Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Shanghai Shake-up: Worlds 2015 Ladies and Men Predictions

Here’s what I’m thinking for the singles’ podiums at Worlds this week...

GOLD: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS)     
SILVER: Elena Radionova (RUS)
BRONZE: Ashley Wagner (USA)

DARK HORSE: Polina Edmunds (USA)

Call them Liza and Lena, call them Tukta and Radio, or even call them The One With the Drapey Dress and The One With the Bench-Pressable Dress... just don’t call them anything less than the favorites for leading a 1-2 Worlds finish this year. They may be teenagers, but they have OWNED this season. As usual, I’m picking Tukta for the title ahead of Radio because she’s the more mature & complete skater of the two, though it might be a toss-up depending on whether Tukta is helped—or harmed—by a triple axel attempt.

As for Wagner... I’m going to go ahead and put her in third. She’s certainly going for it, so it seems the least I can do! And to be honest, I wanted to put both Edmunds and Gracie Gold as the dark horses, but for such a big event I thought I should go with just one of them. I picked Edmunds based on her 4CC breakthrough, but if Gold shines brightest, I won’t be surprised.

Who could be the most interesting to watch here? I’m keeping my eyes peeled for Li Zijun—the sole lady representing China in this Shanghai Worlds—and 26 year-old Kiira Korpi, who has not competed at Worlds since 2011 (where she came in 9th, her highest placement to date).

GOLD: Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)           
SILVER: Denis Ten (KAZ)
BRONZE: Javier Fernandez (ESP)

DARK HORSE: Sergei Voronov (RUS)

As certain as I feel about the ladies, well, take that and put it in a blender when it comes to the men. Gold could go to any one of these guys I’ve put as a podium pick... or maybe even someone I haven’t listed here. It all depends:
A) Can Fernandez rise above a fairly sloppy season when it matters most?
B) Is D.Ten capable of another performance this year like the one he gave at 4CC?
C) Is Hanyu HEALTHY and TRAINED enough to deliver the goods (again)?

I guess I came up with this prediction by saying that even if all the above answers are YES... I’d have the same guess.

And I’ve got Voronov as the DH because he’s having the Best Year Ever, so why not?

U.S. guys: they all have Worlds breakout potential, but I’m worried. Know what I mean? For the sake of positivity, though, I’ll take a stab at it in a way that keeps our 3 spots...

Some American man will finish 5th. Another will finish 8th. The other will end up 17th. There. That's as far as I'll go!

Most interesting to watch?? How about Song Nan, who hasn’t competed all season (even 4CC) and must be here for the home country hospitality... yep, I’ll go with that.

Again, if you’re on Twitter, look for me... live-tweeting as much as I can (@KLBSt8ofSk8)! 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Shanghai Shake-Up: 2015 Worlds Pairs & Ice Dance Predictions

Here we are at Worlds 2015 in Shanghai already! Two titles will attempt to be defended... the other two are (at least in theory) wide open! Do you have your spring rolls ready? How about some hot’n’sour soup? Jiaozi (pot-stickers)? Anything??

While you’re on the phone ordering take-out, why not get started on these predictions for the first two disciplines to take the ice this week:

GOLD: Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford  (CAN)
SILVER: Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHI)
BRONZE: Peng Cheng/Zhang Hao (CHI)

DARK HORSE: Yuko Kavaguti/Alexander Smirnov (RUS)

With Stolbova/Klimov out of this year’s championships, this title is Duhamel/Radford’s to lose. The bigger challenge for me was deciding which Chinese team for silver and which for bronze... Sui/Han and Peng/Zhang have chased each other all season, with the former getting the upper hand at the GP Final and the latter faring better at 4CC. (And both apparently received a “bye” from Chinese Nationals, so there went that tiebreaker.) I’m picking Sui/Han because they have tougher content, and I happen to like their FS better on the whole... but if they falter on any of that content, Uncle Hao and his delightful niece (as I like to think of them) should be ready to make their move.

Kava/Smir are the ultimate Dark Horse—they’re high-quality, they’re committed to the drama of this year’s FS, and like Duh/Rad, they have a throw quad salchow. What they don’t have is consistency on their jumping passes. I’m looking at Yuko when I say that, but of course that means it’ll be Alexander that falters this time...

And while I don’t think they’ll medal this time, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out wish for Pang/Tong to skate as Lights Out as they can in front of the home crowd. Please, Shanghai, give P/T the sendoff they deserve so they can finally retire and go raise some little Pongs and Tangs already!

(And as an aside... I think Scimeca/Knierim’s best-case scenario is 6th place. Not as sure about Denney/Frazier, but I’d like to think Top 10. Might have to settle for Top 12, though.)

GOLD: Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje (CAN)
SILVER: Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA)
BRONZE: Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA)

DARK HORSE: Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (ITA)

It’s weird when you’re looking at ice dance—once known for its glacier-esque pace of change—and you’ve not only put the reigning champs as a Dark Horse, but have a team in the silver slot that didn’t even crack the Top 10 last year. That’s the kind of year it’s been though. Buckle up! This podium “prediction” is about as tenuous as it gets; it could go 17 different ways. And it should be a lot of fun to watch.

Stay tuned—singles predictions will be up soon!

And if you’re on Twitter, the hashtag for Worlds this year is #WCShanghai. And don't forget to look for me... live-tweeting as much as I can (@KLBSt8ofSk8).

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What 2015 Junior Worlds Can Tell Us About 2015 (Senior) Worlds

World figure skating championships are not for the faint of heart. All that early rising, working hard all day, staying up late, staying hydrated, stretching, waiting for scores, waiting to see if the unknown athlete in front of you is skating to Carmen or Phantom so you can be sure to activate your MUTE button...

Oh, wait... did you think I was talking about the competitors?

There certainly are enough of them to talk about at Worlds: 30 men, 36 ladies, 19 pairs, and 31 dance teams—wait, make that 30 because Coomes/Buckland have scratched due to illness on Coomes' part (sigh!!).All those numbers are down, by the way, from 10 years ago when there were over 40 “preliminary” programs to witness in each singles division (before prelims and SPs whittled the finals down to 24, just as they are now).

If you really miss those 40+ days, you need look no further than Junior Worlds (held earlier in the month). Plenty of teenagers were there, trying to make a name for themselves ahead of joining the international senior circuit. And while it doesn’t quite equate with its most elite counterpart—how could it?—there are plenty of parallels to draw; performances and patterns that could very well tell the tale when competition begins next week in Shanghai:

For the MEN: Bring your ENTIRE FS, and please tell me you’ve done your endurance training. Most of the Junior Worlds guys that did well in the SP made major tumbles in the standings after the FS (e.g. Russians Aidan Pitkeev and Alexander Petrov; South Korea’s Kim Jin-seo), while SP 5th place-er Boyang Jin (of China) won the FS... and shot to silver with a quad-heavy but passionless skate. (Japan’s Shoma Uno did well enough to win overall, but his FS was some 20 points lower than that which he’d turned in at 4CC a couple weeks earlier.) In a time where the guys are often subjecting their bodies to quad punishment before they’re even old enough to drive themselves to the ice rink, the boys-to-men difference should at least be visible in terms of the complete-ness.

For the LADIES: Stopping a Russian podium sweep this year is tough... mighty tough... but do-able. Attribute it to the overall quality of Anna Pogorilaya’s skating, or the resurgence of Ashley Wagner... or maybe a bit of both... but a similar thing happened at Junior Worlds when Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi found herself sharing podium space with gold medalist Evgenia Medvedeva and silver medalist Serafima Sakhanovich ... and Russia’s Maria Sotskova settled for 5th behind Kazakhstan’s newest rising star Elizabet Tursynbayeva (in 4th).

For PAIRS: It’s about Canada and China this time, folks—Juniors and Seniors alike.  Russia’s still a player, as Kavaguti/Smirnov and reigning OSMs Stolbova/Klimov have demonstrated. But maybe the best way to rationalize the mystery of S/K’s absence at Worlds is to treat it as symbolic...

Yu/Jin of China took gold at Junior Worlds, with Canadians Seguin/Bilodeau in the silver slot and Russians Fedorova/Miroshkin getting bronze... but while the top two teams skated clean, F/M did not. Of course I’m not saying Duhamel/Radford and Peng/Zhang (or Sui/Han, for that matter) are a lock for skating clean. But they’re all looking better than at any other time in recent memory. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Pang/Tong, who’ve probably inspired many a Chinese pair team, as they compete (one last time??) in Shanghai themselves.

For ICE DANCE: Junior dance may have a dominating team right now (in Yanoskaya/Mozgov of Russia); but senior dance sure doesn’t.  Those duties were handed back and forth between two North American teams for four years; from the moment we knew both those teams were skipping last year’s Worlds, speculation ran rampant. And in a season where last year’s World Champs haven’t lived up to form... and the top Russian team has split and re-paired with some truly mixed results... it’s a young French team that has emerged from nearly nowhere as The Ones To Watch. And through it all we still have Weaver/Poje and Chock/Bates, both so very eager to step out of the V/M and D/W shadows. Will Shanghai be the start of a whole new blueprint? To me, this could prove to be the most exciting outcome of all... without a quad or triple jump to be seen!

If you need to see the full schedule for next week’s Worlds, check this out...

Look for my pairs and dance predictions early on Tuesday! 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Great 4CC/Euros Score Mashup of 2015

Did you know the Four Continents Championship is kinda sorta considered the equivalent of the European Championships? It’s a funny thought for me, if only to look at how long each has been around. Euros is the oldest of the four annual “ISU Championships”—it started in 1891, even pre-dating World Championships by five years!—while the inaugural 4CC didn’t happen till more than a century later (1999).

But 4CC came to be at a time when Japan and China were fast becoming skating superpowers, and the North American Championships (a biennial event between the U.S. and Canada) had its last hurrah way back in 1971. What’s more, elite skaters now come from all corners of the world. Some of them may never come near an international top 10 finish, let alone make the podium. But they’re hard-working, qualified athletes that deserve more than one high-profile event at which to compete, and 4CC provides that.

But the equivalent of Euros? I don’t think so... 

At least that’s what I might have said a decade ago, when 4CC felt a lot more like a consolation prize than a noteworthy competition. 

In fact, I used to call it the NIT Tournament for figure skating... a reference you’ll only get if you follow college basketball (go Google it!). It still applies at times, such as when Ashley Wagner opts out of the event and Samantha Cesario finds herself with one more international competition this season after all. But if you watched—either online, or in the tape-delayed coverage NBC offered —then you know there were some very good performances there in Seoul. Very good. Worlds-podium good, in fact.

In fact, I got curious: if you put together the scores of the top finishers from both 4CC and Euros, how would they compare? What sort of top 10 would you get?

Here’s what I came up with (understanding that I deleted the names/scores of athletes from 4CC that are not currently scheduled to compete at Worlds)...


1) Denis Ten (KAZ)—289.46 @ 4CC
2) Javier Fernandez (ESP)—262.49 @ Euros
3) Joshua Farris (USA)—260.01 @ 4CC
4) Yan Han (CHN)—259.47 @4CC
5) Jason Brown (USA)—243.21 @4CC
6) Takahito Mura (JPN)—235.75 @4CC
7) Maxim Kovtun (RUS)—235.68 @Euros
8) Sergei Voronov (RUS)—233.05 @Euros
9) Misha Ge (UZB)—226.20 @4CC
10) Alexei Bychenko (ISR)—220.22 @Euros
11) Michal Brezina (CZE)—220.11 @Euros
12) Peter Liebers (GER)—213.57 @Euros
13) Adam Rippon (USA)—212.30 @4CC

With this mash-up and the others I’ve done, it’s easy to think this is a foreteller of Worlds itself. IT ISN’T. Performances might differ radically (as we all know), judges will likely be different, and few believe all tech specialists are created equal (meaning some will cite edge calls and underrotations more frequently than others). That’s to say nothing of the impact of the location, the travel, the Shanghai crowds they’ll be skating to... even the food sometimes factors in! Plus, in the case of the men's list, there is the notable absence of Yuzuru Hanyu, who will be competing for the first time since undergoing surgery just after Japanese Nationals (assuming he’ll be in Shanghai at all).

But pretend, just for a minute, that these scores DID tell the story for Worlds. (After all, they’re certainly in the range of World-class finishes.)  What could we gather from them?

-- That Ten (or DTen, as he’s called in events that also feature Canada’s Jeremy Ten) is either in a great place for another Worlds medal—maybe even gold—
...or he’s “good for one great event a year”, as Johnny Weir said in NBC’s coverage of 4CC, and something dastardly will come between him and his best jumps in Shanghai. (I know that of which Weir spoke, but still hope Ten can shed that reputation in a few weeks.)

-- That Farris could prove to be our top-ranked US man at Worlds, even though he finished 3rd at Nationals. Hopefully he isn’t freaking out too much about that possibility.

-- That Brown must’ve been feeling the pressure (after those Nationals press conferences, if nothing else) to stick his toe into the quad pool. 4CC was as good a competition as any to do so, even if it factored into his substandard score. Will he attempt it at Worlds? I hope not.

-- That as excited as we were when Rippon conquered his Nationals demons in January... I’m not sure he can also “conquer” Worlds this time around. :-(

Here’s what the LADIES mash-up looks like:

1) Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS)—210.40 @Euros
2) Elena Radionova (RUS)—209.54 @Euros
3) Anna Pogorilaya (RUS)—191.81 @Euros
4) Polina Edumunds (USA)—184.02 @4CC
5) Satoko Miyahara (JPN)—181.59 @4CC
6) Rika Hongo (JPN)—177.44 @4CC
7) Gracie Gold (USA)—176.58 @4CC
8) Li Zijun (CHN)—175.92 @4CC
9) Joshi Helgesson (SWE)—169.07 @Euros
10) Gabrielle Daleman (CAN)—167.09@4CC

So yeah, there’s the Russian Trifecta... and then there’s all the rest of the world-class ladies. It looks like the Grand Prix Final podium all over again, except that of course Ashley Wagner won bronze over Pogorilaya (Wagner won bronze with a 189.50; Pogo fared better this time around while Wagner opted out of 4CC). Even best-of-the-4CC-bunch Edmunds would have been several points from the Worlds podium. Granted, neither Miyahara nor Gold (especially Gold!) was anywhere near their best in South Korea. But the thing about Tukta and Radio this season is they almost always seem at their best. Their artistry (particularly Radio’s) might not be that of a grown woman’s yet, but their technical consistency is mind-boggling and tough to minimize. And that’s not even counting the possibility of Tukta attempting a triple axel in Shanghai!

While I don’t know that her total score would have put her on the podium, it’s worth noting that Kiira Korpi was in the mix at Euros (4th after SP) before she withdrew due to illness.

As for the PAIRS:

1) Duhamel/Radford (CAN)—219.48 @4CC
2) Kavaguti/Smirnov (RUS)—207.67 @Euros
3) Peng/Zhang (CHN)—201.45 @4CC
(Stolbova/Klimov (RUS)—201.11 @Euros)
4) Pang/Tong (CHN)—199.99 @4CC
5) Wenjing/Cong (CHN)—198.88 @4CC
6) Scimeca/Knierim (USA)—187.98 @4CC
7) Tarasova/Morozov (RUS)—183.02 @Euros
8) Marchei/Hotarek (ITA)—175.39 @Euros
9) Iliushechkina/Moscovitch (CAN)—173.50 @4CC
10) Denney/Frazier (USA)—167.57 @4CC
11) James/Cipres (FRA)—167.29 @Euros
(Kayne/O’Shea (USA)—166.67 @4CC)

I know Kayne/O’Shea won’t be at Worlds; I just wanted to show where they’d fit in the mix.

I also kept Stolbova/Klimov’s score in there to show where’d they be—allowing that their Euros performance, which included a throw jump error early in the program and a complete non-attempt on their closing throw triple salchow (thanks to a massive toe pick trip on Klimov’s part), was easily the worst we’ve seen from them. Of course the reason they’re in parentheses is their surprise WD announcement regarding Worlds... reportedly so they could turn their focus to next season a month or two early. How wide are the speculations running, I wonder? Could the reigning Olympic Silver Medalists be breaking up? (Or at least “legally separated” based on that death glare Stolbova let loose after their FS was over?) Could one of them be nursing an injury that they don’t want to make public? What possibilities have YOU considered?

One thing’s for sure: with S/K out of Worlds, Canada’s Duhamel/Radford will be favored for the title in what’s clearly their Best Season Ever.

And finally, DANCE...

1) Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)—179.97 @Euros
2) Weaver/Poje (CAN)—177.46 @4CC
3) Chock/Bates (USA)—176.18 @4CC
4) Cappellini/Lanotte (ITA)—171.52 @Euros
5) Shibutani/Shibutani (USA)—170.79 @4CC
6) Gilles/Poirier (CAN)—162.25 @4CC
7) Stepanova/Bukin (RUS)—160.95 @Euros
8) Ilinykh/Zhiganshin (RUS)—159.93 @Euros
9) Hurtado/Diaz (ESP)—155.81 @Euros
10) Guignard/Fabbri (ITA)—154.61 @Euros

If nothing else, this mash-up confirms that Papa/Ciz could very well cap off their breakout season with World Gold. Should they? I enjoy their skating very much this season, but I’m no ice dance expert, so whether or not their skyrocketing scores (compared to last year, where they finished 13th at Worlds) are justified, I cannot say. And while it’s wonderful that a team no longer has to “wait their turn” if their performances are undeniably top-notch, I have to wonder... is it possible that, in the struggle to determine The Next Big Ice Dancing Thing in a post D/W and V/M era, the judges have opted to reach around the cluster of heirs to the throne (Weaver/Poje, Cappellini/Lanotte, Chock/Bates, and even Ilinykh/Zhiganshin, though their FD at Euros was a mess) and start fresh with Papa/Ciz?

Just a thought; perhaps not a very sound one at that. What’s your take?