Friday, February 22, 2013

The Men, and the Ladies, and the multiple meanings of Four Continents 2013


Sometimes we get mad when the men’s event becomes a quad contest. And sometimes we get mad when it seems a clean quad hasn’t been landed in months—right around the time nay-sayers lament “the sport isn’t progressing!”

Lately, we’ve been hit with a couple of quad contests. We saw it at U.S. Nationals, where both Jeremy Abbott and Adam Rippon ceded the world team spots to a couple of guys who could land what they could not. And then we saw it again at Four Continents, when Daisuke Takahashi faltered to a trio of young quadmasters (not to mention U.S. Champ Max Aaron’s FS rally to 4th place). It’s more complicated than that, of course. We know Abbott's artistic scores could’ve kept him on the team if he could’ve landed all the triples he had planned, and that Takahashi had lots of little mistakes (2-footed quads, stepouts etc.).

But if you've been waiting for Kevin Reynolds to get his Canadian-quad-king due, this was YOUR event. Part of his problem in the past has involved quads that looked clean initially, but were later found to be under-rotated. Another part of his problem has involved triple jumps (especially axels) that were blown or, more typically, popped after he’d put all his energy into the quads. But none of that was in evidence here, landing 3 quads in the FS as well as all his planned triples. Has he turned a corner... just in time for Worlds? We’ll know in a few weeks.

As for Yuzuru Hanyu—if ever there was a sign he was here to stay (like the GP series wasn’t enough?) it would be here, with a relatively subpar but still silver-worthy skate. He doubled his quad salchow and popped a triple lutz (both in his FS), but he was by far the best of the Japanese men. Maybe the crazy-competitiveness of so many excellent athletes took its toll here? Or they’re all subconsciously harvesting their energy for Worlds? Let’s face it, Japan could’ve sent Mura with Kozuka and Oda to this event (or maybe even a name further down the list) and gotten similar results to the 2nd/7th/8th generated by Hanyu/Takahashi/Mura. Great, now I’m sitting here pouting about how I’d have rather seen Kozuka skate... and I still can’t believe he won’t be at Worlds... WAAAH.

Anyway, 4CC occasionally serves a very important purpose in that it actually affects decisions about who goes to said Worlds. Last year, Canada used it to determine whether Cynthia Phaneuf or Amelie Lacoste would get the lone ladies spot available to them. This time, former junior skater Yan Han did so well in his 4CC debut (bronze medal!) that many suspect he’ll be representing at Senior Worlds rather than Junior Worlds (as he was slated to do until a few days ago). Since Song Nan finished out of the top 12 last year, China gets only one spot for men’s singles... and Song was only able to finish 6th here at 4CC... Aw, rats. Now I’m upset at the thought of Song missing Worlds too. (NOTE: as of now, I believe Song is still the one listed. Don't know if that's official yet, as they were still deciding Russian spots for Worlds up until today!)

About the 4CC ladies... Well first let’s consider ALL the top ladies, worldwide... 

It’s a given that the Japanese ladies (Asada, Murakami, Suzuki) are tough to beat at any event. Another given: Kim Yu-Na wasn’t at 4CC, but even if her skating at Worlds is not a technical match with the top ladies, her component score will be there and keep her in contention.

Let’s hop continents and focus on Europe next. With Kiira Korpi withdrawn from the event for the second straight year (due to injury), the top contenders look to be Italian and Russian. Reigning World Champ Carolina Kostner, while (so far) no match for Kim on the Olympic front, could otherwise be quite similar: not all there technically with count-on-it components (And a steadily improving Valentina Marchei can’t be ruled out to make a dent of her own). Russia, meanwhile, will bring Adelina Sotnikova and Liza Tuktamysheva to the party along with last-year’s-silver-medalist/this-year’s biggest wild card Alena Leonova.

Now, if we hop one more time and land on North America... and look around for the leading contenders... it’s not that we don’t HAVE them; rather, it’s that they don’t make as convincing a case. This (finally!) is where this year’s 4CC comes in:

+ USA’s rising star, 17 year-old Gracie Gold, was there. Canada’s rising star, 17 year-old Kaitlyn Osmond, was also there. But they finished sixth and seventh, respectively... not just behind the Japanese team (natch), but also Christina Gao of the USA, and Zijun Li of China.

Wait a minute... are you talking about Gao, perpetually 5th-place-at-Nats Gao but also GP- ladies- finalist Gao? 

Yes I am. Gao outskated Gold and Osmond AND Agnes Zawadski at 4CC. While it’s nice that each of these 3 U.S. skaters has had a chance to shine in the past few weeks—Zawadski in the SP at Nats, Gold in the FS at Nats, and Gao at this entire event—it also plays up a dogged lack of consistency among them. Sure, they’re young (17-18), and the consistency may come with time and experience... but 2 out of 3 of the Russians are that age or younger. Kanako Murakami is young. Zijun Li is younger (16), and had one of the best free skates at 4CC.

And consider this: last year Ashley Wagner attended 4CC fresh off her first-ever U.S. title... and won this event too, defeating the tough-to-beat Japanese women in the process. Which set her up for Worlds very nicely, and left little surprise when she almost reached that podium too.

Her newly consistent self hit a wall, some might say, with the GP Final and (recent) U.S. Nationals free skates. It’s unfortunate that illness plus injury (and the recovery time needed for both) kept Wagner from defending her 4CC title—now we’ll all have to wait a few more weeks to see if she can regain her consistency WHILE beefing up the difficulty necessary to stay in the hunt. Because based on a season’s worth of results, she’s still our best chance for that.

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