Women’s short program, Boston

BOSTON, Ma.

For Gracie Gold, it was a magical moment, if not yet a golden one.

The U.S. champion, in front of a home crowd, finally delivered the goods when it counted, in the women’s short program at the world figure skating championships on Thursday.

Gold has had so much promise and so many stops and starts that it seemed as if the United States would be bogged down for another 10 years without a women’s world title.

But Gold stepped onto the ice prepared and calm in the warmth of the TD Gardens, a good place for her. The crowd roared when she was announced. She wasn’t expecting it , but she was focused on her job.

“It just felt right,” she said. “I felt cautiously optimistic that it was going to be really good.”

And it was. She purred through a triple Lutz – triple toe loop combination, an element that earned her 11.60 points out of the 40.51 technical marks she received. The crowd noise boomed, just as it did when she landed a triple flip.

Gold finished up with 76.43 points a season’s best, and 2.67 points ahead of the Russian nobody expected to be the top Russian: Anna Pogorilaya, with 73.98, it too a season’s best.

In third place is the Russian favourite, Evgenia Medvedeva, caught in a bind when she didn’t land her triple flip well enough to tack a triple toe loop onto the end of it. Oopsy. But she had presence of mind to attach the missing toe loop onto the end of her last jump pass, a triple loop. “You get tense, because you need to switch your mindset to do another combination that you haven’t trained so much,” she said afterward. “You have to fight and you cannot make mistakes.”

Medvedeva, who won the Grand Prix Final in her first season as a senior, however, had never encountered such a large throng. And this was her first senior world championship.

“When I stepped out and saw the full stands, and the spectators so close to the ice, I realize that this is a big stage,” she said.

Neither Medvedeva, nor Elena Radionova were as steady on their feet as Pogorilaya.

With such a logjam at the top, something had to give. Ashley Wagner dished out a thriller, finishing fourth. The top four women are within 3.27 points of each other. Radionova is fifth.

Tiny little workaholic Satoko Miyahara of Japan, the reigning world silver medalist, finished only sixth with 70.72 points, but underrotated her triple flip. When the marks came up, her face was like stone.

She admitted she was nervous on the jumps and had set a goal of breaking 70 for the short program, and she did. Her spins were a marvel.

Former world champion and Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada sits in only ninth place after she stepped out of her triple Axel, which she underroated. She also doubled the triple loop at the end of her triple flip. That left her with 65.87 points.

Ahead of her in eighth place was 2015 Canadian champion Gabby Daleman, who blasted her season’s best by almost seven points when she landed everything she attempted, including a flawless triple toe loop – triple toe loop combo.

She outpointed current Canadian champion Alaine Chartrand, who had stormed through her practices all week. But Chartrand ended up 17th, when she underrotated the second part of her triple Lutz – triple toe loop combo, which caused her to stumble out of it. And then she fell on a double Axel. She lost focus, thought she was doing well, and then….It’s a hard lesson. She fell short of her season’s best by almost 12 points.

But Gold – and Wagner – were having none of it. “She was MAHvellous,” said Gold’s coach, Frank Carroll, walking about looking like David Bowie in his black brimmed hat.

“I was very very happy, but you know she skated so consistently day in and day out. Both the short and long program.”

“Now, for the long program, she’d better do the same thing or she’s dead,” he deadpanned. “I will arrange for her to be assassinated.”

She’s been training her long program very well this week. (But so had Chartrand.)

Wagner breezed into the mixed zone, glowing, admitted she’d fallen on her behind while celebrating her skate on centre ice.
“It shows I’m human even after a superhuman skate,” she said.

If she looked in control during that ‘Hip Hip Chin Chin” routine, In truth, she wasn’t. “Fake it till you make it, “ she said. She had a shaky skate in a morning practice and her warmup wasn’t all she had hoped it to be either.

“I got back to my room and just reminded myself that it played in my head so often and it never works for me.”

So she just decided to relax. She knew she was prepared. “I don’t feel I have to make any excuses for myself. Today I got out of my own way.”

Her triple-triple combo is “money for me,” Wagner said. “If I get that first jump out of the way, I have a feel of the ice.”

But the event isn’t over and the medals haven’t been won yet. The women’s final is on Saturday night.

Advertisements

Vasiljevs:fully charged

BOSTON

Deniss Vasiljevs operates on a battery that doesn’t quit, that causes his eyes to twinkle and his feet to dance.

“He is energizer,” said his coach of one year, 1994 Olympic men’s champion Alexei Urmanov. “He have a few batteries inside of him, I think. I believe. That’s why I call him the Energizer. The good Energizer.”

At the world figure skating championships this week, they have become the event’s comic relief – but very, very serious, too.

Vasiljevs comes from a Baltic country – Latvia – that has never been a power in figure skating. Somehow, he has emerged as a skater with a powerful talent to move beautifully – and with great speed – with music at his young age. Exquisite. Then he heads to the kiss and cry and charms, his eyes googling like a cartoon character, grinning good-naturedly all the time. It seems there are all sorts of facets to Vasiljevs.

So far this week, Vasiljevs has been astonishing. At age 16, at his first senior worlds, he sits tenth after the short program, a very young man among men, holding his own. At the world junior championships about a month ago, Vasiljevs sat third after the short program, then unraveled to finish eighth. A lot has changed in a month. And a lot hasn’t. Vasiljevs has definite ideas about his hobby/sport/life pursuit.

Skating is about more than jumps, Vasiljevs said. “It’s my life, figure skating,” he said, with no small amount of passion.

Step sequences, spins, how they make Vasiljevs’ mind burst. He has an entire list of favourite skaters/role models. First on his list is Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland.

“He was the first skater that I really loved his skating,” he said. As a boy (he’s still a boy), Vasiljevs watched Lambiel all the time, every time he could. “It was like the first moment of work that I would try to skate as him,” Vasiljevs said. “I was always trying to reach his level.”

Besides, his mother, a former dancer, was a Lambiel fan.

His second love was Daisuke Takahashi. “In my opinion, he is so talented and so unbelievably great skater,” said the beaming Latvian. “He could do every music you going to give him. Like for me before, I could do only classical.”

Next on the list? Patrick Chan,the three-time world champion known for his uncommon skating skills, who steams from one end of the ice to the other in a couple of gulps, who skates on the edge, pushing the limits like nobody else. Yes, Vasiljevs appreciates that.

Chan is the first skater of the highest level that Vasiljevs has met “in real life.”

“I love his performance,” Vasiljev said of the Canadian. “It is in my opinion something special, that I never saw in other skaters.”

He liked Chan before and he likes him even better now, he said.

And just for good measure, he throws in Javier Fernandez. “He’s from Europe, come on,” he said. “Always it’s Canada or United States or Japan. And here he is coming from Spain and he is a very good skater.”

Perhaps he feels a sort of kinship with a skater who has bolted to the top from an essentially non-skating country. Like maybe he will.

Vasiljevs start didn’t come in traditional ways, of course. It doesn’t in a country that doesn’t have a history. Vasiljevs can’t explain how he has come to understand the beauty of the stroke and the movement that goes with it.

But he tries.

“I never tried to learn somewhere, like a school,” he said. “Skating for me is like free movement. So every time I’m skating in my home country [in hometown Daugavpils] alone, my mom – she’s not a coach but she’s simply a huge fan of figure skating – she’s always correct me.

“So I hope everyone likes it because she is very good critic.”

He also credits his first coach, Ingrida Snieskiene, from the time he was nine, oh some short seven years ago. “She showed me that I must skate free, to try to do good curves,” he said. His choreographer has pushed him in that direction, too.

“They are trying to give me something new,” he said. Perhaps this explains why he is skating to Daft Punk for his free skate. It’s different, for sure. He bursts out with a black costume with white figures on it, taken from the movie “Tron: Legacy” from which the music comes. It’s definitely not classical.

And he says Urmanov has become an important addition to his learning curve, too. Urmanov said that before Vasiljevs came to skate with him about a year ago in Sochi, Russia, the kid didn’t have a reliable triple Axel. In the short program in Boston, he rose to the occasion and he did one that earned him 9.50 points. It helped him edge closer to the technical scores of seasoned senior skaters.

In the short program, he outskated folks like Denis Ten (12th), Maxim Kovtun (13th ), and his technical score is nudging those of former U.S. champions Max Aaron, and Adam Rippon.

Urmanov says he’s training quads, but they are not ready yet.

Vasiljevs started with Urmanov before last year’s world junior championships and the young Latvian trains almost full time in Sochi now.

“It’s always a lot of work with some of my athletes,” said Urmanov. “He didn’t do triple Axel, so we fix it in August-September. And we put it in program.”

Later, Urmanov stepped up the kids’ challenge, putting two triple Axels in the long.

Vasiljevs is an eager learner, Urmanov said. “He grow a lot and he becomes a man.”

And he has extremely novel spin positions. “Yeah, he has seriously unusual positions,” Urmanov said. “This is good because in figure skating, we want to see something new. This is good that he have such a nice position, different from others.”

The positions come from Valsiljevs’ heart, from his personality, Urmanov said.

“Some people are born to be skaters,” Urmanov said. “And somebody not.”

He admits that Vasiljevs sometimes scares him because he moves so fast across the ice. “I just sometimes ask him: ‘Please, don’t do short track for me. We’re doing figure skating.’”

And in this moment, Urmanov sounds so much like his own coach, Alexei Mishin.

As Vasiljevs spills his wishes, hopes, dreams, beliefs, all in a vocal tumble of words, his mouth always turned up, Urmanov returns to the mixed zone, like a hovering parent.

He grabs an elaborate cloth flower someone threw on the ice for Vasiljevs (yes, he now has Japanese fans, too), and slips beside his student, using the flower like a microphone.

“Leave something for after the free program,” Urmanov tones into the flower, but the message is for Vasiljevs. “Say to journalists [after] free.

“Keep your energy because your battery is running low.”

And with that, Urmanov whisks his protégé into the wings. The show is over, for now.

Canadian women ready to play

It’s just all in a day’s work, all these crazy things that Canadian champion Alaine Chartrand does in practice at the world figure skating championships.

All focus is on the Russian women, and the Japanese and of course the Americans, too, but Chartrand is a lively wild card.

On Tuesday during practice, Chartrand, very quietly at one end of the rink clicked off a triple Lutz- triple toe loop – half loop – triple Salchow – hop- double Axel combination thingie.

And just for good measure, she followed it up with a triple Salchow – double Axel – double Axel. Ho hum.

And didn’t miss a beat.

“It’s a way to feel loose,” she said afterward. “I can do all of these crazy combinations when I’m in a good state of mind, relaxed.”

Her practices have been “pretty spot on,” she said. On Monday, she did a long-program run-through that was: “clean, clean, clean,” she said.

She was 11th at worlds last year in her debut. Last week she said she’d love to improve on that and a sixth place finish would be a lovely number.

Between the Russians, Japanese and Americans, there is a logjam of talented skaters at the top. But it might not be wise to count out Chartrand.

Chartrand’s pal, last year’s Canadian champion Gabby Daleman always seems to encounter roadblocks. And she had one after Canadians: a plantar fasciitis problem flared up two days after the event. But she’s clear of it now, has been for several weeks and has also practiced wonderfully.

Daleman skipped Four Continents, which allowed yet another former Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond to go. Reason? That injury.

“I’ve always had plantar fasciitis in my left foot,” she said. “I’ve got tendonitis, arthritis. And it all flared up at once and it was just getting too painful to put weight on it.”

So she and coach Lee Barkell made the world championship their first priority and gave Four Continents a miss.

Daleman dealt with plantar fasciitis at the Sochi Olympics and then it started coming back last year at nationals. She’s been battling it for two years. It comes and goes.

She was fine at this year’s Canadian championships, but two days after she returned, she had so much pain in her foot that she could not put her skate on or put weight o it. To Barkell, she said: “There’s something wrong. I need to check this out.”

Dr. Bob Brock told her she needed rest. She was off the ice for two or three weeks and she used her time to find new exercises to improve her strength (exercising muscles she didn’t know she had) and spending a week doing just edges with Tracey Wilson. “I did a lot of programs without spins.” She improved her edges and cardio.

She’s been pain free for the past two or three weeks. “It was kind of a blessing in disguise,” she said, always the positive one. She’s found new edges, new spins, new exercises. She gets foot massages but notes they are not the pleasant kind. She wears a special sleeve that helps to keep the foot tendons stretched.

How ready is she for this? “To be honest, I’ve never felt more ready for a competition in my life than right now,” she said. Which is saying a lot. She always feels ready.

Mao Asada: Wunderbar

In a practice rink with windows all around, the sun finally streaming in to ease the chill, skates Mao Asada, forgotten by too many.

Asada hasn’t stormed the place in her last few efforts. But look at her schedule: after sitting out a season (and Patrick Chan knows how hard that is to do), Asada looked like her old self in the first Grand Prix event, the Cup of China last fall.

Then she had to compete in three events where first, she faced the intense scrutiny of Japanese fans at the NHK Trophy. Then she suffered gastroenteritis at the Grand Prix Final, when she finished sixth of six. Japanese nationals? Another toughie, at home. She was third to the sprite, Satoko Miyahara. Exhaustion from all of this? Who would be surprised?

Asada, admitting her motivation was slipping, skipped the Four Continents championship in Taiwan to focus on this world championship in Boston this week.

So here she was in Boston, floating through the icy air in practice tights and a simple pink top. Hair up in a ponytail. No adornment. No fur. No frippery. She took her opening pose and held it, blinked those eyes, and thought and blinked, staring softly at something nobody else could see. There was something magical about that, somehow. Then the music started.

She was Queen of all she surveyed. I lost myself in her routine, carried by her grace. Time went by in a flash. Words barely measure up. Yes, yes, she was doing triple Axels and they looked good today. But it was more than that. It was the stretch of an arm, of her body, of a pure glance, unfettered by -just about anything glances can be fettered by. She softly whirs through a jump. That’s what it feels like to watch. You can feel what it looks like.

She says she’s going to 2018, that is, she humbly admits “if I make the team.” Yes, she knows she’s the elder now at age 25, what with all of these precocious youngsters raising the dust around her.

She’s very happy to be here, she says. She just wants to perform her best, she adds. Where she finishes is not important to her.

But what she does and how she does it so very, very important.

The Bourne Advantage: Weaver and Poje

Could it be that grief is so close to joy? That happiness can be found in grief? Yes, say Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, heading with a skip in their step to the world figure skating championships this week, with their “This Bitter Earth” free dance.

They feel down-in-their-boots grief every single day they practice, at times close to tears when they lay it all out on the line. And then comes the joy in the doing of it. There is lightness in their step and their words as they head to Boston.

“This Bitter Earth” came from the soft-heeled imagination of Peter Tchernyshev, but the feeling came from Shae-Lynn Bourne and her madly creative husband Bohdan Turok. Bourne is not just a consultant to Weaver and Poje. She is their muse. She is their touchstone at every emotional point.

“I’ve worked with them for a long time now,” said Bourne. “They are like my kids in some ways. They were my kids before having [son] Kai. I’m really happy for them because they’ve matured. They’ve continued to develop and grow their experiences. Every year, it’s difficult, especially in ice dancing. Nobody ever reuses a program. In singles, they get a chance to really develop a program. But not in dance. Everything has to be new, even the elements. In dance, lifts change, spins, everything changes of course to fit the rules. It’s like reinventing yourselves every year.”

This year, Bourne was less involved with their creative process, and has stayed involved from a distance. She mentally prepares them, helps with costumes, music, or with that final choice of finding music. Even Turok has been heavily involved with their music the past few years.

Once the free dance was developed, Weaver and Poje asked Bourne if she’d take a look at the routine at national monitoring sessions at the beginning of the season. Their question: “What story do you see?” After their first competition, they added a vocal. Bourne thought it added more soul.

However, Weaver and Poje had to deal with what the free dance was all about, what they had to do from within to make an audience get it.

Strangely enough, as Bourne watched the free dance, a story that Turok had written came to her mind. It was a short film he had created about the stages of grief.
It was, said Turok, a story about how two people, having lost a child, can completely turn in different directions in the relationship. “So one can completely lose oneself in grief and the other balances the reality of life,” he said.

In Detroit one day, watching Weaver and Poje skate their free dance, Bourne felt as if she was watching her husband’s short film. “Wow, that’s Bohdan’s movie playing out,” she thought.

So then she told them the story of his film. She felt the team just didn’t have the full story of expression at that point. As Bourne told the story, this Bitter Earth” started to make sense to the team. “We started to go through the pieces and changed expression,” Bourne said. “In this moment, we are feeling this… In this moment, we are feeling that. And then it came more alive.”

That’s when she started feeling goosebumps, Bourne said. “You cannot not have goosebumps,” she said. “I don’t like to watch something that leaves me with a question mark, where I’m not fully understanding it. You don’t even have to fully understand it, but you have to be touched by it.”

From the time that Weaver and Poje unleashed their “Je Suis Malade” routine several years ago, their trump card has always been their power to elicit goosebumps in viewers’ arms.

Turok emailed Bourne the script after she left that night and Bourne passed it along to Weaver. It was an aid to help them tap into a picture to make the routine more understandable, “so there is more of a reason for the movement,” Bourne said.

The program was no longer a blank. It was inside them. Weaver and Poje had never been through the experience of losing a child, but they could imagine.

Turok’s short film? It’s called “Return to Sender.” A couple loses their 6-year-old son, who died six months before the film starts. Every day, the wife writes letters to her son to stay connected with him. The letters never reach him, of course. They are always returned to sender. And she really wants to join him.

The husband is the one who is trying to stay in balance and deal with the realities of life. There is conflict, two people dealing with a tragedy in different ways. She blames him for not loving the son enough. “You have left me, too,” the husband tells her.

At the end, there is a reversal of roles. The wife comes to the brink of committing suicide, but chooses not to and arrives back to her life in the moment. And as soon as she has returned, the husband can break down, and allow himself to feel also.
“He has been supporting her,” Bourne explains. “He was holding her up.”

“He was maintaining his life in a quasi-balance, but it’s also temporary, because he doesn’t grieve,” Turok says. “Until she allows herself to survive. While she has one foot in the world of her son, he has to maintain the balance.”

At the end, they are able to hold each other.

At the end of Weaver and Poje’s routine, they shifted the choreography to reflect this story: at one point both of them lean back, almost like falling into a world of grief, but he turns and sees her falling and he catches her. He is her support through much of the routine.

The feel of the program lightens during the final footwork section. The music lightens. “It feels like life,” Bourne says. “It feels like they can live again.”
The program ends with the two of them holding hands and standing. “It’s almost like choosing life,” Bourne says.

The message of the routine: It’s not just a bitter earth. It is “This bitter earth, how sweet it is.”

“You can look at it many ways,” Bourne says. “It’s the best thing and it’s the worst thing because we die. And the people around us die, but we want to be here as long as we can, because it is so beautiful. Life is beautiful. We’ve got to embrace every moment because it is so precious and short. It’s bittersweet.”

Before and after competitions, Bourne and Weaver and Poje always check in with each other. Bourne says she has witnessed their growing confidence over the years. She remembers their nerves when they first started. She sent them away from training in Toronto with her to let them be in an environment with competitors, “because it’s very difficult when you are not,” she says.

“They are on this journey and they are on the right track,” Bourne says.

Bourne has known Weaver since she moved to Connecticut where Bourne had been training with her world champion dance partner Victor Kraatz. Weaver was taking lessons from British born dancer Matthew Gates. “I remember working with her and her partner,” Bourne says, recalling a show program she helped to do.

“I remember her bubbly personality and she always has this positive attitude that has been driven from day one. She visualizes and dreams of what she wants, and then she goes for it.”

Weaver and Poje balance each other perfectly. They are ying and yang. They have very different personalities, “but they are like an old married couple in their relationship,” Bourne says. It works.

So Weaver and Poje, performing to deep grief, are coming to the world championships with joy in their step, and the freshness as if they were starting a long season, not finishing it.

They stumbled at the Four Continents, defeated favourites, but – knowing them – that is to their advantage. “We had a bit of a wakeup call,” Weaver said. “We’ve actually risen with these challenges.” Coach Anjelika Krylova has told them: “This is the hardest you have ever worked. I’ve never seen you skate like this.”

Over the past five weeks, they worked on every microscopic detail: their fingertips, the point of their toes, their eyelashes, their power, their speed, every edge, every glance, what those glances mean, how they want it to read.

“I feel like we’re skating with confidence and power with no hesitation,” says Weaver, with a flush of excitement in her voice.

“That brings us to great places,” she said. “We are also enjoying what we are doing. For us, I’ve always said that happiness is an advantage.”