Friday, April 19, 2013

World Team Trophy 2013: Pros and Cons

So NOW the season is over. I honestly didn’t realize the ISU was holding World Team Trophy this year—I thought it was an every-other-year occurrence—until Jackie Wong mentioned it on Twitter, shortly after Worlds ended, and I checked in while making a pit stop on the day-long drive back home. (It was probably just after I crossed the Canadian border, and the patrolman, upon learning I’d been up there for Worlds, asked me to explain the difference between a triple axel and a flying camel... not realizing, until the bemused look I gave him, that one is a jump and the other is a spin... but I digress.)

WTT sure has managed to kick up a lot of good and bad in its mere thimbleful of appearances on the ISU schedule. From (some) of the performances, to (some) of the absences, to its overall reminder of next year’s Olympic team event debut (despite the reported major differences in the two competitions). I wasn’t able to watch it in real time this year—kudos to all of those on U.S. time who could, though—so I’ve yet to catch up with as many performances as I’d like. But I think I’ve seen enough to draw up a Pros and Cons list to share with y’all...

PRO-- Can do a “make-good” on an unsatisfying Worlds (or Nationals) performance.
See Akiko Suzuki, who finished 4th at Japan Nationals and 12th at Worlds, but won the WTT ladies event nonetheless. And of course, also see Jeremy Abbott—3rd at U.S. Nationals, and a non-qualifier for Worlds... but at WTT seemed more driven and determined than he’s been in a while (even with a doubled quad-toe loop and a 6th place finish).

CON-- Can realllly reflect that “it’s been a long season.”
Speaking of which... I’m especially looking at you, men’s quad toe loops and most of the ladies’ 3/3 combos (or triple axels if you’re Mao Asada, though admittedly those are seldom clean anyway).

PRO-- Can put an exclamation point on a breakthrough season.
I’m thinking Chock/Bates for dance, Max Aaron for men, Li Zijun (and maybe Kaitlyn Osmond) for ladies... especially James/Cipres for pairs, who seem to have improved steadily with each and every competition, including WTT.
CON-- Can put a question mark on a uniquely challenging year.
On the other hand, this only fits for one “uniquely challenging” skater... one who dazzles one minute, only to unravel the next... one who remains at the top of the heap, but seems on an endless quest to verbally defend his titles... one who started this season with a free skate disaster (three or four falls at the Japan Open) and literally ended this season flat on his face when he tanked on his final flying spin at WTT. Yes, Patrick Chan, this one’s for you.

PRO-- Can laugh in the face of the ISU’s motives for WTT. (If you’re Japan, that is.)
World Team Trophy was described at a 2008 ISU press conference as coming about “in the hope of encouraging countries to develop top figure skaters in all disciplines.” Yet Team Japan is so packed with top-notch singles skaters, they made it to the podium despite having a fairly average dance team (the Reeds, who finished a very respectable fourth this time) and NO pairs team to speak of.

CON-- Can take the “puzzling results” thing to a new level.
This is NOT a dig on the well-deserved top placement of Team USA, but... given the status of 3 out of 4 disciplines (a champion dance team, but no other medals of any kind at Worlds last month), well... wouldn’t it start a whole new round of head-scratching if as similar scenario unfolds at the Olympics next year? That seems like the last thing figure skating needs.

PRO-- Can encourage a “nothing to lose” mentality. (If you’re a pairs team, that is.)
The U.S. pair of Castelli/Shnapir were already 5th out of 5 after the SP; the worst they could do was stay in 5th--  and still earn Team USA 8 more points in the process. Why NOT go for that elusive throw quad salchow? What better place to give it a try?

So they did, and she fell. But it looked close! Hopefully this will give them confidence to try it again in the next GP series, and help them when they face off against Denney/Coughlin next season.

Con-- Can aggravate and/or initiate troublesome injuries... some would say needlessly.

And this brings us to Russia’s Konstantin Menshov... denied a spot at Europeans (and therefore, no chance for Worlds) under much protest, they DID send him to WTT... only to suffer a dislocated shoulder when he fell on a triple axel! And subsequently withdraw from the event! Gah! The humanity!! But injury aside, how can you not feel for this guy: 30 years old, competing at the senior level for ELEVEN seasons, one Russian National title, two NRW Trophy titles, two 4th place finishes in GP events just this past season... but with Russia only able to qualify one man for Sochi (based on the Worlds placement of Maxim Kovtun), his chances of representing in the Olympic year seem slim to none. And Phil Hersh thinks the U.S. men have problems...

OK, that seems like more than enough Pro/Con action for now. Stay tuned, though... the season may be over, but the State of the Skate is a constant one!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

On Attending Worlds 2013

NOTE: Photos are now added! See bottom of post...

I’d never attended the World Figure Skating Championships prior to this year. Or 4CC, or U.S. Nationals, or Skate America, or any of the off-season events like Skate Detroit or the Liberty Open. I’ve been to competitions, yes—the regional kind; the kind I used to do when I was a fraction of the age I am now. But nothing in the Big Leagues.
I only sat in the stands for one event, as you might recall—the now-infamous Men’s Final—but what an event!

First, a few “well, DUH” moments I must acknowledge...

1) As I roamed around looking for a way to the upper bowl (a.k.a. “cheap seats”), I caught sight of in-house monitors showing the live action—Viktor Romanenkov of Estonia (third skater in the first group) was on the ice—and I was struck by the quality of the video feed, which was surely in HD (something we don’t have on our TVs at home yet). A part of me wanted to stand there and marvel at how “live” it looked; another part of me practically had to remind “the rest” that it would look even better once I found my seat... (Oh yeah, I’m actually HERE. Well, duh.)

2) Part of my interest in lingering near the monitors had to do with a slight concern that I wouldn’t be able to see the skaters all that well from the “cheap seats” (which ran $200 apiece, in case you were wondering), and would be watching most of the action off the Jumbotron anyway. Not so! As you can see from these photos—taken from my perch up in Sec. 310, Row L—it was quite easy to tell at a glance who was skating, especially if you were already used to their current look. But to be fair, Budweiser Gardens in London is a relatively small venue with only 7000 seats. The Staples Center in Los Angeles—home to the 2009 Worlds—seats more than twice that.

Oh, and irony alert... the Jumbotron was by and large blocked from my view, thanks to a series of flags suspended from the rafters.

3) I thought the crowds at the Men’s Final would be light for the first couple of groups—wrong! I got there a wee bit late (midway through group 1 as I mentioned), and would say the stands were 85 to 90% full already. I’d have been there from the beginning myself, had I been in the vicinity at that point! (Instead I was just zooming into the outskirts of London, fresh from an 8-hour northeastern drive.)

4) No disrespect intended to the outstanding athletes that currently represent men’s figure skating, but... I thought they looked slow out there. One of the things I’ve heard about seeing it live is that you get a better appreciation for their speed; that TV cameras just can’t capture it the same way. While I’ve no doubt this is true, the bird’s eye view that I had surely didn’t help reinforce it. I’m guessing it’s a different story down on the main floor?

5) Sitting in the stands didn’t stop me from taking my regular ream of notes as each skater took the ice. It DID, however, stop me from eating anything that vaguely resembled dinner. I managed on a protein bar and a half-bag of Resse’s Pieces, avoiding the endless concession lines during the Zamboni break (finding a bathroom without an endless line was becoming more important, anyway). Plan “B” was to try and hit concessions immediately after Takahito Mura’s FS ended, as he was the last in the penultimate group... but by then the pizza slices and other dinner items were sold out. I settled for a “small” (you know it wasn’t very small, right?) popcorn and tried to avoid eating the whole thing. Was successful until around 2AM as I continued to catch up on Twitter in my hotel room (still wide awake of course).

6) Oh, and as for “celebrity” sightings... just a little peek of the CBC set (featuring Kurt Browning and Tracy Wilson, I think?), a little bit of dashing around by Canadian competitor and 13th place finisher Andrei Rogozine (seen AFTER he competed, of course), and Toller Cranston. Yup, as you may have heard Cranston is now the official artist for Skate Canada... which led to him having a mini-gallery on-site... though only after I’d walked past him and noticed the hat (might be the same one he’s wearing in this London Free Press article) did I think hey, wow, that’s Toller Cranston!

Which does a terrible disservice to his exciting artwork... but there you go.

As for the Chanflation Controversy which ended up defining the night... I already posted my next-day reaction to Being There For It All. As for my other observations while I milled around that weekend, getting my dance and ladies’ finals fixes wherever I could... I’ll post more if y’all are interested, so let me know! For now, we are just a smattering of dozens of hours away from THE final event of this 2012-13 figure skating season—it’s time to move on before the World Team Trophy runs us over!!

P.S. Here's a great guide from Jackie Wong of The Examiner to help keep tabs on WTT, which will also be streamed by the ISU for free (as it was last year).

FROM THE MEN'S FINAL (my personal photos):

Misha Ge... Hip-Hop Chaplin
My view of the final flight warm-up

Denis Ten, ready to kiss the ice after his FS

Javi Fernandez w/Spanish flag after medals

Monday, April 1, 2013

A No-Foolin’ Look at My “Unseen” Worlds Awards

Don’t let the date fool you... this really is a list of Worlds Awards I've Imagined Which Don’t Actually Exist.

You follow?

I knew you would! Here we go...

BEST DEFENSE OF A WORLD TITLE WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY GUSHING BLOOD: Carolina Kostner, of course. Okay, maybe “gushing” is a little extreme. But Ms. Kostner’s pre-free skate nosebleed—in a sport where the runny noses are commonplace, and the dry cleaning costs for lycra and crystals run high—might as well have been an open wound. But she handled it with grace, and still skated well enough to earn silver behind Kim Yu-Na’s mighty demonstration of flawlessness.

HONORABLE MENTION to whatever stream of coverage I was watching live at the time; if I recall correctly, they refrained from showing any close-ups of Kostner (and her still-bleeding nose) from start to finish of her performance.

THE “MIGHT WANT TO RE-THINK THAT STRATEGY” AWARD: We watched Ashley Wagner do 3/2 and 3/2/2 combos on her triple flip all season long (likewise, I think, regarding her 2ax/2toe combo)... though she acknowledged frequently that she’d need to make it a 3/3 and a 2ax/3Toe in order to be as technically competitive as she wanted to be. When it came time for her to meet the press prior to Worlds, Wagner indicated she had a 3/3 planned for both her SP and FS. But in the end, she attempted neither (and the 2ax/3T attempt was one of the low spots of an otherwise very good free skate). The moral to this story: maybe it’s time to stop skating conservatively. Two top-5 World finishes in a row has surely established Wagner as one of the best in the sport... I’d like to think she’ll start working that 3/3 from the GP series onward next season in an effort to be really comfortable with it when she needs it most: in the first three months of 2014.

THE “THEN AGAIN, MAYBE IT WASN’T SUCH A BAD STRATEGY” AWARD: There were really two ways for Wagner to approach Worlds—1) focus on trying to medal (by going for the triple/triple and risking the results if she didn’t nail it), or 2) focus (along with Gracie Gold) on “skating clean” and earning three spots for the U.S. ladies in Sochi. By going the conservative route, Wagner was in essence keeping the three spots focus— not as personally gratifying as a medal might’ve been, but definitely good for the team.

BEST POST-PROGRAM, WAITING-FOR-THE-SCORES MUSIC CHOICE AWARD:  Davis/White got “Good Feeling” played as everyone waited to see if their mesmerizing free dance would score well enough to give them the championship. (Spoiler alert: it did.)

AWARD FOR THE TWO-SEASON PROGRAM I’LL MISS THE MOST: Kevin Reynolds’ “Chambermaid Swing” SP. Unique big-band-meets-club-beats music aside, I liked this last year... but loved it this year, when he was really able to start delivering the program as intended. Time to re-christen it “Chambermaid SING.”

AWARD FOR THE TWO-SEASON PROGRAM I HOPE I NEVER EVER SEE AGAIN: Michal Brezina’s Untouchables FS. You know that closing move he makes where his arms are crossed and it looks like he’s taking a final shot at something? That last time around I imagined he was blowing the whole program away. (Based on his 10th place finish, maybe he imagined it too.)

AWARD FOR THE ONE-SEASON PROGRAM I HOPE I NEVER EVER SEE AGAIN: Adelina Sotnikova’s “Tough Lover” (from the Burlesque Soundtrack), aka The One With Christina Aguilera Caterwauling All Over It. Please, someone tell me this sort of vocalizing is NOT the future of figure skating music.

Speaking of which... I also have an award for the ODDEST MUSIC MIX THAT SOMEHOW WORKED, which most definitely goes to Uzbekistan’s Misha Ge for his Charlie Chaplin medley (not to be confused with Javier Fernandez’s medley with the same theme).

Ge (pronounced ZHEE) had his highest Worlds finish to date--16th—and managed to “sneak” (can you call it that when he’s been doing it all season?) what he calls hip-hop Chaplin (with vocals) into the final minute of his program (see around 4:40 of this video). While I still find it rather jarring... and I could tell, from the reactions of those around me at Budweiser Gardens, that it was even more surprising to those unfamiliar with Ge’s work... his love of the choreography and all-around joy of performing won me over. Does anyone know if he’ll be able to compete in the Olympics? I’m not sure what the situation is re: qualifying scores, but he’d be a great ambassador for the sport.

NICEST SURPRISES OF THE EVENT: Denis Ten (KAZ) through and through.... followed by Kanako Murakami of Japan (ladies), Scimeca/Knierim of the U.S. (pairs), and Cappellini/Lanotte (ITA), who came much closer to a medal than I expected.

The “SIGH” AWARDS go to: Ross Miner of the U.S. (men), Akiko Suzuki of Japan (ladies), Berton/Hotarek of Italy (pairs), who I was hoping to see no worse than 8th place this year but ended up 10th (just a slight improvement on their 2012 finish) ... and Pechalat/Bourzat in dance (FRA), who uncharacteristically dropped to 6th after being in the running for a second consecutive bronze medal. Funny how 5th was a triumph for the rebounding-from-injury Weaver/Poje, but 6th was a crushing disappointment for the similarly-situated P/B... but the difference was in the lack of struggling. W/P simply looked more ready to be back than P/B by the time the free dances were completed.

And finally, the “Who Knew” awards:

Peter Liebers (GER)—while still lacking the quad jump that would “make him competitive,” 24 year-old Liebers turned in a clean, very impressive 8-triple free skate to earn himself a best-ever 11th place finish in six Worlds appearances. His previous best was 15th place in 2011. 

Li Zijun (CHN)— Not that her 4th place FS (and 7th place finish overall) at age 16 came out of absolutely nowhere—she also turned in a gangbusters FS at 4CC a month earlier, finishing 5th— but to wrap up the season on such back-to-back high notes is pretty darn amazing. And draws comparisons to Lu Chen, China’s skating starlet from 20 years ago (has it really been THAT long??). You can see her Worlds FS here.

But it’s worth mentioning that China’s Zhang Kexin finished 7th at Worlds (and 5th at 4CC) last year—only to withdraw from both her GP assignments this past fall, finish 10th at 2013 4CC, and plummet to 23rd place at Worlds a few weeks ago. Success can be a fleeting thing.
Sui/Han (CHN)— my first “who knew” pertained to the fact the injured-all-season team showed up at all... even as I write this, their Wikipedia bios have not been updated beyond the words “Worlds 2013 is still an option.” But after watching their fairly engaging free skate to music from Chicago, I was alarmed to see Sui drop to one knee, in obvious pain, immediately afterwards. (See 5:15 into this video.) Were they sent to compete before she was fully healed? Suddenly Who knew? gets a whole new meaning...

THE DANCE SPIN—as in who knew this would be the undoing of at least three different teams in the free dance... ??

At 2:09 in the Ilinykh/Katsalapov FD (when you hear the commentator’s “Oy-yoy-yoy!”) 

At 4:05 in the Coomes/Buckland FD— a real shame, as they were doing quite well until this happened late in the program... 

And a little bit at 3:45 in the Pechalat/Bourzat FD too... while not nearly as big of a glitch, it was one of a few different indicators that Bourzat in particular wasn’t at the top of his game. 

Still to come—more of those bitter pill (but need to be shared and talked about) columns from those who care deeply about the sport, as well as a few of my own observations from a couple of days spent at Worlds.