Challenger Series Opens with Two Events
Lombardia Trophy includes big wins for Uno and Zagitova; U.S. International Classic saw equally strong gold-medal showings from Chen and Honda.
While the Junior Grand Prix took the week off, the Challenger series began. Began a couple of years ago by combining the bigger of the fall’s lesser international events, Challenger events allow senior skaters who haven’t made the Grand Prix to accumulate ranking points and official Season’s and Personal Best scores. But before the Grand Prix begins, they often host the higher-ranked skaters too, looking to get proper international mileage on their programs before the stakes get higher.
Such was the case at both the Lombardia Trophy in Begamo, Italy, and the U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City, Utah this week. Participants included a reigning World medalist and a reigning Olympic one, as well as many of the season’s top players. Some of them put down impressive performances, in Italy especially they reaped high scores, and one lady in Utah even came within an eyelash of joining the Triple Axel club.
Lombardia TrophyEmbed from Getty Images
The Lombardia Trophy was the event with the slightly more prestigious roster. It was also more or less the better skated of the two events, perhaps because it did not require participants to skate at altitude.
There were a lot of big names at this competition, and in the men, Japan’s Shoma Uno was the lion of the field. He started his season with two of the best back to back skates he’s ever put out, inching out personal bests in both segments and overall; he stepped out a quadruple loop jump in the free, but held on to a flip in the short and also landed four easier ones. He won by a crazy near-sixty points Jason Brown. And that was when American Brown himself dazzled in a close to clean free, although the short didn’t go as well, thanks mostly to his only quad attempt there.
A number of other men, however, struggled in one or both programs, including multiple skaters who might have otherwise contended for the podium, including Swede Alexander Majorov, Russians Andrei Lazukin and Alexander Petrov, and home skater Ivan Righini, whose eleventh place showing was downright alarming, especially when countryman Matteo Rizzo did well for himself in fifth, with even a third place free. In the end, Australian Brendan Kerry beat Deniss Vasiljevs out for bronze, though the Latvian beat him in the free. Kerry went for two quads and landed one in the short, and went for one and landed it in the free. Vasiljevs didn’t try any quads, and had his flip go wrong in the short. The programs he debuted were pretty good, the long especially.
The top Japanese skater of the ladies event, meanwhile, was absolutely flawless, although she didn’t win. Wakaba Higuchi nearly did, with two flawless skates in which she went up a level above what she’s done before. Her short program is good enough, finding something new on Don Quixote. But in her free program, she comes into herself in a whole new way:
But in the end, she didn’t have quite enough to stay ahead of young Russian Alina Zagitova. She did it in the short, where the latter had a fall. But Zagitova nailed her free, triple lutz-triple loop, three jump with a triple flip, and all. As if all the backloaded hard jumps weren’t enough, she even maxed out the value of one of her spins. She managed to squeak ahead of Higuchi by less than point to win.
Home star Carolina Kostner tried no triple-triples. She landed everything in the short, but made multiple errors in the free. The sheer beauty of her skating helped her win bronze, but it also might have been home advantage. She only narrowly beat American Bradie Tennell in fourth and Higuchi’s countrywoman Yura Matsuda in fifth. There’s an argument they should’ve finished ahead, when they both delivered superb breakout skates, Tennell’s a pretty strong performer herself, and Matsuda even follow up a triple flip-triple loop in the short with an absolutely ridiculous double axel-triple toe-triple loop in the free. Zagitova’s elder, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, struggled more, in her short especially. Her long went better, and even included a three-jump with a lutz, but she managed her triple-triple in neither program. All in all, she didn’t have enough for more than sixth.
Russians Natalia Zabiiako & Alexander Enbert came in favored to win the pairs, and they did, staying ahead of the two Italian teams who came in behind them. They managed a clean short and the side by side three-jump in their free, if not the salchows. But it was close between them and Nicole Della Monica & Matteo Guarise. They pulled off those salchows in both programs, and might have even won, had they not fallen on their combination in an artistically daring free. Valentina Marchei & Ondrej Hotarek weren’t as lucky. She lends her personality well to their comic pair of programs, but she also missed all their side by sides. Winning bronze wasn’t a problem for them, because their main competition for it, Americans Ashley Cain & Timothy LeDuc, made even more mistakes.
Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri were unchallenged from the time they threw down a slightly disjointed but very bouncy short dance. They remained so even when they botched a lift in their free dance, an otherwise good expression of nonetheless still overused music. Silver medalists Alla Loboda & Pavel Drozd of Russia got the higher technical tariff in both programs, but just couldn’t do everything as well as the home team did; their performance was especially weak in the free. In fact, bronze medalists Alexandra Nazarova & Maxim Nikitin of the Ukraine outperformed them, but their technical tariffs were significantly lower, partly due to late fatigue in their free dance.
View full results here.
U.S. International Figure Skating Classic
Things were a touch messier at the U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City, off the ice as well as on, with the IceNetwork stream malfunctioning on multiple occasions. But the two competitions had a surprising amount in common. Here, too, one man stood firmly over the rest, this time a home skater. There was also a high-flying Japanese lady, and a home ice dance team debuting their programs while winning with high scores.
Nathan Chen might not have been quite as brilliant a show as Shoma Uno. But he was still an extremely impressive one. The two programs he debuted were ones difficult to pull off both technically and artistically. The short was merely challenging, but doing a long program with Rite of Spring is especially daring. He actually only landed three quads, a tiny amount for him. But they were a lutz, a flip, and a loop, which is new for him. And artistically, he made both programs work. When he was also more clean than not, he won comfortably.
Like at Lombardia, there were some bad showings, from Takahiko Mura, Michel Brezina, and Daniel Samohin, men all too prone to them. But one American and one Canadian who have struggled recently, Max Aaron and Liam Firus, surprisingly skated much better to take silver and bronze respectively. In a week full of major errors, Aaron had none, and while his quads weren’t the prettiest or most difficult, he landed three clean and two with hands down. Firus had a fall in each program, but also a quad, and all in all had his first pair of good skates of the season after a painful summer.
In Utah, the high-flying Japanese lady won. Marin Honda delivered two stunning programs, complete with her triple-triples. She doubled one jump, which didn’t matter much. But the story wasn’t her. It was Mirai Nagasu, and her triple axel. She managed to rotate and stand up on it in both programs. The short program landing was far from clean, but the free program was much closer, with the slightest of two-footing. She then underrotated most of her other jumps, but the accomplishment stood. She also still won silver narrowly over fellow American Karen Chen, who also had multiple underrotations, including her triple-triples. In fourth Kaori Sakamoto pulled her triple-triple off in both programs, and in fifth Mariah Bell did in the free, but they both made too many mistakes on their other jumps.
It wasn’t a good week for American pairs all together. They lost one team out of the Grand Prix, and none of the five on the Challenger circuit skated well. Relative lack of competition in Salt Lake allowed three home pairs to still go 2-3-4, and Alexa Scimeca Knierim & Chris Knierim even won the free skate. They came with a striking new short program and the news they’ve scrapped their Chaplin free and gone back to last year’s Ghost. Nobody really minds seeing that routine again, though, since they’d only peformed it twice, and it really is a beautiful program, even when they made multiple mistakes on the jumps.
But with no clean side by sides this week, they lost narrowly to Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers & Dylan Moscovitch, whose programs were much cleaner, if slightly weaker technically and artistically. Chelsea Liu & Brian Johnson took the bronze by a much wider margin over Haven Denney & Brandon Frazier, even managing a second place short where they landed salchows and skated clean. Not everything was as successful in their free, but they still did enough to beat the Knierims technically, and even came within three hundredths of having the highest technical score of the night.
Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue debuted two well-choreographed programs with an air of sophistication and ease. That actually left the short dance a little lacking in heat, but was absolutely perfect for their free dance, in which they also maxed out the opening twizzles:
Their winning margin was twenty-five points. That was partly because the second American team, Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker, had her go down on the short dance’s closing twizzles. They had to come back from third to win silver over Kana Muramoto & Chris Reed, which they did with a strong rendition of their beautiful free dance. The Japanese team themselves skated excellently throughout, and were almost as beautiful debuting their own delicate cherry blossom free.
View full results here.
Next week we’ll again see two Challenger events, the Autumn Classical International in Canada, and the Ondrej Nepala Trophy in Slovakia, while the Junior Grand Prix resumes.