Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An Every-Four-Year-Fan’s Guide to Figure Skating in Vancouver… Ladies Edition

(NOTE: this is the final installment of Cliff’s Notes to figure skating fans who only follow the sport every four years or so. Scroll down to see the notes for other disciplines… and let your other EFYFs know how to catch up easily! Thanks.)

LADIES: Save the Best for Last?

Only in this discipline have the top 3 from Torino all moved on. Shizuka Arakawa (gold medalist), Sasha Cohen (silver), and Irina Slutskaya (bronze) were all in their 20s when they stood on the podium in 2006… Arakawa moved on to professional skating, Cohen moved on BUT, as most American fans know, tried to qualify for Vancouver a few weeks ago (finishing 4th)… Slutskaya, the only married woman of the three, is now a mom and appears to be unofficially retired.

It might seem, then, the door was open for others from the Class of 2006 to rise to the top… and in the case of 5th place finisher Joannie Rochette (of Canada), this was true to some extent as she finally claimed silver at Worlds 2009. It was also true, to some extent, for 9th place finisher Carolina Kostner (of Italy) who claimed silver at Worlds 2008. And Japan’s Miki Ando, who all but imploded during her last Olympic free skate, came all the way back to win the Worlds title in 2007.

But these are all isolated incidents; one-hit wonders amid new, long-term superstars. For the sidebars of Torino headlines were about Mao Asada, Japan’s newest phenom that was deemed too young (at age 15) to participate in the Games. And also waiting in the wings was Yu-Na Kim—about 3 weeks older than Asada, and gearing up to represent South Korea in a way it never had be represented before in this sport.

And so began a new rivalry, as the teens simultaneously took unique paths en route to Vancouver. Asada not only mastered a triple axel – still rare among female skaters—but became the first lady to land TWO of them within the same program. Kim, on the other hand, doesn’t compete with a triple axel but has instead included many triple-triple combos in her programs. Asada now trains with a well-known Russian coach (Tatiana Taratsova), while Kim has spent the past few seasons under the tutelage of Canada’s Brian Orser (one half of the famed “Battle of the Brians” in 1988). Asada trained far from home early in her career (in the U.S.); Kim is doing so now, escaping the mania surrounding her in South Korea to live and work in Toronto instead.

The results? Asada won Worlds in 2008; ironically, her triple axel attempt in the free skate at this event was a complete wipe out. Kim won bronze that time. By 2009 Worlds, back injuries that had hindered Kim were in the past, and she won with the highest point total earned by any woman under the new CoP system. Asada, meanwhile, finished off the podium—in 4th.

This season thus far hasn’t been easy for either of them. At her Grand Prix assignments, Asada turned in performances so below-par she failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. Fans were hopeful that she’d use the down time to overhaul her current free skate—a very heavy, serious piece called “Bells of Moscow” that seems to rob her of her natural effervescence—and some even pleaded for a coaching change, feeling Taratsova didn’t give her the attention she needed. The bad news is that Asada appears to have made no such changes at this point in the season; the good news is that she’s had better luck of late with her triple axels, landing them often enough and well enough to at least assist in a victory at Japan Nationals (in December) and Four Continents (a couple weeks ago).

As for Kim—she started out extremely strong and has, for the most part, continued that path, winning all competitions in which she’s participated. But when she turned in a weak (for her) free skate at Skate America in November—actually bested by the U.S.’s Rachael Flatt, though Kim still won overall, the mumbling began… was she still a lock for gold in Vancouver? Was the stress of reaching “rock star” status in South Korea finally getting to her? Can she withstand the inevitable pressure… or will she suffer the fate of other recent “locks” for gold such as Kwan or Slutskaya?

Time will tell… but for now, here is all it’s saying:

+ Kim has all the makings of an Olympic champ, and if she can keep it all together for a few more weeks, it’s hard to imagine the title going to anyone else. Her “Bond Girl” short program is in a class by itself; if she nails it, she might build up enough of a lead to keep her on top in spite of any free skate mishaps.

+ At this point, I honestly don’t think Asada is the better skater of the two, if only because she’s put sooo much emphasis on the axels. IF, however, she happens to land all her axels cleanly (and especially if Kim and others falter), she might just rack up too many points to be defeated.

+ Don’t rule out the one hit wonders. Ando doesn’t jump with the same abandon as her younger days, but she’s been a pretty consistent competitor all year. Rochette has been hot and cold all season; lucky for her, the “hot” part officially kicked off at Canadian nationals in January. Kostner fell all the way out of the Top 10 last Worlds and had a weak 1st half of competition this season, but she’s often said to have the most speed and power of any lady competing today… and her component (aka artistic) scores are often among the highest regardless of how she finishes.

Finally… have you noticed yet that not one of these top prospects represents the U.S.? Here’s that story in a nutshell:

+ Kimmie Meissner, a 16 year old American in Torino who finished an impressive sixth, surprised just about everyone by going on to win Worlds just a few weeks later. “Everyone” got ready for Meissner to dominate ladies’ figure skating for the next several years in the U.S., if not the world. But sadly, neither has come to pass. Injuries, growth spurts, and plain old self-doubt have dogged Meissner since that high point at 2006 Worlds, and she has not been able to compete at Nationals since 2008.

+ Subsequently, the torch was initially handed down to a fleet of even younger ladies ready to rise quickly through the senior ranks. Mirai Nagasu was the first one up for the task; she won Nationals in 2008 at only age 14, followed close behind by fellow teens Caroline Zhang, Ashley Wagner, and Rachael Flatt. Of these four, only two—Nagasu and recent U.S. champ Flatt—will be representing the U.S. in Vancouver. But neither are considered favorites for medals. 17 year-old Flatt’s only appearance at Worlds thus far was last year; she finished 5th… 16 year-old Nagasu has never competed at Worlds on the senior level.

+Right or wrong, many seem to blame last year’s national champ for our below-average representation in Vancouver. Alissa Czisny, a veteran competitor widely known for faltering under pressure, managed to win in 2009 when most of the younger competitors faltered worse… but then was only able to bring home an 11th place finish at Worlds. Since the placements of a nation’s competitors have to equal 13 or less to grant them three spots for the following year—and 11th place plus Flatt’s 5th place equals 16—we ended up losing that third spot, for the Olympics as well as Worlds. (Czisny finished 10th at Nationals this season, and incidentally just parted ways with her longtime coach.)

So as you read all the laments in the coming days about how there’s no U.S. female “skating star” this time around, rest assured the stars are still there… just hanging a bit to the east these days.

The highest Free Skate total thus far for the ladies belongs to—surprise! Yu-Na Kim from earlier this season at Trophee Eric Bompard. Here it is as the
Clip of the Day.



Anonymous said...

Hi, nice post but actually Asada is three weeks younger than Kim :)

Kelli Lawrence said...

Oy-- dyslexia with the dates... dang. Thanks for the catch; I fixed it...