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.”

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

4 Things I Learned from the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships

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

1. The magic word was “finally.”

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

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

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

2. Comebacks are a Crapshoot.

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

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

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

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

3. Canada has a deeper bench than we thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Don’t underestimate anybody.

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

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

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

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


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

2017 Junior Worlds Men’s Recap: Pretty Sure I Dreamed This

If anyone was hoping I would live tweet the World Junior Championships men’s event, I’m sorry to have abandoned Twitter. But none of the men’s competition occurred at a reasonable hour, and I was already tired from full days of work before and after. To avoid publicly airing any inappropriate remarks about 16-year-old boys (or just miscalling jumps where folks could see me) I messaged my friends privately.

So I have notes for posterity. And I haven’t stopped laughing at them yet.

This recap is a cleaned up version of those notes, with some commentary added. I’ve redacted most of the swearing, fixed most of the autocorrect bloopers, and toned down the exuberant caps lock. My initial impressions are a more entertaining, and probably more accurate, reflection of what happened than anything I could produce by endlessly rewatching these performances on YouTube, although I’ve given several a second viewing, mostly for my own enjoyment. I’m including time stamps, so you can put my mental decline into context.

I am still not sure any of this happened. The entire event has been eradicated from YouTube on dubious copyright grounds, which strengthens my conviction that I might have dreamed it.

Men’s Short Program

Tuesday, 11:45 PM Central Daylight Time

Not much is happening yet. my feelings right now are 45% hang on tiny Mexican boy, 45% time for Conrad Orzel to prove he should have beaten Gogolev at Nationals, and 10% “Wow, those shrimp I made for dinner turned out really well.” [Friend A, henceforth known as Buffy] told me this is just an exhibition event, though. I’m really glad it’s canceled and the scores don’t count, because imagine how stressed out I’m going to be in an hour.

Artur Panikhin of Kazakhstan is skating to Genesis. It’s a medley with “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and this is why I love this sport. The polite Taiwanese audience is not sure how to respond to a program that ends with devil horns in the air.

2017 Conrad Orzel Junior Worlds SP (720p) by siberia1982

Conrad Orzel lands all his jumps. [Friend B, henceforth Kamala] says she is deeply charmed, which is good because she has been rolling her eyes at me all week as I’ve talked this kid up. I express the hope that he’ll go over 70 points, because his technical scores make that possible. But it’s only 66.21 despite a clean skate, in what will turn out to be a pattern of WJC judges lowballing lesser-known skaters in early groups. His coaches look personally offended by his components marks.

A few mediocre skates, during which I get snacks, followed by an ice resurface. It is now Wednesday, 1:00 AM CDT.

After a year of rolling her eyes at me affectionately when I rambled about Kazuki Tomono, Buffy understands the appeal: “Look at his sparkly costume! And flopsy hair!” I insist he is perfect, and then he falls on his triple Axel. Japan is right now apologizing for pouring their funding and attention into other skaters. High components scores put him ahead of Orzel. Buffy asks if I’m okay. I’m not, and yet feeling fine.

Chat records show an extended detour into discussion of musicals and picking up girls on dating apps, as well as a rehashing of the timeless Mac vs. PC debate, which means my notes are spotty for the rest of the warm-up group. We are excited that Irakli Maysuradze is skating to Javier Fernandez’s music from last year, which makes it all the more tragic when he’s the first skater I’ve cared about who has melted down. I pause to note that Chih-I Tsao and Daniel Albert Naurits, both of whom I’d skipped in my preview because they never skate well, have gone lights out. I am perplexed and proud, scared of where the night will lead.

Wednesday, 1: 45 AM CDT

While we debate whether Sondre Oddvoll Boe’s music is “hobbit music” or a tribute to Joshua Farris, he lands everything and logs yet another clean skate on a night when it seems like everyone has taken an immunity potion and could not screw up if they tried.

All semblance of chill crumbles. Koshiro Shimada skates beautifully, earning one of the night’s highest single-element grades of execution for his triple lutz-triple toe loop. I’m broken. I don’t know how to feel when all of my favorites are killing it. I’m even excited for the Nordic kids who somehow skated clean for the first and last time in their lives. I’m suspicious that the last two groups are all going to implode because this level of achievement cannot hold.

JWC2017 Jun Hwan CHA SP by arealy_ru

Jun Hwan Cha is like Yuzuru Hanyu and Yuna Kim birthed a perfect child. And made him skate to my favorite musical. Everyone else can just go home now, because early as it is, I can’t imagine anyone beating this. His score is well over 80 points, and it’s all grades of execution and components because let’s face it, everyone else is busy being perfect tonight, too.

I try to explain Alexei Krasnozhon to Buffy and describe him as a “hunk of meat” because he is not the most refined. Three minutes later, I am asking, “Since when is Kras elegant? I’m confused.” This is all new and excellent. Because it continues to be that kind of night, Krasnozhon lands everything beautifully. His scores are lower than Cha’s – purely a matter of GOEs and components – but Krasnozhon is ecstatic in the kiss and cry. He always wins the kiss and cry, because he’s precious. I apologize for my earlier meat-related remarks.

This is the first time in history that men’s has not been the disaster event, I remark as Sihyeong Lee turns out yet another clean performance. Kamala is suddenly concerned. “Either the last groups need to implode beautifully to make up for it, or there’s going to be some serious trainwrecking in the other disciplines.” I tell her there are worse things than all of Russia imploding.

Buffy asks me how many more favorites I have. I tell her there are still two more warm-up groups, plus an ice resurface, and urge her to go to bed. I am suffering for my obsessions, but she doesn’t have to.

Wednesday, 2:45 AM CDT

Kamala goes to bed during the Zamboni break, too, but she has asked for my live updates so she can read them in the morning. Nobody should give me permission for that kind of thing. I begin with an attempt at compassion, not mentioning that Yaroslav Paniot had performed the billionth clean short program of the night, the kind of skate that normally would shoot a junior-level athlete into the lead but has left him only third behind Cha and Krasnozhon.

JWC2017 Vincent ZHOU SP by arealy_ru

Vincent! How are they all skating this well? When did he get this pretty? Did all the American boys get emergency lessons in pretty? Going over his scores now, I’m personally insulted by judge #6, who gave Zhou components scores in the 6.0-6.5 range and lowballed him on GOE as well. On the other hand, Zhou earned 12.73 points for his triple lutz-triple toe loop, because seriously, look at it. I do not know how this is not a first-place short program, but this is the world we are living in.

We are also living in the world where Nicolas Nadeau and Roman Sadovsky are both perfect, one right after the other, like an advertisement for the depth of talent in Canadian figure skating. Nadeau slots just behind Zhou, and Sadovsky a couple of tenths of a point behind Krasnozhon, all of them so close together that the judges’ message is basically, “Everyone is fantastic, let them sort it out in the free skate.” I, too, am perplexed and elated. Sadovsky looks up at his scores like he can’t figure out how he scored that high, or how he could be in 5th place with seven skaters still to go.

Graham [Forking] Newberry. Skates perfectly. I’m 90% sure I’m not dreaming this.

At this point, there have been ten consecutive clean short programs, which is the kind of statistical fluke that people in my line of work dismiss as a results-destroying outlier. It is now 3:15 AM CDT, and it has been an hour and a half since someone made a significant jump error. That was Petr Kotlarik, who nonetheless set a career-best score. Nobody has fallen for two hours. It’s like a Dungeons & Dragons game that runs all night because everyone keeps rolling 20’s.

Enter Andrew Torgashev, who pops his Axel, falls on his triple loop, and fails to qualify for the free skate. I want to give him a hug, but I’m also kind of relieved that someone has finally messed up.

JWC2017 Alexander PETROV SP by arealy_ru

I’m running on adrenaline, and so are the skaters in the last group, which includes all three Russians in a row, followed by three of the least technically consistent men in figure skating. The first of the Russians is Alexander Petrov, who has come back down from getting underscored in seniors all season. Three perfect jumping passes, three perfect spins, and we’re back to statistically improbable levels of everyone destroying.

JWC2017 Dmitri ALIEV SP by arealy_ru

Dmitri Aliev does one of the prettiest triple Axels I have seen in my lifetime. His other two jump landings look a little off to me, but the surrounding transitions are so hard that the judges are like, “We’ve been here for six hours, this is awesome, what do you want?” Nothing makes sense anymore, and I’m wondering how I’m still awake. Aliev ends up ahead of Cha, purely on components. I would be shouting at the screen about why that is a fatally wrong decision, but it’s the time of morning when one’s neighbors knock tersely on your door in response to that kind of behavior.

JWC2017 Alexander SAMARIN SP by arealy_ru

Alexander Samarin’s triple Axel is even more stunning than Aliev’s, which is true in general but especially true on a night when I’ve seen at least fifteen excellent triple Axels. He biffs his triple loop just enough to score behind Aliev. But this performance is the artistic achievement of the night, and I am not being ironic. It takes a special skater to make this ridiculous testosterone-fueled chest-bump of a short program into a marvel of balletic body lines and emotional range.

IceNetwork starts to glitch for the first time, which is remarkable considering that this live stream has been running uninterrupted for over six hours. This is probably my computer’s way of telling me to go to bed already. As a result, I see Daniel Samohin fall on his triple lutz and miss his combination, but I’m spared from the horror that is his triple Axel. I assume he’s failed to qualify, but he’s pulled a Jason Brown and scraped together 67 points purely on components and non-jump elements.

JWC2017 Kevin AYMOZ SP by -tomaayuvdzhy

The feed completely dies during Matteo Rizzo’s short program but sputters back to life for Kevin Aymoz, who finally shows what it looks like when he lands all his jumps. It’s a moment to treasure. He’s an exceptionally beautiful performer, even when his music is more suited for a video game trailer than for figure skating. In any case, this doubles as a demonstration of what spins are supposed to look like, and it’s the kind of night/morning/what is time anyway when a skate like Aymoz’s is only good enough for sixth place.

Intermission: Wednesday, 9:44 AM CDT

Kamala: *blinks awake* oh my GOD

Me: Yeah, sorry. Actually I wrote less to you last night than I thought.

Kamala: How was everyone THIS GOOD??

Me: Maybe they weren’t and I was tired. But the scores suggest everyone was that good. The minimum qualifying SP score was lower at Euros.

Kamala: Of course this all sets up for some potentially legendary bombing in the free. They’re probably not going to all roll 20’s twice in a row. Although I would not complain if they did.

Me: I like this sad D&D metaphor and am glad we are running with it.

Men’s Free Skate

Thursday, 5:45 AM CDT

Kazuki TOMONO (JPN) FP ― 2017 WJSC by shintorasports

I’m up, it’s Kazuki Tomono time, send help. Kazuki has some very special landings, but he goes for the quad and rotates his triple Axels, which is more than acceptable. He breaks 200 points, and my heart explodes with glee. He was only 14th in the short program so I’m looking forward to seeing how far he moves up the rankings.

Conrad Orzel pops an Axel early in the program, and I assume it’s all over, since he needs those triple Axels to contend. But just before the program’s halfway point, Orzel invokes the spirit of Shoma Uno and improvises an emergency triple Axel so enormous that he tacks a three-jump combo onto the back end. It’s already shaping up to be the kind of morning when a YOLO Axel can save your life, and it is way too early for me to deal with watching skaters lose their minds correctly.

Daniel SAMOHIN (ISR) FP ― 2017 WJSC by shintorasports

To test my emotional resilience, Daniel Samohin is next, my friends are asleep, and I am no longer a college student whose digestive system can handle a shot of whiskey at 6:00 in the morning. Right off the bat, he lands two quads and a triple Axel. Who is this non-disaster, and why can’t he show up all the time? He does eventually fall on his third quad attempt, and some of his other landings are dramatic saves. He rotates everything, though. Aside from the one jerkface judge who gives him a 5.00 for transitions, the panel is willing to hold him way up on components, too. And here I was, thinking Tomono’s score would hold up for awhile.

I accidentally doze off in the first minute of Daniel Albert Naurits’ program, wake up briefly as Matteo Rizzo is receiving his scores, and power nap through the Zamboni break. The cat, who has apparently learned the vocabulary of skating competition announcements, sticks her nose in my face just as Group 3 is being told they have one minute remaining in their warm-up.

Thursday, 7:00 AM CDT

Koshiro Shimada skates well but doesn’t have the difficulty to keep up with all the quads. May he return next year with a triple Axel and even more charisma. Paniot and Newberry fizzle in the free skate, which is too bad, but not entirely a surprise. Samohin remains in the lead, as he’s been for an hour. I’m having flashbacks to 2016.

I’m extremely excited about Nicolas Nadeau’s Elvis free skate, because it’s bananas. He pops his Axel, and then IceNetwork freezes, unable to cope. He goes on to pop two more jumps and mess up the landings on several of his triples. Nadeau’s free skate score is 30 points lower than what he earned for his silver-medal performance in 2016. I’m so transparently not okay about this, the cat is trying to figure out how she can help.

Canada is not done breaking my heart. Roman Sadovsky falls twice in the first 30 seconds of his free skate, and things do not improve from there. He lands one clean triple jump in the entire program. The skating gods are unhappy with Canada for some reason.

Alexei KRASNOZHON (USA) FP ― 2017 WJSC by shintorasports

In the moment, Alexei Krasnozhon looks terrific. He stands up on his quad loop and hits a couple of gorgeous triple Axels. “Immigrants, they get things done!” I exclaim. But on closer scrutiny, the quad loop is underrotated, and Krasnozhon is short a jump combination. Good for him for getting his spin levels up, and for his full commitment to being an ice cowboy. I’ll miss this program. I wish his scores were higher.

Thursday, 7:30 AM CDT

JWC2017 Vincent ZHOU FS by arealy_ru

Vincent Zhou is first to skate after the ice resurfacing. I explain to my friends, who are still asleep or at least not checking their messages yet, that I’m not okay but appear calm because it’s so early. Looking back on my text logs, I do not appear calm at all; half of my notes are in all caps. My messages to Buffy are as follows:

It’s cute that people thought he couldn’t win

There are actually three quads – one more than I expected – and the first is a quad lutz so pristine that Nathan Chen needs to start looking over his shoulder. Zhou earns positive grades of execution on everything and exceeds 100 points in his technical element score for the first time in Junior Worlds history. He has the perfect Humphrey Bogart eyes for Casablanca. 

After the Kevin Aymoz meltdown that surprises nobody, it’s Russians who are not as amazing as Vincent: a play in three acts. Alexander Petrov skates with his usual understated competence and even lands a half-decent quad toe loop. Under other circumstances, I enjoy his skating, but his performance lacks Zhou’s plucky drama or Samohin’s balls-to-the wall explosiveness.

JWC2017 Alexander SAMARIN FS by arealy_ru

Alexander Samarin, on the other hand, has grown into a huge on-ice personality this year. With one quad less than Zhou, and a bunch of funky wobbles that look like his nerves getting the best of him, Samarin posts a great score but can’t catch up. He seems less tired of his programs than any other skater at the event, like he could do this choreography forever and make a change to the world.

JWC2017 Jun Hwan CHA FS by arealy_ru

I have somehow forgotten that Jun Hwan Cha hasn’t skated yet. Maybe I’m blocking it out for the sake of my own mental health. For the first two minutes, he looks like he has this in the bag, with a terrific quad salchow and graceful, noodly energy. But he can’t hang onto his second quad attempt, and he literally falls right off the podium. After that, he looks like he’s accepted defeat. I am trying to be upset, but I’m still riding the How is Vincent still winning? high.

JWC2017 Dmitri ALIEV FS by arealy_ru

I am certain that Aliev is going to take Vincent’s gold away. The only person more certain than me appears to be Aliev, who assumes his opening pose like the judges wouldn’t dare deny him his rightful World Junior title. But he’s just so-so. He attempts only one quad toe loop, and it’s a janky one. Even his knee slide triple flip looks tentative. The judges do their best to make him feel better with a giant components score, handing him silver ahead of Samarin, who probably deserved it more. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a skater this cranky about second place.


In the post-competition interview and press conference, Zhou is giddy and well-spoken, like the media training has kicked in but not enough to prevent him from being himself. “I can’t be a robot,” he says with a smile when asked about what he wants to work on in the future. The Russians, meanwhile, sound pissed off that this dorky American kid who didn’t even qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final has quad-lutzed off with the title. It’s like the end of The Karate Kid. I can only hope that senior Worlds will be this full of surprises, strong performances, and feel-good sports movie endings.

I feel I should be recapping ice dance as well, but that whole mess can be summarized as disaster, disaster, THE PARSONS FAMILY, disaster, and hey wait, Carreira/Ponomarenko got a medal? American and Russian ice dance will be real interesting next year.

Next on The Finer Sports: As many World Championships field guides as I have time for before the event starts.



2017 Asian Winter Games Recap: Triumph of the Improv Quad

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

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

Continue reading “2017 Asian Winter Games Recap: Triumph of the Improv Quad”

6 More Things I Learned from the 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships

Madison Chock and Evan Bates perform their free dance at Nationals.

What’s a blogger to do when she wants to say everything about Nationals? Someone with more restraint – or an editor – might just skip stuff, but skating fans hate it when you skip stuff. As it does almost every year, NBC blacked out the live performances of a number of ladies and ice dancers in the earlier warm-up groups, and Twitter threw a fit. So I’m going to indulge my completist tendencies and cover everything I have an opinion about. If you haven’t read the first part of my Nationals recap, start there. This is a continuation of that post, not a stand-alone sequel.

It’s been an ugly couple of weeks in the United States, and watching figure skating has given me some emotional relief from current events. At the same time, Nationals have reminded me that America’s strength comes from the diversity of its citizens and residents, and that my country has a long track record of undermining that strength. From the 1880’s until the end of World War II, Chinese-Americans like Nathan Chen, Karen Chen, and Vincent Zhou endured laws that restricted immigration, curtailed civil rights, and stoked anti-Chinese sentiment, using rhetoric that will sound familiar to anyone following the news lately. In the 1940’s, Japanese-Americans like Mirai Nagasu, Maia Shibutani, and Alex Shibutani were stripped of their livelihoods and property and forced to live in internment camps, while European Jews, like Jason Brown’s ancestors (and my own), were turned away from American borders despite facing almost certain death in their countries of origin. In the 1950’s, Americans of many backgrounds were targeted in anti-Communist inquisitions, but Russian immigrants and their descendants – people like Alex Krasnozhon and Anthony Ponomarenko – became particularly vulnerable to interrogation, imprisonment, and professional blacklisting. In retrospect, none of these violations of civil and human rights made America safer, and several harmed the United States economically. In this, as in most things, sports are a microcosm of society, and an illustration of what we have to lose through ignorance, paranoia, and bullying.

Anyway. Also there was skating.

Continue reading “6 More Things I Learned from the 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships”