Skating Highlights of the Week: Grand Prix Final and the Golden Spin of Zagreb
Chen, Kihira, James & Cipres, and Hubbell & Donohue all triumph at Final; Golden Spin marred by dangerous fall.
This year, the week of the Grand Prix Final was also a week of mourning for the figure skating community. Last Sunday, skating coach Jean-Francois Bellester died suddenly of a heart attack in his home in Switzerland, aged 53. A native of France, he was known as a pairs coach, and was most known for coaching Bruno Massot with all his partners, up to and including Aliona Savchenko. He had recently taken on Austrian champions Mariam Ziegler & Severin Keifer,taking them to gold at the Tallinn Trophy only days before his death. He was also coaching singles skaters, including French lady Laurince Lecavelier. Commemorations have come from around the skating world.
This year, the junior and senior Grand Prix Finals were held together in Vancouver, location of the 2010 Olympics, though they used the arena that hosted the hockey games in 2010, rather than the one that hosted the skating events. Both events lost a man before they started, though in both cases they were replaced by the first alternates. The junior pairs event also lost a team en route.
The Challenger series also wrapped up this week, with the Golden Spin of Zagreb in Croatia. There, unfortunately, the biggest story became about a pair that didn’t withdraw, and whether it was irresponsible of the referee to not force them to.
Grand Prix Final
The senior Grand Prix Final had a few surprises to it. Only one event was won by the absolute favorite, although the men’s winner was something of a co-favorite, and the two surprises were ones we knew to be possible. There were a couple of other unlikely silver medalists, and of course the men’s lineup had guaranteed at least an unlikely bronze one.
The Junior Grand Prix Final was typical in one way, in that it was complete Russian dominance. Even more so than usual; they won all but two of the medals. Which Russians would win what had been a little more in suspense, and there was a real surprise in who won the ladies.
Rika Kihira has now gone from being the junior lady just trying to hold her own with the Russians to being the senior lady who can beat anyone when she’s at her best. The short program alone that she absolutely soared through made that statement, getting a new world record score in the process.
The opening triple axel combination attempt in her free went badly, but after that she went right back to being brilliant in almost every way. She even managed to revise her program on the fly, so she could turn the solo axel into a combination without committing a Zayak violation. That helped her break 150 and won that segment too, and with it the gold.
Kihira’s victory is an even bigger statement when none of the other five ladies skated all that badly. Certainly Alina Zagitova, who wasn’t supposed to lose, gave all she could in an admittedly disadvantageous short.
Before the free, Zagitova tripped on a TV cable and injured her foot badly enough she considered withdrawing. But when she skated, she again had a very good skate, missing only her first easier triple-triple. Her period of invincibility may not have lasted very long, but she walked out of here with silver and still very hard to beat.
Elizaveta Tuktamysheva joked beforehand she’d have to rob a jewelry store to get gold in Vancouver, but for bronze, all she needed to do was land everything that wasn’t the triple axel. In the free skate, she managed to even get through that with only a turnout, and got the highest technical tariff of anyone.
Bronze probably would’ve gone to Kaori Sakamoto, however, if she hadn’t fallen on her three jump. That was her only moment of trouble throughout the competition; she was otherwise at her best, and she rode her strength and improved expression to fourth.
When it came down to it, Sofia Samodurova simply couldn’t keep up with the top four when they skated as well as they did. That left her just happy to be there. And happy to have skated both her programs as well as she could have, which made her a sight still very worthy of the Final.
After visibly struggling in her short, Satoko Miyahara appearedto the naked eye to have nailed her free. She even got straight +5s GOE for her layback, the first element to ever get that. Except then the technical panel had their say about her underrotating all her harder jumps, and they even fully downgraded her solo lutz. In a competition this good, that left her shockingly last.
Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue have made changes to both of their programs. Their rhythm dance really packs a punch, its strength and sexiness standing out even here, but now further risks comparisons to Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje.
They have a new dramatic opening to their free dance to O Verona. The better part is still the part to “Kissing You,” but it is a strong introduction, especially with how well they sell it. Of those skaters more or less favored to win the senior events, they were the ones who actually did so.
Victoria Sinitsina & Nikita Katsalapov said after their rhythm dance they hadn’t wanted it to end. It left them third going into the free, but by less than a point.
Their free dance maybe felt a little long at the end, though they themselves loved the finishing burst. They were technically brilliant throughout, getting the highest TES to nearly win the segment and pull up tosilver.
Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri were second in the rhythm dance, sharpening it to do it with plenty of skill and power. Getting the second-place score floored them and their coaches both.
They couldn’t quite keep up with the top two in the free dance, at least in terms of how well they skate. But another strong performance of one of the better La La Land programs we’ve seen was still enough to break 120 and get them the bronze, which they and their coaches had an even bigger reaction to.
Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin ended up being the senior dance team on the outside looking in. Their sultry free dance even beat Guignard & Fabbri’s presentation scores, though the Italians were still stronger technically. Ultimately they missed the podium by a little less than two points, and will now be at a disadvantage to Sinitsina & Katsalapov going into Russian Nationals.
The last two teams at the Final were, in the end, just happy to be there, not yet ready to topple those ahead of them. They both got to show off good free dances too. Tiffani Zagorski & Jonathan Guerreiro held on to fifth with their high-quality interpretation of Blues of Kook.
Arguably, Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker’s very Dubreuil-school free dance was the best program of the six. They even beat Zagorski & Guerreiro in the segment, though they ended up a hair behind them overall.
After Yuzuru Hanyu’s withdrawal, the men became a battle between Nathan Chen and Shoma Uno so long as they skated decently. And they did, though they were far from perfect in either program. But Chen makes more than one kind of statement with his “Land of All” free, and rotating more quadruple jump content than Uno got him the gold.
Uno’s skate was still good enough for not only silver, but to confirm he was the prince of the field in terms of artistry.
Though give Junhwan Cha a few more years, he might just rival that. He keeps surprising this season. He’s still working on the quads, but he not only did everything else, but he did it with high quality and expression, and comfortably bested his three fellow unlikely finalists for his most important bronze yet.
Fourth place Michal Brezina’s short program was the only completely clean skate of the men’s event, and his free program was the same but for the failed quad attempt. He probably ain’t going to bother doing any high/classical arty programs anymore, but there’s always room for a skater flying about the ice to “Thunderstruck.”
When there was also room for Keegan Messing at this competition post-Hanyu, the audience quite enjoyed their home skater’s showmanship. But even his short got hit with underrotations for last place. His free actually pulled him up to fifth, but it was not a good skate.
Sergei Voronov got through the short program with only a rough quad, but struggled with all his harder elements in the free, finishing last.
A little rough jumping left Vanessa James & MorganCipres in fourth after the short. But they were only four points out of first,and in the free, they landed everything and gave one of the best performances they’ve ever given. It was enough to surge ahead and claim France’s first ever Grand Prix Final gold in the pairs.
Cheng Peng & Yang Jin already had the best short program among the pairs, and when they were also the only team to pull everything off, they initially shocked for the lead.
They went clean in the free too, although that was partly by deliberately doubling their salchows, as they’ve been doing lately. That left them without enough to stay ahead of James & Cipres, but they held on to silver, which is still a huge achievement for them, and even makes an argument that they not be the Chinese pair left off the World team.
Evgenia Tarasova & Vladimir Morozov had been the favorites, but the jump mistakes they got away with earlier in the fall, they couldn’t get away with here, and they made them in both programs. Still, they have improved in their performance of their high quality free, and they still managed to take bronze.
Up until the final spins of their short program, Natalia Zabiiako & Alexander Enbert were skating flawlessly. But the botching of those were nothing compared to their free skate mistakes, which dropped them from second to fourth.
Nicole Della Monica & Matteo Guarise, too, came close to clean in their short, which only a little trouble on their throw jump. But then they, too, had a disastrous free skate, and were very lucky to hold on to fifth.
Daria Pavliuchenko & Denis Khodykin weren’t really on everyone else’s level, even before missing the jumps in their short program. But they acquitted themselves far better in their free of hard content, managing everything except the most ambition element, the opening flips.
Junior ladies was supposed to be a battle between the two who could do quads. But there was also Alena Kostornaia, the most beautiful skater of the six junior ladies. She took that up another level with her short program, skating a program both technically and expressively brilliant, and took the lead. That maybe wasn’t the biggest surprise, though, since the ladies in question weren’t allowed to do their quads in the short.
It wasn’t possible for her to be quite as spectacular in the free, if only because of her choreographer’s bad musical choices. But in another clean skate, she did all she could with it, and that was still pretty great. And when both the ladies with the quad lutzes missed both their attempts at them, that allowed her to edge out the free skate too, and win the gold, which is a huge statement going into Russian National Competitions-and all three ladies will likely compete in both.
Of those two other ladies, it was Alexandra Trusova who had the better competition. For one thing, it was she who had the clean short, the one that made clear the quads are hardly the only thing she has going for her.
In the free, she was actually attempting three quads, and she got through her quad toe with only a light turnout. With only one of the lutzes underrotated, that left her with the highest technical tariff by a dozen points. When she got through the rest of the program no problem, she came within a point of winning the segment, and silver was very easy.
Alena Kanysheva came into his competition with maybe the least amount of attention paid to her, and that her free program music may be copyblocked on YouTube doesn’t help. But from the short onward, she quickly established her credentials, skating two strong programs to take bronze.
Anastasia Tarakanova had some trouble in her short, but absolutely none in her free, where she came within a point of Kanysheva in the segment to move up to fourth. She may even be finding a way to channel her more passionate style even into classical programs like this one.
Anna Shcherbakova, the other ladies with the quads, had already had a bad short when she fell on both of them, saw one fully downgraded, and unlike Trusova she didn’t have a spare. The rest of her program was still pretty good, but it still left her only in fifth.
Yelim Kim, the only non-Russian junior lady, couldn’t keep up with the Russians after making only a handful of mistakes. Which was a real pity, when her free skate may be the best program any of the six came in with.
The dance podium was the Russian sweep that wasn’t inevitable. But not only did it happen, but winners Sofia Shevchenko & Igor Eremenko have had very much a Russian style. They have it this season, with both their classical style tango and their more modern free dance. They haven’t been the circuit’s most attention-grabbing team, but they usually do everything well, and did this week.
Silver medalists Arina Ushakova & Maxim Nekrasov were the team present that stood out the most stylistically, and in both their programs; no pure lyricism for them. It’s been working for them this fall, and they actually not only won the free dance, but finished only a hundredth of a point behind Shevchenko & Eremenko overall.
Elizaveta Khudaiberdieva & Nikita Nazarov may have the most raw skating/dancing talent of the six pairs. They were a little loose on an element or two, though, and though they completed the sweep, it was another close call, only three hundredths of a point’s difference.
Marjoire Lajoie & Zachary Lagha would have won the bronze if not for an extended lift. As it was, their beautiful Dubreuil school free dance did beat Khudaiberdeiva & Nazarov’s free dance, but only by a hundredth of a point, and they’d needed four. Who had the best program among these six is almost a matter of taste, but theirs is a very strong candidate.
Especially when Avonley Nguyen & Vadym Kolesnik’s free dance was marred by twizzles gone awry. Between that and some low levels they were consigned to fifth, but at least their rhythm dance had gone a little better.
Sixth place Maria Kazakova & Georgy Reviya similarly had a stumble in the rhythm dance, though they’d been largely just happy to be there anyway. Their gothicky free went better.
The only two junior medals the Russians didn’t win were the men’s gold and bronze. The winner of the former, Stephen Gogolev, blew his chance to make the initial lineup last time he was in Vancouver. But once he got in as first alternate, he still had the clear ability to win, and by the time he’d finished skating his short, he’d already shown him to have returned to town wiser, smoother, and stronger.
There might have been some worry when he landed only one of his three opening quads. But no one was flawless in that segment anyway, and this time, Gogolev pulled it together after that and skated the rest of the free almost as well as he’d skated the short. That got him the gold by nearly fifteen points.
Petr Gummenik is continuing his development both technically and artistically. He held it together until near the end of his free skate,which won him silver.
The rest of the field was wild enough that two decent fourth-place skates got Koshiro Shimada the bronze. His performance was a little bit stronger in his short program.
Adam Siao Him Fa got the worst of his mistakes out in the short, which cost him a medal, especially since he really had to do more right to contend with the bigger names here. But he’s found a bit of strength in Hozier, and in skating this well, he shows potential to go even further thane ven this surprise circuit showing and Final appearance.
Camden Pulkinen has now reached a level of maturity in his skating not many junior men have, which meant he won the short when he landed everything in it. But his free skate was a disaster, and he dropped to fifth. At least he had one good program, unlike fellow American Tomoki Hiwatashi, who came in last.
The junior pairs competition had a pretty strong top four and especially strong top three, who were only half a point apart after theshort. That was why, even though they were in third, winning was no problem for Anastasia Mishina & Aleksandr Galliamov once they nailed their Master & Margarita free
All three pairs did have to fight a little in the short. It was Polina Kostiukovich & Dmitrii Ialin who won that segment, doing so to one of the musical pieces of the hour.
They were almost as good doing their memorable Cirque du Soleil free. A little trouble in the very hard jump combination both top two pairs were doing ended all chance at winning, but they still took silver.
All the top three had good free programs, but there’s a level of expressiveness that Apollinariia Panfilova & Dmitry Rylov reach with theirs the other two pairs didn’t quite. But without trying any side by side triples or even managing all their doubles, they could only get bronze with it.
Fourth place Ksenia Akhanteva & Valerii Koselev weren’tas strong artistically as the top three even before they made more costly errors. But they were still more good than bad throughout the competition. Fifth Russian pair Anastasia Poluinova & Dmitry Sopot struggled much more,and the non-Russian team, Sarah Feng & TJ Nymen, had a disastrous short before withdrawing due to injury.
Such a big victory brought a whole new level of joy to James & Cipres’ Michael Jackson program in the gala.
Nathan Chen did a program he debuted last spring, to British singer James Arthur’s “Back from the Edge.”
Rika Kihira did the “Faded” number she’s done during the series.
The best use of “Survivor” is probably still Zagitova’s show number.
Junhwan Cha did a little light rocking to Shawn Mendes.
Despite coming in last, Miyahara was still invited to perform her Cirque du Soleil number.
View full results here.
Golden Spin of Zagreb
The Golden Spin of Zagreb, typically now happening the same week as the Grand Prix Final, often serves as a bit of a “B” final, with skaters who’d hoped to make the Final at the beginning of the series, but either just missed or failed to contend, showing up to look for consolation gold. Such was the case here, especially in the ice dance, with the singles also going to a pair of Americans trying to bounce back from Grand Prix results not as strong as they’d wanted.
But everything else that happened in Zagreb was eclipsed by an ugly incident from the pairs competition. Near the end of their free skate, Ashley Cain & Timothy LeDuc fell coming out of a lift, and she hit her head on the ice and even briefly passed out. Despite this, when they got up, they finished the program, with no objection from the referee. Given the known habit of professional athletes to continue when they really should not, and how horribly wrong things could’ve gone had Cain had a concussion and exacerbated it, the referee was hit by heavy criticism for not stepping in for her safety. Thankfully at the last update Cain seemed to be all right.
After fumbling the better of her two programs at both her Grand Prix event, Bradie Tennell managed to give it the flawless performance it deserved in Zagreb.
Her free was also pretty good, and if she had a little trouble in the back half, so did plenty of her competitors. She won both segments and the gold.
Russia sent a pair of Anastasiias there hadn’t been room foron either Grand Prix circuit. Of them, it was Anastasiia Gubanova who came through, skating much like Tennell did to win the silver.
The strongest performer in the field was actually Mariah Bell. In the free skate, she reduced her technical content, and with it her mistakes, and reaped the benefits to claim bronze.
Anastasiia Guliakova was initially third after landing everything in her short. But a couple of mistakes in her free left her unable to hold off Bell, and she dropped to fourth.
For the second competition in a row, Jason Brown was perfect in his short program, and this time his free improved further, although its music seems to also have triggered YouTube’s copyblockers. He ended up getting the kind of win here that gives you hope.
Mikhail Kolyada had one of his best skates this fall to win the short. But he had a bit more go wrong in his free, and had to settle for silver.
In fact, bronze medalist Alexander Samarin got a higher technical score than his countryman in the free skate, though he too struggled with his quads especially.
Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier were the skaters who really should have been in Vancouver; there weren’t because of bad luck and a bad rhythm dance at their first event. So they did their high quality rhythm dance and masterpiece free dance in Zagreb instead, and posted a winning score that would’ve gotten them bronze at the Final.
Even when there wasn’t anyone banging their head against the ice, the pairs event wasn’t pretty. Although Alisa Efimova & Alexander Korovin skated relatively decently, which allowed them to win.
The junior competition also saw a pair of skaters who mighthave been in Vancouver had they been luckier: Caroline & Gordon Green. They missed the series all together due to injury, but recovered in time to first win U.S. Eastern Sectionals last month, and then to win here. They were about as challenged here as they were there: not at all.
The Golden Spin also had a gala, so Gilles & Poirier were also able to stun with Alison Moyer.
Brown of course broke out the Justin Timberlake.
Gubanova jazzed it up in her number.
View full results here.
Coming up next is Nationals season, with first the smaller countries, then Russia and Japan, all before December is out. The U.S. and Canada will hold their Nationals in January, as the ISU Championships season will also start with the European Championships.