The wild and wacky dance event

Kaetlyn Weaver says she believes in miracles.

Last year, she and her partner, Andrew Poje, thought it a miracle that they were able to skate at all at the world championships in London, Ont., after she broke her left fibula in a training accident. She defied all doctor’s prognosis to get there and finish fifth, with screws in her ankle pushing against her boot with each stroke.

Another miracle: only a year later, she and Poje stood on the podium, wearing world silver medals (at least when ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta figured out which were the right ones  to sling around their necks; He had originally given Weaver the bronze medal, before realizing it was the wrong colour.)

Perhaps the confusion was understandable. All three medal winners were separated by only fractions of a point. Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte were overcome at winning the gold after being sixth at the Olympic Games, seemingly the afterthought on judges’ cards. In Japan, they defeated Weaver and Poje by only .02 points. Weaver and Poje (seventh at the Olympics) defeated bronze medalists Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat (fourth at the Olympics) by only .04 points. Only .06 points separated all of those six people standing on the world podium.

It’s not new for Weaver and Poje to lose close decisions. The Canadian team that skates on emotion lost the chance to get to the Vancouver Olympics by only .30 points in 2010. The following year, they lost the Canadian title by 1.03 points.

Since then, sailing their ship with undeniable purpose, Weaver and Poje have fought their way to the top of the world, and are now the ones who will be medal threats at every event they contest.

It was the wackiest and most wonderful of ice dancing events. Nobody could count on anything. Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov seemed the heirs to the world throne, after finishing third at the Olympics behind the top two pillars of the sport, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who bypassed this event. A missed twizzle dropped the Russians to fifth after the short dance. But they won the free dance, missing the podium by .99 points.

Everything was a scramble. With the Russians first in the free dance after nailing their stunning Black Swan routine, Pechalat and Bourzat of France were second, Weaver and Poje third, Cappellini and Lanotte fourth, Madison Chock and Evan Bates fifth.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who failed to make it to the Sochi Olympics, barrelled into the picture with a seventh place finish in the free, to finish eighth overall. With Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam finishing tenth overall, Canada had three dance teams in the top 10 – without the presence of Virtue and Moir to aid them.

“We had the time of our lives,” Weaver said afterward. “It was pretty emotional to see the margin when we looked up,  – it was .02 – but it was also very close behind us. So we knew that it was going to come down to every detail, and we are so grateful to be able to share the podium with these two amazing [teams] so we are very happy where we are.”

They had never been even a small medalist heading into the free dance before. It was a new experience. It didn’t sink in. “It was shocking and strange to see our names that high, but it was a quick turnover and we immediately focused our attention onto the free dance,” Weaver said.

If they couldn’t believe where they found themselves, it was written on the faces of the Italian skaters that their victory was well beyond expectation. “We are happy, but we are mostly shocked because we had work so much to block out the pressure after being first after the short,” Cappellini said.

She says she’s still shocked. “I can’t really feel the happiness yet,” she said. While standing on the podium, both she and Lanotte belted out the words of their national anthem at the top of their lungs, delirious about what had just happened. (Don’t you just love Italians?)

“There is no limit in improving, but I guess we are the best version of Anna and Luca that we can be,” Lanotte said. “We will see what we can still improve and what the future will bring.”

Before Pechalat and Bourzat went onto the ice, coach Igor Shpilband told them to skate from the heart. They finally managed to get emotional later. Pechalat has no desire to continue. “I don’t want to wake up any more thinking about ice skating,” she said, sounding very sane, like the 30-year-old that she is. “We will try to enjoy life and why not later be a judge or technical specialist or something like that to keep a foot in the skating world, but not every day. Too much for me.” Bourzat was so enthused about having worked with Shpilband over the past year, that he plans to work with him next year. “I have learned a lot from them as skaters, and I have to learn a lot from them as a coach,” he said.

“I’m staying in Detroit, far away from her,” he said, looking at Pechalat, and laughing.

Of course the question for Ilinykh and Katsalapov is about their future plans, considering all the rumours circulating about their breakup. They were non-committal. “First of all, we need to relax a little because we are so tired,” Ilinykh said. “We need to have a couple of weeks of vacation and afterwards, talk with the coach. It was really hard until the world championships, after all.”

The Russians didn’t win the free with the highest technical points: that fell to Pechalat and Bourzat, who edged them on this mark by .15, with Weaver and Poje another .85 behind. The Russians did win the program component mark with 56.80 points, compared to Cappellini and Lanotte, second in this segment (fractionally) by 1.64 points. Weaver and Poje were rated third best at 55.15,

Ilinykh and Katsalapov even got a smattering of 10.00s, one for choreography, three for interpretation and timing. Actually, the judge that gave them the 10.00 for choreography rated them like Olympic champions, giving them no mark lower than 9.75.

Who was on the judges’ panel? The referee was the fine and honorable Robert Horen from the United States. The strong technical panel was tough on the Russians, giving them level threes for three elements in the free.

Judges for the short dance were from Canada, Russia, Poland, Israel, France, Italy, Germany, Ukraine, and Hungary. For the free dance, the judges from Canada, France, Italy and Ukraine were dropped and added were officials from Britain, the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic and Belarus. Both panels included a Russian judge. Just saying.

As for Weaver and Poje, they have learned a lot from this experience. Look out world. “We have learned that it doesn’t pay to hold back,” Weaver said. (When have they ever done that?) “I think it’s just opening a new door for our future,” she said.

It seems like the fun is just beginning.

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Short dance: dancing to a new tune, thankfully

I’ve never seen anything like it. What a free-for-all this ice dancing event at the world championships has become. There’s no predictability about it (at least so far. We still have the free dance to come and we’ll see how that unfolds.) Isn’t it fun?

Results from the Sochi Olympics have been turned upside down and that’s the way it should be, if judges are judging what they see on the ice before them. With the absence of the top two teams, the mantle of favoritism fell on the Sochi bronze medalists, the lovely Elena Iliniykh and Nikitia Katsalapov of Russia.

But shock of shocks: Katsalapov blew his twizzles – totally – in the short dance in Japan and there was no repairing them. After the first set, his blade just didn’t seem to want to turn, and he stood, still, as Ilinykh bumped into him as she continued on her merry way. Ilinykh kept twizzling, as Katsalapov twiddled. He just stopped moving and watched her.

When they finished, they looked at each other in stunned silence. Ilinykh floated over to comfort her partner. As Katsalapov got off the ice, coach Nikolai Morozov handed him his skate guards, said nothing and turned away. Cold comfort from that corner. The kiss and cry was utter silence as the marks came up.

And the marks offered cold comfort as well. The arresting team got no points at all for those twizzles (base value 6.00) and dropped to fifth place, albeit not hit in the marks seriously enough to lose all chance for a medal. They’re still only 2.53 points away from bronze, although I’ll guarantee they were dreaming about gold – and they’re only about four points away from that. That means that only four points separate the top five teams.

I love the Russia team to bits, and have done so since they were juniors, but if you don’t skate well, you don’t skate well. They took a hit in the technical mark, although really, they still aren’t far behind Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, the leaders from Italy, who seemed surprised when the marks came up. They had been sixth in Sochi, with a short dance mark of 67.58, 32.85 for their technical mark. Here, they finished first with 69.70, with a technical score of 33.77. Ilinykh and Katsalapov had 29.22 (compared to 36.36 in Sochi, which would have put them into the lead in Japan.

The Russians’ technical score was only 10th best in the short dance. Guess who had the highest technical score of all? Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the United States, with 34.79! They are currently sitting fourth. (They were eighth in both short and free dance in Sochi). Even Canada’s young team, Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam (in 11th) had a marginally higher tech score than the Russians. Still, it’s all very close. Anything could still happen. The Russians aren’t dead yet, although the Cossacks may be wringing their hands a little harder because their other team, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev withdrew after a morning practice when Dima injured a groin.

So who won the program component mark? You guessed it: Ilinykh and Katsalapov with 36.45. French champs Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, who many thought could take the title here in their final competitive appearance, had the second highest at 36.35. Pechalat and Bourzat had the seventh highest technical mark, with Bourzat’s body just slightly veering out of control on a twizzle. Those twizzles. They’ll get you every time. Actually, the French lost levels not only on the twizzle, but on the second Finnstep (level two) and the midline not-touching step sequence (level three).

The twizzles weren’t the only problems the Russians had. They lost levels in the not-touching step sequence (three) although they generally were headed to level fours on everything, it seems.

A team that finished below Cappellini and Lanotte at Sochi – Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje – have also risen to the top, right along with the Italians. With 69.20, the Candians are only half a point behind the Italians. Gold, not just bronze, is now within their grasp and they call their tango free dance their secret weapon, for good reason.

In Sochi, Ilinykh and Katsalapov got program component marks that were incredibly high, most of them (except for transitions) averaging higher than 9.00. They are still high, three of the five averaging higher than 9.00, losing out on transitions (linking footwork and movement) and performance. And has anyone noticed that this team with the lovely knees and glide over the ice spends very little time in closed dance hold, which is more difficult than more open, or side-by-side positions? Should that be part of skating skills in ice dancing? At any rate, only one judge marked them as low as 8.25 for skating skills. The rest ranged from 9.00 to 9.50.

Of course, all sorts of rumours are swirling around Ilinykh and Katsalapov. Although many thought they’d sail on as Russia’s No. 1 team to the 2018 Games in South Korea, it is being whispered that they will break up after the world championships. Everyone is keeping zipped up about this. “No more questions,” says a Russian official, when asked if the rumours are true. “No comment,” says another. This of course makes people speculate that it is true. This would be a shocker and unfortunate for Russia.

Asked if the rumours affected them, Katsalapov said in Japan: “A lot of things went through our minds. We have our goal and we prepared for the world championship, what does it matter what happens around us?…We don’t have time to think about that.”

Pechalat and Bourzat admit they skated “much better” at the Olympics. Pechalat mentioned two little mistakes. “We thought to end our career in Japan is a good thing because we want to get a beautiful medal before leaving,” she said. “We did not get a medal in Sochi. We were kind of starving.”

But for Weaver and Poje, the short dance result was a major breakthrough. Their task here was to make up some of the points they left on the table in Sochi in the short dance. And they came at this event in a different way: “much calmer, focused, technically minded,” Weaver said.

They knew in the back of their minds that there was not only one spot open for them: there were three. And it’s proving to be true.

And with the unpredictability that seems to be the order of this event, now it seems that anything is possible. “I think that gives us a little bit more of excitement and energy, knowing that anything can happen,” Weaver said.

Yes, that’s the way it should be. It’s more exciting for everybody.

 

 

Goosebump time in Japan

Oh Mao Asada. This is your moment, your time.

If you had won the Olympics in Sochi, it may not have been as memorable as your having lost it, having dropped to the netherlands, having picked yourself up again, going for that nasty nemesis of yours, the triple Axel, having landed it and having shone like a rare lovely beacon with every step. And those tears afterwards. We all understood them. (We just may have been weeping, too.) It was Olympic to the nth degree.

You could have gone home exhausted from that effort, found it hard to gather yourself for one more big attempt – on home ice, with all the pressure that entails – with your retirement so close. But no. You skated that program once again today, that short program that caused such a blight on your heart in Sochi, and you did not let the memory get the best of you. You let it unfold in all its loveliness with your light touch, and you landed that triple Axel, rotated, with a row of GOEs in the plus-two category! Triumph!

Later, Asada said she wanted to perform her “Nocturne” program “full of love” and so she did. “I only thought about paying back the experience at Sochi,” she said. “This time Lori Nichol, my choreographer, was also watching my program and a lot of people were watching. I was so glad that I could show them my best. I could turn their cheering into my power.”

And hey, skating a program full of love does this: Asada set a world record of 78.66, too, finally snapping YuNa Kim’s record that she’d held since the Vancouver Olympics. It’s like a movie.

Here’s hoping Asada can make the memory complete, with her third world title, at home, in Saitama in front of her country and in front of the world this week. She hasn’t always had the best of it. She probably could have won the Turin Olympics, but she was too young to compete. She had given a thrashing to her senior peers at the Grand Prix Final two months before that. It was not to be in Turin, which may have been her time. She has not been able to turn the trudge of time and circumstance to her favour many times since, with the unfortunate thought that her greatness began to get lost in the disappointments. Why keep doing that triple Axel? Hasn’t it cost her so much? That’s not Mao Asada. The Mao Asada we know takes it as a challenge, a loss of honour to back down from it. And look: she’s conquered it. And now that she is about to retire, and we are to lose her, she seems to be finishing with a flourish.

Asada’s task won’t be easy because so many of the women in the short program left us with goosebump moments, skated to their potential. And there’s a feeling that this competition is so much more sane than the one at the Sochi Olympics. This world championships is in a safe place, in Japan, where skating is appreciated for what it is, and gold medals aren’t the only reward.

Akiko Suzuki? More of the same. She was heavenly in the short program and her face showed it. (It always does.) She will disappear, too, after this. And if you do nothing else, call up YouTube and watch her winning performance in the long program at the Japanese championships in December. It was epic and unbelievable.  And she had that same aura about her today. She, too, set a personal best score of 71.02 to finish fourth against a strong group.

“I really enjoyed being out there today,” Suzuki said. “I wanted to be able to give everything I’ve got as this is my last short program. I am so happy that I was able to get my personal best. I kept thinking about all those who have supported me throughout and gave everything I’ve got to show my gratitude towards them.”

She said she was a little hesitant about competing at worlds, after the exhaustion of Sochi, but after she came to the rink, she realized how many fans were there supporting her and how long she had been skating. “I am really glad I was able to do everything I can,” she said. “I did trip a little bit. However, even then, I just thought: ‘This is so much like myself!’ and kept on skating.”

Carolina Kostner, too, has had a long career: she is at her 13th world championship. She’s a fixture, really. And she has kept growing through all of these years, and just check out an earlier blog to see what I thought of her Ave Maria routine in Sochi. Incomparable. She’d never had an easy ride at the Olympics, and finally she won a bronze medal. (There are those out there, who thought she should have won gold in Sochi for her stellar, mature routines.) “Finally I had the Games that I dreamed of,” she said. “So now a big weight fell down my shoulders and I just said to myself I’m living my dream absolutely, so just enjoy it.

“It’s hard though, because I get nervous when I skate.” She admitted to being nervous the entire afternoon before the short program. “I kept saying to myself that you have so much experience, you shouldn’t be that nervous, but it’s each time the same.” She appreciated skating for the Japanese crowd, and how long they had been waiting for this world championship: three years.

Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond met her challenge, too. Skating in only her second international competition of the season, she threw herself a challenge of attempting a more difficult triple-triple in the short (triple flip – triple toe loop as opposed to triple toe loop – triple toe loop) and met it. She did miss up a layback spin that is her favourite. “I just got a little excited and pushed a little hard and lost my edge,” she said. She’s on a roll, though. Coming into this event, she’s been skating perfect programs almost every day – the best she’s ever felt coming into a competition, so there may be more to come in the long program. She’s eighth, equalling her overall finish at her first worlds last year, and she’s dangerous because she skates with absolute delight. Sometimes, that’s what it takes.

 

Duhamel and Radford find their feet in pair short program

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford were on a mission.

Mission accomplished, at least part one.

The script was right. They skated last [strains of Chariots of Fire in the background – or maybe Tribute!], and rose to the occasion, in a zone that they’d tried to find all season. And now they are in second place after the short program, behind four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy and ahead of Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov.

Gratifying, since they had finished seventh overall at the Olympics in Sochi.

The Canadian champions’ points – 77.01 – are only about two points away from the champs, from gold, and they defeated the seasoned Germans on the technical mark: 43.66 to 42.90. Of course, their technical content got them there: Duhamel and Radford have the highest base value elements in the entire group (35.70, the Germans 34.30) and 2 ½ points more than the Russians. The Germans can build up GOE like nobody’s business and program components, too, but there the Canadians are, well within reach of a lifetime goal.

Actually, Duhamel and Radford came to the world championships to deliver a clean long program and that is yet to come, but this short program effort is a bonus, a motivator, a step in the right direction. Their score is about four points better than their previous best. Last year’s bronze medalists, they are the only team to attempt side by side triple Lutzes, worth seven points to them.

Savchenko and Szolkowy, out like Pink Panthers again, delivered a huge throw triple flip and triple twist, as is their custom, and got a standing ovation. Szolkowy, who is skating in his final competition, couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

Stolbova and Klimov were athletic and aggressive, and actually got higher program components marks than Duhamel and Radford, but the Canadians outdueled the Russians on the technical side. The Russians are third with 76.15, not quite a point back of them.

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, who finished fifth at the Olympics, came out smoking, skating with great speed and charm. But when they saw their mark (69.31), their faces fell. “It was a bit lower score than we’ve been getting recently,” she said. “We’ll check a couple of things, but we’re going to go into tomorrow with a positive attitude.” Their personal best is a 71.51 that they earned at Skate America this season. They got 70.92 at the Olympics.

In Japan, they got a level three for their death spiral, while at the Olympics they got only level one. But their triple twist dropped to a level two in Japan, while officials deemed it a level three in Sochi. Otherwise, judges were more reluctant in dishing out their points, shaving off fractions of a point here and there on the GOE of other elements. It all adds up.

The two Chinese teams slotted themselves into fourth and fifth places with Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, the Four Continents champs this year, outpointing their training mates with a score of 72.24. They did lose points on a death spiral and footwork, both level three, but they are driving to get third place here.

Cheng Peng, 16, and Hao Zhang, 29, are less than a point behind them with 71.68. Moore-Towers and Moscovitch were tiny fractions of a point ahead of both of the Chinese on program component marks.

Men’s short program scramble

Tough day for some at the world figure skating championships in Saitama.

There was poor Kevin Reynolds, trying to hold the world up on his narrow shoulders like Atlas, after a season of boot problems that still aren’t solved. Last year, with boots that fit like heaven, he was third in the short program. On Wednesday (depending on where you are in the world), he was 15th , his narrow heels slipping and sliding in his boots. Imperfect boots have been a theme this year. Heck, Denis Ten, felled by them early in the season, didn’t even make it to Japan.

Reynolds felt that he had rotated everything, but he was docked for underrotations for all three jump passes. Still, he said he felt happy about his performance. “I felt that I really gave all and that’s all I could really ask for.”

And with young Nam Nguyen, junior world champion extraordinaire, a step behind him in 16th, and with three-time world champion Patrick Chan taking a break (we think), it’s not looking likely that Canada will keep its three men’s spots for next year’s worlds in Shanghai.

Nam was beside himself with joy at being at the world championships. “Wheeeeeee!” was in his face all week. He admitted he got a little overexcited when he landed on his butt doing a simple move at the start. The fall surprised him, but he put it behind him. “I’m here just to gain experience,” he said. “I have no expectations coming in and I just want to have fun. My dream had been to represent Canada at worlds.”

Hanyu wasn’t happy at all with himself for falling on his opening quad toe loop. “Actually, I’m a little bit angry,” he said. He wasn’t happy with his free program at the Sochi Games, either. “There are still certain elements that I cannot forgive myself about,” he said. “I’m hoping that the day after tomorrow [depending on which time zone you’re in], I’ll be a happier guy.”

So he made one mistake. It was a big one and it set him back to third. Was it any surprise that Tatsuki Machida, with much less on his shoulders, slipped up to finish first with a truly awe-inspiring routine, even if it was his first world championship? Machida said he became motivated when Hanyu won the Olympic gold medal.

Machida earned 16.54 points for his quad-triple combo alone, with a spate of high GOE marks. Everything was big, everything was perfect, everything was from his heart. All this from a guy that wasn’t on the radar a year ago, who lacked confidence, who knew that he had a big hill to climb just to get to the Olympics. And he did. He was taken aback by his score of 98.21, for him stratospheric.

Machida competed like no other. He did not feel fatigue after Sochi. From the moment he returned to Japan, he felt invigorated, figured out what he could improve [“It was kind of a duty I imposed on myself,” he said.] and he felt himself grow in the three weeks leading up to worlds. “I am different,” he said. “I think I evolved.” The Japanese are in first, third and sixth place, a powerful representation.

As he finished his short program, he could hear the emotional level of the crowd rising. That drove him harder. He earned a standing ovation. He gave them a slight smile. It was all in his heart.

And Javier Fernandez was due, with those lovely big jumps and the big personality, too. He looked so disappointed to be second, but he’s less than two points behind Machida. He had a slight edge on his base value marks for elements. “I’m really happy with my performance,” he said. “This season was not the best one I ever had.” He said he was happy after he finished the Olympics. “I gave all. It just didn’t really happen,” he said. It was easy for him to return to training. He felt motivated, too, well, at least for a week. Then his coaches had to push him a little.

My favourite moment was seeing Tomas Verner, as pleasant a chap as I’ve ever met, triumphing after YEARS of underachieving. This is the guy that finished 21st at worlds last year, 16th the year before, and 26th at his first worlds in 2002. (He was fourth in 2007). Yet he also was a European champion in 2008. He’s had so many ups and downs, mostly downs, that it was fascinating to see him cast off the bugs and be Tomas Verner at his charismatic best. Verner actually had the third highest technical mark, ahead of Hanyu, the Olympic champion. What a way to go out!

I’ve seen those quads of his at his peak, when they were the best in the business and he could get higher marks on them than Evgeny Plushenko. And his charisma! What would bombastic Bruno on “Dancing with the Stars,” have to say about that?

Verner felt like he was in a dream. He saw “more than 20,000 people” stand up at the end. He said he was well prepared for the Olympics, when he finished 11th. Training with coach Michael Huth and Carolina Kostner motivated him more. “I rediscovered my courage,” he said.

Verner initially did not intend to compete after the Olympic Games. He had signed up for Evgeny Plushenko’s tour, but the tour was cancelled because of the Russian skater’s surgery, freeing Verner up for Japan. And he was in good shape. “This was like a show, but so much better,” he said, of the crowd reaction.

Maxim Kovtun, having to fill Plushenko’s shoes, hoped for a minimum score of 90 points. But he got 84.66 after putting a hand down on a quad Salchow (underrotated) and then squeezing out a quad toe – double toe loop. That set him back to seventh place. He fought to the end. “The short program is always very hard, very tense and you don’t have room for error,” he said. “I always said that I don’t care which placement I get. My only wish is to skate as well at this point.”

Takahiko Kozuka of Japan picked up the spot left by Daisuke Takahashi, who opted out of worlds with an injury, and finished with a season’s best of 85.54, buoyed by the crowd who began to clap to the beat. “That gave me an uplifting feeling,” he said. He had only three weeks to prepare. He was left off the Olympic team in favour of Takahashi, who finished behind him at Japanese nationals, but Takahashi sent him an email on Kozuka’s way to the arena. “I believe he wanted to be in this competition,” Kozuka said. “So my thoughts are with him.” He’s in fifth place.

U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, skating in his final competition is in eighth place after falling on a quad, while Max Aaron, 2013 U.S. champion, is ninth after underrotating a triple Axel and gutting out a quad Salchow – triple toe loop. They’re not in line to get three spots at worlds next year, either, but the free program is still to come.

A few of my favourite things at world junior championships

Nam Nguyen The new world junior men’s champ. He was gutted at his 16th place finish at a Junior Grand Prix event in Poland earlier this season, but hey, he was in the process of growing about half a foot. But six months later, he turned it around. He wanted to win. It’s his reaction that got to me most: his little throw of the first the split second after he took his final pose; the throwing back of his head in disbelief in the kiss and cry, and then the tears. There is still lots of work to be done, but it will fuel his confidence for (senior) worlds, where he hopes for a top 15 finish.

Deniss Vailijevs, Latvia. Only 14. Delightful. Musical.

Roman Sadovsky, Canada. Only 14, too, and he skates as if he is older than that. Charming. I will always put down what I’m doing to go watch him.

Elena Radionova, Russia. Stood out from the crowd. Won by 12 points. Is 15 now. Has good skating skills, just needs to grow in strength and power. Great footwork. Best thing about her: her open countenance. Julia Lipnitskaia is introverted, has an old soul. Radionova is a people person, lives life with joy, looks outward. It’s impossible to dislike her.

Jean-Luc Baker, United States. Dances with Kaitlin Hawayek. Son of a British ice dancer and it shows; he is a DANCER. Has edges, and works with the right people. Anjelika Krylova at the boards with them. He’ll never be tall, but love those feet and knees and expression.

Anna Yanovskaya and Sergey Mozgov, Russia. Silver medalists in dance. Striking, long-limbed team. Just as it seemed that rather petite skaters were the new norm in dancing for all of those tight twizzles, and spins and turns, here comes a look from the past: tall and lean and with an attitude that you must watch them. Russia’s best team wasn’t here, by the way. Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin (son of Olympic champ Andrei Bukin) are 2013 world junior champs, have talent, but missed this event with illness. They’ve already skated one senior Grand Prix.

Madeline Edwards and Zhao Kai Pang, Canada. Dancers with a future. Wonderful edges and expression. Can’t wait to see how they will develop. The new junior world bronze medalists.

Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin, China. The world junior pair champs. Jin even looks a little bit like his famous coach, Hongbo Zhao. Very expressive, technically apt team and aware of their music. Love them. Lots of senior-level tricks.

Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov. Russia. He’s a tall redhead and together they do enormous triple twists. She is elegant.

Maria Vigalova, Russia. She skates pairs with Egor Zakroev, and while he is 20, she is 14. But she may be the better of the two. In fact, she dominates him. She’s wonderful, a gem. Her spiral positions are awesome, helped by her great flexibility. They’ll have trouble with junior eligibility in the future, because of the spread in their ages. Hope we see her again.

 

 

 

 

Moore-Towers, Moscovitch ready to rumble

 

 

There’s always something.

No matter. Nothing seems to stop the drive of 2011 Canadian pair champions Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, primed for anything at the world championships next week in Saitama, Japan.

They finished fifth in Sochi, gritty, determined, she fighting off the fallout from twisting her back at a practice earlier, he dealing with a painful infection in a foot that required injections to allow him to compete.

Their preparation for Japan has been no less eventful. When they arrived home from Sochi, they had no luggage. Moore-Towers didn’t get her skates for five days, and Moscovitch finally got one of his bags after seven days. Luckily his skates arrived back in Canada well before the bag.

Moore-Towers thought it a blessing in disguise, considering she started to feel the effects of a strain of pneumonia during the closing ceremonies and a rest was in order.  Before the closing ceremonies, they’d had to check their bags to leave, an endlessly time-consuming exercise that caused them to miss half of the men’s gold medal hockey game. That wasn’t a happy experience.

After the ceremonies, Team Canada had a pizza party, but Moore-Towers was too ill to attend. “Brutally sick,” as she put it, she tried to rest in her room, but the pizza party went on tantalizingly beneath her. “I had to hear everyone having so much fun, which was awful because I wanted to be there so bad,” she said.

Before they left for home, Moore-Towers fainted in her room, and she was feverish during her trip back. “It was a terrible trip home,” she said. Even though they had one of the easier connections, through Frankfurt, still, there was a long layover in Germany. They slept in chairs.

“Dylan had to calm me down,” she said. “I was crying. It was awful.”

When they stepped off the plane in Toronto, they were faced with a barrage of media in the terminal. Moore-Towers was loopy from a sleeping pill. She doesn’t remember the entire interview.

Forced into a rest because of the missing skates, Moore-Towers finally had her time to recover. But then as each day went by, with no skates, she began to get concerned. “It was getting to the point, if they didn’t come in one more day, I was going to have to break in new skates,” she said. “I really did not want to do that.”

Meanwhile, Moscovitch waited as long as he could for his partner to get her skates back, so that they could start up again together, but the delays drove him to start skating – a day before she got them back. His job, he said “was to make sure Kirsten was calm about the whole thing – as a good pair guy does.”

But: happy ending. They were still buoyed by their Olympic experience. “We skated not the best that we could have skated, and we had a great time doing it,” Moore-Towers said. “We were very comfortable. We were trained and prepared. There was nothing like it.”

Moscovitch, who had declared his interest in the Olympics at an early age, said the Games was everything he had hoped for – and more. “To be able to win an Olympic medal [silver in the team], at my first Olympics, there’s a very select few in the world that get to experience what we did, and especially at a brand new event, the team event.

“Standing on the podium in the Olympic plaza was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Coming home was an adjustment, but they had little troubles rediscovering the motivation to prepare for the world championships. They did the usual: showing off their medals to the home folk. “It was really fun to see how excited everyone was to watch us, and how it affected them,” Moscovitch said. “Just seeing little kids faces when they see the medal, or get to hold it or put it on, it’s really cool.

“The medal doesn’t feel so much my medal, but it kind of feels like Canada’s medal,” he said.

They felt the Olympic letdown. They missed their teammates and the environment. “But we’re both pretty jacked up for worlds,” Moore-Towers said. The Olympics had a lot more impact on her body that she expected.

What lies ahead in Japan is a mystery. They know that Olympic bronze medalists Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy and the Russian silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov are going – and their Canadian compatriots, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, too, a team they defeated at the Games, but that they have difficulty pulling past at home.

Moore-Towers and Moscovitch plan to skate two clean programs and see where that takes them. They can’t control what others do and what marks come out. They want to finish the season with a performance they are proud to remember.

“At the same time, it is motivating to know that there are opportunities and it is, in a sense, anybody’s game,” Moscovitch said. “Anyone is capable and we’re definitely in the mix and that’s motivation in itself.

“ We’re not exactly showing up thinking that we’re going to automatically end up on the podium,” he said. “We’re also not counting ourselves out.  We’re excited to get there and skate our two best performances and even improve on the OIympics.”

Still, they are going to Japan with a silver medal in their pockets. They both cherished the day they stood on the Olympic podium with their teammates – with Evgeny Plushenko nearby. “It was kind of a cool out-of-body experience and then coming to the individual was thrilling,” Moscovitch said.

The door is open. They are ready to step through it.

 

Weaver and Poje: music to my ears

It’s been a long hard winter here in Canada. Howling winds. Towering snowbanks that won’t melt. Boots springing leaks. Snow shovels falling apart. An alarming shortage of snow melter and/or salt. Friendly neighbours that I can no longer find behind the dirty snow. Rumpled fenders. Rising gas bills. Cripes.

Thank god for Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje.

Day by day, as I worked the shovels, again and again and again, two pieces of music would always come to mind, and it’s because of Canada’s new No. 1 ice dancing team (Weaver and Poje) who will compete next week at the world figure skating championships in Saitama, Japan. I didn’t seek this out. I didn’t consciously remember them, but during the winter’s darkest days, I started humming: “42nd Street” (short dance of Weaver and Poje) and “Maria de Buenos Aires” (free dance of same said couple) as I literally moved mountains.

Aside from being great music to shovel snow by (energizing), it’s just darned unforgettable and Weaver and Poje, being remarkably emotional and dynamic skaters, have made it so.

Seventh at the Olympics, Weaver and Poje are working for more in Japan. “I think that worlds has a lot of opportunities with the withdrawals of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Meryl Davis and Charlie White,” Weaver said the other day. “It leaves two spots open that weren’t there before. So that leaves a lot of room for us.”

And there is room. They don’t feel that they’ve performed their routines to the utmost yet, although what they did at Skate Canada last October was pretty good: their free dance got a score of 104.88, third highest in the world during the season as well as the third highest total score (177.22) before the Olympic contest.

At the Olympics, they got 65.93 for their short dance, well behind their Skate Canada score of 70.35. It wasn’t what they’d hoped and the mark landed them in seventh place. “I think that we left points on the table,” Weaver said.

Their first target, when they returned from Sochi, was the technical mark of the short dance. Weaver feels they lost about five points, and had they set themselves up well after the short dance, who knows what could have happened in the long? Weaver and Poje lost points on twizzles (level three), the first Finnstep pattern (level two) and their midline not-touching footwork sequence (level three.) And they had an extended lift.

Clean that up and the sky’s the limit.

They were fifth in the free dance.

“The worlds is really an opportunity to close up this season and really celebrate all the strides that we’ve made this year, which was huge for us, and give these programs one last shot and enjoy them,” she said.

Weaver and Poje returned from Sochi, exhausted, like everyone else. “It definitely took a bit of regrouping,” Weaver said. “We were pretty mentally and physically drained coming back from the Olympics, as we should be. I would feel like we missed something if we came back still with energy.

“I think we lived our Olympics to the fullest. And we were able to experience so many different aspects of the Games, so when we came back, we had to let ourselves come down and let ourselves rest and mentally give ourselves a chance to process.”

The Sochi Games gave them memories they will always cherish, Poje said. “We waited for that for the past four years….To be there on that stage was amazing.”

While they were recovering, they took their message about the inclusiveness of sport, via the Right to Play organizations back to Poje’s home school in the Kitchener-Waterloo area: Bluevale Collegiate Institute. “Just to see the excitement on their faces made us realized how special the moment was,” he said.

The Texas-born Weaver was skating at an Olympics for the first time as a Canadian; you could see how seriously she took that while cheering wildly for the Canadian women’s hockey team – archrivals of the Americans. “I felt more pride than I ever felt before,” she said. “It was my ultimate goal and dream and to be nominated on behalf of Canada to walk in those opening ceremonies, wearing Canada on my back, was the most incredible experience that I could ever have asked for.”

In fact, it was “bigger and better and more wonderful” than she had imagined, she said. “Canada for me is home.”

Now, after skating in the shadows of Virtue and Moir, Weaver and Poje will compete for the first time as the top Canadian team. Weaver said she finds it a bit of a shock. “Everyone knows there would be a day when Tessa and Scott and Meryl and Charlie weren’t going to grace the competitive ranks,” She said. “But now that it’s here, it’s like wait: what are we going to do now? It’s a little strange not to have them there.”

But they are ready. It’s time to step up. In Saitama, “it’s going to be a free-for-all,” Weaver said. “Everyone is in this predicament where anything can happen. That’s a thrilling place to be.”

“We’ve hopefully proven throughout other competitions as well that we deserve to be at the top,” Poje said. It’s time to seize opportunities.

And another surprise: Weaver said they are committed to competing only next season “but we are not sure how long that will last,” she said.  They will make year-to-year decisions after that. Pity. I need some more good music and fiery programs to survive these winters. I hope six-foot  snowbanks aren’t the new norm.

Kaetlyn Osmond ups the ante for worlds

Kaetlyn Osmond will be a different skater, come the world championships in Saitama, Japan.

After a troubled year of injury upon injury, she’s back to what she intended to be when she started this intense season. She’s doing what she always set out to do. And that means that she’s throwing down the gauntlet in the short program, upping her technical content.

At the Olympics, the game plan was to do a triple toe loop – triple toe loop combination (base value 8.20) and a triple flip (5.30 points).

But now she plans a triple flip – triple toe loop (worth 9.40 points) and a triple Lutz (6.00). That will give her a couple more points to work with, to try to improve on her 13th place finish in Sochi. She’s aiming for top eight, to equal or better her eighth place finish last year at the world championships.

She has made no changes to her Cleopatra long program.

“Ever since nationals, I started training my harder triple-triples again because the injuries weren’t there,” she said Wednesday. “We were hoping to get it in for the Olympics, but there just wasn’t training time between nationals and Olympics to be able to get the repetition I needed.”

She had trained these harder jumps earlier in the season, before everything went awry. But after she returned from the Olympics, she’s been training them again and has done a few clean programs in a row. “I’m really confident in this program, which is why I’m excited to compete at worlds and do a program that no one has really seen me do before,” she said.

At the Olympics, she felt she may have become overconfident, perhaps because her training had been going so well. “It’s just something that I had to learn, that just because I do it in practice, I still can’t be too overconfident in competition,” she said.

She was focused enough. She just had to let it happen, the way it does in practice, instead of trying to think too much.

And just like Kevin Reynolds, Osmond’s Olympic performance brought her unprecedented attention at home. After all, they both did win an Olympic silver medal in the team event. During the Olympics, Osmond enjoyed an explosive growth in twitter followers – from 6,000 to 23,000. And the tweets came from all over, from Japan, across Canada, everywhere.

She also saw a side of her home province, Newfoundland, that she’d never seen before. While in Sochi, Osmond was inundated with messages and photos of events planned in Newfoundland from folk who watched and cheered her performances. “Since I’ve got home, it’s been the same thing,” she said. “A lot of fans are congratulating me and wishing me luck going into Japan. It’s really great to see.”

Her motivation is to finish the season with polish, to show the programs the way she knows she can, those performances that didn’t quite emerge at the Olympics the way she wanted them to. She wants to finish feeling satisfied and to “skate amazing.”

Kevin Reynolds, bad boots, big heart

Damn those figure skating boots.

Poorly fitting boots have trailed Kevin Reynolds all season. They scuttled his Grand Prix season, tough on a guy who could really use the prize money to finance his skating. It made his first competition of the season the Canadian championships, which were also the Olympic trials, so he had to put out if he was to get to the Olympics. (And remember he had to watch the Vancouver Olympics in his home city on the sidelines, because he missed the berth by one spot.) We saw a long program in Ottawa there that really wasn’t emoted the way it could have been; he was struggling to get through it.

Then a miracle. Reynolds rose to the occasion and skated the long program of his life in the team event at the Olympics, and clinched the silver medal for Canada. Evgeny Plushenko defeated him by only a quarter of a point, buoyed by some PCS marks that perhaps shouldn’t have been. That success didn’t follow Reynolds to the individual event, where he finished 17th in the short program, then 10th in the free, while having the sixth highest technical mark. Overall, he was 15th, not the Kevin Reynolds we saw at last year’s world championships, when he finished third in the short and fifth overall.

It was the boots, the lack of proper training time, the waning confidence, the frustration.

Reynolds will go to the world championships next week as Canada’s No. 1 man, since three-time world champion Patrick Chan has opted out. Reynolds hasn’t even had time to consider the position that he’s in: he’s been too focused on just getting through each day, managing his boot problems and getting to the end of the season intact.

“I don’t think it will seem the same, until I’ve been in a competition without him,” Reynolds said March 19. “We’ve competed with each other for so long. It will be a little bit different to be at a competition without him, especially at a world championship.”

Still, training has been going better than it did going into nationals or even the Olympics, he said. He’s pushing through. He will have two more weeks to survive through these nightmare boots, and then he can settle his problems once and for all – probably going to a custom-made boot.

His equipment problems haven’t been fixed yet, because he has had no time to solve them totally. Every measure has been a stop-gap, to get him to Sochi. He has very narrow heels – AA actually, and perhaps closer to AAA if there is such a thing, but most boot manufacturers don’t make boots with heels narrow than A. The feel in the boots Reynolds gets from that is discomfort, uncertainty. The boot doesn’t lock his heel in, and when he goes for a jump, he doesn’t have the stability he needs to do things consistently.

Last year, Reynolds was lucky to find a stock boot that actually fit him like a glove. “It was heaven,” he said. He bought up three or four pairs of these, then found they didn’t fit like a glove. Perhaps the ones he had last year for all his successes were a manufacturing mistake, a mis-measurement that fell in his favour. He has never tried a custom boot before. They’re more expensive, of course.

When it became clear that Reynolds’ boots were a problem, the boot manufacturer tried to solve the problem from a distance. Reynolds took measurements of his feet and photos, too, and sent them off for analysis, to make a more custom foot. The manufacturer fixed some problems, but others arose. And then it all snowballed. Reynolds boots started to break down ridiculously fast. He’d feel good in them for a week or two, he said, then they’d break down and the search continued. He went through eight or nine pairs this past season.

So he’s keeping the boots he used for Sochi, although they are not perfect. The only way he can overcome this problem is to “manage” it. And by that he means, he puts the failings of his skates and the imperfect feel of them to the back of his mind and every day, goes out and gets out the programs and the jumps the best way he knows how. It seems to be working better than at any time in the season.

After the Olympics, he’ll work to have custom boots done. They will take time, time he didn’t have during the season.

What’s motivated him to train for the world championships in Saitama, is the thought that soon this torture will end. He can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Another week or so of this, and he will be free.

After his performance in the team event, Reynolds was on a mental high, so much so that during practices in Sochi, he didn’t miss a jump. In the days between the team event and the individual event, he was practicing to 100 per cent of his ability, even though he wasn’t feeling comfortable. He’s a trooper, that Reynolds guy. He wasn’t thinking about his boots. Everything was going well, until that first jump in the short program. He was ready to do it. It just didn’t happen. It’s been that kind of year.

For now, his accuracy and consistency is much improved. His quads are sailing like usual. His nemesis has always been the triple Axel, but he’s been working steadfastly on them. His aim is to position himself well after the short program, and so he’s been focusing on that great piece of ACDC,  one of his masterpiece programs – if only we could see it. He’s had a short season.

Despite his adventurous ride, Reynolds did have his Olympic experience – and he found out what that meant when he arrived home in Vancouver, to find a group of about 100 people to greet him in the airport – and a television camera that he hadn’t expected. “It’s been crazy, the amount of attention that the Olympics has gotten,” he said. “The amount or recognition that I’ve had from everyday people, that I’d never really gotten before in Canada – it’s been a wonderful experience.”

He’s now getting used to the everyday recognition. He’s recognized out in public now. People come up to him on the street – something they didn’t do after his more stellar effort at the world championships last year. He’s a public underdog, who has fought through adversity. People even come to the rink where he trains and congratulates him. “It’s been a really cool feeling,” he said.

Now on to Japan, where he is loved and has a following. He speaks their language, and they his.