The come-from-behind victory of Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje at the Four Continents championship on Friday (the 13th, no less) sets up an interesting confrontation between them and the new surprising European champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron at the world championships in Shanghai next month.
In my mind, the race for gold is between these two teams. Weaver and Poje have motored through victory after victory this season after taking the world silver medal by .02 points last March, as the 2014 world champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte have suffered doubt, withdrew from sight for a time, to revamp their free dance and arrived at Europeans with something to prove.
Cappellini and Lanotte do not look like world champions. Papadakis and Cizeron defeated them at Cup of China, and then wildly surpassed all expectations.
The French team, who moved to Montreal less than a year ago, hoped only to finish on a Grand Prix podium once this season. Instead, they won twice, earned a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final and took the European championships, an event in which they finished only 15th last year. At the world championships, they were 13th.
A young team, Papadakis and Cizeron have made amazing strides throughout the past season. They improved their skating skills. They endured draining work over the summer to improve their interpretative skills, too. Strategies were put in place. Their coaches threw them an uncommon challenge, asking them to skate to Mozart, which is not easy for ice dancer to interpret, especially skaters so young. Obviously, all obstacles can be overcome. The French certainly have done that – and quickly. And what’s most pleasant about the whole thing: the judges of the world have rewarded what they’ve seen on the ice. That makes a competition so much more fun. And sporty.
Weaver and Poje have won Four Continents before – when they failed to make the Olympic team in 2010. They made the best of a disappointing position, put a brave face on it and won the thing. This time, they won it with improved skills, and a Four Seasons routine with constantly changing positions and dance holds, so intricate that a misstep would mean disaster. One movement blends into the next. It’s an intriguing dance, rather less like their previous fare, their routines that would get tear people out of their seats to give standing ovations. Weaver and Poje got a standing ovation in Seoul, but my feeling is, the routine has still much room to grow. That could be a scary thought to their competitors.
In the short dance, Weaver and Poje’s technical mistakes put them in third place, still only two points behind, but it was a bit of a kick, perhaps a healthy thing just before the world championships. They were headed by two Americans: Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the U.S. champions and by former world bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani.
The Shibsibs earned the highest tech marks in the short dance and it’s a forte: they seem to know how to put the fine points on technical requirements, although Alex wobbled wildly on his twizzles in the free dance. Still, it’s surprising how very far apart they dance. Mind you, these days, it’s easier to count the numbers of ice dancers who dance close together, which brings added risk.
As for Chock and Bates, I haven’t warmed to them. I can’t fathom a jolly toreador; Bates was said to be putting a different interpretation on it, an effort to be different, to stand out from the crowd perhaps. Nothing wrong with the thought. But a toreador is most like a toreador when he’s facing down death, and an ugly, angry animal is charging at him with head down and horns poised, ready to rip his entrails. A toreador breaths unflappable confidence, and focus, and heightened intensity, and it’s all life and death out in that ring. It’s not a jolly exercise. (Never mind Poje, Weaver’s eyes during the paso doble could melt stone and send the beast packing.) I can just hear, in my mind, what Toller Cranston would say about this.
Their “American in Paris” free dance? Bates is too smiley. It’s cheesy. The smile isn’t real. It doesn’t come from within. Chock knows how to sell the program but wears the same expression for every emotion. In the free dance, one drifted away from the other on twizzles, all fixable, but something is missing. One thing they do have in spades: speed, speed, and more speed. But are judges confusing speed with skill, like they did last season? Why were their marks so wildly high so early in the season? Were they really 11 points better than the Shibs at Skate America? Methinks no. At the U.S. championships, the Shibs came close to defeating them in the short dance, and then Chock and Bates got the win by about four points.
That being said, I’m stoked about the future of Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker.
Youth scored in the women’s short program at Four Continents, when that driven little Japanese butterfly Satoko Miyahara won with 64.84 points. Miyahara doesn’t have the strength and power yet to score high GOE on some of these elements, but it’s a different story with her layback spin: level four and an array of +2s and even a couple of +3s. This girl is clearly intrepid. She got 10.50 for her triple Lutz- triple toe loop.
Gracie Gold saved second place with 62.67 after turning and bumping into the boards after her triple Lutz – triple toe loop (she got 9.40 for it) and singling her double Axel. Since things like single Axels are verboten with the new rule changes, Gold got no points at all for that. Had she cleaned that up, she’d be on top of the heap, no question.
Rika Hongo finished third with her typically dependable effort, despite the nerves at her first Four Continents and is third with 61.28, close on the heels of the leaders. She’s just a skate blade’s width ahead of Polina Edmunds, who got a bit of an edge call on her triple flip. Only 4.56 points separate the top five.
Of Canada’s two women: Alaine Chartrand sits sixth after a bobble (and an underrotation) on the back part of her triple Lutz – triple toe loop combo. She did however, rack up level fours for all elements.
Gabby Daleman, the Canadian champion, is eighth after she doubled a Lutz. Again doubles are forbidden in the new world, and she got no points for it, giving her a total of 55.25, which is 3.25 points behind Chartrand.
Canadian bronze medalist Veronik Mallet fell on her triple flip combo and a triple loop and sits in 13th place.