Thursday, November 21, 2019

NHK Trophy 2019 Previews & Predictions

Before the annual meeting of Yuzuru Hanyu’s fan club comes and goes this weekend, here’s my take on what might happen at NHK Trophy, this year’s final GP stop:

GOLD: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
SILVER: Stepanova/Bukin (RUS)
BRONZE: Guignard/Fabbri (ITA) 

I’m just putting the regular ice dance logic on this prediction. GBR’s Fear/Gibson won bronze at their other GP assignment this season and might make things interesting, though.

Eyes on: the American teams (McNamara/Carpenter & Carreira/Ponomarenko). We’ve seen the latter earlier this GP season, but Mc/Carp had to scratch from GP France so we haven’t seen them in at least a couple months. And since they finished 4th behind Hawayek/Baker last Nationals, I know I’M interested in seeing how the judges currently see them.

GOLD: Sui/Han (CHN)
SILVER: Mishina/Galliamov (RUS)
BRONZE: Moore-Towers/Marinaro (CAN)

Sui/Han should be rather untouchable here. Mishina/Galliamov won GP France a couple weeks ago, and Nebelhorn before that, so they seem like reliable runners-up. M-T/M? I’ve got them there because it’s always a possibility they’ll be at the top, but then it’s always a little something-something that keeps them from getting there. Unfortunately.

Eyes on: Again, the American teams (Scimeca-Knierim/Knierim  & Kayne/O’Shea)… neither of which currently holds the national title; both of which surely want to build confidence here (their last big event ahead of 2020 Nats) as a means towards reclaiming said title.

GOLD: Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)
SILVER: Makar Ignatov (RUS)
BRONZE: Kevin Aymoz (FRA)

It might seem like this event is an annual coronation for Hanyu, but he’s actually only won NHK three times (!!) and hasn’t even competed here in three years (!!!). Since he’s not sick or injured to my knowledge, I’m predicting NHK title number 4 for him. As for silver, there are several scenarios that could play out… the one I’m going with favors Ignatov, who is fresh off a bronze medal win at last week’s Rostelecom Cup. His artistic side is underdeveloped, but his content is solid. Bronze is tough because I’d enjoy seeing both Aymoz and Jason Brown medal this weekend; I’m giving the nod to Aymoz on account of stronger jump content (unless Brown lands his quad salchow, in which case we’re back to zero… hmmm)

Eyes on: SatoYamamoto, who was 9th at Japanese Nationals last year but also won silver medals at both the U.S. Classic and Nebelhorn Trophy earlier in the season. Talk about a wild card…

GOLD: Alena Kostornaia (RUS)
SILVER: Rika Kihira (JPN)
BRONZE: Alina Zagitova (RUS)

Dueling triple axels! And, perhaps, dueling triple axel/triple toe loops? We shall see what Kosto & Kihira bring to the arena. If they’re both delivering, even a squeaky clean Zags may have to settle for bronze.

Eyes on: Megan Wessenberg, 6th at U.S. Nats this year, competing at her only GP event of the season. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

A Little About Rostelecom Cup 2019, and a lot about Gracie Gold

This is the time of the week when I usually make a handful of observations and comments about the GP event of the past weekend, which in this case would be Rostelecom Cup. So for consistency’s sake, my comments are as follows (consider this a tiny “handful”):

+ The Russian men’s sweep? Unsurprising. (Duh, I predicted that podium. As did many others, I suspect.) Shoma Uno did a little better here, finishing 4th, but his need for a full-time coach to replace the “n/a” we saw on his name key at Rostelecom continues in a big, bad way.

+ The Russian pairs sweep? Oh, wait, there wasn’t one. Germany’s Hase/Seegert won bronze in their first-ever trip to the GP podium. That was cool. (The Russian team that didn’t get it done was Stolbova/Novoselov, who had multiple errors in their free skate.)

The dance podium was as I predicted, which means TPTB didn’t get my memo that Gilles/Poirier could win (meaning probably should win). Ah, well.

+  For the ladies, Sasha Trusova won again (despite 2 falls in the FS) but Evgenia Medvedeva stole the show… and probably any hearts she hasn’t already won, especially in her home country. Mariah Bell brought home another bronze GP medal, though I think Bradie Tennell (with a 2nd and 4th on this year’s circuit) is a little higher than her on the GPF alternate list due to tiebreaker rules.

I could explain those tiebreaker rules, but I’m gonna let you look them up if you’re really curious. Because I want to spend the rest of this post talking about Gracie Gold.

You may have heard that Gracie officially qualified for the 2020 U.S. Nationals this past weekend after earning bronze at the USFS Eastern Sectionals. While this information was largely presented in social media matter-of-factually and/or with varying degrees of positive subjectivity—at least, as far as I saw—I also read posts treating Gracie’s achievement with disinterest, or even vague disdain. Ho hum, who cares, two other skaters finished ahead of her, why not mention them by name if you’re compelled to mention her? Something like that.

So let’s start there. Are the results of a USFS Eastern Sectional newsworthy? To hard-core fans, sure—and thanks to resources like Twitter, we can seek out said results with ease. But when that Eastern Sectional includes an athlete who won two Grand Prix titles, won the U.S. title twice, finished 4th at the Sochi Olympics, and finished in the top 6 at four World Championships in a row? Then it becomes newsworthy in a bigger way. Not oh-my-God-she-has-a-shot-at-the-national-podium big, but big enough.

Most people reading this likely know why an athlete with a resume such as Gracie’s was at Eastern Sectionals (and South Atlantic Regionals before that) at all. But if you don’t, it’s easy now to read her recent backstory in the New York Times. Or People magazine. Or Sports Illustrated. Or several other news outlets. 

Disclosing battles with severe depression can generate attention. So can disclosing an eating disorder. So can revealing you “imagined taking your life and nobody finding your body until the landlord came to collect overdue rent,” as Gracie did in the NY Times article. She’s been dealing with all the above, and a lot more, since 2017 Worlds.

But what has stayed with me most about Gracie is what I saw with my own eyes as I watched last year’s Rostelecom Cup (at which she attempted to compete). At the time, I was barely keeping up with weekly Grand Prix predictions and felt a tug of relief that I didn’t “need” to do any sort of Rostelecom postmortem here on the blog. So I kept my worries to myself for the most part: the way Gracie barely seemed to test any jumps during her SP warmup. The program itself, which contained a fall, a completely missed element (double axel), and no successful triple jumps. The piece of hair hanging in Gracie’s face when she finished; a sharp contrast to her pristine upsweeps of the past. Her eyeroll as she pushed said piece of hair out of her face. 

The worried look exchanged between her two coaches as she bent over to adjust her skates in the Kiss’n’Cry.

The way she held her head in her hands as her score went up.

And as I sat in front of the computer for the free skate one day later—dreading what might happen, to be honest—I remember it didn’t start on time. Maybe five minutes went by, maybe more than that. But if you’ve ever watched an ISU event, you know a late start of any kind is rare. And by the time the results page was finally saying The first warm-up group is on the ice, Gracie’s name was missing from the list of skaters. As I recall, they didn’t even have her name up there with a “WD” alongside it. It was just missing. For the duration of the warm-up. (It returned just as news of Gracie’s withdrawal from Rostelecom started circulating on Twitter.)

Her own explanation of her choice to scratch from the event came hours later, on Twitter… and it was clear her SP performance played a big part in the decision. But in those moments leading up to the (delayed) start of the free skate, I found myself ridiculously worried about Gracie. Admittedly, my mind tends to shoot to worst-case-scenario mode in a hurry for most anything. So that didn’t help.

But this whole scenario was rather unprecedented in any sport, let alone the seemingly made-for-TV drama that figure skating tends to be. So my mind kept swimming with speculation: Is she OK? Did she have another breakdown? Did it happen right there at the arena as she got ready to compete? Dammit, why did The Powers That Be let her go to Russia for this event at all??

Then, after she’d clarified things later: How much of a setback will this be for her? Six months? A year? Will she still be able to make a comeback now? Should she even try?

I wasn’t surprised after that when she withdrew from Nationals; I don’t think many of us were. In that space between Rostelecom (November) and the start of Nationals (January), nobody in the media seemed sure of the right thing to say about Gracie.  On the NBC coverage of Rostelecom Cup, there was only about 30 matter-of-fact seconds about Gracie’s attempt to compete (along with an obligatory “we wish her the best”). Both Phil Hersh and Christine Brennan—two sports journalists as well-known to figure skating fans as their respective aversions to mincing words—wrote pieces about Gracie’s withdrawal in early January that were carefully constructed to neither discourage her comeback efforts nor encourage a world of additional progress.

It wasn’t until Nationals weekend itself, when the NY Times article came out, that the depths of Gracie’s issues became transparent enough to REALLY talk about.

She’s done a lot of talking, both about mental health in general and hers in detail, since the start of this year. It’s a brave move on her part; for those of us following along that have endured mental health crises of our own, it’s perhaps as cathartic for us as it is for her. But the physical and, if she wishes, competitive comeback is still a work in progress. Which brings me back to what she accomplished last weekend, 365 or so days after her Rostelecom Cup withdrawal.

Gracie has qualified for 2020 U.S. Nationals. The last time she competed at Nats in 2017 she finished in 6th place, parted ways with coach Frank Carroll before the event was over, and (reportedly) put her U.S. team jacket in a trash can. (I think it was also reported that she quietly retrieved said jacket a little later.)

A year later, she didn’t compete but sat in the stands, making self-deprecating jokes and opining about the athletes on Twitter.

A year after that, she wasn’t there at all.

When you battle the kind of demons Gracie Gold has, and have a livelihood that documents your highs and lows so publicly, and so very vividly… how can you persevere at a time when most anyone else in “battle mode” does well just to get through a day without succumbing to the fetal position?

I’m keeping my eye on her for the answer, for exactly as long as she wants to work towards it.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Rostelecom Cup 2019: Previews and Predictions

It’s Rostelecom Cup time, so please save all SWR (Skating While Russian) jokes until the end of my predictions. Here we go…

GOLD: Alexander Samarin (RUS)
SILVER: Dmitri Aliev (RUS)
BRONZE: Makar Ignatov (RUS)

Here’s my first of two Russian sweep predictions. Believe me it brings no pleasure to predict Samarin to win anything, as he continues to skate with all the personality of a bag of synthetic sponges. But he’s got the quads, and he’s got more consistency than the guy I’d rather see on top (Aliev). As for the GP rookie Ignatov—he won Nebelhorn earlier in the season, and followed that up with a silver at the Denis Ten Memorial. So he may be new to this particular competition, but I’m not sure that’ll stop him from a podium finish.

UNLESS Shoma Uno has a MUCH stronger outing than he did in France a few weeks ago. So… eyes on Uno for this one.

GOLD: Alexandra Trusova (RUS)
SILVER: Evgenia Medvedeva (RUS)
BRONZE: Satoko Miyahara (JPN)

Sasha Trusova’s the one with the most quads, and even when she blows one on occasion (as she did at Skate America), she doesn’t seem rattled by it. Medvedeva wasn’t her best at SkCan, but I guess I’m hopeful that she’ll be back on it in her home country. If she ISN’T, all I can say is… your move, Mariah Bell.

Eyes on: Yuhana Yokoi, a 19 year-old from Japan making her senior GP debut here (she’ll also be at NHK Trophy next week).

GOLD: Boikova/Kozlovskii (RUS)
SILVER: Stolbova/Novoselov (RUS)
BRONZE: Tarasova/Morozov (RUS)

There are no Chinese pairs team competing at Rostelecom, and neither the U.S. nor Canada are sending teams that are likely to contend for the top spots. That’s why I’m calling for a Russian sweep—even though one of the teams, Ksenia Stolbova/Andrei Novoselov, is making its debut here. Of course we know Stolbova from her very successful partnership with Fedor Klimov, but he retired in September 2018. She began training with Novoselov shortly thereafter.

Eyes on: Lu/Mitrofanov of USA, a still-young team (17 & 22) who finished 6th at Nationals and has done as well as 6th on the GP circuit.

GOLD: Sinitsina/Katsalapov (RUS)
SILVER: Gilles/Poirier (CAN)
BRONZE: Hurtado/Khaliavin (ESP)

To be clear: I think G/P could win here as they did at Skate Canada, particularly since Sin/Kat didn’t exactly win in convincing fashion at Cup of China last week. But I don’t want to jinx ‘em by calling it. So someone let them know, please… I’m willing to take one for the team if they’d like to prove my official prediction wrong!

Eyes on:  The Anastasias. The other two Russian dance teams at this event are Anastasia Shpilevaya/Grigory Smirnov and Anastasia Skoptcova/Kirill Aleshin. I don’t think either team are at the level yet where they’ll be medal contenders, but if they get there (especially if they get there at the same time), I may have to do a separate blog post on how to tell one “Anastasia S.” from the other.

2019 Cup of China Recap

On paper, there were no present-day headliners in the men’s event… but that only made it all the more interesting. My guess at who would step into the driver’s seat (Keiji Tanaka) was wrong—he finished down in 5th—but it was nice to see Boyang Jin regain his jumping “mojo”, claiming his first GP medal in two years and first-EVER GP gold.

For me, it was even nicer seeing Han Yan take silver… or seeing him back at all! I’m sure he knows as well as anyone that the quad-free skating he brought to CoC won’t often place him on the podium, but I doubt that was his point of competing this time around. I don’t know much about him, but I always enjoy his breezy interpretations of the music as much as the elements themselves and it saddened me to see him step away from competition. Did you see his reactions at the end of each program—standing very still, just taking in the positive reaction of the crowd? (That’s how I saw it anyway) It felt like he was reminding himself why he skates, and why he competes. I hope he’s back for a few more years…

Since there was no surprise at the top (Shcherbet and her magic dress again), I want to jump to looking at the top PCS (component) scores…
1)      Satoko Miyahara 72.36 (finished 2nd)
2)      Anna Shcherbakova 67.82 (finished 1st)
3)      Elizaveta Tuktamysheva 66.50 (finished 3rd)
4)      Young You 63.36 (finished 4th)
5)      Marin Honda 62.79 (finished 7th)

There’s been some debate already this season about inflated PCS scores with regards to the Russian teens, particularly Quad Queen Alexandra Trusova (whose PCS at SkCAN was about the same as Shcherbet’s here). Thank goodness Miyahara was awarded component scores so far above everyone else’s at CoC that it compensated for her underrotations (two in the SP; three in the FS) and actually changed the color of the medal she received from bronze to silver.  It’s unfortunate that she’s been flagged for the URs enough now that they seem almost inescapable, but the Lori Nichol choreography on her Schindler’s List free skate is glorious. I hope she does well enough at Rostelecom Cup (coming up this weekend) to earn a spot at the GP Final.

Sui/Han were so far above all the other pair teams at CoC, I felt compelled to remind myself of the other top six finishers at Worlds back in March…

Tarasova/Morozov (silver medalists) had a rocky start to their GP experience a few weeks ago at Skate Canada; we’ll see if it was a fluke or a trend at Rostelecom.

Zabiiako/Enbert (bronze) are not competing this GP due to injury.

Peng/Jin (4th) took silver here, and have already qualified for their third GP Final… but remain well behind their teammates (19 points at Worlds; 28.4 points at CoC).

James/Cipres (5th) took the GP season off to be involved with CBC’s revival of Battle of the Blades.

Boikova/Kozlovskii (6th) won Skate Canada a couple weeks back, and will likely end up on the podium again next week at Rostelecom. But it’s worth noting that Sui/Han’s winning score here was 12 points higher than Boi/Koz’s winning score at SkCAN.

In other words… someone send the skater bubblewrap to China, please. We need this injury-prone pair of champions to stay healthy in the worst way.

My predictions for this were correct, but did you see the difference between 1st and 2nd was less than 1.5 points?? Chock/Bates actually defeated reigning World Silver Medalists Sinitsina/Katsalapov in the FD portion… which means that GP Final coming up in a month or so is bound to provide a VERY interesting showdown between C/B and Hubbell/Donohue. (And a great preview for U.S. Nationals, in case that isn’t obvious)

But here’s something I definitely didn’t see coming: China’s Wang/Liu coming in 4th—their highest-ever finish at CoC—and beating Hawayek/Baker by about 6 points.  Those points were mostly earned in the FD; the two teams were both in the 74’s point-wise for the SD. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me post a What should they do from here? poll regarding Hawayek Baker’s Spanish-flavored free dance. (They don’t seem to be setting any personal bests with either dance this season, but for the purposes of the poll I focused on the FD.) There was no overwhelming “winner” in my poll—it’s still pinned to my page (@KLBSt8ofSk8) if you want to take a look—but what got the most votes was a suggestion for H/B to return to their very successful FD from last year as they work towards defending their bronze-medal podium spot at Nationals. I hope to take a harder look at their protocols once GP season is past; if I do, I’ll probably post about it. Just feeling kinda mystified and frustrated for them… they’ve worked too long and hard for that #3 spot to lose it so quickly.

(And I was further mystified when someone as knowledgeable as Ben Agosto expressed similar frustration with their SD scores on the Olympic Channel broadcast this past week. I haven’t yet watched his take on the FD. Maybe some clues are uncovered there? )

Thursday, November 7, 2019

2019 Cup of China: Preview & Predictions

It’s baa-ack!

Finland took its place as a GP site last year, but Cup of China (established 2003; replacing Germany on the GP circuit) has returned as the fourth stop on the 2019 ISU Grand Prix. 

And since this is an event where the action starts at 2:30 AM Eastern Time Friday, I’ve got to commit ALL predictions before heading to bed tonight! (Though I have mad respect for those of you who are able to schedule your entire weekend around CoC, I must decline as always… my sleep schedule is jacked-up enough!)

So let’s get to it!

GOLD: Keiji Tanaka (JPN)
SILVER: Boyang Jin (CHN)
BRONZE: Keegan Messing (CAN)

Wow, I can’t think of the last GP men’s event I witnessed that was so WIDE OPEN! Reigning World Bronze Medalist Vincent Zhou was originally scheduled for CoC, but since he’s elected to skip the entire GP season to focus on his studies at Brown University, the highest placement of anyone here at the last Worlds is 5th (Jin) and 7th (Matteo Rizzo of Italy). 

So… while I could lean on those World placements for predictions, I think it makes more sense to rest one arm on those placements, and rest the other on more recent performances. That’s why I’m (cautiously) calling on recent SkCan bronze medalist Tanaka to win his first-ever GP gold in China. But I’m predicting Jin for medals with the assumption that he’ll shine much brighter in his home country event than he did at SkCan. If I’m wrong about that, either Rizzo or USA’s Camden Pulkinen could step up.

Eyes on: Han Yan of China. But, wait… he’s retired! you say. OR IS HE…???

GOLD: Anna Shcherbakova (RUS)
SILVER: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS)
BRONZE: Satoko Miyahara (JPN)

Another GP week, another Russian teen in the top spot? Yep, that’s my guess. Though since we’re on the back half of the circuit now, the names will be more familiar as they earn their spots in the Final…

And just so you know: of the three names on my podium predictions, Miyahara remains my favorite. I’d have her higher, but based on the consistency levels of Shcherbet and The Empress Tukta it doesn’t make sense to do so.

Eyes on: Sofia Samodurova. Who?? The Russian teen that beat the crowds, got to the senior scene last year, and came away with a Europeans championship and an 8th place finish at Worlds. It’ll be interesting to see if she can transcend any and all traces of Sophomore Slump, especially when she’s not one of Russia’s “A” team.

GOLD: Sui/Han (CHN)
SILVER: Peng/Jin (CHN)
BRONZE: Efimova/Korovin (RUS)

Fun fact: between 2003 and 2017, Chinese pair teams took gold at CoC all but four times. That most recent year (2017) was won by Sui/Han, and I’m personally just thrilled to see this team so early in the season again that I almost don’t care how they do. But I DO care, and I do think they’ll win. (Unless Sui is impacted by injury; seems like if that was the case they wouldn’t bother showing up to this one.)

Eyes on: Kayne/O’Shea, making their GP season debut and first-ever appearance at CoC.  They’ve placed anywhere from 2nd to 6th in previous Grand Prix seasons, so they could be a true wild card here.

GOLD: Sinitsina/Katsalapov (RUS)
SILVER: Chock/Bates (USA)
BRONZE: Beaudry/Sorensen (CAN)

I’ll be honest… sometimes I forget Sin/Kat are back in the mix for ice dance, despite the fact they’ve never really gone away. And yes, that means I’d forgotten they were the reigning World Silver Medalists too (!!). First-place finishes at Nepala Memorial and Shanghai Trophy earlier this season indicate they’re as strong as ever, so… get ready for a Singin’ in the Rain RD from them on their way to probable gold.

And while I’m not sure how much improvement Hawayek/Baker can make on their efforts at SkCan 2 weeks ago, I’m hoping they can give Beau/Sor a solid run on that bronze medal. (But the latter won bronze at SkAM 3 weeks ago, so… we’ll see.)

Eyes on: all three Chinese dance teams. Why? Because the only other time we see three Chinese dance teams at a major international competition is Four Continents. And while they aren’t among the top competitors in this discipline—longtime national champs Wang/Liu have a 15th at Worlds and 6th at CoC as their best finishes to date—I always enjoy seeing the progress being made.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Internationaux de France 2019 Recap

I don’t really have anything new to add about the pairs and dance events at Internationaux de France last weekend—though I’m sure I’ll come up with something cohesive to say about the latest extraordinary work of Papadakis/Cizeron at some point—so I’ll just focus on the most memorable parts of the singles’ events…


It occurs to me that some of these guys must have studied the GP assignments to figure out if they had any chance at gold… that is to say, is (Nathan) Chen at this event? How about (Yuzuru) Hanyu? As we know, Chen was at SkAM and at last weekend’s Internationaux de France. Hanyu was at SkCAN, and will be at NHK Trophy (I can’t believe I actually just checked that; DUH, when he’s healthy I’m not sure NHK can function without him). SO… Cup of China (this weekend) and Rostelecom Cup (next weekend) are the ones to be at this year if you’re an elite man on the GP circuit looking to make the biggest of statements about your place on skating’s map.

As it was, here on the third stop, the news wasn’t so much who was on top (Chen, of course, continuing a winning streak that started right after Pyeong Chang), but who was near the bottom (Shoma Uno)… as well as who seemed to think he was at the bottom until he had a bronze medal in his hands. In the case of the latter (home country fave Kevin Aymoz), it was a big miss on a triple lutz that led him to tears after the SP. But it was one of those events where everyone in the SP made significant mistakes—including Chen, who resurrected his messy triple axel—so when the dust settled, Aymoz was already in third. Then, when Uno faltered badly*, Aymoz lit up the arena despite a few stumbles. And found himself crying for a whole new reason.

*Uno won Finlandia Trophy earlier in the season (with a total score around 255), which seemed a very positive sign for the guy who currently has no full-time coach (just a “jump coach” in Takeshi Honda). But if you saw either of his performances in France you know how much unraveling is going on with Uno as of now.   


I did better on my GP France predictions than I thought I would (for once!). But while I got the podium placement of the Russian ladies correct—helped along, of course, by Alena Kostornaia’s stellar triple axels and Alina Zagitova’s occasional jump errors—but I wasn’t sure Mariah Bell would be able to triumph over the ever-powerful Kaori Sakamoto. But look what happened! Bell went clean on both programs (Even outscoring Zags in the free skate!), and while Sakamoto delivered another strong edition of her Matrix free skate, a fall on the double axel in the short helped ensure it wasn’t even a close call… bronze for Bell by close to 13 points.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Internationaux de France 2019-- Previews & Predictions

This third stop on the senior GP circuit has been known as Internationaux de France since 2016—long enough for me to stop calling it Trophee Eric Bompard; also long enough to embrace this year’s hashtag for the event (#IFP2019, or Internationaux (de) France Patinage en Francais). Let’s see who’s on deck for this week:

GOLD: Nathan Chen (USA)
SILVER: Shoma Uno (JPN)
BRONZE: Kevin Aymoz (FRA)

Chen, the reigning World Champion, has already thrown down a pair of winning performances to establish his place in the 2019-20 season. While he’s also said he’s got work yet to do, a flawed Chen is still highly likely to defeat the rest of this IDF field. Uno, who may or may not have relatively healthy ankles right now, reportedly only has a “jump coach” (Two-time World Bronze Medalist Takeshi Honda) this season. Will be as reliable a podium pick as ever? I’m looking at his recent Finlandia Trophy win and saying yes. The bronze pick is trickier, with two Russian men competing with a lot of GP bronze medals between them (Alexander Samarin and Sergei Voronov). But Voronov is now 32, and frankly I don’t know that he’ll be able to keep pace once the free skate gets going. Samarin (age 21) can keep the pace, but his skating in general is a paler shade of beige for me regardless of the program difficulty. So I’m casting both Russian options aside in favor of France’s own Kevin Aymoz, who appears on track to be the biggest singles start to emerge from that country since Brian Joubert a decade ago.

Eyes on: Tomoki Hiwatashi, the 19 year-old pewter medalist from this year’s U.S. Nationals making his GP debut here. He was only 5th at the U.S. International Classic in September, but after Camden Pulkinen established himself with a strong 4th place GP debut last week, Hiwatashi surely wants to make a powerful first impression of his own.

GOLD: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
SILVER: Chock/Bates (USA)
BRONZE: Guignard/Fabbri (ITA)

Papa/Ciz established itself as The Top French Team Winning at This French Event back in 2014, and of course they’ve won just a few major titles since then. Come early for their ‘80s inspired RD to music from Fame; stay for a free dance that doesn’t necessarily harken to their lyrical FDs from seasons past. Chock/Bates I’ve put over the Italian team, not just because they tend to place higher in general (6th at Worlds last year to Guig/Fab’s 8th) but because their Egyptian Snake Dance FD is FIERCE. Don’t miss it.

EYES ON: the Canadian dance team of Soucisse/Firus, making their GP debut this season with a Jersey Boys RD and a Tom Jones medley for their free dance. Sounds like fun! Hope it looks like fun too. 

GOLD: Alena Kostornaia (RUS)
SILVER: Alina Zagitova (RUS)
BRONZE: Kaori Sakamoto (JPN)

And the Russia-on-Russia showdowns start… now! Zags vs. Kosto. Who will win? I’m going with Kosto for all the jump difficulty reasons you might expect. (Triple axels are Kosto’s specialty, as I mentioned in this post a few weeks ago.) AND, unlike some of the Russian senior newbies, her component scores come a lot more honestly. But having said that, Zags will be right there if Kosto didn’t bring all her jumps to France.

Bronze is tough, again. Mariah Bell’s consistency keeps improving, and I can’t wait to see the finished product of her SP choreo’d by Adam Rippon. But up against three different Japanese women, two of whom are podium capable for sure… I’ve gotta go with one of them. I’m picking Sakamoto, who just missed the podium at SkAM last month.

EYES ON: Mae-Berniece Meite… just because I’m always rooting for her to have her best skate at GP France. Also because Rippon did choreo for her, too (a FS to Adele’s “Hometown Glory”).

GOLD: Mishina/Galliamov (RUS)
SILVER: Pavliuchenko/Khodykin (RUS)
BRONZE: Denney/Frazier (USA)

What we have here are a couple of senior GP rookies from Russia who are likely to be near and/or at the top despite the experience of much of the rest. I’m choosing the recent Nebelhorn winners to repeat victory here (get ready for Wa/Po flashbacks with their “Je Suis Malade” SP), with recent SkAM silver medalists Pav/Kho as runners-up. Either US team could get bronze, and since I predicted CGLD (Cain-Gribble/LeDuc) at SkAM and got it wrong, I’ll go with Denney/Frazier this time. Apologies if doing so results in another opposite finish… I’m really not trying to jinx anyone!

EYES ON: Ziegler/Keifer of Austria, who have been 4th at GP events many, many times. To see them make a GP podium for the first time might be this week’s equivalent of Piper Gilles’ victorious Kiss-n-Cry freakout from SkCAN. Just sayin’!