Friday, August 29, 2008

If Only Simon Cowell Were a Skating Judge...

Thanks so much for the “war horse” commentary thus far… and keep it coming! Even if you don’t have a clue who’s-using-what this season, I’d love to hear which classic pieces of skating music you strain to hear every year… and which ones leave you reaching for the earplugs faster than a day at a NASCAR race. And also—I’m not nearly as good with properly ID’ing classical pieces as I am with pop music, so any titles you mention are likely to serve a valuable purpose!

As for me, here are a few more not-so-random thoughts to share on the subject:

+ Skating to tried-and-true skating “hits”, particularly on the elite circuit, is like singing on American Idol. Think of Nessum Dorma as Unchained Melody… or The Mission as Proud Mary (the Ike and Tina version)… or Chopin’s Impromptu #4 in C Sharp Minor (used most recently in Shizuka Arakawa’s OGM performance and in part of Belbin & Agosto’s free dance last season, if memory serves) as, oh, gosh, one of any number of Whitney Houston vehicles. Skaters/singers alike choose them because of their mass appeal, but also (I hope) because they like the idea of putting their own stamp on the piece of music. The problem with doing this on Idol is that comparisons to the original artist (or sometimes, even past Idol performers!) are inevitable, and they’re hardly ever of the favorable kind. The problem with doing this in the skating world is almost the opposite-- definitive versions are tough to create, and the non-definitives sort of melt together as a result. But if a skater DOES stand out with a standard, it becomes all the more impressive. When it comes to Carmen, don’t we still think of Katarina in all her red and black tragic glory before any of the ladies (or men, or couples) that have donned the red and black after her? And though it’s not used quite as often, wasn’t it strange when other people started skating to Bolero? As much as I enjoyed Michelle Kwan’s take on it, for instance, I couldn’t quite get a certain couple in deep purple out of my mind’s eye.

+ Speaking of Kwan—I’m not positive about this, but it seems that up to a certain point in her career (maybe 2002?), she avoided war horses like a dieter avoids Ding-Dongs. Not that she ever truly turned to the likes of Moonlight Sonata or West Side Story (though she did use The Feeling Begins, and that number’s starting to grow a “hoof” or two), but I have to admit feeling a trifle let down when I heard a few of her latter-year choices. In her case (to return to the American Idol analogy), maybe that’s because her “original songs” were so exceedingly lovely.

+ And speaking of West Side Story… isn’t it interesting that the music both from that show and the “show” on which it is based (Romeo & Juliet) is powerful enough to be re-interpreted by someone of note just about every season? I'd like it to be a sign of love conquering all, but knowing how that particular story ends...

Enough of my thoughts for now. Let’s hear more of yours!

For the
Clip of the Day : When I fed West Side into the You Tube browser, this 2004 Worlds performance from Belbin & Agosto was what popped up first. Do with that what you will…

But for added fun, compare and contrast it to
this clip of The Duchesnays’ West Side spin from 1992.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Care and Feeding of "War Horses"

Shh… hear that? That’s a lull.

The Olympics are over, the Fall TV season is still about a month away, and the 2008-9 figure skating season is still about TWO months away. Ugh! Even my son being back in school right now feels weird—because, at least where I live, we’re still deep in the dog days of summer. All the fireworks, literal and otherwise, from China simply distracted us for 17 days. But now the smoke is clearing, and…

OK, so there are 2 weeks of political conventions going on, right now, here in the States. I didn’t forget; it’s just that for the most part they’ll surely pale in the shadow of the Beijing sun. And forgive me, but when a convention hall drags out warhorses like “I’m So Excited” and expects them to actually still GET us excited… well, no. Just… no.

But in the meantime, did somebody mention warhorses?

It’s time to play some games to pass the time between interesting Google figure skating alerts, revealing interviews, and surprising off-season coaching changes. My first offering: Pin the Warhorse on the Elite Skater… a chance to take some fun stabs (pun intended) at guessing who might be skating to what this coming year, because let’s face it, SOMEONE we watch is likely to be skating to ‘em.

Take West Side Story, for instance. Who might—oh, wait, that one’s been claimed by Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker this time.

Well, what about Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue? No one’s laid their mitts on that one in—whoops, sorry Evan Lysacek. OK, maybe Bolero—er, sorry again Evan. (The two numbers are his FS and SP, respectively, according to

Stravinsky’s Firebird? Stephen Carriere's testing his wings with it.

Um… Spartacus? Ashley Wagner, take one step forward.

So we know some of them already, at least as far as U.S. skaters go. What about the rest of the world, though? Who’s going on a Mission this year? Who will act out Romeo and Juliet? Whose turn is it to inhabit Carmen? If you already know, please share. If you don’t, come along and speculate with me. Or simply add your favorite classic to the list; the warhorses are numerous and fill a pretty big barn. Particularly in the off-season.

See you next time, and don’t forget to bring your hay and apples :-)

For the
Clip of the Day I’m going with one of my favorite “horses” (the aforementioned Gershwin) and showing Ilia Kulik’s OGM-winning take on it from 10 years back. And yes, his costume still makes me want to re-name the piece Rhapsody in Giraffe.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Never Take a Microphone For Granted... and Other Lessons From Beijing

As things in China wind down, here’s a quick checklist of things I do and don’t hope to see repeated, in some way shape or form, at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver:

+ I DO want to see a figure skater dive over the proverbial finish line. Did anyone else see the sprinter David Neville who literally dove his way to a bronze medal? Pretty awesome. There’s got to be a figure skating equivalent to that (and I don’t mean doing a full body slide across the ice.) I expect the Kerrs to fill this role in Vancouver :-)

+ I DON’T want to see Bob Costas act like he can’t handle technical difficulty. Early in the Games, Costas was trying to get a brief overview of the gymnastics events with Bela Karolyi… except that Karolyi clearly had no microphone on during the interview. Of course Costas couldn’t hear, in-studio, the way that sounded… but despite the fact that he was sitting right across from the man, has eyes that function, and must have been present when Karolyi was not miked up properly, he acted surprised to learn of the snafu at the segment’s end. I had the sinking feeling the studio crew was going to get a tongue-lashing from him when they went off-air, the whole “thanks for making me look bad” routine that some on-air talent are prone to (I’ve spent my fair share of time in TV studios; I know where of I speak.)

+ I DO want to hear of more judging controversies—not scandals, but controversies—because (I’m totally playing devil’s advocate here) I think it’s when we don’t question any of the decisions made that something really goes wrong.

+ I DON’T want to see any more McDonald’s ads that try to pass unknown actors off as Olympic athletes that would actually endorse something as nutritionally criminal as a deep-fried chicken biscuit sandwich. Guess what, Mickey D’s? I’m not lovin’ it. And we’re not buyin’ it, either.

+ Final DO—if we can have swimming Moms (at age 41) and gymnast Moms (at age 33), both of which not only made it to the Olympics but earned silver medals!!—why can’t Kerrigan make a comeback? Or Yamaguchi— just think of it; Dancing With The Stars could be only the (new) beginning!

OK, so I’m not holding my breath on any of these… except that Kerrs thing I mentioned at the top. That would be cool.

Speaking of which, here are the Kerrs in the
Clip of the Day. I featured them not too long ago, but this is their free dance from Torino… which I’m not sure they showed us here in the States (this is a Eurosport feed).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Brace Yourself, and Thanks For Your Support

By now you’ve probably heard about Rachael Flatt’s super-cool sense of Olympic spirit.

What you probably haven’t heard about is the Top 5 Ways Other U.S. Skaters Are Showing Their Olympic Support…but since that’s a fake list (in much the way The Daily Show is “fake news”), I’ll give you the facts first as I received them:

Flatt, who is of course the current U.S. silver medalist, is ‘Banding Together’ with the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) to support Team USA by wearing patriotic-colored bands on her braces. Apparently it’s the first time orthodontic patients have been called to support their country in this fashion, so she’s hoping others will “wear their braces with pride”—not to mention a little red, white and blue—during the Summer Games.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the ‘Band Together’ campaign, you can do so
here. And by the way, if you’re reading this outside of the USA and happen to wear braces too… I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if you wore bands bearing your own country’s colors instead :-)

So, that’s what Flatt is doing for real. Here’s what I’m pretending others are doing (Please remember this is all in fun! No threatening letters!)


5) Belbin and Agosto will choreograph a routine to The Star Spangled Banner, despite its lack of any perceptible dance beat

4) Kimmie Meissner will skate in a dress made out of an American flag

3) Evan Lysacek will BE an American flag, face paint and all

2) John Baldwin Jr. will carry fiancé Rena Inoue around like an American flag just because he can

And #1…

Johnny Weir will deliberately miss a bus to commemorate his own Olympic experience

Anyway… back to Rachael. Her winning performance from this year’s Junior Worlds is the
Clip of the Day .

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Unevens and the Parellels (Part 2)

Raise your hand if you’ve ever read, or at least heard of, the book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters by Joan Ryan.

As it happens, I can only claim the latter—heard of it frequently; have yet to read it. Still, it springs back to mind this week as the cries of foul grow louder over the Chinese female gymnasts. You know, the ones who are of Olympic-competing age. Maybe.

But also as it happens, the book was written over a decade ago, at a time when girls younger than 16 were still allowed to compete at the Olympics in both sports. U.S. skating fans know all too well about the irony of having the majority of our top-ranked “women” being too young to compete at the biggest events of the season. Nonetheless, whether you’re for or against the age requirements, one thing is certain: the rules are the rules.

I won’t claim to know the details of the Chinese age controversy—I’m doing well to stay up late enough each night to watch gymnastics at all. But in taking a look at what one of my favorite sports journalists,
E.M. Swift, says about the matter, it truly is frustrating. “There is a 68-pound girl (Deng Linlin) on that team is claiming to be 16 years old,” Swift points out. “That is not a healthy body. If she is 16 and weighs 68 pounds, someone ought to put her in a hospital.” Indeed!

It’s probably been argued that the Little Girls in Pretty Boxes book, which stresses the physical and psychological dangers of pushing a prepubescent body too far too soon, created the kind of debate that actually brought on the16-and-over rule. If, in fact, the Chinese have underage competitors in this Olympics and it goes unproven and unpunished… I hope and pray we don’t start seeing matchbox-sized “16 year olds” show up on the world skating scene. They’re tiny enough as it is, with enough pressure on their slim shoulders already.

In the meantime, maybe we should start sending Ryan’s book to China. By the “pretty box”-ful.

Since the focus has been on the ladies this time, the
Clip of the Day goes to Arakawa’s gold medal free skate in Torino.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Unevens and the Parellels (Part 1)

It all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it?

“We jam-pack routines with difficulty and you can lose the sense of the beauty you had as it becomes more (acrobatics) and not as much dance.”

"It is pretty complicated…. you could sit down and look at a rule book for four years and probably still won't get it."

“The new rules created a certain system which we all had to follow for points and we spent certainly a lot less time for choreography.”

Except that only one of those quotes—the last one—is from a figure skater. The other two are from current U.S. Olympic gymnasts. All three come courtesy of
this article , one of the latest to puzzle over the value of new scoring systems for both sports. It makes perfect sense for this comparison to be made, by some, for the first time right now—after all, gymnastics scores have to be re-explained to the masses this week, much the same way skating scores were dissected in Torino. It’s probably even harder to explain for gymnastics; they always had the more cut-and-dried perfect 10 while skating had it’s fuzzier 6.0. I remember Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10s in Montreal almost as clearly as I recall Torvill and Dean’s string of perfect 6.0s eight years later, in Sarajevo.

But I guess it’s my sub-novice understanding of gymnastic routines that’s keeping me from understanding how they’ve changed as a result of their new system. I get it on a basic level—the greater the difficulty, the higher the start value, so gymnasts are stacking the deck each time and hoping for the best. With no edges to switch back and forth on, no level 3 footwork vs. level 4 footwork, no hip-dislocating positions to hit (okay, maybe one or two), I’m not really able to tell a difference otherwise between a floor routine from 2004 and one from 2008. As I say, though, I’m probably missing the nuances. Kind of the way someone likes jazz music vs. someone who LOVES it, if that makes sense.

For this
Clip of the Day we head back to Torino again with Zhang and Zhang’s heart-and-music-stopping free skate… the one where they crash on the throw quad salchow at the start. I guess it came to mind after watching some of the gymnasts have to stop and re-start their routines in recent days.

Friday, August 8, 2008

They're Baa-aack...

For the next couple of weeks (and then some), the summer doldrums will be broken by a bit of that hope and glory that we like to call the 2008 Summer Olympics. It’s a time to marvel at the athletes’ various triumphs over adversity… a time to see how long it takes for Bob Costas’ seemingly subtle jokes to wear thin… and a time for figure skating fans to scour the schedule for gymnastics events.

Just kidding!

No need for stereotyping here; there’s over 30 sports represented in these Games, surely a little something for everyone. For me, well… okay, gymnastics it is. But swimming takes a close second—and I’m not just talking about the synchronized kind. Or watching to see how many new medals Mr. Phelps adds to his hardware collection. Nope, I’ll be looking for a different Michael… the Michael I also refer to as my oldest brother.

He’s not one of the athletes; though he spent his formative years competing at many a swim or water polo meet, he never reached awesome heights with either. He has, however, served as an assistant coach with USA Swimming for the past decade or so—a job that took him to Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, and of course, Beijing. Now.

So what? you say. It’s not like he’s ever going to be seen on TV or anything. To which I must laugh, deeply, and say Au contraire! For it was during a brief controversy in the 2004 Athens games, where a U.S. Swimmer That Wasn’t Michael Phelps seemed on the bubble for keeping the gold medal he’d just earned, that my big brother appeared… for all of about seven seconds… just long enough to be seen talking to the swimmer and giving him a thumbs-up on the gold.

OK, so I’m easily entertained. But rest assured, even if Michael doesn’t get his few seconds of fame this time around, I’ve still got the 2004 videotape around here somewhere. (It might come in handy on gymnastics’ off-days.)

But since I can’t locate it immediately, I guess I can’t make it the
Clip of the Day. Sorry. Please accept Jeffrey Buttle’s bronze medal-winning free skate at the 2006 Games in its place.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Sokolovan Theory

Maybe you’ve already seen or heard about this interview with Russia’s Elena Sokolova… the primary point of interest being her firm belief she deserved to win 2003 Worlds over Michelle Kwan. To which I say Well, of course she did.

That’s not actually what I said first. The honor, instead, went to Sokolova was good enough to almost beat Kwan at some point? For I must admit, Sokolova doesn’t drum up much more than a handful of images for me: an asymmetric black unitard… unchanging haircut…very inconsistent runner-up to Slutskaya…strong on jumps (sometimes); weak on The Rest. Not a very strong impression, though I imagine some would disagree based on that unitard alone.

So in this “catching up with…” sort of interview, she speaks her mind. That’s the real story, as I see it. Not whether or not she has a point, be it about the programs themselves or the way they were judged. But that she opened her mouth in a very specific way. Sure, she stuck her foot in it too as far as I’m concerned. More difficult jumps or not, I tend to think the better overall SKATER won that day… and Sokolova winning silver was a wonderful achievement all by itself. But I do admire her honesty. Even if she can’t see the “complete package” for the triple-triple combos… and even if her frustration was perhaps amplified by the competition happening that year in the U.S. (Washington D.C. to be exact).

The real question, maybe… if the CoP had been in place in 2003, would the outcome be different? And what sort of mayhem might THAT have given way to?!

I could not find Sokolova’s free skate from 2003 for you… and I’m pretty sure I highlighted Kwan’s winning performance already… so the
Clip of the day is Sokolova’s SP instead from that year. It's no The Feeling Begins, but it's impressive nonetheless.