Virtue and Moir: reborn after the Grand Prix Final

Okay, folks. Listen up.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have no intention of finishing second at the Pyeongchang Olympics, although they finished second at the Grand Prix Final last month.

They are not in this race for silver, for second-best, for forgotten footnote. Anybody remember who Sham was? The horse that finished second to Secretariat. Secretariat we know. Sham had to live down his name.

Virtue and Moir haven’t taken their defeat at Grand Prix Final as a result of any nefarious working behind the scenes, as some suggest and fear. They took a look at themselves and knew they could do better.

They weren’t taken aback by the results at Grand Prix Final. Mind you, finishing second wasn’t what they had in mind. Last season they had owned almost all the season’s bests, while this season so far, they still have only the short dance world record of 82.68. The French and the Canadians circled around each other all year in competitions, meeting for the first time at the Grand Prix Final.

Papadakis and Cizeron became the first to best the 200 total mark when they unleashed a world record 201.98 points at the Grand Prix in France, and then again at the Grand Prix Final when they recorded 202.16.

Virtue and Moir finished second at the Grand Prix Final with 199.86, their personal best, only 2.30 points behind the French and almost 12 points ahead of third-placed Maia and Alex Shibutani.

Those 2.30 lost points weren’t happy ones for Virtue and Moir. So they came home and watched their own performances on tape. “We spent a lot of time in this sport,” Moir said. “We know what we want our performances to look like. And when we looked at the Grand Prix Final, we were super happy with our skate. But we know there is more on the table for us to do. So it has been a busy month, trying to live up to what we want our look and performance to look like.”

So, as Moir said, they went back to the drawing board. They have made a lot of changes, especially in their free dance. “We’re just trying to open the programs up,” Moir said. “Hopefully we’ve been successful…We just want a bit more command and I think we’re enjoying it more. We always talk about how we enjoy skating and we felt like we were enjoying it. But when we watched the tape, it didn’t really look like it.”

Virtue said they made a few music edits to the second half of their Moulin Rouge free dance (“Come What May”), trying to emphasize more of their twosomeness and a love story “culminating in a bigger, more theatrical ending.” Indeed, it’s more Olympic.

“That’s been refreshing for us,” Virtue said. “Especially at this point in the season, having trained and performed this program so many times. It’s so engrained in our bodies and we are so committed to the story line and we love it. But bringing in some fresh movement sort of feels like the program has been reborn.”

There were parts where they just “felt suffocated in the movements,” and that is what they saw on the video. “So we are trying to open it up and keep it close to our hearts,” Moir said.

They’ve learned from the Sochi Olympic season, when their free dance didn’t quite pull at their hearts. They wanted to make changes to it, but they didn’t have the nerve to do so in the middle of that season. Not this time. “Here, we’re really trying to challenge ourselves so that when we really do look back on the tape, we’re not regretting that,” he said.

Their coaching staff responded to the call for change. Moir said they wanted to pick the program apart and they did, a bit, but mostly, they wanted to open up the flow and feel. “Hopefully you’ll see that freedom,” Moir said. “We feel it, so hopefully that translates.”

Nationals next week will present a good test for all these changes. Their entire plan is to peak in February. The national championship will be a stepping stone. “But we also need to make a statement, especially after the Grand Prix Final,” Virtue said. “We need to come out strong, with our guns blazing, ready to take on the world in February.”

It’s hard for them to know. They are all so close to it. When they peruse the video, they are gleaning technical bits, trying to maximize points here and there. “It’s rare that we would ever watch something and be satisfied,” Virtue said.

They are pleased with where this has all gone.

Their Moulin Rouge is a different sort of cat. When they began to work on the piece last summer, they wanted “a sleek modern contemporary aesthetic” for it. And it brings a lot of possibilities for them.

“It’s so emotional and layered and nuanced that you feel the spectrum of emotions,” Virtue said. It’s completely different from the subtleties and understated elegance of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” that the French have adopted for this season. Moulin Rouge calls for aggression, and passion and anger and jealousy and love.

“We’re trying to tell that a little more physically than anything,” she said. They incorporate the tango movements while also doing the unexpected. They think of what the normal approach to a specific beat is or a melody and try to go in a different direction.

“We know that we want to get that extra lyrical feeling in the second half of the program,” Virtue said. “We wanted to make sure that when we took the ice for our third Olympics, we weren’t the same team. It [would be] a different Tessa and Scott, moving differently, expressing differently, skating differently and that’s what we continue to strive for.”

They know it’s inescapable for people to make comparisons between them and the French. It’s a battle between the two training mates. People try to label them. They seem to need to. If there is a label, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron tend to adopt the soft, lyrical long-lined approach. Virtue and Moir go all over the map to different styles and genres for their inspiration.

“I think there’s something about wanting to label a style and compare and contrast,” Virtue said. “It’s no surprise that people want to identify what it is we do, and compare that directly to the French team. We love what they do. It is soft and lyrical and intricately woven and there’s a contemporary look to it.

“I think what we’ve chosen to do this year is perhaps more dramatic and intense, but it was more just to change our own personal look. We wanted to have a departure for ourselves as a team, and that was really important to us, not taking into account where Gabby and Guillaume were taking their free dance this year.”

Partly, it comes down to music selection. “How can you not respond aggressively to a piece of music like Roxanne?” Virtue said.

As the program evolves – and their programs always do throughout the season – Virtue and Moir feel they are right on track.

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Mirai Nagasu: It’s time

Honestly, it feels like you are treading through a snowstorm, body leaning into the howling wind, when it comes to figuring out the outcome of the women’s event at the U.S. championships in San Jose, Calif., this week.

You know there will be vehicles on the road, but you just can’t see them and you can’t predict what they will do. It’s come to this at the women’s event in San Jose. You check the snaps on your Russian hat with the flappy ear lugs (perhaps envious of their embarrassment of riches) and you press on.

And this is what we figure: Mirai Nagasu. She’s due. She’s more than due. She’s weathered all sorts of things: youth, injuries, doubt, focus, a laundry list of coaches, life. She’s 24 and she’s coming armed to the US championships with a triple Axel, for heaven’s sake.

But it’s not just that. It’s the steps she’s taken over the past couple of years since she’s been with coach Tom Zakrajsek, who recognized her untapped talent, and who told her when she tugged at his sleeve, that he didn’t just want to coach somebody in the twilight of her career. She had to be aiming at world and Olympic medals.

There have been flashes of brilliance: a win at the U.S. championships – senior level, mind – when she was only 14 and still competing internationally as a junior. She didn’t get to go to the world championships that year because of the top four finishers, only Ashley Wagner was old enough to go. She went to junior world championships instead.

She earned her way to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 after finishing second at U.S. nationals, after having won the short program. She won the U.S. silver medal, but she was the one who excelled at those Games, finishing fourth at only 16. Tired, she went on to worlds and won the short program, before falling apart in the free to finish seventh overall.

Then the heartbreaker. She was left off the Olympic team going to Sochi, even though she had finished third at U.S. nationals and there were three spots. Ashley Wagner, fourth, was sent because she had a better international record.

So here she is again at the U.S. championships during an Olympic year, 10 years after her only U.S. championship win. But she’s a different person. There were hints of it when she won the Autumn Classic in Montreal  in the early fall of 2016. She was magnificent.

This season, Nagasu drew into the two most difficult fields in Grand Prix events in Russia and Japan, meeting Evgenia Medvedeva both times. She came into these events, having landed rotated triple Axels in each of her short and long programs, although landed with flaws at the U.S. International Classic. In her free, she had lost only .4 of a point, and still chalked up 8.10, but she slightly underrotated four other jumps and suffered a fall.

The underrotations continued, including on the triple Axel, although she did rotate one in the short program at NHK. In her free skate, she finished fourth and underrotated only the triple Axel.

But that was last November. She’s been under the radar, training in Colorado Springs. Well, not really under the radar. There is this incredible Instagram video of her landing a triple Axel – triple toe loop – double toe loop – double loop combination. It’s a lot easier to do in practice than in competition, but, still, all I can say is: EXCLAMATION POINT.

And the task: just getting that tripleAxel out in the program, along with everything else. As Elvis Stojko says, there will be mistakes, but it’s stuff you have to weather to find success.

What is she up against in San Jose? Ashley Wagner, the 2016 world silver medalist; Karen Chen, the reigning U.S. champion that finished fourth at the world championships last season; and Bradie Tennell, who shocked everybody by outskating her U.S. counterparts at Skate America, her very first senior Grand Prix event.

Tennell is different because she’s on an upward trajectory, after having overcome stress fractures in her back several years ago. She didn’t put a foot wrong in Lake Placid, finishing with a score of 204.10, which is surprisingly the highest score achieved by a U.S. woman on the Grand Prix series this year.

Only two other U.S. women have higher personal bests than Tennell: Wagner tops that list with 215.39, while Gracie Gold – out of action right now – has 211.29.

Karen Chen is at 199.29, Sasha Cohen has 197.60, Nagasu sits at 194.95, Mariah Bell at 191.59 and let’s reach way back to find Kimmie Meissner, the 2006 world champion at 189.87.

Among those ahead of Tunnell, a 19-year-old who earned her way to Skate America through a minor summer competition in Philadelphia are a group overcoming problems. Wagner withdrew part way through the free skate at Skate America, citing an infection in her right ankle that surfaced the week before, and since then, she’s switched her free program back to LaLa Land, which she had trained, but didn’t use for the Grand Prix season.

Then Karen Chen, admitting to nerves at her two Grand Prix events, has switched programs several times and before Skate America, had again gone back to an earlier routine. She says with a couple more weeks of work, she feels comfortable with it.

And Wagner? Her training mate and friend Adam Rippon says she looks really fit. “My honest opinion is that Ashley does best when she feels like the odds are against her,” he said. “And I think at some level, subconsciously, she put herself in this sort of position where people are [asking] how is she doing?’ And she put herself in this position so that she can be the underdog. I told her that it’s unnecessary that she does this. We’ll, she’s the underdog and she’s putting the work in. And looks really great.”

Tennell’s greatest drawback may be her lack of experience, and here she is at U.S. nationals, in a spotlight, as the country looks for its Olympic heroes.

And then there’s Nagasu, who plans to go for the triple Axel in both programs, as she has been doing all year. She’s had her head down working. She just wants to put out two good programs and let the chips fall where they may.

She really wants to take part in the Olympic team event. She thinks you’d have to finish within the top two to have that chance.

So after all these years, she and Wagner are going toe to toe again. Both started out young. “We’ve been fortunate to be at the top of the field,” Nagasu said. She’s read that at age 27, an athlete reaches peak condition. She figures she still has a few years to go, and she feels she has more to learn still. “I have the determination,” she said.

She doesn’t mind that folks are putting so much emphasis on her triple Axel, a jump that has been done by less than 10 women in the world. “I can assure you, I love attention,” she said. “And I love that I’m being recognized for having the ability to be able to accomplish such a different jump and to be recognized internationally as one of two U.S. women to land it in competition.”

She says it took her three years to learn a double Axel, and it took her a long time to get the triple as well. But she’s proud to be recognized for something that no one is doing right now.

She’s going into the U.S. championships, using visualization, imagining herself in every scenario. “I’m not going to be afraid to make a mistake,” she said. “I’m not going to be afraid of failure. I think, knowing that, I would be more upset with myself if I didn’t go for everything.” She feels that’s her mental shift going to the U.S. championships.

And then she had a practice yesterday. It was sublime. She motored. She seemed on a different planet. It was a practice like those Ilia Kulik had turned in at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, after he had missed Europeans with a back problem. You don’t like to come up to the Olympics with a problem, but during the week of practices, he sparkled. To me, that means Nagasu could be on a similar upward trajectory, too.

Time will tell. Three U.S. women get Olympic berths. The U.S. championships will be an event that has no easy favourite. No foregone conclusion. And that makes it interesting.

Adam Rippon, making music

That Adam Rippon. What a card. He heats up the ice when he skates with his patience and confidence and his glorious moves. He’s become an amusing lad. One never knows what he will do. Not that he isn’t serious about his work. He is. And just for fun, we saw him cross off another item on his bucket list when he sang a cover song, “Diamonds” at the NHK exhibitions in November.

So here, if you are looking for more good material for your current state of mind, Adam, why don’t you try a new cover to Leonard Cohen’s “First we take Manhattan.” and notice the birds at the beginning of the video. It’s as if the iconic songster had created the piece with Adam Rippon and his Arrival of the Birds routine in mind. This song strikes me as Rippon’s mindset going into the U.S. championships next week.

 

They sentenced me to four months of recovery

From breaking my foot one day last year

I’m coming now, I’m coming for the reward now

First we take San Jose, then we take Pyeongchang

I’m guided by a signal from the referee

I’m guided to pick those bees up off the ice

I’m guided by the beauty of my weapons

First we take San Jose, then we take Pyeongchang.

I’d really like to land that quad Lutz, baby,

Last time I tried it, I had to shove my shoulder right back in.

That quad toe just won’t do; my foot won’t take it

I told you, I told you, told you, I don’t need butt pads, see?

Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win

You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline

How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin,

First we take San Jose, then we take Pyeongchang.

I’ve earned my big a** through hard work, mister.

I’m just rockin’ it with pride to the end.

I always knew I would be a trendsetter

First we take San Jose, then we take Pyeongchang.

I’d really like to land that quad Lutz baby,

Last time I tried it, I had to shove the shoulder right back in,

Nothing can stop me, no matter what you do,

I told you, I told you, I told you, I’m not a hot mess, ever.

No I don’t do that Rippon Lutz right now because

That shoulder thing could kick up then,

If I really want to see one now, I’ll just watch

Any junior ladies event in Russia; they all do ‘em

Ah remember me, I’ve got this secret weapon.

Remember me, I’m going for my coronation,

Remember, ice is slippery, all of you should be careful,

First we take San Jose, then we take Pyeongchang.

 

 

 

 

Vincent Zhou and his steep learning curve

Oh lordie, Vincent Zhou. What you have had to face. What you are about to face.

It would be different if this was just any year. But it’s Olympic year. And you are still only 17. And competing internationally as a senior for the first time.

It didn’t seem all that long ago that you were sparking up the U.S. Championships as an 11-year-old or a 12-year-old, winning novice and junior championships with no little measure of panache: tugging your little bow tie, tucking your arms bravely under your chin, and all the while landing big triple jumps that few young tads your age are mastering yet.

Yet here you are, off to the U.S. championships next week, an event you call “the most important competition of the year,” because it is, after all, the gateway to the Olympics. And because you finished second last year behind the swashbuckling youngster Nathan Chen, and promise to be able to go toe to toe with him in the quad contest, some of this glaring spotlight falls on you.

Zhou felt it last November, while competing at the Internationaux de France, only his second senior Grand Prix event. He finished only tenth in the short program, after falling on both his quad Lutz (combination) and a quad flip. And then onto the free skate, where he finished seventh, falling on a quad flip, and a solo quad Lutz, and singling and doubling out a thing or two besides.

Distraught, he posted a handwritten tweet, apologizing for his overall ninth-place finish. “I am learning about the danger of ambition,” he wrote. Perhaps the pressure was external, too. Jealousies afoot? “There are those who love me, adore me, see me as a threat, annoyance or source of entertainment and there are those who would rather I quit skating,” he wrote. “I am sorry to those whose respect I failed to earn, those whose expectations I did not meet and those whose standards I did not satisfy.”

Zhou did well at his Grand Prix debut, finishing fourth at the Cup of China. But by the time he got to France, he had “zero confidence.” And he felt the pressure. He fought as hard as he could through the programs.

“I feel like the biggest challenge in terms of confidence in moving up to senior this is all the expectations being compared with the top skaters in the world,” he said Wednesday on a conference call. “I know that I’m able to do all the quads that everyone else can do. That’s the reason I’m compared with other people who can do the quads, who are the top skaters in the world. “

He knows that his artistry, presentation and component scores have yet to catch up. He’s working on it. He knows that, this being Olympic year, he’s one of the contenders for three men’s spots that the United States has earned to Pyeongchang. “That’s a lot to handle for the first year senior,” he said. “I think I’ve done a good job of that this year.”

Well, there was that competition in France, a confidence grinder.  When he returned from France, his group of coaches sat down and discussed it all. “We didn’t obsess over what went wrong, because that can lead to negativity and lots of stress,” he said. “We just discussed with a clear mind how we can make things better, what changes to make, based on how I was feeling. We realized that we were kind of pushing too hard.” The Olympics does that to you.

The thing is, Zhou had gone to France with an overly ambitious free-skate plan that was to include six quads. “I think that going for six quads wasn’t smart because the entire goal of this season was to take things by step,” he said.

Last year when he won the junior world championship title, he had done three quads. Then he went to four, which he used to win the gold medal at Bavarian Trophy. Then five, then six. “I haven’t done five successfully in competition,” he said. “So that’s why it wasn’t good to go up to six. We’re staying at five.”

They’ve made changes to his training regimen. And he’s been successful at training five quads in his free program.

Besides, heading into France, he’d been dealing with some shin issues. It’s all cleared up. He doesn’t like to make excuses. And he’s put France behind him. He’s hit the reset button.

Now on top of all of this, last week, he dislocated his shoulder while training a quad Salchow.

He’s seen all the videos of Daniel Samohin at Skate America, falling on a quad Salchow, putting his hands down to break the fall, then painfully dislocating his shoulder, badly enough that he had to leave the ice and withdraw.

“My incident was almost exactly the same,” Zhou said. “I flipped out of a quad Salchow, and I put my left hand down to support my body weight and I immediately felt the crack and the pain.

“I think it popped back in right away. It wasn’t a full dislocation.”

He visited a physical therapist right away to ensure everything was stable and that indeed the shoulder had popped back in all the way. He took the next day off and didn’t skate. There are still a lot of arm and shoulder movements that you do in skating. And those movements are restricted by such a shoulder injury.

The next day, he was back on the ice, but he didn’t do quads. “We have to be very careful right now and make sure we don’t make things worse right before the most important competition of the year,” he said. He feels he’s made a complete recovery now, although there is still one spin position he cannot do. He figures it will be cleared up by the time the men start the short program next week. He’s lucky he’s young and his body heals fast.

He’s had his share of injuries. After he became the youngest U.S. junior champion ever at age 12, he missed the entire 2013-14 season because of injury. He tore a lateral meniscus in his right knee and a discord meniscus. Surgery was necessary.

That old injury causes him no pain, he said, because the tear had been so big, surgeons couldn’t fix it. So they removed his meniscus. But the meniscus acts as a padding between bones and the impact of bones pounding against each other with no buffer is always a worry. But he doesn’t seem to have that problem.

His biomechanics are working well after a trainer at the Olympic training centre in Colorado Springs has helped Zhou strengthen his glutes, his hamstrings and his back to be “able to use the correct muscles and have correct alignment when I land.” All of this has been vital. He also trains smart on the ice, and limits repetitions.

With all of that, Zhou feels ready to take on the nation’s best in San Jose next week. He really can’t control whether or not he will be chosen for the Olympic team: the entire decision will be taken by a committee. He hopes everyone will recognize that he’s made big improvements since the Grand Prix season.

“I performed with all the passion and spirit I could muster,” he said in that tweet after the French Grand Prix. “I made mistakes. I failed my expectations and I am disappointed with the results.

“However, I am Vincent Zhou. I am young, ambitious, hungry and motivated. But most importantly, I am still learning.”

The wild and woolly men’s event at Skate America

LAKE PLACID, N.Y.

Nathan Chen still has a beautific head of hair. Perhaps a little more tousled than usual. Perhaps it’s the least of his worries. At least he is in one piece. Some of his competitors took a physical drubbing in the men’s free skate at Skate America. It was hurtful to watch at times.

The scariest moment came when Daniel Samohin, he of the bulldozer, bone-crushing falls, flipped out of his second jump, a quad Salchow, and he stretched his arms out to break his fall. And he dislocated his shoulder. For several agonizing moments, he tried to push it back in. Couldn’t. Somehow he scrambled to his feet, calling constantly for the music to stop, to show he could not continue as such. It was long and horrific. Although there were many red-shirted medical folk at the end of the rink, none came to help.

None. Perhaps they didn’t have ice grippers and feared for their own safety.

By the time that Samohin finally got off the ice, people in the audience had tears in their eyes. Resting their heads on their loved ones’ shoulders. Rather traumatized. Me, too. I had just spoken to this engaging young man in the morning.

Samohin never came back. Medical people pushed the shoulder back together and shipped him off to a local hospital to make sure nothing else was damaged. And Samohin went off into the good night (The snowfall came later.)

The Israeli Olympic Committee said later that Samohin would undergo physical therapy and would return to training in a week. Seems a rather ambitious schedule.

Chen was unaware of the incident. He was warming up in the backstage. So was Adam Rippon, who did exactly the same thing to his shoulder late last summer – pushing his arms out to break a fall.

”When I heard he dislocated his shoulder, I went: ‘Oh my god.’ I know how bad that feels,” Rippon said. “When I did it at home…I felt nauseous. I thought I was going to black out.”

Then Rippon went out and did the same thing with a fall on his first jump, a quad Lutz. It was the bird routine, and in a way, it fit into his choreography. He snatched his arm, pushed it back into its socket with a couple of yanks, shook it out and kept going.

“But now that I’ve done it again, It’s like: ‘Just get back in there buddy,’” he said. And he won the long program and the silver medal overall, unable to overcome Chen’s whopping lead after the short program.

Rippon used the incident to his favour. “You know what?” he said “I love drama.

“I wanted to show my character, that I’m really tough and I’m up for the challenge of anything, including the Olympic Games. I want to show that I’m a really reliable competitor. And that I’m going to be at the Olympics for Team USA and help them get a medal.

But first, I’ll see you all at Nagoya.”

So Rippon, with his performance, also qualified for the Grand Prix in two weeks in Japan. Only six men go. Chen has won two Grand Prix events now, and will also go as well as Skate America bronze medalist Sergei Voronov, who won Grand Prix Final bronze two years ago.

Then there was Chen. He emerged with only his ego bruised. But he did many amazing things too, including an opening quad Lutz –triple toe loop combo that earned him 20.04 points, with an array of +2s and a couple of +3s. A second solo quad Lutz came later – in the second half of the program!!!!! That got him 16.10 points alone.

But there were blemishes, too. He doubled a quad Salchow. His wonderful new quad-Salchow combination turned into a double toe loop –single loop – double Salchow. That’s just so not Chen.

He also singled an Axel in combination with a double toe loop.

And remember his coach, Rafael Arutunian busily smoothing out the nicks in his blade before his short program? They decided to solve the problem by replacing the blade altogether for the free. Just that blade.

After the free, Chen admitted it wasn’t a good call. The blade was very sharp – too sharp – on the inside edge, which would have affected his Salchows and Axels (the Axel is his nemesis anyway.) So we didn’t really see the Chen that we know is there.

He is so easy to like. A good lad, is Nathan Chen.

He uses the word “recalculate” often. He says he’ll be recalculating for the Grand Prix Final. He looks like an adult on the ice, but in a press conference row, betwixt Rippon at 28, and Voronov at 30, he looked quite boyish.

All three medalists were coached by Arutunian. Arutunian coached Voronov from the time he lived in Moscow, before he moved to the United States.

“He gave me the technical base,” Voronov said. “I was 10 years old and he taught me to do the double Axel and he do it in a way so that later, I was able to do the triple Axel.

“I’m a little bit envious – in a good sense – that [Nathan Chen and Adam Rippon] that they are working with Raf. And when I see him, it’s a kind of nostalgic feeling.”

Canadian men had a disappointing trip to Lake Placid. Liam Firus – a last-minute entrant – fared the best, finishing sixth in the free with his stunning “La La Land” routine. It’s not easy music to skate, and who else but Firus and his beautiful edges could carry it off?

Firus finished eighth overall. Kevin Reynolds ambitiously tried a quad loop to open his program and then fell on a quad toe loop. Doubled a late Axel. But what hurt Reynolds the most were four jump rotation downgrades, particularly on the quad Salchow and the first triple Axel.

He said he knew that his upper body was actually in an over-rotated position on most jumps, so that how could the rest of his body be underrotated? He would have fallen if that were so, he said.

He said he’s discouraged at such calls, after doing all the work to get it right. Makes you wonder why you bother, he suggested.

Reynolds finished 6.78 points behind Firus.

Roman Sadovsky, who was competing in his first senior Grand Prix and got the assignment only 1 ½ weeks ago, finished tenth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daleman, the perfect Carmen.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y.

Gabby Daleman blew into the mixed zone after the women’s short program like a red tornado. “Ola!” she said.

And it went up from there.

Daleman is a bundle of positivity and high energy. Hard to believe, since she ‘s been suffering from a chest infection for the past week and a half. She’s about 85 per cent okay, but she awoke the morning of the women’s free at Skate America with a little fever.

But on Saturday, she swept it off like it was nothing. “You get the cards you’re dealt with,” she said. She didn’t think of it as an illness, but an opportunity for cardio training. In other words, training through it? And if you can do it when you’re sick, look what you can do when you’re not.

Daleman has often skated through injuries and illnesses. It almost doesn’t seem normal when she’s completely healthy. It hasn’t stopped her high energy in Lake Placid. “I’m a little tired,” is all she’ll say but she chalks it up to skate so late in the day. Past her bedtime.

She is the reigning world bronze medalist.

This is how she saw her day, skating to “Carmen,” which suits her like gloves on a winter Lake Placid day: “”I was very happy with how that program went,” she said. “The crowd in Lake Placid is amazing. I performed better than I did at Cup of China. (where she won the short program]. My jumps were actually pretty good. I was very happy with the way they went. And my spins and footwork. The whole package is just coming together. I’m very happy. It’s a stepping step [stone] to the Olympics. I’m definitely on the right track.”

Daleman loves this “Carmen” routine, choreographed by Lori Nichol. She loved it from the beginning. She loved it on Saturday when everyone started clapping to it. “That makes me feel so much more comfortable,” she said. “I’ve always loved the clapping music to get the crowd involved.

“The crowd is amazing. It’s so important for them to like the program.

“I do love playing this character. It’s so sassy. It’s so flirtatious. “

The crowds clapped even in China, which surprised Daleman. “Normally they are very quiet,” she said. They clapped at her first competition this season at Finlandia Trophy, too.

So many people love her short and long programs, and Daleman is glad, because they are her Olympic choices. Her free is to Gladiator, music that you think would suit a male. But it suits Daleman, too. She attacks. Always. Man the torpedoes!

At Cup of China, seven women were within 3.75 points of each other after the short program. Essentially tied. In winning th short, Daleman was ahead of Wakaba Higuchi, Elena Radionova, Alina Zagitovaa, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, Marin Honda and Mai Mihara. Probably one of the toughest women’s event in the Grand Prix series. Daleman felt as if she had fallen into Japanese and Russian nationals combined.

In the end, Daleman ended up seventh overall.

This time, Daleman is third, having flipped off a triple Lutz, and is only 2.64 points behind leader Satoko Miyahara. Daleman is only 1.32 points behind second-placed Kaori Sakamoto, a youngester who jumps with great speed and surety.

 

 

 

 

 

The cast of characters in Skate America’s men’s short program

LAKE PLACID, N.Y.

Nathan Chen has a beautific head of hair. Charcoal black curls sproinging out of his scalp like the crazy curves you encounter on a Lake Placid road. And what a ride he takes those curls on: up death-defying quads here, around some new fascinating body movement there. Heavens, even pair skater Eric Radford says he feels like he’s watching an artist now.

Chen says his mother cuts his hair. But it grows fast.

What a trip we’ve seen so far from the 17-year-old Chen so far at Skate America. He takes all the bumpy roads with this intelligent calm. He speaks that way. You get the feeling that this young American can take all the trials by fire that he will get in the coming months.

Chen has a whopping lead after the men’s short proram, scoring a personal best of 104.12, exactly a point more than his previous best. And he wasn’t perfect. His landing on the triple Axel was a bit wonky. It cost him a few bits. But his thundering quad Lutz-triple toe loop alone gave him 19.90 points. Judges were handing out +2s for a formidable move like that.

All this and Chen had to pause in the warmup to push his leg up over the boards. From his bag of tricks, Arutunian pulled a sharpening stone, spent a few seconds running it up and down the upraised blade and back Chen went, working his magic. Arutunian fluttered about backstage, giving the blade some more elbow grease. Chen said there had been a nick on his blade, and he’ll have it perfect for the long.

For the long program today, he’ll unleash a new quad combination, a quad toe loop-half loop-triple Salchow. He says he just wants to top what he did at Cup of Russia, where he had troubles with his triple Axel – his least favourite jump – in both the short and long programs, and finished second to Yuzuru Hanyu in the short program. But he won the free and the gold over the Olympic champion. (Remember the kiss and cry in Russia, with emotional coach Rafael Arutunian shaking Chen like a leaf, saying: “We won! We won!” Chen remaining stoic through it all. Perhaps a smile.)

The cast of characters in the men’s event didn’t end there. Adam Rippon finished second, about 15 points behind his teammate, with 30-year-old Sergei Voronov of Russia third at 87.51, losing a few points on his triple Lutz, but not his quad toe loop – triple toe loop comb, from which he raked in 16.31 points. And the crowd cheered. You could see their faces, smiling at this supposedly over-the-hill Russian who had probably all but been tossed to the faceless heap in his country, as it has been scurrying to replace the iconic Evgeny Plushenko.

Of course, Rippon is a vaudeville show all on his own. A quote machine for a reporter.

He has made a seamless comeback from a Jan 6 accident that caused him to withdraw from the 2017 U.S. championships and miss the worlds, too. During practice, he had sprained his left ankle and fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. (Evgenia Medvedeva’s injury? If so, don’t expect to see her for a while.)

Rippon dazzled. It wasn’t just the clean non-quad trip he took; it was his delivery. He’s himself on the ice. And Himself is fun and fascinating.

“If you’re 28 and not having fun, girl, get out of Lake Placid,” he said. “Do something else.”

On the subject of his time away from all of this fun, he said: “I want to say that it was tough, but I really want to say it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

“I remember sitting and looking out a window and being really dramatic and saying: ‘This is my comeback story and I can come back even stronger. ‘I think that time away made me realize how lucky I was to be able to be doing what I was doing.”

He appreciates where he is now. He’s grateful. He says it’s made him a better person and a better athlete.

And the one-two finish of he and Chen at Skate America? At least so far? “I think we make a good team,” Rippon said. “I think we’d make an even better Olympic team.”

The comeback isn’t just about his foot. He and Chen were practicing together a month before his first event at Finlandia. Rippon was cheekily copying Chen’s choreography. But he hit one of his quad Lutz holes in the ice and tripped. He instinctively threw out his hands to brace the fall and dislocated a shoulder. That’s why we are not seeing the Rippon Lutz these days, in which he puts both arms above his head.

It has forced him to work more on his quad, he said.

“Listen, the road is filled with bumps,” Rippon said. “You’ve got to take the punches.”

He kept the short program from the previous year and the free, too. “Girl, I’m getting my money’s worth,” he said. “I only skated it three times.”

Even so, when he was skating them, he knew they were his Olympic programs. When he broke his foot, he knew there was an opportunity to use them this year, too.

He had originally asked Jeff Buttle to choreograph a new short program for this season, and he wanted to do something original and very much a part of himself. So the music he uses includes his own voice, singing a cover of Rhianna’s “Diamond,” “I wanted something that would really embody who I was and show me as a whole rounded person,” he said.

“But ironically, I feel like this trashy dance club program embodies me better than even my own voice could. So sometimes actions do speak louder than words.”

He turned that discarded short program routine into an exhibition program at the NHK Trophy, where he finished second. However, instead of skating it, he grabbed a microphone and sang. It wasn’t bad.

“It wasn’t too bad,” he said Friday. “But it wasn’t too good, either. It was my first time singing in front of everybody. My first time singing in front of anybody was in front of 10,000 people. So you know what? It’s all right.”

He said he has been told that he’d better skate that routine this week in exhibitions, and not just sing.

And Rippon did something in the 6-minute short program warmup that nobody ever does. He left the ice after five minutes.

“I just felt comfortable, confident,” he said. “When I got to the five minute point in the warmup, I just kind of got off. I just felt ready. I felt in the ice, in my own body and ready to go. I told Rafael, who said: ‘Don’t scare me tomorrow.’”

He won’t do it for the free, but he admits it was a dream of his. “Give me those guards,” he said. “I’m going to beat the rush. There won’t be any traffic. I’ll get right to my spot so I can start focusing for my performance.”

And it worked.

There’s every chance that Rippon could actually qualify for the Grand Prix Final. If he does, he said it will be another check on the criteria to get to the Olympics.

So yes, there was a cast of characters, and it wasn’t only the top three men. Daniel Samohin of Israel finished fifth with 82.28 points, although he fell on a quad Salchow. But for a couple of years, he’s been a human Zamboni in practices and competitions. He’s taken extreme punishment in falls. You could do a news reel of all his falls, as somebody has already done with Anna Pogorilaya falls. Nobody know why he hasn’t been more seriously hurt.

But in the short program, we saw another side. “My practices are usually like that,” said the gregarious skater. “Don’t get me wrong. My practices are always up and down. So the fact that I couldn’t do a jump or whatever else is not really my issue. I was trying to focus on the transitions and footwork so I really need to check the levels on that. That was our goal.”

He said he doesn’t know why he fell on the quad Salchow. Perhaps he lacked a little confidence. As he went up into the air, he was fine and then he thought: “Oh my god, I’m landing it. And I let go.”

“It happens.”

At Rostelecom Cup, he had a far worse result, but he didn’t blame himself. He was ill. In fact, he says he’s still coughing from that virus. In the short program in Russia, he earned only 62.02 points (20 points less than here) and was last of 12. He was last of 12 in the free, too, after three falls. He wasn’t really bummed out about it. He once got marks as high as 82 or 83 at a European championship a couple of years ago.

He knows what he’s capable of, he says. And he just has to be patient and “work through my tough time.” And indeed, he has had rough times.

In the free this week, he plans two quad toes and a quad Salchow. And two triple Axels. Buckle your seatbelts when Samohin skates.

 

 

 

 

“And it made me appreciateaand ithing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All about working smart

LAKE PLACID, N.Y.

Have you ever wanted anything so badly your teeth hurt? Your face fell? Your knees knocked?

Little Satoko Miyahara has that look on her face. When she comes to the boards for advice from coach Mie Hamada here at Skate America, her eyes are trained on her coach’s face and they radiate like headlights on full beam with earnestness and intent. There’s a sense nothing will stop her, not if she has anything to do with it.

The world silver medalist from 2015 is not a little girl anymore. She’s 19, but stands only 4-foot-11 in her socks. We haven’t seen her much lately.

She’s competed only once since December of 2016, when she was seen at Japanese nationals. In that one comeback event at NHK Trophy two weeks ago, Miyahara was fifth, 33 points behind reigning world champ Evgenia Medvedeva. She’s only been training full-on since October. In September, not so long ago really, she was training only one hour a day.

For six months, she didn’t jump at all.

Miyahara has been off because of injury. But not just one injury. Three. It’s a miracle that she’s back. The reason for all of her injuries has been deemed poor nutrition and lack of sleep, work being the obsession of her culture. And poor bone density was an issue, alarming because of her age.

Miyahara was under such a determined schedule, she was sleeping only five hours a night.

In January 2017, she suffered an injury to her left groin, most specifically a bone in her pelvic girdle. There was a crack in the middle of the bone, therefore not easily seen on x-rays. Because of this, she had to withdraw from Four Continents, Asian Games and eventually, the world championships in Helsinki.

Finding the crack didn’t end her woes. She suffered an injury to the top of her left foot in July.

In September, Miyahara developed inflammation in her right hip.

It was not enough to fix the injuries as they continued to pop up. Miyahara needed to overhaul her life. She hates milk, which is believed to help problems with bone density. So the skater had to learn how to eat and gain five to eight pounds, hopefully in bone strength. Her team members separated her enough from her work life to get eight hours of sleep a night.

So Miyahara took the challenge and focused on her body, adding five to six pounds to her tiny frame. She sees it as a challenge. She does feel stronger, she says. She takes medicine and calcium, drinks milk, eats fish and fresh vegetables.

As she has begun to train more diligently, is the weight coming off again? That’s the question.

Her training mate is Marin Honda. There’s much excitement about the young teen, but at Skate Canada, she bombed in the short program, finishing 10th after a fall on her triple Lutz-triple toe loop combo (underrotated), singling an Axel and not maximizing her levels on some spins and footwork. She did come back in the free program to be third.

Honda had no issues at Skate Canada other than the fact that she “doesn’t want to train,” said Hamada. “She’s not a hard worker. She found out at competition that she needed to work on steps and spins.”

Indeed, she is a talent. She already has lots of sponsors in Japan.

Too bad there couldn’t be a happy medium. There are many talented young female skaters in Japan, but perhaps we can look to Wakaba Higuchi, who skates with joy. And that’s half the battle. Maybe all of it. Sometimes wanting something has to be tempered with this.

Skating with joy makes you dangerous.

 

 

 

Liam Firus: spinning straw into gold

LAKE PLACID, N.Y.

You gotta love him.

Trips and stumbles, disappointments and dark valleys, nothing, in the end, stops Liam Firus.

He’s here. At Skate America. And he found out about this grand assignment two days ago. After a trip to the Warsaw Cup in Poland, he got the nod, jumped in his one-horse sleigh and drove to this sparkly little town in the midst of a winter wonderland.

He had won a medal for the previous three seasons at Canadian nationals, (a silver and two bronze), and then last year, disaster struck. He had a nightmarish short program, in which his suspender came undone at the end of a spin, stuck hands down on a triple, popped a jump, and tripped on his toe picks, just skating, so that overall, he dropped to seventh place, off the world team and the national team, too. With no Grand Prix assignments in sight.

“I wasn’t stepping anywhere right,” Firus said of his Canadian championship effort.

But, incredibly, he added: “But that almost needed to happen.”

“Of course, I was upset. I cried my heart out. I was heartbroken. I had medalled three years in a row and then I came seventh. I thought: ‘What happened?’

That whole year had been tough. He sprained his ankle. He hit his head on the ice the week before Canadians and split his head open.

After his dismal national experience, Firus left, didn’t talk to anybody and had dinner with himself. And then he planned what he was going to do this season, his last.

“So far, I’ve stuck to the plan and it’s been working,” he said. “I didn’t go into a pit and dwell on it. I was okay, I’ll be sad about it for 30 minutes and went out and figured out how I’m going to overcome this obstacle.”

The answer? Work hard. Listen to his team. Trust that they are right. Don’t listen so much to yourself, because you are biased.

His team? He’s still involved with one of his early coaches, Lorna Bauer, back home in Vancouver. He talked to her every week. Bauer keeps him grounded. She’s like a second mom to him.

And current coach Bruno Marcotte: “He’s awesome,” Firus said. “He believes in me. He makes me believe in myself, too. He’s that type of person, even on down days. At the end of the day, it’s about trust. There is a lot of trust in my team. And I think that is what is making the difference.”

So Firus set out to prepare himself for a bumper year. “There’s a good quote: ‘When you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail,’” Firus said. So he planned. He remembers that lonely night at Canadians and he uses it to motivate himself. “It wasn’t fun,” he said. “But it was good.”

He took to the Challenger circuit, a step below the Grand Prix. At his first event, the U.S. International Classic at Salt Lake City, he encountered a formidable men’s field: Nathan Chen, Max Aaron, Tim Dolensky and Takahito Mura.

Firus finished third, behind Chen and Aaron. Most importantly, he was on fire like no one had ever seen him. In the short program, he landed a quad toe loop that earned him some +2s. He fell on his nemesis, the triple Axel, but landed a deft triple Lutz –triple toe loop combo.

In the long program, he attempted two quads and a triple Axel, landed the first quad toe (12.30 points), and stumbled out of the second. But he landed that darned triple Axel.

“I’ve been saying for a while that my Axel is better,” he said “My Axel is a jump now that I don’t miss and it’s rare.

“It’s taken me eight years, but I think I’ve conquered it now.”

The end result of it all was that Firus improved his personal best by 38 points to a total score of 248.29.

“My focus was just to enjoy it and appreciate it and not really stress about things that have gotten in the way of me really taking in the whole experience of competing and what a joy it is,” he said. “That clearly worked.”

Off Firus went to the Warsaw Cup, where he finished third with not such soaring efforts. But there was a change to Firus’s mindset.

“This being my last year, I don’t want to be stressing the whole weekend,” he said. “I just want to take it all in and remember this year for how amazing it us.”

Enjoy? He decided to stay an extra day in Warsaw and sightsee. Relax. Smell the roses. He didn’t get home until Tuesday night at 7 p.m. His ice-dancing brother, Shane, picked him up at the Montreal airport and they went out to find some grub.

Exhausted, Firus slept the night, jet-lagged still.

At 6:30 the next morning, he woke up, and at 7 a.m., high-performance director Michael Slipchuk sent him a text: “Hey Liam. Give me a call when you can.”

Firus shot back: “Give me half an hour. I’m just going to shower and have a coffee.”

Back came the Slipchuk missive: “ASAP! It’s good news.”

Firus skipped the shower, thinking: “No way. No way. There is NO WAY.”

Every time someone had dropped out of a Grand Prix event, Firus had hoped that he’d be the replacement. And he wasn’t picked. He needed a coffee before he talked to Slipchuk.

“Are you ready to compete this weekend?” Slipchuk asked him. And Firus knew that Skate America was this weekend.

“I guess I can’t really say no,” Firus said. “So it was awesome. We confirmed it right there on the phone.”

Just as Firus was hanging up from his fruitful chat with Slipchuk, Marcotte called. “Let’s do it,” Marcotte said.

First Firus had to do some repairs on a skate. He struck off for the skate shop at 8:30 a.m. and by 9:30, job done. He trained for three hours, went home, did his laundry, packed and drove to Lake Placid.

What a difference a day makes. He went to bed, Grand Prix-less and woke up, having bagged Skate America.

He’s never been to Lake Placid. He marveled at the winter wonderland, here, with all the frosted trees and fresh snow.

Best of all, he has his own room in the official hotel. Athletes are usually paired off with a roommate. But the pairings had all been made, and Firus was odd man out. Does he mind? “That’s a bonus,” he smiled. “I don’t have to share a room with anyone.”

After this season, don’t consider Firus a lost soul. Four years ago, he passed his Canadian Securities Course. He’s in school at Concordia, studying finance.

And remember, Firus is the guy who passed up on his berth to the 2016 world championships in Boston, giving it up to another skater that he thought might have a better chance to get Canada more spots for men at subsequent worlds and Olympics.

In the same vein, Firus is the guy who is going to jump in his car, drive across the country and give back to the sport, conducting seminars and telling young skaters at clubs about what he has learned. Joining him will be training mate Elladj Balde., another generous soul.

“Elladj has so many different lessons that he has learned than I have,” Firus said. They competed in various countries. They have different technique. He and Balde have set up a lot of seminars already on the east coast of Canada, and they have a few in Ontario. They want to go coast to coast.

“We’re just going to get in our car and drive,” Firus said. “Even if the club’s can’t afford it. It’s not about the money. We’re going to just pop in and say, hey, this is what we’re doing. We want to help.”

And this is where his journey has taken him.

 

 

 

 

 

Stolbova and Klimov: fighting to get back to the top

LAKE PLACID, N.Y.

Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov haven’t given up. No they haven’t, despite a year or two of disappointments and injuries and setbacks.

They are not here at Skate America. They have already qualified for the Grand Prix Final in two weeks (second at both Rostelcom Cup and NHK Trophy), with Skate America offering the last chance to qualify for others.

 

Nobody has forgotten the Olympic silver medalists from four years ago. They are at home with coach Nina Mozer, training with intent and straight-ahead focus. And their twist is much better now, says Vladimir Zhovnirsky, here coaching Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert of Russia.

 

You see, their triple twist hasn’t been all that hot for the past 1 ½ years, and Zhovnirsky says it’s down to Klimov’s gimpy shoulder (a nerve problem), which hampered him at the world championships in Boston and all that season. Last season, they had to withdraw from both of their Grand Prix events.

 

Zhovnirsky says the shoulder is much better.

 

Stolbova also didn’t skate for a long time because of injury. The whole last season, it was one thing, then another. Stolbova also endured an inflammation in an ankle, due to a nerve problem. “They didn’t practice 100 per cent,” Zhovnirsky said. “Of course, his shoulder was a big problem.”

 

Earlier this season at Finlandia Trophy, Stolbova and Klimov had a meltdown, all stemming from a pant strap that had come loose and fluttered around Klimov’s ankle. He didn’t ask for a time out. He repaired the problem and went on. But the magic was broken. And mistakes piled up.

 

The twist is now going even better than it did in Japan.

 

Also, they’ve added an ambitious throw triple Lutz to their routine. They knew very well that the throw double Axels they were doing weren’t going to cut it if they wanted to make it to the top again. It’s like going from zero to 60 in a moment.

 

It only took them a month to get it ready. Zhovnirsky didn’t expect their mastery of it would be so quick. They landed it at Finlandia Trophy and got high GOEs for it.

 

“They were motivated,” he said.

 

So many people in the Mozer club are setting aside any thought of quad throws for the time being. “It’s too dangerous,” Zhovnirsky said. (This week, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are attempting to get at least one +3 on their throw quad Salchow.) Stolbova and Klimov had been training a throw quad Salchow at one time and they landed a couple of sparkling ones with speed. And they were huge. But then finally, it just became too dangerous to do, the assistant coach said.

 

Of course Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov do a quad twist, huge as a barn.

 

So yes, Stolbova and Klimov want to get to the top again, to win Grand Prix Final. Stolbova is a fierce competitor. “She is the kind of person who wants to win every time,” Zhovnirsky said. “Every time, every practice, every element. If it’s not perfect, she gets angry and upset. Sometimes, it’s not so easy for us.”

 

Her coaches would tell her than an element she’s done is good. “No,” Stolbova will say. “Not good enough.”

 

She’s angry at herself but also at others. And the gentle Klimov is first glance. “Fedor has to be perfect as well,” Zhovnirsky said.

 

Jokingly, somebody said she should have skated with Maxim Trankov, the 2014 Olympic pair champion with Tatiana Volosozhar.

 

Zhovnirsky said they did skate together for a couple of months, but that was like mixing powerful explosives. They fought. Luckily, they both survived. Klimov is the calm to her fire.