2018 Olympics Figure Skating Preview: Pairs Part 2

We have a pairs short program starting any minute, so here’s your quick guide to the second half of the pairs alphabet.

We have a pairs short program starting any minute, with the men’s event hot on its tail. Meanwhile, I have a job and a social life and the occasional need for sleep. So here’s your quick guide to the second half of the pairs alphabet, with video, basic info, and a brief analysis of where each stands in the Olympic field. For more detailed profiles of the skaters from the first half of the alphabet, plus explanations of the four broad categories I’m sorting them into, see my 2018 Olympics Pairs Preview Part 1.

Kirsten Moore-Towers & Michael Marinaro

The Basics: Moore-Towers and Marinaro represent Canada. She’s 25 and from St. Catharines, Ontario; he’s 26 and from Sarnia, Ontario. They now live in Montreal, coached by Bruno Marcotte. They began skating together in 2014, and both have had notable international careers with other partners, she with Dylan Moscovitch and he with Margaret Purdy.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Since they teamed up, Moore-Towers and Marinaro have been seen as the fourth chair in Canadian pairs, but they stepped up when it mattered at Nationals this year and earned an Olympic spot. That takes the pressure way off – their teammates are seen as far more likely to rise to the podium – but also leaves them unjustly overlooked. They don’t compete the most difficult content, but skating conservatively and with consistency can get a team far when everyone’s nerves are running high. I can’t convince myself to count them out, which is the kind of ridiculous but satisfying mathematical conclusion that’s Why I Drink.

Cheng Peng and Yang Jin

The Basics: Peng and Jin represent China. Both are originally from Harbin and now live in Beijing, where they train with Bin Yao. She’s 20 years old, while his age is difficult to report on because of age falsification controversy. They’ve been skating together since 2016, before which she skated with Hao Zhang and he with Xiaoyu Yu.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: This team would probably be fandom darlings for their plucky personalities and warm on-ice connection, but they captured the heart of the internet when the Chinese Skating Association forced a partner swap, sending the message that Yu and Zhang were the preferred team and Peng and Jin were “Team Leftovers.” While Peng and Jin do lack the consistency and explosive jumping ability of the other Chinese teams, they make up for it in the precision and loveliness of their elements. They’ll probably get lost in the shuffle, but if they skate their best in Pyeongchang, they have the technical and artistic skills to catch the judges’ attention. Rooting for them feels like an act of revenge, and that’s Why I Drink.

Tae Ok Ryom & Ju Sik Kim

The Basics: Ryom and Kim represent North Korea. They’re both from Pyongyang, where they still live and train, coached by Hyon Son Kim. She’s 19 years old, and he’s 25. They’ve teamed with other partners domestically but have had international success only with each other.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Some athletes are important more for what they represent than for how they’ll compete. As North Korean athletes at an Olympic Games in South Korea, Ryom and Kim’s mere presence is symbolic. The best part is, they’re legitimately good enough to hold their own. They’re fresh off a bronze medal at Four Continents – achieved in a less strenuous field than usual, but nonetheless a first for a North Korean team at an ISU championship. They perform with a natural grace and flow, and their throw jumps are breathtaking. It’s unlikely they’ll have the base difficulty to reach the top ranks, but they’re Just Happy to Be Here on a more profound level than anyone else in the field.

Aliona Savchenko & Bruno Massot

The Basics: Savchenko and Massot represent Germany, although neither is a native of the country: she was born in Obukhiv, Ukraine, and he in Caen, France. Both skated for their countries of origin in the past and had notable international careers before they teamed up in 2014, she with Robin Szolkowy and with Stanislav Morozov, and he with Daria Popova. They live in Oberstdorf, Germany, where they train with Alexander Konig. She’s 34 years old, and he’s 29.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Savchenko has been a force of nature throughout her long career – she’s been competing internationally since 1998 – and she’s raised Massot to her level. Their greatest strength is their lack of weakness: they’re strong jumpers, elegant lifters, and spirited and versatile performers. Savchenko is also basically a pro at this Olympics thing, as she’s won bronze medals at the past two Games. If they skate like they did at their most recent international appearance, the Grand Prix Final (Savchenko’s fifth career gold medal at the event, and Massot’s first), they’ll be almost unstoppable. If they make weird, dramatic errors, as they too often do, their base value and high program components might still be enough to keep them on the podium. They’re not a lock for a medal, but they’re Front Runners.

Julianne Seguin & Charlie Bilodeau

The Basics: Seguin and Bilodeau represent Canada. She’s 21 years old and from the Montreal area; he’s 24 and originally from Rimouski, Quebec. They train in Chambly, Quebec, under a coaching team led by Josee Picard. They’ve been a team since 2012, before which she was a singles skater, and he had some domestic and junior-level success with another partner.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: If my doctor wants to understand the state of my liver function, she might want to look to the Canadian pairs. Like their teammates, Seguin and Bilodeau are world-class talents, but so unreliable under pressure that it’s impossible to predict where they’ll wind up in the standings. As performers, they’re among the most engaging pairs skaters, with a strong connection to one another and lots of emotional range. Their technical difficulty is high enough to put them in contention, although they tend to throw away points with small errors – when they’re not melting down completely. It would be great to see them rise to the occasion, but the uncertainty of that happening is Why I Drink.

Wenjing Sui & Cong Han

The Basics: Sui and Han represent China. They are either 22 and 25 years old or 20 and 28 years old, depending on the documentation. They’ve been skating together since 2007 and have had no other partners during their career. Both are originally from Harbin but now live in Beijing, where they’re coached by Hongbo Zhao.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Sui and Han are the reigning World Champions, and their momentum has continued into this season. They’re capable of an enormous quadruple twist lift, but where they really bring home the points is on the beauty of their execution. They don’t just do difficult elements; they perform them with finesse, and in ways that blend with the choreography. Sui has been battling injuries for several years, though, and their errors are often as dramatic as their successful jumps and lifts. To win gold in Pyeongchang, they’ll have to keep things exceptionally clean, but they’ve proven themselves so often capable of doing so that they’re Front Runners.

Miu Suzaki & Ryuichi Kihara

The Basics: Suzaki and Kihara represent Japan. She’s 18 years old and comes from Nagoya, while he’s 25 years old and from Ichinomiya, Aichi. They train primarily in the Detroit area in the United States, coached by Jason Dungjen and Yuka Sato. Both are former singles skaters, and he previously skated pairs with Narumi Takahashi. They’ve been a team since 2015.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Suzaki and Kihara have already attracted attention for skating their short program to music from the skating-themed anime Yuri on Ice. The team event gave them a rare showcase, as pairs is the weakest link in Japan’s otherwise formidable figure skating program. Even when they nail their elements, which include a sometimes impressive side-by-side triple lutz, they don’t have the overall difficulty to stand up to a field that is pushing pairs to new limits. They’re a great example of how a Just Happy to Be Here team can gain popularity through savvy choices and winning personalities.

Evgenia Tarasova & Vladimir Morozov

The Basics: Tarasova and Morozov will compete as Olympic Athletes from Russia. She’s 23 and from Kazan; he’s 25 and was born in Germany but moved to Moscow as a child. They train in Moscow under Nina Mozer. They skated with other people early in their careers, but their partnership, which began in 2012, is the first internationally significant one for both.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: If nothing else, Tarasova and Morozov will be memorable. Criticized in the past for not standing out enough artistically, their free skate is either a bonkers attempt to remake their image or a triumph of figure skating camp. Either way, they have the skills to back it up, from their huge opening quad twist to their speedy and graceful lifts. While they’re not paragons of consistency – and what pair is? – they have a remarkable ability to rebound from errors, most recently at the European Championships, where they jumped from a fifth-place short program to an overall gold medal. Get ready for some yellow polka dots on the podium, because they’re Front Runners.

Xiaoyu Yu & Hao Zhang

The Basics: Yu and Zhang represent China, and like the other Chinese teams, they have conflicting records of their ages: 22 or 20 for her, and 33 or 36 for him. She’s from Beijing, and he’s originally from Harbin. They train in Beijing with Bin Yao and Hongbo Zhao. Before they teamed up in 2016, she used to skate with Yang Jin, and he had substantial international success with Dan Zhang (including an Olympic silver medal way back in 2006) and Cheng Peng.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: China took a risk by putting these two together despite their success with other partners, and they’ve proved to be steady competitors, but not stars. Their difficulty is on par with that of other top teams, and they’re about as consistent as anyone, which means that on their best day, they’re in the conversation for a medal. But with less chemistry or artistic impact than the other teams at their level, they’ll have to hit every jump perfectly. They’re solid Dark Horses, but they’ll be eclipsed by other teams unless they give the performances of their lives.

Natalia Zabiiako & Alexander Enbert

The Basics: Zabiiako and Enbert will compete as Olympic Athletes from Russia. She’s 23 and was born in Tallinn, Estonia, and he’s 28 and from St. Petersburg. Both have laundry lists of former partners, although their current team is by far the most successful for both. They’re based in Moscow, and their primary coach is Nina Mozer.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Zabiiako and Enbert tend to fly under the radar, to the point where I’ve seen several dedicated figure skating fans forget that they’d made the team for major events such as Worlds and Europeans. While they’re not the most dynamic performers, their rare consistency and focus have become a major asset. If other teams skate well, Zabiiako and Enbert are probably out of the running for a medal, but if it’s a messy pairs event, look for these Dark Horses to glide past the wreckage.

Miriam Ziegler & Severin Kiefer

The Basics: Ziegler and Kiefer represent Austria. She’s 23 and from Oberpullendorf, and he’s 27 and from Graz. They’ve been a team since 2013, and both had some success as singles skaters before that. They train in Salzburg and in Berlin, coached by Knut Schubert.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: In every generation and discipline, there are a few solid, persistent mid-listers. Ziegler and Kiefer are defining examples, with a respectable record of top-ten finishes at Europeans and qualifications for Worlds and Olympics. They don’t compete the most difficult jumps, or land them consistently, but they skate with a determined joy that makes them a pleasure to watch. They won’t come in last, but they won’t finish in sight of the podium, either. They’re Just Happy to Be Here, and they’re the kind of team that fans are just happy to have around.


Previous Olympics Coverage on The Finer Sports:

Up next: previews of the men and ice dance, followed by the rest of the ladies!

2018 Olympics Figure Skating Preview: Pairs Part 1

There’s a good chance you’re new here, and don’t realize that I have a fraught relationship with pairs skating. On the one hand, it’s figure skating, so I love it more than the vast majority of things in the world. On the other hand, it’s pairs. When it comes to the three other disciplines, I can analyze down to the nitpick level, pointing out how a singles skater’s choctaw to triple lutz will raise her grade of execution or noting when an ice dance team will lose points for missing a checkpoint in their pattern dance. If your response to the previous sentence was, “All of those words were in English, and yet I could make no sense of them,” that’s pretty much how I feel when pairs skating aficionados talk about lift categories or throw jump technique. I enjoy watching pairs and have my favorites, but when called upon to preview the discipline for Olympics viewers, I’m winging it like a casual fan.

So it’s research skills to the rescue for me as I go through the first 11 of the 22 teams who will compete in Pyeongchang. For each, I’ll provide a video of a recent strong performance, a rundown of their career highlights, and a discussion of how their season has gone so far. I’ll follow with the best analysis I can provide of how they’ll perform at the Olympics. And since you should never ask a professional statistics nerd to make predictions based on data (unless you want a lecture on why statistical data is descriptive rather than predictive, and seriously, save yourself now), I’ll place each team into one of four broad categories:

  • Front Runners are the teams most likely to win an individual medal of any color at the 2018 Olympic Games.
  • Dark Horses have a tougher battle ahead of them, but they have technical skills and other qualities that put them in the conversation.
  • Most teams at the Olympics are Just Happy to Be Here. They’ve been training most of their lives for this event, and it’s a reward just to skate on Olympic ice, whatever the outcome. Many JHTBH teams are a pleasure to watch, and can make a powerful statement by skating their best when the world’s eyes are on them.
  • Some teams defy categorization. They have inconsistent or unusual records, and are therefore so unpredictable that it’s impossible to place them within the standard pecking order. These teams are Why I Drink, and in many ways, they’re the most fun part of watching figure skating.

Because the pairs field is more volatile than the other disciplines’, it’s especially stacked with Dark Horses, and because the alphabet is an overly effective randomizer, all of the Front Runners will be in Part Two.

Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya & Harley Windsor

The Basics: Alexandrovskaya and Windsor represent Australia. She’s 18 years old, and he’s 21. Alexandrovskaya is originally from Moscow, Russia, while Windsor hails from the suburbs of Sydney. They’ve been skating together since 2015. It’s been his only pairs partnership to date, and the first for her to achieve significant international results. They train with Andrei and Galina Pachin in Sydney, and with Nina Mozer in Moscow.

Career Highlights: Alexandrovskaya and Windsor debuted last season, skating mostly at the junior level. They were the surprise winners at Junior Grand Prix Estonia, becoming the first Australian pair to win a JGP event, and went on to place 5th at the 2016 Junior Grand Prix Final. After a disappointing 11th-place finish at the Four Continents Championships, they dominated at the World Junior Championships, taking gold and logging another first for an Australian team. At the senior-level World Championships, they skated well but couldn’t contend with the more established teams, for a 16th-place result.

Season So Far: This season, Alexandrovskaya and Windsor didn’t receive any senior Grand Prix assignments, so they returned to the JGP in the autumn. They started strong with gold at JGP Poland but hit a speed bump at JGP Latvia, where they placed only 4th. They were back on their game at the Junior Grand Prix Final, though, becoming the first Australians ever to win that event. On the senior level, they were spectacular at the Tallinn Trophy, winning gold by a 16-point margin. Under pressure at the Nebelhorn Trophy to earn an Olympic spot for Australia, their inexperience showed, but they managed to pull off a bronze medal. At Four Continents, they seemed poised for a medal after a great short program, but they collapsed in the free skate and finished only 6th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Alexandrovskaya and Windsor are trailblazers for Australia and are almost certain to break records and set new standards for pairs in their country. However, they’re a young team and prone to nerves. Both of these factors lead to technical errors, as well as to relatively low components scores compared with the more established teams. If they skate lights out in both programs, they’re very much a factor at these Olympics, and even if they don’t, they’ll skate well enough to make a name for themselves going forward. They’re Dark Horses with a bright future ahead.

Kristina Astakhova & Alexei Rogonov

The Basics: Astakhova and Rogonov will compete as Olympic Athletes from Russia. She’s 20 years old and from Moscow; he’s 29 years old and from Salsk. They’ve been skating together since 2014. Before that, she experienced some junior-level success with Nikita Bochkov, and he had a substantial international career with Anastasia Martiusheva. They train in Moscow, coached by Artur Dmitriev.

Career Highlights: Astakhova and Rogonov  began their partnership in 2014 with two Challenger Series gold medals, at the Volvo Open and Golden Spin, as well as a surprise bronze medal at their first Grand Prix assignment, the Rostelecom Cup. Since then, they’ve mostly found themselves on the lower tiers of international podiums: they’ve earned six career silver medals at Challenger Series events, and taken bronze at a total of four Grand Prix competitions. They’ve never even reached the podium at Nationals, although they’ve been 4th three times.

Season So Far: Astakhova and Rogonov have been solid and steady throughout the current season. They began with a silver medal at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, then gave their best performances of the season on the Grand Prix circuit, earning a pair of bronze medals and setting new personal best scores at the NHK Trophy. After a shaky outing at Golden Spin – nonetheless good enough for silver – they couldn’t quite find their feet at Nationals. Although they finished fourth there, another team was rendered ineligible by the International Olympic Committee in the wake of Russian doping violations, so Astakhova and Rogonov get their shot at an Olympics.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Compared to their fellow Russians, Astakhova and Rogonov have milder-mannered personalities and less explosive technical elements, which gets them lost in the shuffle. They also tend to miss crucial jumps in high-pressure situations, which is why they’ve never quite made it to a Russian podium. On the other hand, this is a competition where the lack of pressure could work in their favor: with more focus on the other Russian teams, Astakhova and Rogonov could shine. They’re the kind of ninja Dark Horses that it’s impossible to rule out.

Paige Conners & Evgeni Krasnopolski

The Basics: Conners is 17 years old, and Krasnopolski is 29; they represent Israel. Conners is American by birth – from Pittsford, in western New York state – but her mother is an Israeli citizen. Krasnopolski was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and immigrated to Israel with his parents as a small child. Now, both live and train in Hackensack, New Jersey, USA, coached by Galit Chait Moracci. They’re a brand new team, skating together since 2017.

Career Highlights: Krasnopolski is Conners’ first skating partner of competitive significance, but he has a long history in the sport prior to teaming with her. Connors is, in fact, the fifth woman with whom he has competed internationally in pairs. Before that, he was a three-time Israeli silver medalist in men’s singles, and placed as high as 30th at Junior Worlds as a singles skater. In pairs, he’s earned medals at a number of “senior B” international competitions and placed as high as 7th at the European Championships (with Andrea Davidovich) and as high as 17th at the World Championships (with Danielle Montalbano). With Davidovich, he represented Israel at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and placed 15th.

Season So Far: Conners and Krasnopolski have had a promising debut season together. They gave solid performances at all three of their Challenger Series events and earned a bronze medal at Ice Star in Minsk. At the Nebelhorn Trophy, they rose to the occasion technically and artistically, securing an Olympic spot for Israel when they placed 8th. At the European Championships, they finished 9th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Krasnopolski has struggled to stick with his partners for more than a season or two, but Conners seems like a good match for him despite their chasm of age and experience. She’s a natural performer, which brings out his musicality; in turn, his maturity appears to ground her and help her control her technical elements. Nonetheless, their components scores and grades of execution hold them back, as they don’t skate with the intricacy and ease of higher-ranked competitors. If they hit every element dead on, they might throw off some predictions, but they’re unlikely to build enough on their base value to become more than Just Happy to Be Here.

Nicole Della Monica & Matteo Guarise

The Basics: Della Monica and Guarise represent Italy. She’s 28 and comes from Bergamo; he’s 29 and from Rimini. Coached by Cristina Mauri, they train primarily in Bergamo. They’ve been skating together since 2011, prior to which Della Monica experienced international success with Yannick Kocon, and Guarise was a world champion roller skater.

Career Highlights: In her previous partnership with Kocon, Della Monica competed at the Olympics for the first time, finishing 12th in 2010. Her results improved markedly when she teamed up with Guarise, however. Della Monica and Guarise are three-time Italian silver medalists and three-time national champions. They’ve earned numerous medals at senior B international events and excelled at the Challenger Series in 2016, taking gold at both the Lombardia Trophy and Golden Spin. They’ve competed at six European Championships, always placing in the top 10, and have finished as high as 11th at Worlds, in 2016. At the 2014 Olympics, they came in 16th.

Season So Far: Della Monica and Guarise have been making a great case for themselves this season. They began with Challenger Series silver medals at both the Lombardia Trophy and Finlandia Trophy. Then, they gave a pair of standout performances at their Grand Prix events, placing fourth at Cup of China and earning their first career Grand Prix medal, a bronze, at the Trophee de France. They looked great at Nationals, where they won their third domestic title in a row. At Europeans, they came in a solid 6th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Della Monica and Guarise have taken home more hardware this season than ever before, and they’re peaking at the right moment to exceed expectations during these Olympics. They also possess many of the qualities that can boost a team’s components score: they’re fast, with deep edges and fluid body lines, and they express a lot of personality and connection to the music. Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to count them among the herd of Dark Horses in this year’s pairs field, I can’t come up with a scenario in which they reach the podium. They could get close, though, which makes them the captains of the pairs division of the Just Happy to Be Here squad.

Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford

The Basics: Duhamel and Radford skate for Canada. She’s 32 years old and comes from the Sudbury area of Ontario; he’s 33 and grew up in a small town in western Ontario. They now both reside in the Montreal area, where they train with coaches Richard Gauthier and Bruno Marcotte (the latter is Duhamel’s husband). They’ve been skating together since 2010, and both have notable previous partners – Craig Buntin for Duhamel, Rachel Kirkland for Radford – as well as significant prior careers as singles skaters.

Career Highlights: Before teaming up, Duhamel and Radford had already made their marks on the sport. They’re both former junior national champions in singles (2003 for her, 2004 for him), and Duhamel took bronze at Four Continents in 2010 while skating with Buntin. The magic and the medals really kicked in when they got together, though. They’ve won seven consecutive Canadian pairs titles as a team. They’ve medaled at every Grand Prix event that they’ve entered since 2011; seven of those medals have been gold; four are from the past four Skate Canadas. They were Grand Prix Final champions in 2014, Four Continents champions in 2013 and 2015, and World Champions in 2015 and 2016. They competed at the 2014 Olympics but placed only 7th.

Season So Far: This has been a challenging season for Duhamel and Radford, although they’ve enjoyed some notable successes. Heavily favored to win the Challenger Series Autumn Classic, they made several errors and took silver instead. They had a similar experience at Skate America and achieved only bronze. At Skate Canada, they got back on track, winning gold after an excellent free skate. But it was back to technical difficulties at the Grand Prix Final, and they settled for bronze. At Nationals, they calmed concerns about their domestic dominance with a pair of terrific skates and maintained their reign at the top of the Canadian podium.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Duhamel and Radford are one of the most accomplished current pairs teams. While fans sometimes gripe that their performances are too technical, their exceptional skating skills and their free, friendly chemistry convince the judges of their artistry. They also compete some of the most difficult jumps in the field, including a side-by-side triple lutz and a throw quadruple salchow – both of which they landed solidly at Skate Canada. The problem is, those impressive elements are hit or miss, and the misses have outnumbered the hits this season. Lingering injuries, as well as the fact that both are well into their 30’s, have affected their stamina as well. Add to that uncertainty the fact that if Radford reaches the podium, he’ll be the first out gay man to win an Olympic medal in figure skating, and it’s clear that they’re Why I Drink.

Anna Duskova & Martin Bidar

The Basics: Duskova and Bidar are both 18 years old and represent the Czech Republic. She comes from Nymburk; he’s from Ceske Budejovice. They train primarily in Prague, with Eva Horklova as their coach. They’ve been skating together since 2011, and both were singles skaters before that.

Career Highlights: Duskova and Bidar gained international experience for three seasons at the junior level, improving by leaps and bounds from year to year. Their breakout season was 2015-16, when they took silver at the Junior Grand Prix Final and Youth Olympics. They went on to win 2016 Junior Worlds, becoming the first Czech pair ever to do so. That fall, they came in second at the JGP Final again, and won their first senior-level gold, at the 2016 Cup of Nice. They gave solid performances at both of their ISU Championships, finishing 7th at 2017 Europeans and 14th at Worlds.

Season So Far: Duskova and Bidar have had to withdraw from most of their planned competitions this season, as Duskova suffered a knee injury in October 2017 that required surgery. The only event they were able to participate in before that was the most crucial – the Nebelhorn Trophy, where they eked out a trip to the Olympics with a 9th-place finish.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Even before Duskova’s injury put the brakes on what should have been a resume-building season for this young pair, things looked awry for them. They skated with uncharacteristic caution at the Nebelhorn Trophy, and formerly rock-solid elements looked shaky there. According to their Facebook page, Duskova was excited just to be back on the ice as of early December, but they’ve been telling the Czech press they’re at full strength now. On one level, that makes Duskova and Bidar the great unknown quantity of this pairs event. It’s hard to imagine them factoring into the medal conversation even if they’re at their best, though. They’re extremely talented, but their artistry and skating skills aren’t polished enough to keep up with the top of the field. They should interpret Duskova’s speedy recovery as a gift and be Just Happy to Be Here.

Annika Hocke & Ruben Blommaert

The Basics: Hocke and Blommaert skate for Germany. She’s 17 years old and a Berlin native; he’s 25 and comes from Bruges, Belgium. Coached by Knut Schubert and Alexander Konig, they train in Berlin and Oberstdorf. They’ll celebrate the one-year anniversary of their partnership in Pyeongchang. Before teaming up, both competed as singles skaters, and Blommaert previously skated pairs with Annabelle Prolss and with Mari Vartmann.

Career Highlights: As a singles skater, Blommaert twice represented Belgium at Europeans and Junior Worlds. After making the switch to pairs, he medaled at a number of small international competitions with his earlier partners, including a gold medal at Cup of Nice with each (in different years). He and Vartmann were 8th at 2015 Europeans. Hocke was achieving respectable results as a singles skater through last season, most notably a 7th-place finish at the 2016 Junior Grand Prix of Russia and a bronze medal at the 2017 German National Championships.

Season So Far: Hocke and Blommaert stayed busy on the “senior B” circuit during the fall of 2017. They picked up silver medals at Ice Star and Cup of Nice. On home ice at the Nebelhorn Trophy, they performed a fabulous free skate, although the tougher field there meant only 5th place for them. At Europeans, they reaffirmed their status as up-and-comers, finishing a solid 8th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Hocke and Blommaert are an excellent match, and watching them, it’s hard to believe they’ve only been skating together for a year. They synchronize their moves beautifully and display a rare natural connection. From a technical standpoint, it does sometimes look like Hocke is still learning some of her pairs elements, and it’s surprising that these two fairly accomplished singles skaters don’t compete harder jumps. That puts an unfortunate ceiling on their technical base value, and their status as relative unknowns means they won’t receive any favors in the components department. With that in mind, they’re Just Happy to Be Here, but strong performances could win them a lot of fans going forward.

Vanessa James & Morgan Cipres

The Basics: James and Cipres represent France. James is 30 years old; she was born in Canada, raised in Bermuda and the United States, and competed for Great Britain in singles. Cipres is 26 years old and comes from Melun, outside Paris. They now live and train in Florida, coached by John Zimmerman. Before teaming up with James in 2010, Cipres was a singles skater, while James previously skated with Yannick Bonheur.

Career Highlights: James and Cipres first became national champions in 2013, and they renewed their title every year through 2017. They’ve competed at seven European Championships, never placing worse than 6th and taking the bronze medal in 2017. They’ve earned a total of four Grand Prix medals, although never a gold one. At Worlds, they consistently place within the top 10; their highest result has been 8th, in both 2013 and 2017.

Season So Far: James and Cipres have achieved some of the strongest results of their career this season and put themselves on the radar for the Olympics. They began with a surprise win at the Autumn Classic, then won medals at both of their Grand Prix events, silver at the Trophee de France and bronze at Skate Canada. At Europeans, they skated a lights-out short program that initially put them in first place, but a missed jump and some wobbly lifts in their free skate proved costly. They slipped down to fourth place, missing the podium by 0.01.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: James and Cipres’ soaring and muscular style is unique in pairs, and it’s gaining favor with judges who have underrated their components scores in the past. They haven’t been entirely consistent on their throw quad salchow this season, but they’ve had more hits than misses. That jump alone should keep them in the conversation, but no amount of technical difficulty seems to be enough to hold them up if they make errors elsewhere. They tend to sacrifice points in weird places, like their spins and death spirals. James and Cipres always look like they should be good enough to reach a high-profile podium, and then, somehow, they blow it. It would be cool to see them pull an upset, but the likelihood of that is slim enough that they’re Why I Drink.

Kyueun Kim & Alex Kangchan Kam

The Basics: Kim and Kam represent South Korea. She’s 18 years old and from Seoul. He’s 22; he was born in New Zealand and has lived in the United States but considers Seoul his home. They live in Montreal, where they’re coached by Bruno Marcotte. They’ve been skating together since 2016, before which both were singles skaters, and Kam skated pairs with Yeri Kim.

Career Highlights: Before teaming with Kim, Kam’s most notable accomplishments were a junior-level gold medal in singles at the 2013 Asian Trophy, and a top-ten finish at a Junior Grand Prix event in pairs with Yeri Kim. Kim has placed as high as 5th in singles at Korean Nationals and made the top 10 at a couple of Challenger Series events. As a team, they were 5th at the 2016 Autumn Classic and at the 2017 Asian Games, and 15th at 2017 Four Continents.

Season So Far: Kim and Kam had a terrific free skate at the Challenger Series Autumn Classic, where they placed 5th. They also won their first international medal together, a bronze, at the 2017 Cup of Nice. At Nationals, they won an uncontested gold medal. Beyond that, they’ve had a quiet season, including a withdrawal from Four Continents – probably to ensure they were healthy and ready for the Olympics.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: While Korea has built up a substantial program in singles skating and has a notable ice dance team, things haven’t come together for the country in pairs yet. Unable to qualify a pair through placements at qualifying competitions, Korea used one of its host picks to include Kim and Kam. While they’re a hardworking team who can be fun to watch, their technical level doesn’t come close to that of the rest of the field. They’ll be Just Happy to Be Here as soon as they hear the roar of the crowd and see the flags waving for them.

Alexa Scimeca Knierim & Chris Knierim

The Basics: Knierim and Knierim, who married in 2016, represent the United States of America. She’s 26 and comes from the Chicago area; he’s 30 and from Tucson. They train in Colorado Springs with Dalilah Sappenfield. They became a team in 2012, and although they skated with other partners previously, didn’t achieve much internationally until they began skating together.

Career Highlights: Chris skated with four other partners before finding Alexa, and he was most successful with Brynn Carman, earning a couple of national medals at lower competitive levels. Once the Knierims teamed up, however, it became clear that they were more than the sum of their parts. They’ve stood on the national podium together four times and been national champions twice, in 2015 and 2018. They’ve earned five Challenger Series medals, including gold ones at the 2014 US International Classic and the 2015 Ice Challenge. In 2015, they had an excellent Grand Prix, taking silver at Skate America and bronze at the NHK Trophy, and qualifying for the Grand Prix Final. They’re two-time Four Continents medalists, and they’ve reached the top 10 each of the four times they’ve competed at Worlds, placing as high as 7th in 2015.

Season So Far: After sitting out most of 2016-17 while Alexa recovered from a life-threatening gastrointestinal illness, the Knierims have skated at full health this season, although perhaps not at the top of their game. They began with a silver medal at the US International Classic, then finished a slightly disappointing 5th at both of their Grand Prix events, Skate America and the NHK Trophy. At 2018 Nationals, they earned their second career national title, albeit in a less decisive victory than many had expected.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: The Knierims are a technically gifted team, but they haven’t reestablished relevance for American pairs as many fans have hoped they would. Instead, they’re coming to the Olympics as the USA’s sole representatives in pairs – the only discipline in which America doesn’t have a full complement of three entries. Some of their elements are phenomenal, including an enormous quadruple twist lift and a lovely throw triple flip. However, they almost never land their side-by-side jumps cleanly, and they lack the transitional smoothness and expressive flair of the top teams. I know a lot of fans who will be drinking heavily as the Knierims take the ice, but when I set my patriotism aside, it’s clear that they’re Just Happy to Be Here.

Valentina Marchei & Ondrej Hotarek

The Basics: Marchei and Hotarek represent Italy. She’s 31 years old and from Milan, and he’s 34 and from Brno, Czech Republic. They train primarily in Bergamo with Franca Bianconi. Prior to teaming up with Hotarek in 2014, Marchei had a successful career as a singles skater. Hotarek has competed internationally in pairs with several partners, and represented the Czech Republic in singles before that.

Career Highlights: Before teaming up with Marchei, Hotarek was already a six-time Italian champion in pairs, twice with Laura Magitteri and four times with Stefania Berton. With Berton, he placed as high as 9th at Worlds, came in 11th at the 2014 Olympics, and won a bronze medal at 2013 Europeans. Meanwhile, Marchei competed successfully in ladies’ singles for over a decade. Her best result at Euros, out of 10 appearances, was 4th in 2013, and she got up to 8th at Worlds in 2012. Coincidentally, she placed 11th in the ladies’ event at the 2014 Olympics. Since teaming up, Marchei and Hotarek have won six Challenger Series medals, including two gold ones in a row at the Warsaw Cup. They’ve never quite reached the podium at a Grand Prix or Euros, although they’ve knocked on the door, with a number of 4th and 5th place results. At 2017 Worlds, they came in 9th, securing Olympic spots for two Italian pairs.

Season So Far: Marchei and Hotarek showed no signs of slowing down this season, and posted some of the best results of their long careers. They kicked off their season with a so-so performance and a bronze medal at the Lombardia Trophy. While stiffer competition meant lower placements at the Grand Prix, they posted strong scores at the Rostelecom Cup, where they were 4th, and the Cup of China, where they were 5th. After winning the Warsaw Cup for the second year in a row, they underperformed a bit at Nationals, accepting their third consecutive Italian silver medal. But they were spectacular at Euros, especially in the short program, and set a new career-best score on their way to 5th place.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Marchei and Hotarek’s love for figure skating comes through with every move they make, and their combination of experience, personality, and mutual trust gives them a leg up in their components scores. Their technical content isn’t quite as challenging as many of their competitors’, and their jumps have always been hit or miss. Nonetheless, they have enough gas in the tank – and enough points in their base technical value – that they’re hail-Mary long shots for an Olympic medal. If they keep their heads while others melt down around them, they could be the kind of Dark Horses who make things interesting.


Previously on The Finer Sports: 2018 Olympics Ladies’ Preview, Part One.

Next up: the rest of the pairs, followed by men, dance, and the rest of the ladies. Not necessarily in that order.

2018 Olympics Figure Skating Preview: Ladies Part 1

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games are upon us! I mean, they’re soon. Really soon. For figure skating fans, there’s no way to feel truly prepared. World Championships and Grand Prix Finals might be more accurate tests of which skaters are the best in the world from year to year, but the Olympics are special. They’re also subject to one of the most complicated, and often nonsensical, qualification processes in sports, which means that a number of big names will be stuck at home, while several athletes you’ve never heard of will be making things awkward in the short program – or rising to the occasion. And everyone will be watching.

There are 30 ladies on the list for Pyeongchang, and this post will cover the first 15 of them in alphabetical order. I’ll go over some basic information about each athlete, and I’ll provide overviews of both their major career accomplishments to date and their seasons so far. Building on those, I’ll analyze how I think each skater will perform at the Olympics. I won’t make any podium predictions – that’s not my style – but I’ll place each athlete in one of four broad categories:

  • Front Runners are the athletes most likely to win an individual medal in Pyeongchang.
  • Dark Horses are less likely to make it to the podium, but they’re talented enough to pull off a surprise.
  • Just Happy to Be Here describes the majority of competitors, for whom the Olympic Games have been a lifelong dream. There’s no shame in being assigned to the JHBH squad, and there’s plenty of opportunity for enduring fame, especially in this age of the viral video.
  • Why I Drink is a special category reserved for athletes who are just too hard to categorize. Their prior resumes are so full of inconsistencies or contradictions that they don’t fit within the standard pecking order. In some ways, they’re the most fun part of watching figure skating. And in the high-pressure environment of the Olympics, they have the potential to massively upset the status quo. Of the four women who have won Olympic gold in ladies’ singles in this century, three would have made my Why I Drink list if I’d had a blog then.

With no further ado, here’s the first half of the alphabet.

Larkyn Austman

The Basics: Austman is 19 years old and represents Canada. She comes from the Vancouver area, where she continues to live and train, with Zdenek Pazdirek as her primary coach.

Career Highlights: Austman first drew attention in 2013, when she won a junior national title. She struggled to translate that success to the international stage, placing only 16th at her sole World Junior Championships appearance in 2014. After that, she faded from view a bit, but a fourth-place finish at 2017 Nationals put her back on the map, and soon afterward, she won her first international medal, a bronze, at the Challenge Cup.

Season So Far: The autumn was rough going for Austman. She placed a lackluster 12th at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, then finished dead last at her Grand Prix debut, Skate Canada. When she took bronze at Nationals, it came as a surprise – and a revelation.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Austman benefited, more than anything, from Canada’s shallow bench. Canada boasts two standout talents in ladies, who earned space for three Canadian ladies at these Olympics.  Nationals became a battle for bronze, and Austman came out on top. But she wasn’t great in her career-making free skate, just better than everyone else: she fell on her most difficult jumping pass and struggled with several other landings. She hasn’t found a way to shake her competitive inconsistency, and she doesn’t have a triple-triple combination. As a result, she’s Just Happy to Be Here.

Karen Chen

The Basics: Chen is 18 years old and represents the United States of America. She’s originally from Fremont, California, in the Bay Area, but has moved south to train in Riverside, CA, with Tammy Gambill.

Career Highlights: Dedicated skating fans have known about Chen since she was a child, when she excelled domestically at lower competitive levels, and then internationally as a junior. In her senior Nationals debut, in 2015, she took a surprise bronze medal; two years later, in 2017, she skated back-to-back career-best programs and became US National Champion. She followed that by overachieving again at the 2017 World Championships, where she held steady to take 4th place.

Season So Far: Chen’s season got off to a promising start, with a strong short program and an overall bronze medal at the U. S. Classic. On the Grand Prix circuit, however, she struggled, managing only 7th at Skate Canada and 8th at Skate America. At Nationals, she performed beautifully, with a pair of apparently clean programs that suffered from deductions for underrotated jumps. Still, she did enough for a bronze medal and a place on the Olympic team.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: The best moments of Chen’s career make her look like a contender, and her strongest performances and scores – as well as her difficult technical content – put her on par with the best of the field. In reality, however, Chen’s inconsistency makes her one of the biggest wildcards in the sport, and a perennial headache for the many internet fans who adore her. Even when she looks great to the naked eye, she’s often a mess on paper, as she tends to cut her rotations short when she’s under pressure. As a result, she’s never won a medal at a senior Grand Prix or ISU championship. On the other hand, she’s made a habit over the past few years of peaking late in the season. Chen also tends to skate her best when she has nothing to lose, and that’s actually the case in Pyeongchang: her two American teammates are under much more pressure to deliver. Chen has been Why I Drink for the entirety of her senior-level career, and a lot of us will be raising a glass to her as she takes the ice in Pyeongchang.

Dabin Choi

The Basics: Choi is 18 years old and skates for South Korea. She’s from Seoul, where she still lives and trains. Her primary coach is Eun-Hee Lee.

Career Highlights: In the race to become the next Yu-Na Kim, Choi has long been a front runner, reaching the senior-level podium domestically before her 12th birthday. Although she’s never achieved national gold, she’s always near the top, with two bronze medals and three silver on her resume. She first made an impact internationally in 2015, with a strong 9th-place finish at Junior Worlds in the spring and bronze medals at both of her Junior Grand Prix events in the fall. The greater artistic and stamina demands of senior-level competition held her back last season, although she pulled off a triumphant surprise win at the 2017 Asian Games. Her solid 10th-place finish at the 2017 World Championships earned two spots for South Korea at the Olympics.

Season So Far: While Choi remains on the radar, she hasn’t quite broken through this season in the way that her fans might have hoped. She looked solid at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in the fall, where she placed 4th, but unsteady at the Finlandia Trophy and Cup of China, finishing a disappointing 9th at both. She seemed set to redeem herself at Skate America but had to withdraw at the last minute due to illness. At Nationals, however, she was back on form, earning her third national silver medal. Her performance at the Four Continents Championships last week confirmed that she’s back at the top of her game; she placed fourth, her strongest finish at an ISU championship to date.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: In an increasingly crowded field of young Korean ladies, Choi has emerged as one of the standout talents, not only for her jumping ability but also for creative programs that bring out her bubbly personality. At her best – as at the Asian Games last season – she’s knocking on the door of the top tier of international skaters, but she’s not as polished or as consistent as she needs to be. She’s the Dark Horse least likely to succeed in Pyeongchang, but keep an eye on her, especially since she’s the hometown favorite.

Kailani Craine

The Basics: Craine is 19 years old and represents Australia. She’s a native of Newcastle, New South Wales, but like most top Australian skaters, she trains abroad – in her case, it’s Los Angeles, with Tiffany Chin as her coach.

Career Highlights: Craine has emerged as the top Australian talent of her generation, and as one of the faces of a growing program for figure skating in her country. She’s a four-time senior national champion, and holds five more national titles at lower levels. She’s placed as high as 16th at Junior Worlds, and qualified for the free skate at a crowded 2017 World Championships, finishing 24th. She’s earned a number of medals at smaller international competitions throughout her career, most notably a silver at the Challenger Series Warsaw Cup in 2016.

Season So Far: Many of Craine’s achievements this season look modest, but in context, they’re more impressive. She was only 8th at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, but that field was stacked; she actually held her own against several of the best ladies in the sport. She finished only 10th at Skate Canada, but that’s a respectable feat for a lesser-known athlete at her Grand Prix debut. Craine also had no trouble winning a fourth consecutive national title. But her biggest moment came at the Nebelhorn Trophy, the final qualifying event for the Olympics, where she was tasked with earning a spot in Pyeongchang for Australia. She delivered, and then some, giving back-to-back performances of her life to take a high-profile, high-stakes gold medal.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: I’d love to consider Craine a long shot, because she’s an animated and versatile performer with one of my favorite ladies’ short programs of the season. However, even when she’s skating her lights-out best, her technical difficulty and fundamental skating skills don’t put her on par with the many strong contenders. She doesn’t compete a triple-triple jump combination, and when the judges get picky, as they did at Skate Canada, she loses points for underrotated jumps. Let’s call her the captain of the Just Happy to Be Here squad.

Gabrielle Daleman

The Basics: Daleman is 20 years old and represents Canada. She’s originally from Toronto, and continues to train in that part of the country, with Lee Barkell as her primary coach.

Career Highlights: Daleman first made her mark as the 2012 junior national champion, and she’s stood on the senior podium in Canada every year since: she’s won gold twice, and silver four times. She placed a strong 6th at 2013 Junior Worlds, and a year later, competed at her first Olympics, where she finished 17th. In the years that followed, a combination of injuries and nerves held her back, and she has never won a medal on the Grand Prix circuit. But in 2017, Daleman stormed the post-season, taking silver at the Four Continents Championships and a career-defining, prediction-destroying bronze at the World Championships.

Season So Far: Daleman has been battling a series of illnesses since Worlds, and her international results in the fall reflected that. Competing far below her full strength, six was Daleman’s lucky number, and her placement at the Finlandia Trophy, Cup of China, and Skate America. She came to Nationals recovering from pneumonia, but you never would have guessed it from her two poised and clean programs. She earned massive scores on her way to her second Canadian title.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: The good news is, it looks like Daleman will finally be healthy in time for the Olympics. However, it’s hard to say where she’ll be technically, in a season when her health has so frequently interrupted her training. Daleman’s jump technique is some of the best in the sport, with such height off the ice that she gets hang time in the air. She’s also returned to her signature “Rhapsody in Blue” free skate from last season, a crowd-pleaser that shows off her strengths as a performer. Under most circumstances, a reigning world bronze medalist would be a top contender, but with so many question marks surrounding Daleman, she’s more of a Dark Horse.

Loena Hendrickx

The Basics: Hendrickx is 18 years old and represents Belgium. She’s from Turnhout. She trains mostly in Oberstdorf, Germany, alongside her brother, Jorik, who will compete for Belgium in the men’s event. Carine Herrygers is her coach.

Career Highlights: Hendrickx is a two-time Belgian champion. She got off to a slow start at the junior level, but she’s made her mark as a senior with medals at a number of smaller internationals, most notably gold at the 2017 Challenge Cup. She’s also risen to the occasion at several ISU championships, placing an impressive 7th at the 2017 European Championships and reserving a place for herself at the Olympics by finishing 15th at last year’s World Championships.

Season So Far: We haven’t seen much of Hendrickx this season, as she’s been recovering from a knee injury that forced her to withdraw from most of her fall events. She seemed to come out of nowhere at the 2018 European Championships, where an intense and confident free skate carried her to fifth place, the best Euros finish in history for a Belgian lady.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Hendrickx is a trailblazer for Belgian ladies’ skating, and her free skate at 2018 Euros was a revelation. She seems to have spent her recovery period working on her musical interpretation and her skating skills, and she’s a whole new skater now, mature and refined. A couple of crucial popped jumps revealed that she still has trouble with her timing, though, and her relatively low base technical difficulty limits her. Her program components scores haven’t caught up with her big improvements in artistry and fundamentals, either. Hendrickx might be a factor in 2022, but this time, she’s Just Happy to Be Here.

Anna Khnychenkova

The Basics: Khnychenkova is 23 years old and represents Ukraine. She’s from Dnipro, where she trains with Viacheslav Tkachenko.

Career Highlights: Khnychenkova focused on pairs skating during her teenage years, which makes her a bit of a late bloomer in the ladies’ field. She’s a six-time Ukrainian national medalist and the 2017 national champion. In 2016, she competed at both Euros and Worlds for the first time, and achieved her highest placements to date at both: 21st and 19th, respectively. Later the same year, she achieved her first international gold medal, at Ice Star in Minsk.

Season So Far: Khnychenkova has been a fixture at Challenger Series competitions and other “senior B” events this season, with solid results at most of them. Her strongest outing was at Cup of Nice, where she took bronze after landing a massive triple toe loop-triple toe loop in her short program. At the Nebelhorn Trophy, she had some trouble but got the job done, earning an Olympic spot for Ukraine with her seventh-place finish. She was a so-so second at Nationals, but the athlete who beat her is too young to compete at the Olympics. She’d surely hoped to establish herself as a contender with a strong European Championships, but she unraveled instead, following an excellent short program with a free skate meltdown that left her only 23rd overall.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Khnychenkova’s name is one of the least known in the ladies’ field at these Olympics, and it’s a shame, because she’s a pleasure to watch when she’s at her best. While she’s never attempted a triple flip-triple toe loop in competition, her current free skate layout suggests she might give it a shot here, and that difficulty boost would launch her into long shot territory. However, she’s also inconsistent, and her straightforward choreography limits her program components potential. It’s exciting that this underrated athlete made the cut for an Olympic Games, and that achievement should make her Just Happy to Be Here.

Hanul Kim

The Basics: Kim is 15 years old and represents South Korea. She comes from Anyang and trains in nearby Gwacheon with Ji-Yeon Oh.

Career Highlights: Kim emerged as a rising star in junior international competition, placing as high as 5th at the Junior Grand Prix Czech Republic in 2016. She’s competed as a senior at Korean Nationals five times, moving steadily through the ranks as she matures and improves.

Season So Far: Kim moved up to the senior level internationally this season, and has experienced her greatest competitive success so far. She began with a fabulous debut at a small meet, the Philadelphia Summer International, where she rallied from a rough short program to win the free skate and take overall bronze. She placed 4th at Nationals, the best finish of her career, ahead of several bigger names. At the Four Continents Championships, she proved herself worthy of an Olympic spot by nailing a triple lutz-triple toe loop in her short program and placing a surprise 6th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Kim has benefited from the fact that many of the best Korean ladies are too young to compete at the Olympics; born in April 2002, she just makes the cut. Nonetheless, she’s risen to the occasion this season, demonstrating her ability to land difficult jumps with control and panache. She lacks consistency, though, especially under pressure, and while she has a lot of natural on-ice presence, her choreography is fairly simple. Kim could overachieve at the Olympics – and the hometown crowd would love it – but at this point in her career, she’s Just Happy to Be Here.

Carolina Kostner

The Basics: At 30, Kostner is the oldest competitor in the ladies’ event; she represents Italy. She comes from Urtijei, in far northern Italy, and trains in Oberstdorf, Germany. Her coaches are Alexei Mishin and Michael Huth.

Career Highlights: Where does one even start with an athlete who has been competing internationally for longer than many of her rivals have been alive? She debuted as a junior in 2000-01, and became junior national champion that season. Since then, she’s earned nine senior national titles and has never done worse than silver at Nationals. Kostner has been a Grand Prix mainstay since 2003, with 14 medals at Grand Prix events, four of them gold. She’s medaled at four of her five Grand Prix Final appearances, and she won in 2011. She’s stood on the podium at the European Championships every year since 2006 and is a five-time European Champion. Kostner has won six medals at the World Championships and was the 2012 World Champion. This will be her fourth Olympic Games – and she arrives as the reigning bronze medalist.

Season So Far: Kostner has had an impressive season by any standard, but one that leaves her with something to prove. She began with strong but flawed performances at two Challenger Series events, taking bronze at the Lombardia Trophy and silver at the Finlandia Trophy. Her silver streak continued at the Grand Prix, with second-place finishes at the Rostelecom Cup and NHK Trophy, taking her to a fourth-place result at the Grand Prix Final. After stopping to pick up her ninth career Italian championship, Kostner brought home European bronze.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: At an age when most women have long since stopped training triple jumps, Kostner has upgraded, premiering a perfect triple flip-triple toe loop combination in her short program at Europeans. That jumping pass puts her difficulty on par with the best. But Kostner’s advantage has always been her second mark. She skates with speed, edge depth, and ice coverage seldom seen outside of ice dance, and her maturity and self-awareness make her an extraordinary artist. Kostner will have a hard time reaching the top of the Olympic podium, but she’s a Front Runner for a second bronze, if not better.

Xiangning Li

The Basics: Li is 17 years old and represents China. She lives and trains in her hometown of Qiqihar, coached by Ming Xu.

Career Highlights: Li has been rising through the ranks domestically for a number of years. She earned her first national medal, a bronze, in 2014, and has reached the podium at Nationals every year since. She emerged internationally in 2015 with a pair of sixth-place finishes at Junior Grand Prix events. Last season, she followed an 11th-place result at Junior Worlds with her World Championships debut. There, she placed only 14th, but set new personal best scores and established herself as a skater to watch.

Season So Far: Li has developed quickly over the past year, and this season was a breakout for her. She began with a phenomenal free skate at the Cup of Nice, earning her first international medal, a silver. She struggled under the pressure of her two Grand Prix assignments, placing low in the rankings at both, but she rallied at the Chinese Championships, winning her first national title by an impressive 10-point margin. At the Four Continents Championships, she placed a solid tenth.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: It’s not Li’s fault, per se, that China will send only one lady to the Olympics in figure skating this year. Nonetheless, it reflects the fact that China lacks a true star in ladies’ singles. Li is lovely and graceful but a bit mechanical in her presentation, which hurts her components scores, and she doesn’t compete difficult enough jumps to make up for that. With consistency and focus, she’ll stay in the middle of the pack, but it’s hard to imagine her aiming higher than Just Happy to Be Here.

Aiza Mambekova

The Basics: Mambekova is 18 years old and represents Kazakhstan. She’s from Almaty, and she splits her training time between her hometown and St. Petersburg, Russia. She’s coached primarily by Kuralai Uzurova.

Career Highlights: Mambekova is a three-time Kazakh silver medalist. She achieved only modest results in her first two Junior Grand Prix seasons, but had more success in 2016, reaching the top 10 at both JGP France and JGP Estonia.

Season So Far: Mambekova lost most of this season to a foot injury but returned in January for her first international medal, a bronze at the FBMA Trophy. She went on to perform a clean free skate at the Four Continents Championships, where she placed 20th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Mambekova’s presence at the Olympics is mostly a reflection of how spots on the roster are allocated to countries. Kazakhstan boasts one certified star in ladies’ singles, and that athlete placed well enough at Worlds in 2017 to secure a slot for a second Kazakh skater. Mambekova is a lovely performer, with terrific musicality and charisma, but she has the lowest planned base difficulty in the field. She competes only one type of triple jump, a salchow, and her low placement at Four Continents reflects that even when she skates her best, she can’t keep up. Of everyone headed to Pyeongchang, Mambekova might be the most Just Happy to Be Here.

Evgenia Medvedeva

The Basics: Medvedeva is 18 years old and will compete as an Olympic athlete from Russia. She lives and trains in her hometown of Moscow, with Eteri Tutberidze as her coach.

Career Highlights: Medvedeva first drew international attention in 2013, when she came seemingly out of nowhere to win both of her Junior Grand Prix events, then take bronze at both the Junior Grand Prix Final and Junior Worlds. She was even more dominant in juniors the following season, winning every international competition she entered, including the JGP Final and Junior Worlds – plus a junior national title and a bronze medal at senior Nationals. She moved up to seniors in 2015 and established her reign over ladies’ figure skating, settling for silver at the Rostelecom Cup but skating home with gold everywhere else, including the Grand Prix Final, European Championships, World Championships, and Russian Nationals. In 2016-17, Medvedeva went entirely undefeated, becoming the first lady since Michelle Kwan to win back-to-back World titles and, during the course of the season, setting new world records for the highest scores ever recorded in a short program, free skate, and overall.

Season So Far: Medvedeva has hit a speed bump this season, as a foot fracture has forced her to sit out several competitions and put a dent in her consistency and stamina. The injury didn’t stop her from taking gold at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, Rostelecom Cup, and NHK Trophy. It did, however, become serious enough that she withdrew from the Grand Prix Final and National Championships in order to recover. She returned for the European Championships and delivered a pair of strong performances, but her two-year undefeated streak ended there, as she took silver.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: At the start of the 2017-18 season, even Medvedeva’s detractors would have called her a lock for Olympic gold. More than almost anyone else in the sport, Medvedeva is capable of executing extremely difficult jumps in tricky configurations, and of making it look easy. Her programs are meticulously constructed to squeeze every point out of the scoring system – to the frustration of some fans. But the fact is, the bonuses and point-earning features are in place to reward difficulty. While a few other ladies can push the technical limits of the sport as far as Medvedeva does, none can do it as consistently, or with such effortless grace and musicality. Medvedeva’s foot injury has cut into her training time, and that’s opened the door for a handful of others to threaten her claim to a gold medal. Still, if anyone in the field is a guaranteed Front Runner, it’s Medvedeva.

Mae Berenice Meite

The Basics: Meite is 23 years old and represents France. She comes from Paris and the surrounding area, and currently trains in Paris with coach Shanetta Folle.

Career Highlights: Meite has reached the podium at French Nationals every year since 2009, and she’s a four-time national champion. While she’s never earned a medal at a Grand Prix event or ISU championship, she’s a fixture in international competition. She’s placed as high as fifth at the European Championships, in 2014, and 10th at the World Championships, in 2015. She represented France at the 2014 Olympic Games and came in tenth.

Season So Far: Meite looked shaky in the fall, placing a disappointing 8th at the Autumn Classic and next to last at the Rostelecom Cup. Things looked up a bit at the Trophee de France, where she finished 8th, and way up at Nationals, where she regained her national title. She made some errors at Europeans, but her performances were good enough for a respectable 8th place.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Meite is going to be so much fun to watch at these Olympics that her placement almost doesn’t matter. Skating to pop music that captures her personality and masks some of the flaws in her technique, she’s likely to rack up the YouTube hits even if she doesn’t earn the point totals to match. Meite’s inability to perform under pressure is especially frustrating because her technical difficulty is high enough that if she could skate clean, she’d put herself in the conversation. Unfortunately, she’s most likely to alternate explosive jumps and sassy dance breaks with devastating falls, and that’s Why I Drink.

Satoko Miyahara

The Basics: Miyahara is 19 years old and represents Japan. A Kyoto native, she lives and trains in Osaka, and is coached by Mie Hamada.

Career Highlights: Miyahara first turned heads as a junior, winning back-to-back junior national titles in 2011 and 2012 and just missing the podium twice at Junior Worlds. It was as a senior that she really came into her own, though, taking silver at Four Continents in 2014, her debut season. Since then, Miyahara has earned seven Grand Prix medals, two of them gold, and twice finished second at the Grand Prix Final. She is the 2016 Four Continents champion and has stood on the podium every time she’s competed at the event. In 2015, she gave an inspired performance to take silver at the World Championships. On the national level, she’s been challenged but rarely bested; despite strong competition, she’s won Nationals four years in a row.

Season So Far: A hip injury brought Miyahara’s 2016-17 season to an early end, and she began the current season still nursing inflammation. Her troubles showed in a disappointing 5th-place finish at the NHK Trophy, but she was back at the top of her game a few weeks later at Skate America, where she won gold. Facing a tough field at the Grand Prix Final, she placed only fifth despite a solid performance. At the Japan Championships, however, Miyahara was on fire, sailing to her fourth consecutive title with a near-perfect free skate. She was a little below her best at the Four Continents Championships, though, and she settled for bronze behind two of her Japanese teammates.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: I had Miyahara marked as a front runner in my outline for this post, but looking over her season, I have to reassess. It’s not for the usual reasons, either. Like many international judges, I’ve been critical in the past of Miyahara’s jump technique, which relies on fast rotation rather than height. When she’s confident, as at Nationals or Skate America, that approach is no longer an issue. Unfortunately, she’s been giving in to either nerves or the pain of lingering injuries this season, and that’s when the mistakes creep in. I fear that her beautiful programs, which show a captivating range of emotion and storytelling, will look great until the judges rip them apart. If she keeps her head – or performs with such exquisite grace that the technical caller lets the small stuff go – she could pull an upset and skate away with gold. The greater likelihood of disappointment is Why I Drink. 

Mirai Nagasu

The Basics: Nagasu is 24 years old and represents the United States of America. A native of the Los Angeles area, she now lives in Colorado Springs, where she trains with Tom Zakrajsek.

Career Highlights: Nagasu seemed to burst out of nowhere when she won a junior national title in 2007, then took silver at Junior Worlds shortly afterward. She followed that by sweeping the Junior Grand Prix, then winning her first and only senior-level US national championship at the age of 14 in 2008. Since then, she’s reached the national podium four more times, but she’s also placed as low as 10th. Internationally, Nagasu has won three Challenger Series events, brought home medals from four Grand Prix competitions, and stood on three Four Continents podiums. At the World Championships, she’s never done better than 7th, but she came in 4th at the 2010 Olympic Games.

Season So Far: It’s been a typical season for Nagasu, which is to say, she’s been all over the place. She started with a solid outing at the US Classic, landing two triple Axels and earning a silver medal. Nagasu was a disaster at the Rostelecom Cup, placing only 9th, but she looked strong again at the NHK Trophy, where she finished 4th. At Nationals, she gave some of the most confident performances of her career, earning a triumphant silver medal.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Under most circumstances, hearing Nagasu’s name announced for warm-up is a reminder to refill my glass. This time, however, she’s armed with a technical weapon powerful enough that even if she melts down, it will be a glorious disaster. Nagasu is the only lady at these Olympics who will attempt a triple Axel, and the way things have been going lately, she’ll probably stand up on the landings. She hasn’t completely resolved the jump technique problems that have cost her deductions throughout her career, but she’s improved in that respect, too. And it’s hard to argue with her performance quality. It’s possible that calling Nagasu a Dark Horse is overly optimistic, but it would be far more foolish to count her out.


Next on The Finer Sports: the rest of the ladies, followed by the other three disciplines!

Quick Thoughts on the 2018 US Ladies’ Olympic Team

Last night, I wrote half a post about ice dance. This morning, after the official announcement of the three ladies who will represent the United States at the Olympic Games, I knew I had to click the “Save Draft” button in WordPress and get with current events. Part of me would rather be nitpicking r(h)umbas, but nobody really feels like rehashing the short dance at the moment, do they? Not in the wake of a ladies’ free skate so intense that Shadowcat and I ordered a bottle of Rumchata from Amazon Prime Now so we could process our feelings with the right balance of sugar and alcohol in our bloodstreams.

A lot of the outrage – and the excitement – about the ladies’ podium and resulting team selection comes from strongly held fan preferences, and I’m no exception there. But I’m coming from a different angle than most of Twitter, as usual. Almost any team would have sparked controversy, and the choice to send the top three finishers was the expected one: Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu, and Karen Chen all did their jobs and got rewarded. My goal on this blog is to be as impartial as possible, to celebrate good performances regardless of who my emotional favorites are, and to gently criticize athletes I love when I think they need improvement. I was a university writing instructor for over a decade; I’ve talked through C+ papers with students I’m still friends with on Facebook, and I’ve given A’s to individuals whom I hope I never encounter on the street. It’s hard to maintain the same attitude toward sports, but striving for it has made me appreciate figure skating more, because it keeps me from dismissing anyone out of hand.

Let’s face it, though – I am a Mirai Nagasu fan. I’ve been high on Mirai since she won her first surprise Nationals as a junior, and I was on the front lines of the hand-wringing wuzrobbed squad in 2014. I’ve always been partial to more muscular, athletic ladies’ skaters; Surya Bonaly and Midori Ito were the ones I looked up to when I was a child participating in the sport, and I see much of both of them in Nagasu’s skating. I’ve always preferred comic book heroines over princesses. When Nagasu’s scores came up last night, boosting her well past the 200-point mark and all but guaranteeing her a trip to Pyeongchang, I had everything I needed as a fan. The rest of the night was basically, “Who’s going to the Olympics with Mirai?” and I was fine with all of the possible outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m fond of Ashley Wagner, too. At 2016 Worlds, I wore red lipstick to the ladies’ events and handed out Ashley buttons to everyone in my section. But she’s had a weak season, marred by injury and some self-promotion strategies that I might have steered her away from if she’d asked me, which she certainly hasn’t. She’s great, but lately, she’s been less great than I’ve wanted her to be. When people have asked me about my ideal Olympic team, I’ve started with Mirai and ended with “the Ashley Wagner from a couple of years ago.” I was hoping she’d rise to the occasion yesterday and earn an Olympic spot. With a popped salchow and careless level drops on a couple of non-jump elements, as well as choreography that felt like an unfocused rough draft, I sensed in the moment that she hadn’t done enough.

Again, I was sad about that. But a few minutes earlier, Starr Andrews had skated the lights out, earning five more points in technical elements than Wagner had. After Wagner skated, I was more excited about Andrews than about her. For those of you bellyaching about who was robbed on program components: if Andrews’s PCS had been on par with Wagner’s, she’d be the first Black athlete since Debi Thomas to represent the United States in ladies’ figure skating at an Olympic Games. Andrews blew away both Wagner and Karen Chen in the free skate, from a technical standpoint, but lagged behind both by 8-10 points on her second mark. I understand Andrews’ components scores, as her choreography and transitions are simpler and her interpretation less mature than others’, but if anyone got held back on her second mark this year, it was Andrews.

This brings us to the two athletes who have become points of contention. Let’s start with Karen Chen, whose biggest crime was not skating quite as well as she did last year, and as a hometown favorite. Chen’s rotations have always been tight when she’s nervous, and she got nailed on those “hidden” errors. They weren’t so hidden, though; most of her short rotations were visible from the stands, and as with most skaters who have been terrific otherwise, my response in the moment was to shrug and hope the judges gave her a pass. That performance, in and of itself, was electrifying. I didn’t stand up for Wagner, but Chen’s skate moved me to my feet at the end. She was fast, poised, and powerful. Oddly enough, a bronze medal takes the pressure off of Chen in Pyeongchang, and she’s most successful when she feels like she has nothing to lose.

Like everyone else, I’m still getting my head around Bradie Tennell, National Champion. My whiplash comes from a different angle, though, because I’ve been talking her up for years, to a chorus of eyerolls and “Who?” I remember watching her take bronze as a novice in 2013, noting her errors but also recognizing that she was the one with the technique and the presence to go somewhere. A couple of years later, she blew away the pre-anointed favorite, Vivian Le, to capture gold in what might have been the biggest junior ladies’ upset at Nationals since Nagasu’s win in 2007. Unfortunately, she never made a mark internationally as a junior, held back often by injury and occasionally by nerves. But junior-level success has always been a poor predictor of how an athlete will transition to seniors, and Tennell has enjoyed nothing but success as a senior. She took bronze (and saved face for the USA) at her Grand Prix debut at Skate America; she medaled at her first senior international assignment ever, the 2017 Tallinn Trophy; I will die on a hill shouting that she was robbed of another bronze at the Lombardia Trophy earlier this season. Say what you want about her styling or her understated presence as a performer, but she shows up and does her job. American figure skating has been looking for an athlete as unruffled and consistent as Tennell for years. Can we all stop whining and celebrate that she’s peaking at the right moment?

The sun is shining in San Jose. I have a few precious hours until the men’s free skate crushes my soul. Mirai Nagasu is getting her comeback Olympics. I, for one, feel like it’s a good morning to be a figure skating fan.

US National Championships Men’s SP: I Love Everyone in This Rink

Nathan Chen competes in the Championship Men Short Program during Day 2 of the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at SAP Center at SAP Center on January 4, 2018 in San Jose, California.

It is a testament to the well-oiled scheduling machine of USFSA that this is my first opportunity to blog from San Jose. I’ve been at Nationals since Monday night, but my enthusiasm for junior-level free skates – and my desire to spend any remaining stretches of unstructured time with friends who live in the area – has left little time for writing. Amid grumbles that this was supposed to be my vacation, I’ve waited until this morning to get words on the screen.

Last night was the championship men’s short program. Rest assured that I have plenty to say.

I’m here with a friend, Shadowcat, but we bought our tickets at different times. This turned out to be a smart move, since nobody bought the tickets next to either of us, so we’ve been switching off between our two sections. My seats are fabulously close to the ice, but put us at a weird angle where it’s unexpectedly hard to call jumps accurately, and also I feel like I’m flashing Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic whenever I stretch in my seat. Shadowcat’s seats directly overlook Tara and Johnny (whom we both enjoy, so do not start) and the loading area by the kiss and cry, and give more of a bird’s eye view. We watched the men’s short from that higher ground.

As far as I’m concerned, the men’s competition is the marquee event of these Nationals. American ice dance is at an all-time high, but the top three teams are almost guaranteed a trip to the Olympics, leaving only the die-hard dance fans to care about the race for a pewter medal. There’s a lot of talent among American ladies, but after their ho-hum collective showing during the Grand Prix season, it will take a miracle to put any of them on the podium in Pyeongchang. And do we even need to talk about pairs?

The American men, on the other hand, are killing it. Four achieved senior-level Grand Prix medals (Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon, Jason Brown, and Max Aaron); of those, three qualified to the Grand Prix Final, and Chen took gold there. Three more men competing as seniors at Nationals excelled at the junior level in the fall, earning Junior Grand Prix medals (Alex Krasnozhon, Andrew Torgashev, and Tomoki Hiwatashi); Krasnozhon is the Junior Grand Prix Final champion. Five different American men have competed at a World Championships in the past two years – Chen, Rippon, Brown, Aaron, and Grant Hochstein – and all have placed in the top ten. Vincent Zhou is the reigning World Junior Champion, and four others (Hiwatashi, Chen, Brown, and Rippon) are former World Junior medalists. American men have held onto a reputation as scrappy underdogs, but by the numbers, they’re looking dominant internationally.

Meanwhile, the domestic pedigrees of the competitors are equally impressive. Much has been made of the fact that four current or former senior National Champions are vying for a title here: Aaron, Brown, Rippon, and Chen. There are also eight current or former junior National Champions in the mix: Rippon, Ross Miner, Brown, Chen, Zhou, Torgashev, Hiwatashi, and Krasnozhon. And these lists don’t give due credit to the roster of hardworking mid-listers such as Hochstein, Timothy Dolensky, and Alexander Johnson – many of them late bloomers whose best competitive years have come in their twenties.

Although the deep men’s field put plenty of familiar names early in the starting order, the first warm-up group consisted mostly of guys I’ve only heard of because I pay attention to Sectionals. It was cool to see perennial qualifier Sebastien Payannet shoot for a triple Axel and almost land it; the rest was pretty dire.

That direness extends to Max Aaron, stuck skating fourth after a nightmare Nationals last year. Things are not looking up for him, despite the optimistic profile package that blasted all over the arena screens. (No one else got such a long, adulatory bio, not even Nathan Chen or Jason Brown; Adam Rippon got a funny clip, but it was much shorter.) Aaron did not fall, but he hung onto two very ugly quads, and his clean triple Axel was unspectacular. And in an environment increasingly driven by artistry and intricate choreography, Aaron didn’t have room in his components marks to recover from his mistakes. The silver lining: Aaron’s 74.95 put him a point ahead of Bradie Tennell’s winning short program score from the night before, saving us from a night of jokes about how the top lady was faring in the men’s event.

The second flight of skaters played it safe technically, which brought a string of pleasing performances, although not many breathtaking jumps. I’d been looking forward to Alex Krasnozhon’s quadruple loop, which is phenomenally dramatic even when he doesn’t land it. Instead, Krasnozhon opted for four clean triple jumps, including one of the night’s most confident triple Axels and a rare, terrific triple flip-triple loop. It was especially interesting to watch him in contrast with Aaron, as they both have the same fundamental flaw: they’re not natural artists. Krasnozhon can still look awkward, with limits to his speed and ice coverage, but there’s a lot of joy and personality in his Russian folk dance short program. The choreography also showcases his steadily improving flexibility and edge depth. At 17, he has time to develop those skills further, and the judges ratified his progress, putting him a couple of points ahead of Aaron in components and way ahead overall, with an 82.58.

As Krasnozhon headed to the kiss and cry, he high-fived his training mate, Timothy Dolensky, who was slated to skate next. Dolensky and Krasnozhon are opposites in many ways: while Krasnozhon came up through the Russian figure skating system and has enjoyed great success as a teenager, Dolensky is an outsider from Atlanta who was mostly invisible until he’d reached legal drinking age. Over the past couple of years, however, Dolensky has established himself as a consummate artist with enough jumping ability to stay in the conversation. He reinforced that reputation last night, becoming the first man at the event to break 40 points in program components, with particular approval from the judges for his interpretation and composition. He also got big grade of execution bonuses for graceful spins and steps with tricky surrounding transitions. The overall impact of his program was so beautiful that I forgot, until I rewatched for this recap, that he’d had to fight for his triple Axel. He pulled into the lead with an impressive 85.06.

Like most arenas hosting figure skating events, the SAP Center had not realized that figure skating fans need something stronger than beer to get through the men’s event, so I spent the entire ice resurface in line for the bar. (There was only one bartender. At least there are enough stalls in the ladies’ room, although toilet paper was running perilously low by the end of the night.)

I reached the front of the queue just as Grant Hochstein took the ice, so I had to watch him on a screen while clutching a pair of cocktails, one of which I had to save for Shadowcat. Hochstein’s skate turned out to be the performance of the evening, no matter what angle one watched from. While many of his competitors had played it safe technically, Hochstein knew he had to bring out his quadruple toe loop to stay in the conversation. And what a quad: soaring, out of a footwork sequence that included a smooth spread eagle, in combination with a triple toe loop. His other two jumps, a triple Axel and a triple lutz, were equally confident. It added up to the second highest technical score of the night, and the biggest smile of any athlete in the kiss and cry. His 92.18 gave him a comfortable lead.

It turned out that Hochstein’s risk was the right one to take, as another veteran with a comparable resume stuck to triple jumps and fell behind. Ross Miner hit three pristine jumping passes, including a tremendous triple Axel, and even edged out Hochstein by a few tenths of a point on components. I’m basically the only skating fan who loves his bizarre Macklemore short program, and he sold the hip hop with panache. His score, 88.91, should keep him in the conversation for a medal, but somehow, my memory of his energetic and well-executed skate had faded by the end of the night. I can’t just blame that on the mai tai I bought during the resurface.

The crowd held its breath as Vincent Zhou took the ice: we had no idea what kind of skate we would see from him. Last season, he was a revelation at Nationals, taking home a senior silver medal at only sixteen years old. He’s made a lot of progress artistically since then, but his jumps have declined in reliability, leading many fans to downgrade him from a shoo-in for the Olympic team to one of America’s greatest wildcards. His short program placed an even bigger question mark next to his name. He opened with a stunner of a quadruple lutz-triple toe loop, a jumping pass so spectacular that it earned near-perfect grades of execution and the highest number of points for a single element all night. His quad flip looked fine in real time, but the judges slapped it with an underrotation call (they were not wrong), and Zhou went down on an easy-for-him triple Axel. Although Zhou’s “Chasing Cars” short program brought out his most mature and nuanced performance to date, his components scores reflected the size of his jumps more than the impact of his artistry; as much as I enjoy Zhou’s skating, it doesn’t seem right to me that he scored ahead of Hochstein, Miner, and Dolensky on his second mark. His mistakes added up enough to put him behind Hochstein, but if one score last night seemed high, it was Zhou’s.

Jimmy Ma became a viral sensation with what I described in the moment as “the most New Jersey short program ever.” It was indeed a lot of fun, and the best I’ve seen Ma skate. He’s not in contention for anything more than fifteen minutes of well-deserved fame, but I’m delighting in the joy he brought to the casuals.

As the last group warmed up, I noted to Shadowcat that all of them except Scott Dyer were former Junior National Champions. That ended up putting too much pressure on both Andrew Torgashev and Tomoki Hiwatashi. Torgashev was solid enough, held back only by a stumble on his triple lutz-triple toe loop and by generally modest grades of execution and components scores. Hiwatashi was one of the night’s most disappointing bombs; he had to skate last, to the echo of Adam Rippon and Jason Brown’s screaming fans, and he tumbled on his quad attempt.

Nathan Chen skated first in the group, and it was a good place for him: all he had to do was outscore Hochstein, and he’d reinforce his status as the top American man. He did that, and then some, despite swapping his planned quad lutz for a more conservative quad toe loop and bungling his triple Axel. More than the high-flying jumps, his short program stood out to me for how thoroughly he sold it. Chen shines brightest when he has a strong beat behind him, and the driving rhythms of Benjamin Clementine’s “Nemesis” propel him into the character and narrative of the song. If there’s a story that Chen knows how to tell, it’s conquering his demons – injuries, a natural shyness, that pesky Axel – and rising to a massive lead after the short program with 104.45.

In real time, there were two skaters between Chen and Adam Rippon, but in my memory – and therefore in this blog post – there is no space between them. They train together, and Rippon’s mentorship of Chen provides a great contrast narrative: Chen a teenage prodigy who approaches his sport with a quiet professionalism beyond his years, Rippon a veteran who’s missed out on two Olympic teams and has approached the final act of his competitive career with zero F-bombs left to give.  Rippon stuck to triple jumps in his short program, but he made them look as effortless as a playful finger wag to the judges. He’s also gradually built intricacy into his choreography, to the point where there’s no longer a wasted moment in the program. The result was a master class in how to get to 96.52 and second place without a quad.

For all intents and purposes, Jason Brown closed out the night. That put a lot on his shoulders, especially with the army of fans strolling the SAP Center in chocolate-colored Team Brown t-shirts. There’s been a lot of derisive screaming on the internet about Brown’s triple Axel, for which he received a negative grade of execution but full rotation credit – or maybe it’s just Shadowcat, who’s been breezing through the kitchen of our AirBnB all morning reminding me to watch it again in slow motion now that I’m fully sober. The landing was definitely two-footed, with a spray of ice from the toe pick of his free leg, but replays show just enough rotation to receive full credit. Everything else was beyond reproach, from the triple lutz to the astronomical grades of execution on his non-jump elements to the punishing transitions. With only a point’s advantage over Hochstein going into the free skate, Brown has no room for errors, but like Rippon, he’s reaffirmed that he belongs in the top tier despite his technical limitations.

I’m off to watch the short dance. Shadowcat is calling an Uber as I type. May it be as exciting as the men’s short.

Rostelecom Cup Ice Dance Roundup: Feelsiness Is Not a Program Component

The Grand Prix season has begun, and it feels strange to watch the opening event from home. This is the first year in a long time that Skate America has not kicked off the series, with Russia hosting the inaugural event instead. Regardless of location, one thing always stands out about the first Grand Prix competition: nobody is quite ready for it. Even as the Challenger Series has created broader opportunities for athletes to iron out their programs earlier in the autumn, everyone looks shaky in October. I have plenty of notes on the ladies’ and men’s competitions, but they mostly boil down to that – everyone was a mess. The podiums in the singles disciplines were more or less as expected, and even the winners would most likely rather forget these performances and move on.

The one discipline where the top contenders looked ready to go was ice dance, and that’s part of why I have the most to say about dance this week. There were missteps here and there – and a couple of big disappointments – but it looked more like January than October for the teams at the top of the rankings.

The most anticipated performances of the weekend were by Maia and Alex Shibutani, largely because they were one of the few teams to skip the Challenger Series and debut their new programs at the Grand Prix. Strategically, this seems to have been wise: they looked rested and ready, and their overall score bested everything so far except for Virtue and Moir’s astronomical total at the Autumn Classic. Their choice of programs is also strategic, especially their free dance, a Coldplay medley that recalls the “Fix You” program that became a signature piece for them a couple of seasons ago. Some skating fans get irritable when athletes recycle choreography or themes, but it’s a smart decision in an Olympic year. Most four-year fans missed “Fix You” the first time around, and the Shibs can rest assured that they’re presenting an interpretive style that the judges are on board with.

Instead of innovating artistically, they’ve made notable technical upgrades to their lifts, and they have this season’s tricky Rhumba* pattern dance down cold. The Shibs are still having trouble earning maximum levels on their step sequences, though, and I’m hesitant to blame that entirely on the judges’ pickiness. I saw several missed edges in their free dance step sequences, and I’m not convinced that Alex’s one-foot section in their circular step sequence clearly shows all four types of difficult turns. They’ve confirmed that they’re among the strongest contenders for an Olympic medal this winter, and even have an outside shot at gold – but they have some technical refinements to work on between now and February.

* I’ve noted on Twitter, but not here, that the ISU’s official name for the pattern dance is Rhumba, while the standard spelling for the dance style in general is rumba. When it comes to concerns about ISU policies and practices, their inability to spell in Spanish is pretty far down my list.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised that Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev snagged silver, since they were the second-ranked team at the competition and were skating on home ice. But their fellow Russians, Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, stole their thunder, and a different judging panel might not have respected the pecking order so much. Stepanova and Bukin beat Bobrova and Soloviev’s technical mark by several points, but Bobrova and Soloviev received a program components advantage that left the two teams virtually tied in the free dance. In past decades, Russian ice dancers’ clean, fluid movements were in a class by themselves, but now, teams like Stepanova and Bukin reach Grand Prix podiums despite frenzied performances. There’s a certain beauty to their unkempt style, like strands of hair coming loose from a bun, but their lack of polish stood out. However, Stepanova and Bukin executed their technical elements with admirable precision, raking in high grades of execution even when the transitions and choreographic moves around them looked sloppy. Their distinctive and difficult twizzles earned the highest execution score of the weekend, beating out even the Shibutanis – and I can’t argue. As for their choice of program music, well, it’s been a weekend of Mute and Replace around here anyway.

Seniority aside, Bobrova and Soloviev do present stronger components – they are smoother, faster, and crisper than Stepanova and Bukin – but I was surprised that the judges gave them the benefit of the doubt on so many elements. Their twizzles ticked off all the boxes for a level 4 and were solid enough, but compared to the Shibutanis or to Stepanova and Bukin, the element was nothing special; the judges nonetheless only set them back by a couple of tenths of a point in execution. I’ve long argued that twizzles are the element that will benefit most from a wider range of possible grades of execution, and now I’m starting to think that ice dancers should earn a bonus for placing them in the second half of their free skate, as athletes in the other disciplines do for difficult jumps. Much of the impact of the Shibutanis’ twizzles comes from their late, surprising appearance in the choreography, while Bobrova and Soloviev get their twizzles out of the way early and focus on lifts. Those lifts were terrific this time around, uniquely difficult and with a newfound control. But a botched dance spin so disrupted the flow of their program that it should have impacted their components score. Bobrova and Soloviev’s mistake should have kept them off the podium altogether; Canada’s Gilles and Poirier, as well as Stepanova and Bukin, skated more cleanly and with greater confidence.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier’s fourth-place finish inspired a flurry of “wuzrobbed” claims, about which I have mixed feelings. Gilles and Poirier are among my favorite current ice dance teams: they take both artistic and technical risks, and are often an antidote to the tonal and structural sameness that can drag the discipline down. I do think they skated well enough for bronze here – ahead of Bobrova and Soloviev, but behind Stepanova and Bukin. In the free dance, Gilles and Poirier received the same distribution of technical levels as Stepanova and Bukin (and indeed the Shibutanis), but they fell behind on grades of execution. That’s fair enough; Gilles and Poirier were less sharp and less explosive. Their program components did seem low to me, especially since their skating skills and timing showed more maturity and consistency than Stepanova and Bukin’s. Squinting at the protocols, we can see that that a number of judges – the ones from Turkey, Canada, and France – marked the two teams about equally in these components. But some of the other countries – particularly those from Belarus, Russia, and the Czech Republic – favored Stepanova and Bukin by more than a point. Judge #1, from Belarus, awarded an 8.00 for Interpretation/Timing to Gilles and Poirier in the free skate, and a 9.25 to Stepanova and Bukin; Judge #4, from France, split the difference, assigning 8.75 to both. These scores are not so wildly divergent as to trigger a review, but they do indicate that some judges had a clear preference that impacted the results, and that might have reflected subjective taste rather than which team demonstrated greater speed, control, and engagement.

The problem is that – despite preferring Gilles and Poirier in general – I thought Stepanova and Bukin performed better on the day. Gilles and Poirier have been uncharacteristically restrained this season. After two consecutive seasons of iconic and off-the-wall short dances, their short dance this season is a fairly conventional Latin number, spiced up only by a costume transformation trick. Their film noir free dance is a terrific high concept, but they haven’t figured out how to sell it yet. Gilles needs to find her inner Rita Hayworth, Poirier needs to choose between Humphrey Bogart smoothness and Raymond Burr earthiness, and both of them need to take notes on a bunch of old movies. I love the program’s potential, but they’ve performed it a bit flat so far.

One of the ways I get through the figure skating season is by muting program music I dislike or am sick of, and replacing it with whatever is on my current personal playlist. What started out as a mental health defense mechanism has turned into a tool for analysis, so I’m going to close out this post with a pair of transformed warhorses. Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri skated with a smoothness and confidence that many other teams lacked at Rostelecom, but their “Exogenesis” free skate is a dull disappointment. When they’re playful and lighthearted, as in their Grease short dance last season and their Lord of the Dance free dance a few years ago, they sparkle. But for some reason, they keep gravitating toward ponderous themes that interpret familiar music in the same old ways. By re-soundtracking their current free dance to “Province” by TV on the Radio, I gave them a song with a similar tempo and narrative theme, but with more drive and energy. While you can occasionally tell they’re skating to something more serious, the choreography lines up startlingly well with the song I assigned them. It shows that the problem isn’t with the warhorse itself, but with the specificity of their interpretation. They’re responding to the ethereal loveliness and the tension in the Muse song, but they’re not telling its particular story, or adjusting it to create a dynamic between two people. Guignard and Fabbri are a talented team with a history of fading into the middle of the ranks, and I think this failure to project a consistent, memorable personality is a big part of that. They should have been in the conversation for a medal at Rostelecom but weren’t, and that’s largely because their artistry seldom brings out their technical gifts as it should.

I doubled down on TV on the Radio for Betina Popova and Sergey Mozgov’s Carmen free dance, and not just because someone really needs to skate to TVotR one of these days. The tempo change in the bridge of “Wolf Like Me” doesn’t quite line up with the cuts in the original music, but it’s pleasingly close. Besides, if any team could rock a werewolf-themed free dance, it’s these two. Even with the familiar music swapped out, Popova is Carmen all the way, using her face and body to give as much fierce Spanish seductress as her choreography and technical content leave room for. There are times when both skaters are concentrating more on their lifts and steps than on their characters – understandable for a young and newly formed team – but Popova’s acting skills accentuate Mozgov’s, and their connection is unusually strong for a team at their stage of development. But the Carmen comes from them, not from the choreography itself. Substitute growls and scratches for smolders and wrist flicks, and we would have a werewolf romance on our hands. Popova and Mozgov make a meal out of surprisingly bland choreography, but that’s a mountain they shouldn’t have to climb.


Next on The Finer Sports: the Grand Prix of Figure Skating continues with Skate Canada!

*Hat tip to my friend Buffy for the post title, and for the gift of the word “feelsiness.”

Statistics, Scoring Changes, and Last Weekend’s Men’s Highlights

The Challenger Series kicked off this week with two simultaneous events – the Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, Italy, and the US International Classic in Salt Lake City – and we are officially in peak skating season. It feels weird to say that with a few days of summer left in the Northern Hemisphere, as the program music on the live streams compete with my air conditioner humming in the background. But the majority of top skaters now begin their seasons with a Senior B or two, making the calendar more crowded for determined fans in September than in December. This is not great for those of us whose jobs finally get quiet when the weather gets cold.

Maybe this is why, rather than attempting to recap my favorite highlights from Lombardia and the US Classic, I am sticking my nose in a flame war about proposed ISU scoring changes that, if they are ever enacted, will be drastically watered down. It’s definitely why this post has graphs in it. (I considered running linear regressions but stopped myself short of true insanity.)

The proposed changes, as detailed in this IceNetwork article, range from reasonable and necessary to abjectly ridiculous. Here’s an overly reductive rundown:

  • Reduce the base values of the most difficult jumps – especially jumps like quad flips and quad lutzes, which had never been attempted when they were assigned point values.
  • Reduce the length of the men’s and pairs free skates to four minutes, and reduce the number of permitted jumping passes in a men’s free skate from eight to seven. This change has already been approved, and I am shaking my tiny fist at it, as are Kori Ade and Brian Orser. Top coaches are frustrated that these new policies are being touted as ways to improve artistry, because making programs shorter decreases the opportunities to build musicality and storytelling into choreography. I agree with this, and I’m also annoyed because stamina is, and should always be, one of the abilities that makes an athlete successful in the free skate. My inference is that the motivations are financial and logistical: shortening the programs is a way of making competitions shorter and therefore cheaper to run. Men’s and pairs events do tend to drag late into the night, but that doesn’t stop me from opposing how these changes are likely to impact the sport.
  • Create more granularity in the grades of execution, so it’s possible to earn as much as +5 GOE, or lose as much as -5 GOE, for a technical element. This is the change I’m happiest about, because I have seen Maia and Alex Shibutani do twizzles, and because I am a statistics nerd who prefers appropriately sensitive rating scales.
  • Award separate Olympic medals (and, likely, also separate medals at ISU championship events) for short “athletic” programs and long “artistic” programs, in addition to an all-around medal. Possibly, there would be gradual movement toward treating these as separate disciplines. I don’t think this is likely to happen – at least not as proposed – but it’s a reminder that there’s a vocal contingent that would rather just sign up for a jumping contest. I’m all for a jumping contest as a separate competitive event, perhaps with a format similar to the Aerial Challenge that the Broadmoor Skating Club has been hosting for the past few years.

As a fan, my first instinct is to trust my personal feelings on these matters. But I’ve spent the past couple of weeks learning how to get my statistics software to make elegant box plots and legible frequency tables, and dipping into Edward R. Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which apparently is a book you read in college if you are not an English major. As a result, my second instinct is to throw a bunch of math at this, partially to discuss what kinds of scoring changes really would have a positive impact on figure skating, and partially to balance out the fact that I’ve already devoted plenty of blog space to the men’s skaters whose performances I most want to write about this week.

What I took away from most of my statistical wrangling is, revaluing jumps won’t change much. I recalibrated the scores for a number of athletes who competed this weekend, and the results remained the same. Deniss Vasiljevs tends to earn higher PCS than Brendan Kerry, but even with Kerry earning a couple of points less for his more difficult jumps, he would have beat Vasiljevs handily for bronze at the Lombardia Trophy.

I think Timothy Dolensky is a more aesthetically pleasing skater than Max Aaron or even Nathan Chen, but Dolensky’s multitude of technical errors dragged down his components score. A slightly fairer accounting on the PCS side wouldn’t have rescued him from a 6th-place finish under the circumstances, and his technical totals still didn’t come close to those of the athletes who placed ahead of him. My overall appraisal of the scoring changes – and again, I’m thinking as a professional stats nerd here, more than as a fan – is that their effect on the sport will be modest.

To illustrate this, I compared Shoma Uno’s and Jason Brown’s free skate scores at the Lombardia Trophy, both under the current scoring system and using the revised jump values. I left everything else the same: grades of execution, values for non-jump elements and double jumps, and program components scores. (It would have been nice to be able to test how the 11-point GOE scale will impact scores, but that would have required me to read the judges’ minds, so the current 7-point system stays.) It should come as no surprise that Uno still beats Brown by an enormous margin in the free skate, even with his quads worth slightly less. Under the current system, Uno earned 214.97 in the free skate, and Brown earned 176.87. Adjusted for the lower jump values, both of their free skate scores go down: Uno gets 208.22, and Brown gets 175.30. That’s still a blowout, but the margin is smaller: Uno now beats Brown in the free skate by 32.95 instead of by 38.10.

Where things do get interesting is in the ratios of how much their different strengths impact their scores. With the new, lower technical values, Uno’s high PCS do matter a bit more: they’re now 44.2% of his score instead of 42.8%. If the goal is to create better parity between technical and components scores, the re-valuing will accomplish that, albeit modestly. It’s possible that for a well-rounded athlete like Uno, who already earns high components scores (and, in my opinion, deserves them), the percentage difference would be statistically insignificant, but I’ll need more scores from more competitions to run the kind of significance tests that will confirm that hunch.

Things get more interesting when we look at how the proposed scoring changes will affect Brown, an athlete known for earning high scores on the strength of his components and execution. Uno, like most top skaters, earns almost half of his points from jumps alone, whereas at Lombardia, Brown’s jumps accounted for only about a third of his free skate point total. What’s remarkable is that with the new scoring in place, not only does Brown’s free skate total hardly budge – it goes down only 1.57 points, a reduction of less than 1%, as opposed to Uno’s change of about 3% – but the ratio of components to jumps doesn’t change much. This seems to be what the ISU intended: athletes like Brown, who rely on artistry, are rewarded for this approach.

Brown is a player in the one major change to this weekend’s results that the jump revaluation would bring about. At the US Classic, two American men earned higher overall scores than Brown did at Lombardia, and both of them did it with a quiver full of quads. Like Uno, Nathan Chen won easily, although unlike Uno, he skated conservatively, attempting only one quad in his short program and two in his free skate. Revalued jumps would have brought Chen’s score down a few points, but they wouldn’t have stopped him from winning the event by a tidy margin, or from becoming far and away the highest-scoring American man of the weekend. And deservedly so – a couple of technical errors didn’t detract from Chen’s most engaging artistic performance to date, with high components scores that reflected his growth.

Max Aaron, however, is another story. His overall score beat Brown’s, but by a slim margin of 1.68. I recalculated both skaters’ scores with the new, lower jump values, and in this case, it’s enough for Brown to pull ahead. Since the revaluation doesn’t impact Brown’s score as much, his new total becomes 257.60. Aaron – who landed five quads at the US Classic, three of them beautifully – takes a much bigger hit under the revaluation, especially because his PCS were far lower than Brown’s. Aaron’s overall score shrinks from 261.56 to 255.42, enough for Brown to pull ahead as the weekend’s second-best American. Brown beat Aaron by more than 11 PCS points in the free skate, a reflection of Brown’s superior interpretation and skating skills as well as Brown’s far more taxing choreography. If the goal of the revaluation is to give artistically adept athletes like Brown the edge over big jumpers like Aaron on a day when all other things are more or less equal, then it does its job.

The most interesting math problem arising from this weekend’s men’s events, however, centered around the two highest program components scores. Shoma Uno beat Jason Brown by almost 40 points in the free skate, and nearly all of that difference was in technical elements. On the components end, Uno edged out Brown by only 0.30, and both earned more than 90 points for components, a rare achievement at this point in the season. For all intents and purposes, the Lombardia Trophy judges threw up their hands and called it an artistic draw. Nobody else came close there; Deniss Vasiljevs’ components score was the third highest, and almost 12 points behind Brown. Chen, whose PCS were highest at the US Classic, trailed behind both Uno and Brown by about four points on his second mark.

At first, I questioned whether the two skaters really had tied, from a performance standpoint. When I’d watched the event live, Brown had stood out to me as the more accomplished artist. He’s had a few more years than Uno to develop his style and presence, and he has a preternatural gift for adapting to the mood and narrative of his music. Brown also navigates one of the most challenging pieces of choreography we’re likely to see this season, packed with sweeping flexibility moves and tricky turns that force him to maintain his momentum and balance when he’d rather be setting up for his next jump. This program has a little more breathing room than some of Brown’s past free skates, with more built-in opportunities for him to recover his speed. He also had to patch over a couple of wonky jump landings. The real irony is, this wasn’t Brown’s best showcase of his skating skills or interpretation, but Brown on a so-so artistry day is better than almost anyone else in the sport.

The problem with Uno, in terms of components, is that his finest qualities don’t come across on video. The tight frame of the camera makes his speed and ice coverage look less impressive, and it erases the impact of this small, shy man’s talent for filling a rink with his presence. Therefore, I have to assume that what comes off as a cautious and subdued performance was far more dynamic in person. What doesn’t disappear is Uno’s growing confidence in responding to his music with his face and upper body, as well as choreography that gives him more chances to show off his edges and core control than ever before. Next to Brown, he looks like an emerging artist rather than an established one, so I watched him again right after re-watching Nathan Chen. From that vantage point, it’s clear that compared to the other big jumpers of his generation, Uno is the most sophisticated performer. Chen is catching up in that respect, so Uno needs to watch his back. But for now, Uno has the advantage, and the ISU has all but assured that his performance ability will matter even more in the future than it does now.

 

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.

Continue reading “Summer Skating: Men’s Roundup”

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.