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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Skate Detroit Recap: Vincent Zhou and Other People

Photo via Vincent Zhou’s Instagram.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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:

BOTH QUADS
LANDED
I
Feelings
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.

 epilogue

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”

5 Things I Learned from the 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships

Nathan Chen skates his short program at 2017 Nationals.

Another U.S. Nationals is in the books, and as usual, I have a lot of opinions. So many opinions, in fact, that this is going to be a multi-part post. It’s not the only Nationals I have strong feelings about – I got out several thousand words on the Russian men a few weeks ago – but for better or for worse, I’m American, and my home country’s champions hold a special place in my heart. For that reason, I haven’t seen a lick of Canadian Nationals, which took place during the same busy weekend, and I’m unlikely to expend nearly as many words on the European Championships. I’m sure I’ll get around to that, but today, it’s time for a big, patriotic debrief on one of the things that makes me proud of my country, regardless of how angry the political climate has made me. On Saturday morning, I marched in Downtown Chicago; that evening, I watched a physically and mentally powerful teenage girl, the daughter of immigrants, break a whole bunch of records. If you’re a straight, middle-aged white dude, and you’re afraid of Karen Chen, you probably have the right idea. Or, to put it another way:

1. The Teen Titans Are Taking Over.

Last season, as athletes in their 20’s triumphed over teenage upstarts at 2016 Nationals, I wrote that the younger generation had not quite overtaken the veterans yet. The revolution came exactly as soon as I expected, with dominant performances by a team of teenage superheroes. The Starfire of the group is Karen Chen, who rebounded from an underwhelming 2016 – 8th at 2016 Nationals, middle-of-the-road at her international events – to run away with the short program and seal the deal in her free skate. Chen has a tendency to rush through her elements, so her delicate, minimalist music was a smart choice, forcing her to breathe and pay attention to each movement. I’ve never seen artistry from Chen like this before, and it was breathtaking to see her flow smoothly from a roof-raising triple lutz-triple toe loop to flicks of the wrist that captured moments in her music.

Nathan Chen has been the Boy Wonder of American figure skating for years, but he came into his own this season like never before. I’d feared that he would achieve a messy and unsatisfying win, racking up points from his uniquely difficult jumps despite falls or – perhaps worse – robotic performances. While Chen still has some growing to do when it comes to building transitions and expressing musical nuance, he didn’t miss a jump all weekend. He’s the only American man who can land two quadruple jumps in his short program, and they’re the two hardest, the flip and the lutz. His technique on both is gorgeous, with exceptional height and instinctive, controlled timing on his takeoffs and landings. We could hardly ask for a better Nightwing.

Most of the focus has been on the two senior champions, but it’s not hard to extend the metaphor into a five-person squad. The men’s silver medalist, Vincent Zhou, is even younger than Chen, and he’s spent much of his career in Chen’s shadow – as well as working around a series of injuries and a natural shyness. This year, for the first time, his performances came off as thoughtful and graceful rather than awkward, and he went 3 for 3 on his quad salchows. Zhou isn’t robotic at all, but he’s the quiet, steadfast Cyborg of the group.

The fourth member of the team, and in every way the most logical candidate for Beast Boy, is the men’s junior champion, Alexei Krasnozhon. Despite enjoying the most successful junior-level season of any American, including a Junior Grand Prix win, he was the only top teenager to stick to the safety of figure skating’s second-highest level. It was probably a wise decision, because his quad loop is close but not quite there. Krasnozhon also has a ton of personal style but needs to refine his edges and upper body movement. Nonetheless, he was far and away the best thing about this year’s ragtag junior men’s event, and he’ll ensure that America maintains a deep bench in men’s singles for the next couple of Olympic cycles.

It’s impossible to choose just one Raven. I’m stuck in a four-way tie among four talented young ice dancers. That’s not to say that Rachel Parsons, Christina Carreira, Lorraine McNamara, and Elliana Pogrebinsky should have to share the title – or that their male teammates should be overlooked. We’re just going to have to expand the squad to account for all the talent in American ice dance.

2. The American Ladies’ Program Is Going to Be Just Fine.

Especially at the junior level, Russia and Japan have a lock on ladies’ singles. In seniors, there are more cracks in those two countries’ dominance, but the conventional wisdom among skating fans is that the American ladies don’t have a prayer. Countries’ program strength comes and goes in waves, though – does nobody else remember 10 years ago, when Russia sent only one lady to Worlds? After a few years of drought, the United States is starting to see teenage skaters whose technical abilities approach the level of the top juniors in the world. Not all of them will make it to 2022 – the first time most will be age-eligible for an Olympic Games – but if a few hold steady, the position of the USA in ladies’ skating will look very different five years from now.

The boldest attempt at a breakthrough came from 14-year-old Tessa Hong, who effectively skipped right from the intermediate level to her senior Nationals debut after destroying at Midwestern Sectionals. Hong crumbled under the pressure in her free skate, placing 10th overall, but her 4th-place short program was probably more indicative of her future greatness. Like several of the top Russian teenagers, Hong skates a “backwards” short program, saving her jumps for the second half to maximize her bonuses. She lost some points on her triple lutz-triple toe loop to underrotation, and she has some catching up to do in terms of transitions and skating skills. There’s a natural loveliness to Hong’s skating, though, and no doubt that the kid can jump.

Meanwhile, in juniors, a passel of teenagers brought jumps as difficult as anything in seniors. With lower expectations for artistry and fewer required elements, junior ladies have more space to develop those triple-triples and to build strong underlying technique before it’s too late. The youngest athlete in the field, 13-year-old Kaitlyn Nguyen, opened her free skate with a giant triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow. Throughout her program, she demonstrated flexibility and stamina as well as power, and at no point did she look like a kid too young to compete at even Junior Worlds. Sometimes, it’s too soon to predict greatness from a seventh-grader, but Nguyen seems destined to rise like Nathan Chen, a skater who was similarly overpowered and underage when he won his first junior title.

Another junior lady, Starr Andrews, presented similarly challenging technical content, kicking off her free skate with a triple salchow-triple toe loop-double toe loop with arm variations that might have been the coolest jump of this year’s Nationals. She had trouble with some jumps later in the program, revealing some room to grow in terms of stamina and focus, but her charisma shined until the final moments. As a performer, 15-year-old Andrews is a prodigy, the kind of young skater who has future fan favorite written all over her.

Down another level, in novice, the triple-triples didn’t stop. This year’s champion, Angelina Huang, had a little trouble with her triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow, but it’s exciting to see such difficulty performed by a novice skater. Even more exciting is Huang’s bubbly presence. Kung Fu Panda was a perfect choice of theme, and her commitment to the music’s changes of tempo and mood set her apart from her competitors. She’s on her way to the Bavarian Open to gain international experience; if she succeeds there, she’s likely to snap up a spot or two at this fall’s Junior Grand Prix. And Huang isn’t the only one. Other names to remember include Ashley Lin (junior bronze), Emmy Ma (junior pewter, with a 1st-place short program), Ting Cui (novice silver, with a 1st-place free skate), and Pooja Kalyan (novice bronze).

3. The Potato Class of 2017 Is Phenomenal.

I think it was Elvis Costello who said that the key track on any album is its 4th. Regardless of which 70’s rock star originated that concept, my music-trading friends ran with it, and somewhere at the bottom of a trunk, I have a pile of cassettes containing homemade mixes in which the fourth song is very, very important. The same holds true for figure skating surprisingly often: fourth-place finishers, for whatever reason, tend to produce memorable performances. At most competitions, fourth place earns a skater nothing more than an imaginary “potato” award, but at U. S. Nationals, you’re a pewter medalist taking awkward podium photos. The additional recognition befits this year’s especially accomplished group.

The pairs pewter medalists, Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay, arrived with an irresistible backstory. Bartholomay had split with the fourth partner of his career in the middle of the previous season, and despite his trip to the 2014 Olympics, felt he still had plenty to prove. Stellato-Dudek had been a ladies’ singles superstar at the junior level circa 2000, but she’d retired while still a teenager following a series of injuries. Now 33, she’s married and has a job outside the skating world, but she’s still hitting triple toe loops like she’s 16. Stellato-Dudek and Bartholomay showed some flaws in the free skate – more to do with newness as a team than with age – but their short program was packed with joy and clean technical elements.

When Mirai Nagasu saw her short program score, her “Oh, dang!” became an instant Tumblr meme. While Karen Chen held onto her lead, the difference was less than a point, building up the tantalizing possibility that Nagasu might win her first National title in a decade. Nagasu’s technique on her triple flip-triple toe loop had never looked so secure, and nobody else came near the grades of execution she earned for her spins. Sadly, Nagasu couldn’t repeat the magic in her free skate. A tumble on a triple lutz early in the program seemed to shatter her concentration, and the jumps that followed were mostly sloppy, as if she’d already resigned herself to a second consecutive pewter medal. Still, that deflated performance shouldn’t take anything away from Nagasu’s short program, one of the best performances at 2017 Nationals in any discipline.

Last season, when Grant Hochstein finished 4th at Nationals, it was almost a punchline. He’d also come in 4th at both of his Grand Prix events, and fans were only half joking when we predicted he’d earn the same placement at Four Continents and Worlds. Those predictions didn’t come true, although 10th in the world is nothing to sneeze at. The problem is, Hochstein has struggled this season to live up to his accomplishments in 2015-16. In his free skate at 2017 Nationals, it finally felt like we had the old Grant back. He’d popped his quad attempt in the short program, but he got his revenge in the free skate, standing up on his first quad toe loop and landing a beautiful one on the second try. As always, Hochstein accompanied his strong jumps with a soulful performance. Let Tara and Johnny complain about Hochstein’s somber music choices; I have a hard time imagining him picking anything else.

Point out if you must that Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit only won pewter in 2017 because the pre-anointed 4th-place team, Hawayek and Baker, fell twice in their free skate. The other way to look at it is, Pogrebinsky and Benoit gave two solid performances while other teams faltered. They’ve also vastly exceeded expectations throughout the year, busting into their first senior season with a uniquely charismatic style that has made more than one friend ask me, “Wait, she’s only 18?!” I’ve enthused about their Elvis short program since the summer, but their free dance was the real star at Nationals: a four-minute trailer for an imaginary action romance blockbuster, only with cooler lifts. And in case there’s any lingering doubt that Pogrebinsky and Benoit got to the podium all on their own, their technical base value was the same as the gold medalists’. The difference was in grades of execution – numbers that will grow as this team does.

4. Ice Dance Is So Hard Now, Even the Good Ones Fall. (And Win Bronze Anyway.)

How hard is it to get to the podium in ice dance in the United States? So hard that skaters are falling all over themselves in a quest to raise their difficulty high enough to stand out from the rest. Since there’s no jumping in ice dance, falls are rare, but the senior free dance saw three falls among top contenders, and a fall in juniors shook up the presumed podium order. Two of the senior falls happened to Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, in a free dance so tragic that I can’t bring myself to embed it. If you enjoy watching pretty people’s dreams get crushed, here’s your link.

The other two big falls took place in the midst of programs that were otherwise excellent. I’m not a huge fan of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue’s free dance concept this season; I wish they would have skated to actual Whitney Houston instead of this Starbucks-y cover version. But I owe them tremendous respect for their technical achievements, which include an opening rotational lift that begins from a virtual standstill and builds speed as it goes. For 30 seconds, it looked like they might spoil for a silver medal, but Hubbell tripped on a transitional move and dashed their hopes early. Fortunately, the fall occurred between elements, so they didn’t lose precious technical points, but it yanked down the Skating Skills mark in their program components and generally sucked the wind out of the program. It’s a testament to the team’s abilities that they still finished solidly in third place, with a score higher than any that would be posted at the European Championships a week later. Even acknowledging that Nationals scores are generally a bit inflated in comparison with scores from ISU international events, that’s a notable feat.

The junior-level fall had more dramatic consequences. Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter arrived as two-time junior National Champions, but they’ve looked rough all season and have lost ground internationally to their training mates, Rachel and Michael Parsons. Nonetheless, McNamara and Carpenter had a shot at a third title, and failing that, they were almost shoo-ins for a silver medal. For most of their free skate, it looked like they might surge to the top of the podium. Indeed, the technical scores for their first five elements were a hair higher than the Parsons’. But in their final step sequence, Carpenter lost focus for a moment and slipped. The team dropped to 3rd place overall, an ironic end to what was otherwise the best free dance they’d skated all season.

5. Some Ladies Get Better with Age.

Figure skating is generally seen as a sport that favors extreme youth. Many athletes peak as teenagers and are washed up before they graduate from high school – sometimes even before puberty. Remarkably, six of the top seven finishers at this year’s Nationals are 20 or older. It’s possible to view that statistic cynically, as a sign of a talent vacuum, but I’d rather look at it favorably. The American approach to training allows athletes to continue competing well into their twenties, supporting their ongoing physical health as well as their incentive and drive to compete. As a result, many of the top American ladies have had time to develop their artistic styles and learn to project their personalities on the ice. Teenage jumping beans can be exciting to watch, but the grown-ups are often more interesting and memorable.

No grown lady at 2017 Nationals made a bigger statement than Caroline Zhang. After enduring a hip injury and subsequent surgery that would have convinced most athletes to retire, Zhang returned to the ice at 23 not to take care of unfinished business, but out of love for the sport. Throughout the season, as she made her way through local club competitions and qualifying events, she built up her skills methodically, preparing to peak at the right moment. Zhang still has some developing to do: her choreography was simpler and less expressive than others’, a deficiency reflected in low components scores. On the technical side, however, Zhang is better than ever. The “donkey kick” entrance into her toe jumps is mostly gone, and she gets perfect height and rotation on the huge triple loop-triple loop that she saves for a second-half bonus. Her fifth-place finish is her best Nationals result since 2012 and all but guarantees her return to international competition next season. If she continues on this path, she’ll put herself in the conversation for the Olympic team for the first time in a long and accomplished career.

Someday soon, the rest of the skating world is going to take Mariah Bell as seriously as I’ve been since her terrific 6th-place performance at 2015 Nationals. Maybe she gets written off because she’s inconsistent, although she’s improved remarkably in her ability to recover from errors. Maybe it’s because she didn’t make much of an impact at the junior level, instead hitting her athletic stride after puberty. In any case, no other American lady has earned more international medals this season. Nonetheless, her bronze medal at Nationals was widely treated as an upset. Twitter is already complaining that Bell is going to lose the USA its three ladies’ spots at the Olympics, despite a commanding silver-medal performance at Skate America and a versatile, crowd-pleasing performance style that has been winning over international judges all year. Not to mention the highest technical base value of any ladies’ free skate at Nationals, featuring two tough triple-triple combinations. Arena announcers had better get busy learning how to pronounce Bell’s first name correctly, because late bloomers tend to stick around.

Of course, the queen of butt-kicking adult women in American figure skating is Ashley Wagner. She was a little less than her best at Nationals, but her crown remains unchallenged. Nobody else came within shooting distance of her program components scores, and there’s no chance she’s being held up on the basis of her reputation. Her style and presence, as well as the intricacy of her choreographic and transitional moves, are unique in American figure skating. The judges rode her a little for flaws in her jump technique and called a few low levels on her spins, although they assessed her less harshly than most international judges have. This time around, those technical calls added up to a silver medal rather than a gold one. But second place doesn’t diminish the contributions of an athlete whose impact goes beyond the ice. Wagner might be the first top American ladies’ skater to assertively position herself as a feminist role model. Let’s hope she’s not the last, because as she reminded us half-jokingly in the press conference after the short program, she’s not going to live forever.


Next on The Finer Sports: More lessons from 2017 Nationals.

Russian Nationals Men’s Recap: The Great Chelyabinsk Splatfest of 2016

The men were a hot mess at Russian Nationals, which makes for fun viewing in the moment but lingering worry in the long run.

Mikhail Kolyada’s free skate at the NHK Trophy, because I am having a beast of a time finding photos from Nationals.

Russia has more talent in men’s singles than it knows what to do with, but the Russian men’s program is going through a bit of a disaster phase. Despite a long history as a powerhouse of men’s skating, Russia only got to send one man to the 2014 Olympics, and they’ve only scraped their way back to two World Championships slots since. No Russian man even came close to qualifying for the senior-level Grand Prix Final; it was the only discipline with no Russians present. Russian guys cleaned up in juniors, winning four of the seven Junior Grand Prix events and barely missing out on a podium sweep at the Junior Grand Prix Final, and they had plenty of success on the Challenger Series circuit. But at the highest level of competition, Russia keeps falling short.

One big problem is consistency. Many of the top Russians have beautiful quad jumps on their best days, but those quads are so unreliable that any successful attempt feels like a pleasant surprise. While Russian coaches seem to have taken some measures to address poor stamina, there are still too many guys who fizzle out after the second minute of their free skate. The Russian team has also had to adjust to more rigorous program components scoring; gone are the days when Evgeni Plushenko could jump and wink his way to Olympic gold with scarcely any challenging transitional moves. All of these factors justified a rebuilding period, but we’re now at the point where the construction delays are cause for concern. The men were a hot mess at Russian Nationals, which makes for fun viewing in the moment but lingering worry in the long run.

Continue reading “Russian Nationals Men’s Recap: The Great Chelyabinsk Splatfest of 2016”