the line between sassy and creepy, but Rachel in particular is an expert at conveying sex appeal without looking like she’s directing it at her brother. She’s like a girl at a family wedding who dances with her brother to get the groomsmen’s attention. I’m also a fan of their unusual middle section, which features a blues-rock song that happens to have a Rhumba beat; I wish they’d matched it with a similar song for their beginning and end, since there’s a bit of a disconnect between their music selections. Michael’s unfortunate stumble and tumble during their non-touching step sequence took away from the overall effect of the program, but their twizzles at the end were perfect. The transition to their final spinning motion – one of the weekend’s most authentic Latin ballroom moves – is the kind of ending that judges remember, and it will be rewarded even more handsomely when they skate this clean.

This video contains the entire first warm-up group; Carreira and Ponomarenko are first to skate.

For my money, the most successful Latin ballroom number of the weekend was in juniors. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko were the first to skate in a large junior field, and nobody else came close to their score – or their energy level. During their step sequences, Ponomarenko did most of the heavy shimmying, but Carreira’s in-character choreography during their lift was a delight. Latin dance styles look better if you’re willing to stick out your butt and arch your back, and Carreira and Ponomarenko committed to those curvy body shapes. Their height probably helps them here; their lines stay long and elegant when they stick their chests out. They also whipped through one of the best twizzle passes all day, maintaining strong edge control and synchronization through difficult positions. They’re practically guaranteed the junior title at Nationals this winter, and if they keep skating like this, it’s hard to imagine anyone keeping up with them internationally, either.

The junior events were strong overall, and also interminable. Lake Placid features both an international competition and a club competition; both American and foreign competitors are permitted in both, and the difference lies mostly in how the scores figure into international records and federation monitoring. In other words, it’s a meaningful distinction for skaters and coaches, but not so much for spectators. Only three senior teams participated in the club competition, but the field was far deeper for juniors, since they don’t have an Olympic Games on the line. I’m skipping a number of strong junior performances, particularly those by Caroline & Gordon Green and by Avonley Nguyen & Vadym Kolesnik, because the United States is simply awash in up-and-coming teams.

The star Americans of the club competition were Chloe Lewis and Logan Bye – or, at least, they were supposed to be. But neither of their programs have made it to YouTube, and a week after the fact, I realize that I can hardly remember them. Eliana Gropman and Ian Somerville made a bigger artistic impact with a flamenco free dance that seems designed to convince the judges that these two have grown up a lot. Somerville no longer looks like a little boy with man-sized upper body strength, and Gropman’s flirtatiousness feels age-appropriate. Their edges and speed aren’t where they need to be, especially in such a deep domestic junior field. Their lifts are extraordinary, though, and they have an easygoing, appealing chemistry. Gropman and Somerville practically tied Lewis and Bye in the free dance, and only Carreira and Ponomarenko earned a higher score in the international division. That places them more solidly in the hunt for a junior medal at Nationals than I would have predicted, and strongly in the conversation at the Junior Grand Prix as well.

The other stars of the junior club competition were a surprise Russian entry. Someone on Twitter tipped me off to their presence, and after checking the roster for the international event, I said they must have been mistaken. But Sofia Polishchuk and Alexander Vakhnov appeared, as rumored, and they brought their tutu. While it was thematically appropriate for a Black Swan routine, it became a visual distraction and prevented them from executing close dance holds. When I managed to stop looking at Polishchuk’s costume, however, their performance was impressive, like a miniature Russian ballet on ice. I wanted more speed in their steps but couldn’t argue with their precision or edge depth. Their twizzles gained speed as they went, and the arm variations both suited the music and increased their difficulty. They outscored every junior team in the free dance, across both divisions, except Carreira and Ponomarenko, which is good news for those who want to see Russia have a prayer against the American ice dance juggernaut.

At the international event, nobody came close to the caliber of Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko. Only three senior teams beat their overall score, and that’s despite fewer required elements in the junior free dance and lower potential scoring value in the junior short – and despite a mistake in their final pose that counted as a fall. Up until those last seconds, this was nearly perfect. Their twizzles, in particular, were extraordinary, moving from one difficult position to the next while maintaining uncanny synchronization. They also got an impressive amount of interpretive mileage out of this music, although I hope they don’t make a career out of breathing life into bland, heavy selections that suck all the youthful energy out of them. Choices like this make it harder for them to showcase their emotional versatility and amazing speed.

The senior international competition reflected an equally deep American field at the top level, especially since four of the top five finishers at 2017 Nationals didn’t participate. That makes it hard to guess how the younger teams in attendance will stack up against the veterans, although scores like these – especially in July and with significant technical errors – signify the possibility of big shake-ups in the established order. Lake Placid was also a reminder of the tough road for teams like Karina Manta & Joe Johnson and Julia Biechler & Damian Dodge, who finished far ahead of most of the non-American field. They’d be stars in almost any other country, but as long as they represent the United States, they’ll struggle even to secure international assignments.

Manta and Johnson got a lot of love from fans last weekend, and it’s about time. They finished a respectable fifth overall, with scores that would easily put them in the top 20 at a World Championships, and yet significantly behind at least half a dozen of their fellow Americans. Their technical deficiencies are clear in comparison with the top teams: they’re slower, with more limited transitions, and their steps lack the precision and momentum that the very best ice dancers achieve. But if Manta and Johnson came from anywhere else, they’d have a lot more visibility and opportunity. As tired as I am of Moulin Rouge, I can admit they brought some freshness to it, along with a warm and natural chemistry. The judges agreed, awarding them relatively high components scores in both programs. That’s a great sign for them, along with high marks for interesting lifts that make their short stature look like an advantage.

Teams from abroad didn’t make much of a mark at the senior level, at least in terms of their scores, but it was fun to see how several young teams from small federations are progressing. Nicole Kuzmich and Alexandr Sinicyn, who represent the Czech Republic, caught my eye during last season’s Junior Grand Prix with their quirky flair. The judges aren’t always on board with their performance style, and their components scores were all over the map, with marks for Interpretation ranging from a respectable 7.00 to a downright nasty 5.50. As a devotee of Kander & Ebb, I’m offended, because Kuzmich and Sinicyn’s choreography captures the ugly magic of recent Cabaret revivals. Like Manta and Johnson, their strengths are big lifts and big personalities, and their step sequences tend to drag. They’re the kind of team that makes me wish I knew less about ice dance, so I could stop grumbling about levels and just enjoy them.

The only non-American team to threaten the top of the senior ranks was German duo Katharina Müller and Tim Dieck, and they also win my award for most improved since last season. Their flow across the ice is lovely, and they’ve figured out how to maintain speed through their steps and transitions. They’ve also developed a dance spin and a twizzle sequence that show off their lines and core strength. But what I’m most excited about is that they’ve finally given me the Whitney Houston number I’ve been waiting for. It’s hard to think of a ’90s movie more ripe for an ice dance tribute than The Bodyguard, and they’ve nailed the mood and story. I wanted to see more fire from them in the faster sections, and they seemed to get lost in their upgraded lifts. If they can iron out the kinks, though, they have a shot at an unexpected trip to the Olympics.

You know I’m all about keeping ice dance weird, but I don’t know how I’m going to deal with the Parsons’ free dance theme this season. Chilean folk music is about as far out of my musical wheelhouse as one can go, so part of it is just a distaste for the unfamiliar. But I feel like there’s a missed opportunity here, to fully blend in the character of the folk dance traditions that go along with this music, or to more directly address the tragic history that coincided with the Nueva Canción Chilena movement. (I knew nothing about this until I looked up their music, but here’s a brief explanation of how Latin American folk music revivals intersected with politics in the ’60s and ’70s, and here’s some information on Victor Jara specifically.) I can’t expect ice dance to provide us all with valuable lectures on 20th-century South American history, but I can spend three sentences grumbling about divorcing music from its cultural context.

Technically, the Parsons siblings were exceptional in the free dance. They have amazing control in their turns; their twizzles seemed to stop time, because they glided during the transitions rather than moving frantically to maintain their speed. The choreographic lift at the end of this program is likely to remain one of my favorite ice dance moves of the season, not only because it makes such a beautiful shape on the ice, but also because it requires so much strength from both skaters. And as usual, Parsons and Parsons express the unique emotions of a sibling bond in a way that’s endearing and familiar to anyone who’s close with a brother or sister.

Pogrebinsky and Benoit’s free dance was almost too rough and unready to assess fairly. It’s one of those programs where the second viewing brings out all the little problems: the places where they struggled to maintain unison or shuffled out of a difficult element instead of making a clean transition. Of course, the big disaster struck near the end, when they fumbled the entrance to their planned straight line lift and had to scrap the entire element. The program has good bones, though. It’s refreshingly upbeat, with lots of emotional range, and it gives them all kinds of opportunities to skate close together and show off the full range of their flexible cores and long legs. One of my favorite things about it is how much of the performance work it loads onto Benoit, whose bold on-ice personality should never be wasted. He gets to chase after Pogrebinsky like an eager puppy. Conservative ice dance judges don’t always take to programs that let the male partner shine this much, but maybe Pogrebinsky’s red dress will distract them. In any case, it’s promising that they scored as high as they did despite losing all credit for a high-value lift, and this seems destined to become a very cool program once it’s debugged.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter were the team I was most worried about, coming into the event. Literally unbeatable during their 2015-16 junior season, they looked like shadows of their former selves a year later. Even if they hadn’t spent a season burning off a lot of their good will with the judges, I would have had reservations: their quirky, sinister style differentiated them from the pack in juniors, but I feared that senior-level judges might interpret it as immature or too narrow. This must have occurred to McNamara, Carpenter, and their coaches, because they centered their free dance around a classic ice dance theme. McNamara and Carpenter have done brilliant work with reinvented classics before – their 2015-16 free dance was the most innovative Carmen in at least a decade – and they’ve brought a similar originality to the tango.

The team’s chemistry has always been intense, but never exactly romantic. At their best, they approach that chemistry as a strength rather than a liability, and that’s definitely what’s going on here. They’re like a pair of rival assassins, each waiting for the other to let down their guard so they can slip the knife in. Last weekend, they never wavered from that narrative, even as they showcased a full set of lift upgrades. Their twizzles blended into the music so naturally, they felt more like a choreographic move than one of the most challenging technical elements of the program. McNamara and Carpenter’s lack of senior-level experience did show through their step sequences, though. They left points on the table with rushed and unsynchronized steps and turns. Lifts and twizzles are the signature elements of ice dance, but step sequences bring the big points. Nonetheless, not many teams are capable of crossing the 100-point threshold in the free dance in midsummer, or posting an overall score that would have had them knocking on a top ten finish at the most recent World Championships. In that context, it’s almost better that they have obvious areas where they need to grow. They can only move up from here.


Next on The Finer Sports: a round-up of notable performances from other recent skating events, and maybe a brief digression into Broadway divas.

Skate Detroit Recap: Vincent Zhou and Other People

Photo via Vincent Zhou’s Instagram.

This was going to be a full, detailed recap of Skate Detroit. I had high hopes when I pulled from the little cash stash that I set aside to fund my skating fan habit, and I paid for the live stream of the competition. The cost for the weekend was greater than for a year of IceNetwork, for an event that heretofore has streamed free of charge. But the quality of the Skate Detroit streams has historically been excellent. So I treated myself.

This was the absolute worst live stream of a figure skating event I have ever endured. Shame on Pro Event Photo for providing such poor service, and for convincing the Detroit Skating Club to charge such a steep fee for it – most of which will go back to the reprehensible videographers, and not to the skating club that I would have been happy to give some money to support. Fortunately, Skating Twitter was in the building, and they uploaded some stunning cellphone videos of the most prominent senior-level skaters.

A post shared by Jenna Shi⛄ (@jennaskates) on

That still leaves me without review footage of the junior ladies, who were spectacular at the top of the field, from what I could piece together between stream freezes and error messages that tried to blame data transfer failures on my internet connection (hint: I have a gaming router and the fastest download speeds that Comcast is willing to sell me). Two of the shining lights of the novice ladies’ event at 2017 Nationals, Hanna Harrell and Pooja Kalyan, showed up, and both are maturing into powerful, versatile skaters with contrasting styles. Harrell is the perkiest ball of energy in American figure skating since Jason Brown, and she performed her mambo medley free skate with a level of spark and conviction that we can only hope the top ice dancers bring to this season’s short dance. She also competes a monster of a triple flip-triple toe loop, which she fought for in the preliminary rounds but stone-cold stuck in the final. Struggles with jump consistency placed her third overall, but she is a rare combination of technically gifted and fun to watch.

Two quieter presences outscored Harrell, and in many ways, also outshone her. Jenna Shi, a local kid from Detroit who was 5th in novice at Midwestern Sectionals last season – just missing the cutoff for Nationals – took a surprise gold despite lower technical base values than several of her rivals. She landed her jumps with confidence and strong technique, and her components scores rewarded her artistic maturity. She brought a Disney princess’s verve and grace to her Pocahontas free skate. I’m hesitant to say that Shi is one to watch until she makes some technical upgrades, now that so many American teenagers are hitting credible triple-triples, but she was a joy to watch, especially among so many athletes who struggled with both their jumps and their presentations.

But for me, the scene-stealer of the junior ladies’ event was Pooja Kalyan. Her jumps were intermittently shaky throughout the event, but her triple toe loop-triple toe loop is right on the verge. Judging from the power in her triple lutz, a higher-scoring triple-triple combination isn’t far behind. She also made the risky and inspired choice of skating to Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, the kind of pretty but unmelodic classical piece that even seasoned athletes should normally steer clear of. But the 14-year-old Kalyan has a precocious ear for music and balletic body lines that put most of the senior field to shame. More than any other competitor at Skate Detroit, she justified braving the choppy live stream, and I wish I had video of her to share.

So I guess I am recapping this, at least to some extent. Maybe it would have been more accurate to say that I just don’t have a lot of comments on most of the bigger names who competed at the senior level (or on pairs, most of which I missed). It was exciting to see Mirai Nagasu come so close to a triple Axel, but after several years of deeply personal programs, she’s chosen a Miss Saigon suite that doesn’t play to her strengths as a performer. It’s great that she’s stretching herself artistically, but I’m not sure it’s the best strategy for standing out in an Olympic year. I’d hoped she would pull out something more like Katie McBeath’s sassy, sultry short program, which was easily my favorite routine of the senior ladies’ event. McBeath, a Twitter favorite who perennially classes up the lower ranks at Nationals and is peaking in her twenties like a true American, earned the third-highest ladies’ short program score of the weekend and finished fourth overall, a tremendous result for her. With no triple-triple, she’s not in the hunt for any major international assignments, but her sky high triple loop-double loop and her on-ice presence made her far more memorable than competitors with higher base values.

The senior men’s field was shallow this year, with only five athletes competing in the free skate. The name recognition level was high, though, as was the number of quad attempts, especially for July. Keegan Messing and Grant Hochstein both stuck to what has succeeded for them in the past: breeziness and big, confident jumps for Messing, and lyricism and persistence for Hochstein. Neither will set the world on fire with what they’re presenting this season – no big technical upgrades, no shocking artistic left turns – but both have a maturity and poise that’s a pleasure to watch. Hochstein might be the only man in figure skating who can breathe new life into Phantom of the Opera, but his short program is the real winner. He skates to “Your Song” from Moulin Rouge as if it’s a personal statement; the first fifteen seconds are some of the loveliest establishing choreography I’ve seen in a competitive program. I hope he pulls off a clean skate to it sometime this season, so we get to see it at least once with the spell intact throughout.

But let’s not pretend that anyone came close to Vincent Zhou at Skate Detroit – in men’s or in any other discipline. As recently as two weeks ago, one of my friends was asking me why I was so high on Zhou, and I was stumbling through Jeremy Abbott comparisons and noting all the jumps he’d been landing in practice. Last weekend, he showed up with proof of both. That quad lutz-triple toe is as powerful and smooth as any in the world, and he corrected his quad flip so brilliantly that only one judge noticed/cared that he was forward on the landing. He also throws himself straight into footwork after his triple Axel. On the artistic side, it’s easy for a skater to look sensitive and emotional when skating to music like this, but the sweeping crescendos draw attention to the uniqueness of Zhou’s style. He’s like a Ravenclaw who qualified for the Triwizard Tournament, thinking his way to victory.

Zhou’s technical content in his free skate was all over the map. Four clean quads, one pop, and a fall on a triple Axel that is ironically one of his easiest jumps. So let’s talk Shakespeare instead, because if you are exactly my age, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was one of your formative emotional texts, and then I got advanced degrees in English and had to pretend to take it seriously as a film in a 9 AM seminar. Most of the time, when athletes skate to Romeo and Juliet soundtracks, they’re skating more to the folk narrative of timeless romance than to the actual play. But Zhou is moving more in the artistic direction of Shakespeare’s Romeo, the scared teenager whose best friend dies in Act 3, the boy who loves being in love and gets made fun of for preferring girls to sword fights. A lot of that comes from Zhou’s innate seriousness and sweetness, but I suspect that some of it also comes from watching the movie and finding his inner DiCaprio. If he continues in this interpretive direction, it will be one of the few Romeo and Juliet programs that I can get behind not just as a pretty piece of choreography, but as an actual reading of Shakespeare.


Next on The Finer Sports: a recap of the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, for which the stream has worked perfectly all day.

Summer Updates! Shoma, Jason, Starr, Kaori, and More

Image by iguana012 on Tumblr, from Nobunari Oda’s Twitter

This blog went on hiatus while I plowed through an enormous pile of work and moved to my dream home, but I have emerged from hibernation. While I was gone, Jason Brown dropped the most deliciously fanboyish program music announcement in figure skating history. That got me back onto the skating side of YouTube, and I ended up watching several of the new competitive programs that athletes have been premiering at shows and club comps. As usual, a lot of the Japanese skaters are using their summer tours as an opportunity to work the bugs out of their new routines, and some are still too buggy to write about: Keiji Tanaka can’t get through his intriguing, bluesy free skate without falling all over himself, and Turandot looks several sizes too big for Marin Honda at this point. Meanwhile, the fan videos haven’t emerged from North American club competitions as readily as usual – I hear some events are cracking down – so we don’t get to preemptively judge the performances at events like the Chesapeake Open or the Broadmoor Open. But that still leaves me with several programs that I just can’t wait any longer to write about.

The program I’ve been itching to write about for the longest time is Shoma Uno’s new short program, which he’s been workshopping as a show number for the past month. Uno is the kind of brazen daredevil who not only attempts quadruple flips in a dark rink with no boards, but lands them. It’s a smart strategy: those jumps will feel so much easier this autumn, with the lights on. The new program is clearly a work in progress and needs significant refinement in the choreography, especially after the midpoint, when Uno stops connecting with the music so he can concentrate on his quad toe loop and triple Axel. It’s an unfortunate break in an otherwise captivating program that melds familiar Vivaldi strains with brooding teen angst. I assume that by October, Uno will have filled in the empty spaces and turned this promising piece into a nonstop Olympic highlight reel.

Starr Andrews does a great job of getting her skating up on YouTube, and that means we get an early look at her senior debut free skate. For those of us old enough to remember the 1988 Olympics, “One Moment in Time” seems a little on the nose for an Olympic year, but Andrews wasn’t born yet and therefore deserves a pass. Whitney Houston is a great fit for Andrews in general – something about the phrasing just works – and her commitment to the music sometimes makes up for moments in the choreography that don’t give her enough to do as a performer. It’s cool that she put the triple Axel attempt out there, although the jump is nowhere near ready. The triple flip-triple toe loop-double toe loop combination, on the other hand, is spectacular, especially with the difficult and beautiful spiral entrance. I worry that her performance quality is still a bit simple and juniors-y – she’s capable of more. But that’s exactly how I felt about Ashley Wagner at the same age.

Lots of Japanese ladies field-tested their new competitive programs on tour, and most filled me with doubt. In a field as crowded as Japan’s, with only two Olympic spots available, these athletes need to fight to stand out. In spite of this, most of the Japanese ladies seem to be playing it safe, choosing musical warhorses and conventional choreography that disguises, rather than highlights, their personalities and artistic quirks. The most notable exception has been Kaori Sakamoto, who has found a potential signature program in the Amelie soundtrack. The choreography is clever and demanding, often asking Sakamoto to establish her character with her upper body while twisting through footwork or firing up from a dead stop. She also gets to show off her high, muscular triple flip-triple toe loop, then save most of the other jumps for the high-scoring second half. Sakamoto kept elbowing her way into the spotlight as a junior last season – few predicted she’d take bronze at both the Junior Grand Prix Final and Junior Worlds – and this program suggests she’ll storm the senior ranks with the same power, mental toughness, and musicality.

It is possible I am almost as excited about Jason Brown’s new short program as he is. I’m thrilled about the music choice, of course: I love Hamilton, and this is one of the best songs from the show, as well as a non-obvious choice for a skating program. But what makes this so terrific is the program itself. Choreographically, it’s the kind of Advanced Rohene we’re used to seeing Brown perform, so crammed with transitions and difficult turns that I’m tired just watching it. With some pieces of music, that feels like too much movement and too little room to breathe, but the choreographic details feel so intentional here, from the triple Axel that drops right on the beat to the high front kick with a back arch that’s a split-second Fosse tribute. Besides, “The Room Where It Happens” is a song about frustration, so it makes sense that Brown looks like he’s trying to tear himself out of his own skin. He’s also playing the villain, which is a compelling character stretch. Most of the time, Brown is more of a Hamilton than a Burr, and it’s a rare pleasure to watch him seethe. The program sends a satisfying message for an Olympic year, the time when no athlete wants to be on the outside looking in.


Next on The Finer Sports: A recap of Skate Detroit, and a return to regular blog updates now that the pre-season is under way.

The 16 Most Epic Skating Disasters of 2016-17

Image via kinpunshou on Tumblr.

Skating fans like to pretend we’re in it for the successes: the biggest and cleanest jumps, the most engaging and original performances, the mascara-ruining happy tears in the kiss and cry. But there’s something cathartic about an enormous failure. Often, the most memorable programs at a competition are not the technically cleanest ones, but the ones where the wheels come off and the athletes spend four minutes careening toward their worst nightmare.

Not all bad performances are epic. Most are boring and difficult to sit through. Some are so tragic that they’re not worth revisiting; this blog’s official policy until further notice is leave Gracie alone. Many are rooted in fear and inexperience, which is why I’m mostly leaving juniors off the list.  The greatest skating disasters almost always come from great skaters, and part of the fascination comes from knowing how phenomenal these athletes can be when they’re not screwing up. This post is dedicated to the small number of disastrous performances that demand to be rewatched, ridiculed, and picked apart for valuable lessons. It’s a celebration of skating schadenfreude, in more or less alphabetical order.

Continue reading “The 16 Most Epic Skating Disasters of 2016-17”

14 Great Ladies’ Performances of the 2016-17 Figure Skating Season

I pretend to be more invested in men and dance than ladies, but tell me I have to narrow things down to ten great performances, and I turn into a gesticulating mass of feelings. I enlisted my friends to help me whittle things down, but they left me to my own devices for too long afterward. The “Wait! What about…?” list grew and grew. I decided to leave them all on the list, because what skating fan doesn’t want to watch 14 stellar ladies’ performances from throughout the season, and then subtweet me about how I am so obviously wrong?

Here they are, more or less alphabetically, with consideration taken for athleticism, artistry, and how much it hurt when I tried to convince myself to take them off the list.

Continue reading “14 Great Ladies’ Performances of the 2016-17 Figure Skating Season”

10 Great Ice Dance Performances of 2016-17

It’s crunch time in my line of work, so these year-end best-of lists are going to roll out slowly. I’m starting with ice dance for a simple reason: it’s the one I’m most terrified to post. Ice dance fans are territorial and passionate, and boy, will they fight with you. Sometimes they’ll fight with you even when they agree with you. And since my aesthetic preferences in ice dance diverge pretty far from the social media party line, I’m bracing myself for a whole lot of disagreement.

I don’t have specific criteria for what makes a performance great. The most important deciding factor is that, at the end of the season, I remembered how awesome it was. (Yes, there will be a list of performances that were memorable for all the wrong reasons – the season’s top 10 disasters are on their way.) High scores and medal wins are a plus, but not required, and some teams with extremely strong competitive records didn’t make my list this year. Teams also earned credit for innovation, commitment to their program themes, and expressing an emotion other than bland, generalized angst.

With no further ado, and in alphabetical order, here are ten ice dance performances that make me wish summer hadn’t come so soon.

Continue reading “10 Great Ice Dance Performances of 2016-17”

Slightly Unhinged Notes from the World Team Trophy Men’s Short Program

Shoma Uno, and his abs, at the 2017 Worlds gala.

It has been a long couple of weeks, during which I have discovered that I am ostensibly enough of an adult that people want to do things like grant me a home loan and hire me for paid work, despite the fact that my hair is three different colors on my driver’s license, my passport, and my actual head. I am also so tired of everyone’s program music that by the time I got to the men’s short program, I hit the mute button in the IceNetwork window and fired up the YouTube playlist of summer jams that I have been compiling. I watched the men’s short the evening after it occurred, because see above, plus there was a double episode of Survivor on Wednesday night, and I need very badly for Zeke Smith to triumph over transphobia and win a million dollars. So I am rating each program on 1) how well the athlete performed his technical elements, 2) how glad I am that I will never have to see his short program again (dear everybody, the Olympics are coming, please get new choreography), 3) how well his performance lined up with the arbitrary music that came out of my speakers while he skated, and 4) how adorable his teammates were in the kiss and cry afterward.

If you were looking for serious analysis, dude, it’s the freaking World Team Trophy. Team France are dressed as Minions. None of the world medalists in ice dance bothered to show up. The word “Presentation” was misspelled in the score graphic for the entirety of the short program. I am approaching this event with exactly the amount of gravitas that it demands.

Continue reading “Slightly Unhinged Notes from the World Team Trophy Men’s Short Program”

4 Things I Learned from the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships

Now that I’ve had some time to sober up and do all the work I set aside so I could wake up at 2:00 AM and watch people fall on their twizzles, I have some thoughts on Worlds. Too much happened for a play-by-play, and two weeks after the fact, it makes more sense to look at the overall takeaway from the event. It also gives me an excuse to skip some performances that scored well but didn’t grab me, and to focus on a few lower-ranking skates that stood out for reasons other than numbers. As usual, I’ve taken a turn for the long-winded, so I’m splitting this recap into three parts.

1. The magic word was “finally.”

As in, “Look who finally won a gold medal!” Yuzuru Hanyu isn’t new to the top of the podium, and he is the reigning Olympic champion. But two years of sloppy silvers – and an error-heavy season – had made fans start to wonder if he’d begun the long slide into irrelevancy. When he bloopered the jump combination in his short program, stepping out of his quad salchow and invalidating the second jump, it looked like he might miss the podium for the first time since 2013. Hanyu’s free skate, however, was the kind of magic moment that makes a week of early mornings worthwhile. He was flawless from start to finish. His four quadruple jumps weren’t just clean, but exceptional, earning near-perfect grades of execution. His steps and connecting moves were more intricate and certain than most of the ice dancers who would compete later in the evening. By the time he landed his final jump – the triple lutz that he’s referred to as his nemesis, and continues to stick at the end of every free skate like he’s on a quest to defeat it – I was standing on my couch and cheering.

The kiss and cry that followed was one of this year’s iconic off-ice moments. Brian Orser seemed almost as overwhelmed as his student; his first words to Hanyu were, “That was fun to watch.” Meanwhile, Hanyu bravely insisted, “I’m not crying,” as tears ran down his cheeks. Fifth after the short program, Hanyu skated first in the final group, so he got to watch in the green room, with growing giddiness and disbelief, as his opponents fell behind him, one by one. Still stunned in the winner’s interview, he could only think about the error he’d made in the short, repeating that he needed to practice more as the interviewer tried to get him to focus on the world title he’d just won. More than any other men’s skater, Hanyu is eternally unsatisfied, insisting on pushing himself past his own limits. This time, his drive paid off.

It was hard for me to believe that Wenjing Sui and Cong Han had never won Worlds before. Their victory could hardly have come at a better time. Sui is finally healthy after two years of injuries, surgeries, and recoveries, and their instantly iconic free skate tells the story of how the team’s friendship strengthened as Han supported her. If you’re not sniffling at the end of their “Bridge Over Troubled Water” program, you have no feelings. It blows my mind that only one judge gave them a perfect 10 for Performance. They came short of perfection – Sui fell on a triple salchow – but it was easy to forget the error as their momentum built both technically and artistically. It’s hard to imagine a pairs program in which a clean quadruple twist isn’t the hands-down highlight, but their best moves came toward the end: a throw triple flip that sent Sui soaring halfway down the length of the rink, with a feather-soft landing; a final lift whose entrance and exit were as physically difficult as they were emotionally resonant. They earned perfect grades of execution for both elements. And in terms of memorable performances, no other pair came close.

2. Comebacks are a Crapshoot.

With the Olympics on the horizon, lots of familiar faces returned to the ice for this year’s Worlds, with varying levels of success. Few comebacks generated more buzz than Carolina Kostner’s. After two years away – some by choice, some mandated as fallout from a doping scandal – the 30-year-old veteran looked like a World medal contender after a bronze at Euros. Even at her peak, Kostner has never been the most accomplished technician, instead earning high marks for her superhuman speed and pristine execution. Her components scores remained among the highest, especially in her free skate, but her technical content looked downright old-fashioned in comparison with the enormous triple-triple combinations and back-loaded content that defeated her. Her fifth-place free skate earned only the tenth-highest technical score, and her sixth-place overall finish was her worst since 2010. Fun as it is to see her back on the ice, I found myself wishing she’d retired at her peak.

Pairs was lousy with comebacks this year. Aliona Savchenko is on the second year of her return tour, and this time, her interaction with Bruno Massot occasionally resembled chemistry. They’ve chosen high difficulty over polish and finesse, which snagged them a silver medal, although my friends have reassured me that I’m not the only one who can barely remember their performances. Newlyweds Alexa and Chris Knierim were in strong fighting shape after an illness took her off the ice for most of the season, but their 10th-place finish speaks volumes about the lackluster state of American pairs.

The most striking pairs comeback belonged to Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov. Stolbova was injured for most of the season, and their uncertainty showed in a nightmare of a short program that included a freakish fall on their twist. But in the free skate, both were in full-on beast mode. They stumbled out of their triple toe-triple toe-double toe combination, and Stolbova singled the last jump, but it’s astonishing to see a triple-triple in pairs at all. They also performed one of the few non-hideous back outside death spirals of the event, an accomplishment that, like many of their elements, might have earned even higher grades of execution if they hadn’t been stuck in the first warm-up group. But the best part of their performance was their distinctive angry-sexy chemistry. A lesser team might have struggled with their flat, abstract music, but they infused it with intensity and purpose. Stolbova and Klimov rocketed from 13th in the short program to 5th overall, in the most satisfying rebound of this year’s Worlds.

Without a doubt, the highest-profile comeback kids this season were Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Some fans, myself included, murmured with skepticism when they announced their return, but Virtue and Moir took the right approach for an accomplished veteran team. They’ve adapted to ice dance’s current direction, adding strategic upgrades to their steps and twizzles, and putting their own spin on the dramatic lyrical free dance style that dominates these days. They faltered in that free dance, as they have several times this season, but they built an insurmountable lead with their extraordinary short dance. Lots of teams were strong in the short this year, but Virtue and Moir were the only ones who made it look easy. They covered so much ice in their pattern dance that the camera operator had trouble finding them, and they brought the house down with a difficult variation on a signature lift. Prince isn’t remotely hip hop, but who cares? They captured his quirky spirit and proved they’re still capable of surprise, experimentation, and growth.

3. Canada has a deeper bench than we thought.

Virtue and Moir were the biggest Canadian story at this year’s Worlds, but it was a great year for Canada in general. With Virtue and Moir’s return, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were demoted to the second string in ice dance,. The limitations they’ve faced in their scoring followed them here: they consistently lost levels in their step sequences and missed the top tier in their grades of execution. But in a volatile dance event, Weaver and Poje achieved a fourth-place finish by demonstrating consistency and focus while others faltered. Earlier in the season, their Michael Jackson short dance had come off as fun but messy. They were sharper and more confident in Helsinki, and that refinement stood out. Before Worlds, it had been easy to give up on Weaver and Poje, but their performances here were a sign that this has been a transitional year, on the road to a real peak during the Olympic season. They won’t be able to rely on others’ mistakes next time, though.

While Weaver and Poje had to prove their relevance, Canada’s third pairs team arrived with few expectations on their shoulders. Liubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch’s partnership is itself a second chance, after years of more conventional, less successful, and less satisfying arrangements for both. With Ilyushechkina’s citizenship still up in the air, they’re not on a sure path toward the Olympics. That’s too bad, since their sixth-place finish was the highest for a Canadian pair this year, and it ensured that Canada will send three pairs to Pyeongchang in 2018. They were especially strong in the short program, which featured a huge, controlled throw triple lutz and more commitment to the tango than some ice dancers mustered. At first glance, their success seemed to be all Ilyushechkina, with her spunky on-ice presence, but Moscovitch was a rock. Keep an eye on him, and you’ll notice how often his keen sense of timing saved the day.

Kevin Reynolds acquitted himself well in the men’s event but got a bit of a raw deal. Stuck skating sixth out of 36 men in the short program, he was in a class by himself among the early groups. He landed two clean quads, including the most polished quad salchow-triple toe loop of the segment. The judges assessed him conservatively in components because he skated so early, and his front-loaded program, with no second-half bonuses for his jumps, set him back on the technical end. If Reynolds had been able to skate in a later group, he almost definitely would have placed higher than 12th in the short program. He looked less confident in the free skate, saving a number of underrotated landings, but he got some justice on his second mark. Across the board, his components averaged about 0.6 points higher in his free skate than in his short program. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it could have been just enough to put him ahead of Mikhail Kolyada overall. If Reynolds had placed 8th instead of 9th, he would have earned Canada an extra guaranteed spot at the Olympics.

But where Canada is concerned, the real story was the ladies. The last Canadian lady to stand on a World podium was Joannie Rochette in 2009, and until now, two have never medaled in the same year. Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman had both posted strong results earlier in the season: Osmond brought home a pair of Grand Prix silver medals and just missed the podium at the Grand Prix Final; Daleman spoiled for silver at Four Continents. I didn’t see anyone predicting a podium finish for either at Worlds, though, and both are so inconsistent that they would have made my Why I Drink list if I’d had time for a ladies’ field guide. As I watched live, the presumption on Twitter was that they would both bomb their free skates. Maybe one would survive. Instead, Osmond and Daleman soared under pressure while most of their competitors stumbled.

Osmond was great in the free skate, but her shining moment was her short program. I can’t imagine a current skater more suited to an Edith Piaf medley, and the music’s rough-edged bravado lent her confidence. She opened with a textbook triple flip-triple toe loop, but what stood out most were her spins. Long-limbed and muscular, Osmond has to work harder than others to make her flexibility moves look clean and natural, but her extension looks that much more dramatic because she has such control over it. That precision, along with some of the fastest basic skating in the field, earns her the high components scores that some fans are skeptical of. In some respects, she approaches her non-jump elements and connecting moves more like a men’s skater, muscling into them instead of faking a delicacy that isn’t really her style. That places her in contrast with most other top ladies, but the more she owns it, the farther she’s able to take it.

As great as Osmond was, Daleman damn near overshadowed her, especially in the free skate. In fact, I was surprised that Osmond beat her in the free – by less than a point, and entirely on components. Daleman competes with less technical difficulty than most top ladies, but her underlying technique is some of the best. Nobody else jumps higher, and she doesn’t rotate until she’s fully airborne, like she knows she’s going to be up there all day. She also beefs up her grades of execution with dramatic and unusual entrances and exits to her jumps. Her choreography is a giant stamina challenge, with few opportunities to breathe or regroup mentally. Which is fitting, because everyone watching was holding their breath for the entire four minutes of her free skate. Points and placement aside, she was the star of the ladies’ event.

4. Don’t underestimate anybody.

Before an event like Worlds, I’m always attentive to the athletes that people aren’t talking about. Underestimated athletes often do well in big events, because they feel the pressure less than the top contenders. Front runners claimed all the gold medals this year, but several quiet heroes made big statements. I don’t know if we’ll start taking them more seriously as a result, but we should be.

It’s weird that Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov still come off as underdogs in pairs, since they won both Euros and the Grand Prix Final this year. Maybe it’s because all of their big accomplishments come from consistency and steadiness, rather than the dramatic but unreliable moves that attract as much attention from a fall as a landing. Maybe it’s because their chemistry is less volatile and passionate than we expect from pairs, a comfortable and friendly connection that can be appealing but doesn’t have the strongest impact on the ice. Or maybe it’s that they had a little more oomph in their performances earlier in the season. Their short program was as stunningly precise as ever, and they wobbled only slightly in their free skate. It was more than good enough for bronze, and in a world where polish and persistence get due credit, it should also be good enough to cement their status as Russia’s strongest pairs team.

Normally, Boyang Jin isn’t an underdog. He’s one of the quad-jumping overlords of men’s skating, and he came to Worlds as the reigning bronze medalist. But a rough season, and a lack of new technical upgrades, had left him as the quad beast least likely to succeed in Helsinki. While others padded their arsenals with bigger jumps, Jin turned his attention to his components marks, addressing justified criticism that his transitions, skating skills, and musical interpretation lagged far behind his competitors’. His performances at Worlds demonstrated how much he’s developed his fundamentals, but more importantly, how effectively he’s cultivated a signature style. There’s never been a question that Jin is having fun whenever he skates, but for the first time, his choreography builds in opportunities for him to show it. An infectious smile can’t compensate for two-footed skating or jumps that launch perilously close to the boards, but it’s evidence of effort in the right direction. Jin’s quad lutz is impressive on its own, but his charm gives it something extra.

After Mai Mihara won Four Continents, you’d think we’d all be paying attention. Instead, folks continue to confuse her with Satoko Miyahara. Throughout her career, Mihara has been overshadowed by jumping prodigies and preternaturally dramatic divas, lost in Japan’s overcrowded ladies’ field. But her mental steadiness and exceptionally clean jump technique have brought her to the forefront this season. A major lapse in the short program took her out of podium range in Helsinki: she doubled her final jump, a flip, receiving zero credit for the element, and sank down to 15th in the segment. But she was error-free and graceful in her free skate, taking the lead and holding onto it for hours. She ended up with the fourth-place free skate, and she might have gone higher if she’d skated later. Compared with the other top competitors’ jumps, the deep edges of her entrances would have stood out more, as would the momentum she gains as she checks out of her controlled landings. Mihara isn’t the most expressive skater, and the Disney-princess wonder of her more confident Four Continents performance didn’t come through as strongly at Worlds. Few athletes can match her technique, though, and she should be giving stamina lessons to the rest of Team Japan. Her fifth-place finish is enough to establish her as an athlete to watch, but her quiet persistence – the quality that makes her all too easy to overlook – seems to be the secret to her success. She’ll enter 2017-18 as a major contender for one of Japan’s two Olympic slots, and it will get harder for her to keep skating like nobody’s watching.


 

Next on The Finer Sports: Two more posts of Worlds reactions! Then, a series of season-in-review posts, plus whatever I have to say about the World Team Trophy.

2017 World Championships Field Guide: Men Part 3

Welcome to the third and final section of my guide to the men’s event at 2017 Worlds. We’re down to 36 competitors, as Han Yan confirmed on Saturday that a shoulder injury will keep him from participating, and China has not assigned an alternate in his place. (If you’re wondering what he needs his shoulder for, watch how skaters pull their arms in as they launch a jump – without that quick snap, you can’t rotate in the air.) This part of the field guide includes everyone else in the last third of the alphabet. If you haven’t read the previous two sections, check out Part One and Part Two before moving on to this one. Part One gives a more detailed explanation of how these field guides are structured, and how my five-point rating system works.

Since the start of the competition is closing in, I’ll keep the preamble short. On with the skaters!

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2017 World Championships Field Guide: Men Part 2

We’re a week away from Worlds, and skaters are starting to converge on Helsinki. There are 37 of them on the roster for the men’s event, and I’m determined to profile every one before their short program begins on Thursday, March 30. I’m a third of the way there, so if you started with this post, go back and read Part 1 of my Worlds Field Guide to the men’s event. It explains in more detail how I’m formatting these guides, and why it’s actually a compliment when I say an athlete is Why I Drink. It also has Yuzuru Hanyu, Javier Fernandez, and Nathan Chen in it, which might be why you’re here. Unless your goal is to get more information on the less familiar skaters in the field, in which case, you’ve come to the right place. This guide includes skaters 13-24 in alphabetical order, and most are guys you’ve never heard of unless you’re as obsessed as I am.

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