Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Last Stop, Milan: 2018 World Figure Skating Championship Predictions

Perhaps more than ever, I look forward to Worlds right after the Olympics because it creates an opportunity for new stars to shine. Here are my predictions for the action this week in Milan…

(Aside from 2 of the 3 US ladies, I fared pretty badly with my Olympic picks! This time I’ll be less specific on 4th through 10th and see what happens…)

GOLD: Alina Zagitova (RUS)
SILVER: Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN)
BRONZE: Satoko Miyahara (JPN)

4th through 6th, no particular order: Carolina Kostner (ITA), Wakaba Higuchi (JPN), Maria Sostkova (RUS)

Rest of the Top 10, no particular order: Gabby Daleman (CAN), Mirai Nagasu (USA), Bradie Tennell (USA), Choi Da-bin (S. KOR)

(Wow, I barely predicted anything for them Olympics-wise. Let’s change that…)

GOLD: Savchenko/Massot (GER)
SILVER: Tarasova/Morozov (RUS)
BRONZE: James/Cipres (FRA) (pleeeeeaaaase)

4th through 6th, no particular order: Marchei/Hotarek (ITA), Yu/Zhang (CHN), Zabiiako/Enbert (RUS)

Rest of the Top 10, no particular order: Astakhova/Rogonov (RUS), Seguin/Bilodeau (CAN), Moore-Towers/Marinaro (CAN), Della Monica/Guarise (ITA)

(Ooh, did a little better with these Olympic predictions. How about this time…)

GOLD: Shoma Uno (JPN)
SILVER: Nathan Chen (USA)
BRONZE: Jin Boyang (CHN)

4th through 6th, no particular order: Mikhail Kolyada (RUS), Dmitri Aliev (RUS), Vincent Zhou (USA)

Rest of the Top 10, no particular order: Max Aaron (USA), Aleksei Bychenko (ISR), Keiji Tanaka (JPN), Keegan Messing (CAN), Misha Ge (UZB)

(Didn’t do too bad with these Olympic predictions either, though I had Russia’s Bobrova/Soloviev too low. Oopsie. They’re not here anyway…)

GOLD: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
SILVER: Hubbell/Donohue (USA)
BRONZE: Cappellini/Lanotte (ITA)

4th through 6th, no particular order: Weaver/Poje (CAN), Chock/Bates (USA), Stepanova/Bukin (RUS)

Rest of the Top 10, no particular order: Gilles/Poirier (CAN), Guignard/Fabbri (ITA), Hawayek/Baker (USA), Hurtado/Khaliavin (ESP)

OK, that should do it! Follow me on Twitter @ KLBSt8ofSk8 as I follow as much of the action “live” as I can!

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Good, The So-So, and the SERIOUSLY?: Evaluating those "what happened to U.S. Ladies Figure Skating?" Articles

I may have mentioned here before that of my five siblings, three of them have had sports-oriented careers—one was a pro baseball player for 10 years, another is a swim coach who also has a management role with USA Swimming, and still another is a physical education teacher who spends many a weekend working track & field meets all across the country. Their feelings about figure skating are mixed; one seems to appreciate and respect it as a port but probably doesn’t know much about it beyond whatever I’m posting on Twitter, one is essentially an Olympic-year fan who asks me about certain skaters from time to time, and one makes homophobic jokes about it and sends me pics of Johnny Weir in high heels. (Sigh. Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess.)

I bring all this up because one of these sibs (the swim coach) inboxed me on Facebook the night of the ladies’ short program in PyeongChang last month and, shall we say, questioned the quality of those representing the United States. (The exact words were a wee bit harsher, but hey, if he wanted those exact words out there he wouldn’t have messaged me privately.)

We went back and forth a bit—me pointing out Russian hyper-competitive program blah blah this and that, he listing some of the criteria they use at USA Swimming to analyze performance—but as I only semi-jokingly reminded him in the end, the book I wrote is about what’s happened to skating via the American TV screen… not what’s happened to American skating in general.

Of course, my brother and others that helped liven up my inbox during the Winter Olympics were just a miniscule sampling of those asking similar questions and making similar comments last month. Which, inevitably, led to “answers” in the form of articles—some written with value-added input from others, some that came across as little more than disgruntled op-eds.

You probably saw some of them, if not read completely through a few of the pieces. Me, I made it through at least five or six.  But whether you couldn’t bring yourself to push past the depressing headlines, or you’re just dying to compare assessments, read on… I’ve got some skater’s digest versions below!

Writer: Martin Rogers (includes quotes from Chen and Nagasu from the post-event news conference in Korea)

In Short: Our ladies were an embarrassment and their explanations were worse

Rating: 1 Toepick out of four
(I considered giving each article positive or negative GOEs, but I want to keep it simple)

First problem here: the hyperbole. Words and phrases like “collective wreck”, “historically bad”, and “stumbled/faltered/tumbled” (used in describing each young woman’s biggest errors) set the piece up as a prolonged gripefest—though, to be fair, that is exactly what it is. So, um… well done??

Second problem: the shameless passing of judgment. After the inevitable comparison to American OGMs from yesteryear, Rogers alludes to “explanations” and passive/aggressively suggests “we” are owed these explanations as if “we” are the skaters’ coaches and/or parents. (Last time I checked, we are NOT.)

Then, showing clear disdain for said explanations, Rogers mocks Karen Chen’s yearning for her mom’s presence (stacking it alongside a reference to new OGM Alina Zagitova which implies real winners don’t need their mommies by their side no matter how young they are).

Bradie Tennell wasn’t spared either. After being called “robotic” in terms of her skating style (“artistically underdeveloped” could have worked too—just sayin’) and cited for all the ways she wasn’t technically “on” during the ladies’ event, Rogers shares Bradie’s response to the Impossible Question someone apparently posed to her in the post-event presser: How can the U.S. possibly hope to close the gap on Russia?

I say “impossible” not because it can’t be answered (as you'll see in other articles), but because it was posed to a 20 year-old athlete in the thick of it all—Olympic hype, disappointment, discovery, recovery (?). She can’t possibly see the future forest for the trees, not in that moment, anyway. On top of all that, Bradie tends to give the most succinct responses of any skater out there right now. Her actual response—a simple “Anything’s possible”—was really the best she could’ve done under the circumstances. Of course, Rogers called her out on it as “not too positive” nonetheless. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t I guess…

The reality of this year's Olympic situation—that there wasn’t much hope for a medal from any of the Team USA ladies to begin with—isn’t voiced until the ninth paragraph of the article. That’s when the Mirai Nagasu-bashing occurs. And yeah, I agree that some of the things she said and the way she said them post-event (the DWTS reference, the over-claiming of Team Bronze, singling out Gabby Daleman’s poor performance, the ‘in my mind I went for it’ line regarding the triple axel-turned-waltz-jump)… were nonsensical at best, poorly chosen at worst. But to say “she’ll be remembered more for what she said afterward” than for landing the first triple axel in U.S. female Olympic history—that’s the talk of people who care little about the sport itself even in Olympic years, if you ask me.

(It’s also the talk of perennial parade-rainers Phil Hersh and Christine Brennan, who seem to care a great deal about the sport but nonetheless are prone to giving its athletes the verbal beat-downs of an over expectant parent… but I digress. Brennan actually gave one of the more metered assessments of things in PyeongChang, as you’ll see later.)

All in all, RogersUSA Today article carried the gravitas of a random guy at TGI Friday’s making a bet with the bartender on Ivett Toth’s podium chances because her unitard caught his attention. “You’d like to see some steel,” Rogers sneered in his article, in response to Karen’s so-called excuses. 
I’d like to see some substance in this little more than mean-spirited assemblage of words.

Writer: Bryan Armen Graham 

In Short: Our ladies aren’t great any more, and we might as well get used to it

Rating: Two Toepicks

According to this piece from The Guardian, failure is the new normal in light of no U.S. women making the “individual” podium. First problem I have with this is that age-old argument of success vs. failure… it wasn’t even “failing to make the podium is the new normal”; just out-and-out FAILURE. Give me a break.

Or rather, give them a break—if the results of Mirai, Bradie and Karen are proof of anything, it’s that none of them really should have been expected to medal. Back at the 2006 Games, Johnny Weir was in 2nd after the short program—SECOND!—only to falter badly in the free skate and drop all the way to 5th. And (as previously mentioned) at these Games, reigning World Bronze Medalist Daleman was still “within striking distance” of Olympic Bronze, as they say, when she started the Free Skate night in 7th place… but had difficulty with just about every jumping pass in her “Rhapsody in Blue” program, taking her all the way down to 15th by night’s end. 

Not trying to sound snarky here, but THOSE two examples are much closer to what I’d call failures than what our team of women delivered that night. Mirai was 10th at her last Worlds appearance, Bradie has not yet been to a senior Worlds, and while Karen Chen was fourth last year, I don’t think anyone seriously anticipated her finishing at the Games in the Top 5, let alone on the podium. (Gotta remember that Chen benefited greatly last year from not only Anna Pogorilaya’s crash-and-burn free skate, but Wakaba Higuchi’s egregious SP error that ultimately cost the Japan team an Olympic berth.)

As for the “so what happened?” part of Graham’s article, the explanations (“a constellation of factors”) are as wide-ranging as they are brief—and are attributed to no one other than Graham himself. It’s not that he’s off the mark necessarily; it’s that he seems to use them simply to underscore the idea that our Olympic wanna-bes are hosed for the foreseeable future. While not nearly as vindictive-sounding as the Martin Rogers USA Today piece, it still paints a pretty grim picture.
Writer: Dvora Myers (w/quotes from Tom Zakrajsek and Jackie Wong, among others)

In Short: Here are some well-informed theories about the state of U.S. ladies figure skating at the Olympics

Rating: three and a half toepicks

Of course the proof this is a better article is better is in its title—it’s about “failing to medal”, not out and out failure. Writer Dvora Myers clearly appreciates the difference.

And she doesn’t shy away from the facts about the medal drought, nor does she bury the 9-10-11 placement. But then she gets right to it: the what’s going on? question, followed by an IJS-rooted premise explained by Zakrajsek, Wong, and USFS high performance director Justin Dillon.

As for the premise itself—definitely worth a read, if you’re not familiar with it already. In short, I believe this premise is what Johnny and Tara offered when faced with the same question during the Games except a) it’s not delivered at breakneck speed in between skating performances (or worse yet, between skating elements)… and b) it’s straight-from-the-source (with the details and examples deserved), rather than seeming speculation.

My only wincing moment in the article came in the final two graphs, where USFS spokesperson Barbara Reichert claims “they weren’t concerned” about the U.S. men when others were years ago (years ago? I’m still concerned about them now!) and speaks with a confidence about the 2022 U.S. ladies that seems more than a little premature… like she’s trying too hard to pin a big bow onto a poorly wrapped package and call it all beautiful. Not that that’s surprising—PR spin is PR spin, no matter what brand you’re dealing with. I just think the article would’ve been better without it.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The "Carmen Karaoke" Theory

As you know by now, vocals are now permitted in all figure skating programs for the first time ever in Olympic competition. Following a precedent set with ice dance two decades ago, all the young men and women representing one of 32 different countries took Olympic ice this month with the option of using, well, just about any piece of music they (and their coach and/or choreographer) chose.

The (ISU) first allowed vocals in its 2014-15 season, so athletes have had this entire four-year “Olympic cycle” to get comfortable with this seismic shift in the sport. Consequently, audiences are treated to plenty of music that was previously restricted to exhibition (non-competitive) skating, if it was used at all. Whether it’s the familiar late-70s Kansas ballad “Dust in the Wind” (Patrick Chan’s current short program)… new versions of the familiar (Germany’s Paul Fentz using the Paul Anka version of “Wonderwall”)… or something completely unfamiliar to most (Nathan Chen with Benjamin Clementine’s “Nemesis”), the singing and the skating have gone hand-in-hand—or, boot-and-blade—as it never has before on the Olympic stage.

Nonetheless, audiences are still seeing some competitors skating to selections from George Bizet’s Carmen. They’re still hearing the powerful strains of Puccini’s Turnadot. How about Phantom of the Opera, Romeo & Juliet and Rhapsody in Blue?  Yes, yes and yes. They continue to be incredibly well-represented, some both in instrumental and vocal variations.

With so many more options now, you might wonder… why is this still the case??

Consider this theory of mine which involves music, but not the pieces mentioned above—think instead of “Summertime” and “Satisfaction”; of “Imagine” and “Yesterday.” Classics that have been recorded over and over through the years, by a seemingly endless variety of artists. Some covers of the original version become the “definitive” version of a song. Others are utterly forgettable. Most fall somewhere in between.

Skating’s a lot like that. Sure, the Soviet pairs team of Ludmilla and Oleg Protopopov cast a spell over audiences when they skated so elegantly to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in the 1968 Grenoble Winter Games…

But that didn’t stop 2006 Olympic Silver Medalist Sasha Cohen from using it in a bid to make the 2010 Olympic team, and it didn’t keep French ice dancers (and now Olympic Silver Medalists) Gabrielle Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron from trying to cast a whole new spell at these Olympic Games with the same music, some 50 years later.

Also at the 1968 Olympic came future Olympic Bronze Medalist Janet Lynn skating to Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun-- a piece of music she used so many times through the years it became almost synonymous with her…

But Adam Rippon took it on during the 2013-14 season, and 2014 Olympic Bronze Medalist Carolina Kostner brings it to PyeongChang ice in this, her fourth Olympics.

Sure, it can seem like skaters are trying to reinvent the wheel with each new interpretation of The Classics. But think of Ray Charles giving The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” his own unique flavor of soul...

Think of Janis Joplin taking a turn with Gershwin's "Summertime"...

Think of Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo╩╗ole!

Who, you ask? Why he’s the Hawaiian performer who took “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” somewhere it’s never been before. He passed away way too soon—at age 38 in 1997, one year before his cover became a long-term staple in TV, films, and commercials—but his creative legacy is secure thanks to his unique version of that pop standard. 

Granted, for every Iz Kamakawiwo’ole there are dozens of singers who do well to simply carry the melody of “Rainbow”. But at this Olympics alone there are four women (to say nothing of any other discipline) using some incarnation of Carmen for one of their programs. Will they leave a lasting impression a la 1984 & ’88 Olympic Gold Medalist Katarina Witt, or (much more recently and remotely) Samantha Cesario of the U.S.

Or will their interpretation be more like Carmen Karaoke?

If current trends are any indication, we’ll get to keep asking these questions for many more years down the road. And with one Olympic ice dance team skating to one of the most-performed songs of the 20th Century (according to BMI)…

And with THREE Olympic skaters/skating teams using TWO different versions of this Leonard Cohen original…

It looks like figure skating better make room for a whole new kind of warhorse in the stable.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

It's ALL Happening: 2018 Winter Olympics (Ladies Predictions)

And just like that, here we are at the last figure skating event of these Olympic Games!

It's time for the women of the sport to step up, and as with the dance predictions, I'm gonna step a little further out on the limb and try to guess the entire top 10. (I managed to get 60% right on ice dance, but don't worry... I harbor ZERO illusions that this will be as successful!)

My predictions for the ladies are as follows:

GOLD: Evgenia Medvedeva (OAR)
SILVER: Alina Zagitova (OAR)
BRONZE: Gabby Daleman (CAN)- This is as good a guess as I've got for this Wild Card slot

4th: Maria Sotskova (OAR)
5th: Mirai Nagasu (USA)- of course I'd love her to go higher and if she nails both programs (and both triple axels), she will
6th: Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) because of the ones I've mentioned up to now she's the most inconsistent this year
7th: Satoko Miyahara (JPN) who I adore, but has jumps more prone to underrotations and faltered somewhat at 4CC last month
8th: Bradie Tennell (USA) who has the jumps, quality and consistency, but has the disadvantage of skating first of the 30 athletes tonight and didn't get great component scores in the Team Event
9th: Carolina Kostner (ITA)-- the reigning OBM may make the final flight via her stunning short program, but won't have the technical content to stay that high in the standings
10th: Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) seems to be in a similar situation as Tennell with regards to experience/components, but could prove to be the biggest surprise in this top 10 (in that she could go much, much higher).

Okay, one more: 
11th Karen Chen (USA)... no I didn't forget her; just feel like this is where she'll end up. Hope she's in the single digits though!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

It's ALL Happening: 2018 Winter Olympics (Dance Predictions)

These events are just flying along, so any analysis of the results and/or my predictions will have to come later (except to say WOO HOO! I almost went 2 for 3 on the impossible-to-predict Men's podium!). Ice dance is a-comin', though, so hey, let's try and predict the whole top 10:

GOLD- Virtue/Moir (CAN)
SILVER- Papdakis/Cizeron (FRA)
BRONZE- Shibutanis (USA)

4th- Hubbell/Donohue (USA)
5th- Weaver/Poje (CAN)
6th- Cappellini/Lanotte (ITA)
7th- Chock/Bates (USA)
8th-Bobrova/Soloviev (OAR)
9th- Gilles/Poirier (CAN)
10th- Guignard/Fabbri (ITA)

But FWIW, assuming all teams skate free of egregious errors, I'd rather see Pap/Ciz get the upset. And please don't revoke my U.S citizenship for saying so, but if Wea/Po were somehow able to snatch away that bronze medal I wouldn't be mad...

Thursday, February 15, 2018

It's ALL Happening: 2018 Olympics (Men Predictions)

OK here's what I did: made a list of what I figured to be, in some configuration, the Top 10 at this event...

Then I added two more possibilities and said "OK, here's my Top 12..."

And then I realized (because I was doing all that without looking at the actual roster) that I'd forgotten about Jin Boyang. Whoopsie.

So here we go. I cut one from that list, and am back to 12. 

Who I think will finish somewhere between 7th and 12th (alphabetically):

Alexei Bychenko (ISR)
Misha Ge (UZB)
Mikhail Kolyada (OAR)
Adam Rippon (USA)- sorry; I'd love to see him finish higher
Denis Ten (KAZ)
Vincent Zhou (USA)- even if he hits all his quads I've gotta think his components (artistic) score will be lower than a lot of these guys

Now it gets harder. Who I think will finish between 4th and 6th, alphabetically:

Patrick Chan (CAN)
Jin Boyang (CHN)
Shoma Uno (JPN)

Now it gets freaking impossible, but I'll take a stab at it:

GOLD: Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)
SILVER: Javier Fernandez (ESP)
BRONZE: Nathan Chen (USA)

OK, locking it in now! Look for me on Twitter as the Olympics continue (@KLBSt8ofSk8).

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It's ALL Happening: 2018 Olympics (Pairs Predictions)

Oh the irony!!! There's SO much skating to talk about right now with the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in full swing-- Mirai's triple axel! Team USA's Bronze! Adam's EVERYTHING!!-- but I'm even more crunched for time than usual so I'm just popping up here to give some PAIRS OLYMPIC PREDICTIONS because the action starts later today and I don't think I'll get another chance to post!!! So without further adieu:


GOLD-- Sui/Han (CHN)
SILVER-- Savchenko/Massot (GER)
BRONZE-- Duhamel/Radford (CAN)

DARK HORSE-- Any Russian team (OAR)

More soon!