The fight for the Olympic gold in Sochi, still open

Two months before the Olympics, the Grand Prix Final in Fukuoka proved there isn’t such a thing as already decided winners of the Olympic gold medals in Sochi: the competition showed that Patrick Chan, on one hand, and Tatiana Volosozhar&Maxim Trankov, on the other, are not unbeatable, being outscored in Japan by Yuzuru Hanyu and Aliona Savchenko&Robin Szolkowy; in the ice dancing event, Meryl Davis and Charlie White stand in front of the Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir with less than one point and a half (too small a difference to say the Olympic gold for the Americans is a sure thing) and Mao Asada, though she has earned every competition she entered this season (Skate America, NHK Trophy, Grand Prix Final), finds herself in a difficult position, given that, 9.000 kilometers from Fukuoka, at a small competition in Zagreb, her main rival, Yuna Kim, earned the highest score of the season for her short program, 73.37 points, and a combined total of 204.49 points, slightly higher than Mao’s at GPF (204.02 points).

During a weekend such as the last one, with loads of figure skating events, a small piece of news could have passed unnoticed, but it didn’t: according to the Japanese media, after two weeks rest caused by a bruised tibia, the Japanese superstar Daisuke Takahashi resumed his training.

by Florentina Tone

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard, at the beginning of November

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard, at the beginning of November

Here they are: the emotions of the first weekend of December; and, at the same time, the emotions of the last event before the Olympics that opposed the biggest stars of figure skating, fighting for podium placements in Sochi, less than two months from now. Their next encounter will be at the Olympic Games, in February; so, the Grand Prix Final was the last chance to see them all, neck to neck. Of course, Daisuke Takahashi, Yuna Kim and other fierce competitors as the Italian Carolina Kostner or the Russians Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov missed the Grand Prix Final for various reasons, but they are surely in the fight for an Olympic medal. Here’s a short analysis of the highs and the lows of the last weekend.

Mao’s skating: “as smooth as cutting butter with a knife warmed in hot water”

Mao Asada in Torino, at the 2010 Worlds, where she won the gold medal

Mao Asada in Torino, at the 2010 Worlds, where she won the gold medal

Let me tell you just that: if I were in Marine Messe arena in Fukuoka for the ladies short program, I would have definitely thrown Mao a wonderful bouquet at the end of her routine. Her “Nocturne” was almost like a religious experience to me; I was touched by her graceful arms in the air, by her delicate body movements, by her fluidity and presence on the ice; it was as if a cloud decided one day to dance on Chopin’s “Nocturne”, moving almost imperceptibly in the sky on the soft sounds of the piano.

And during an interview published recently in a Japanese newspaper, Lori Nichol, the choreographer of this masterpiece, used the most beautiful metaphor to describe Mao and her skating: “Seeing Mao, I feel the special relationship between her and the ice. She flies on the ice using almost no power at all; as smooth as cutting butter with a knife warmed in hot water. When she skates, she makes such a beautiful sound that I can’t resist being fascinated with”. A storm of flowers followed Mao’s performance in Marine Messe – and it really surprised me that her score wasn’t higher than 72.36 points. It was, indeed, a season best for her at that point, but I definitely would have given her a huge 10 for Interpretation (she only got a 8.86 for that, with 8.75 for Choreography, 8.89 for Performance/Execution, 8.39 for Transitions and 8.75 for Skating Skills).

As for her long program for the Olympic season, skated on Rachmaninov’ “Piano Concerto No. 2” and choreographed by Tatiana Tarasova, I’ll bluntly admit I’m not a fan. I loved last year’s routine, the “Swan Lake”, a masterpiece of the same Mrs. Tarasova, but at this point I only like the second part of the Rachmaninov program; the step sequence is a marvel, but is this enough to get her the appreciation of the jury? Of course, Mao wonderfully interprets this dramatic piece, but for me it just isn’t the right choice for the Olympics. And I’m not a fan of the blue dress either; that choker reminds me of a teary Mao, crying after her long program at Vancouver Olympics, when she lost the gold to Yuna Kim. So, get rid of the dress, Mao; turn to that you wore at Skate America, at the beginning of October. And I’d love if you took into consideration returning to the Swan Lake performance from last year. The Swan is more of an Olympic material than this Rachmaninov piece (and I’m sure Mrs. Tarasova won’t mind: after all, they are both her creation…)

Yuna Kim: 9.000 kilometers from Fukuoka, at Golden Spin of Zagreb, a girl wearing a mustard dress wins the world biggest score of the season for her short program
Given Yuna’s leg injury and withdrawal from the Grand Prix Series, we haven’t had the chance to see her and Mao competing neck to neck in Fukuoka. The Korean skater chose a smaller competition, Golden Spin of Zagreb, to start her season and debut her programs – and let me tell you just that: both of her routines look really promising. At this point, Yuna doesn’t seem ready for a major event as the Olympics, her stamina isn’t built yet, but the routines created by David Wilson for the final stage of her competitive skating suit the Korean skater wonderfully.

Indeed, Yuna stepped out of the double Axel in the short – but what a beautiful program, what a beautiful music, what a beautiful dress. “She’s like a leaf, so graceful…”, wrote an admirer of Yuna after seeing her short program on youtube – and I couldn’t agree more. As for the long program, the musical cuts from Piazolla, “Adios Nonino”, provided by David Wilson, are indeed exquisite; and I’m already touched by this soft and intricate version of a tango, that will grow more and more as the Olympics approach. I try not to worry that much seeing how hard it was for Yuna to climb on her feet after missing the combination, triple Lutz-triple Toe, at the beginning of the tango; she seemed to have the burden of the entire world on her shoulders, but I’m sure she’ll find the strength to carry on.

Yuna Kim at the 2010 Worlds in Torino (where she was second, after Mao)

Yuna Kim at the 2010 Worlds in Torino (where she was second, after Mao)

If I were to choose one of them for the Olympic Gold, I’d go for the package: Mao’s short program (which is already a marvel) and Yuna’s tango (for the potential it has). On the other hand, I do think Mao’s skating improved tremendously during those four years that passed since Vancouver. I think she’s ready now to win the Olympics – and I’d love to see her beaming smile atop of the podium in Sochi.

Mao vs. Yuna. A small comparison might prove useful

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*The higher scores are in bold letters.
**Comparing the short programs, it seems that Mao and Yuna are almost in a tie, with a small advantage of the Japanese skater when it comes to Performance and Interpretation; for the Skating Skills and Choreography, they received the same score (8.75), with Mao being outscored by Yuna when it comes to Transitions (8.39 vs. 8.55). One thing is sure: the difference of their short programs at the Olympics will come from the score received from Technical Elements; the skater without mistakes will win the SP – and Mao needs to perfect her Triple Axel by February in order to do that (it’s unlikely that Yuna will still have issues with the double Axel in Sochi…)
***Though unpolished and with errors in it, Yuna’s long program already seems better received by the judges in terms of Program Components. Mao stayed in the 8-score area, while Yuna received 9.05/9.10 for Skating Skills and Interpretation (and given the fact that Mao’s routine is almost ready to be presented in Sochi – and Yuna’s isn’t (in Zagreb, Yuna skated for the first time this particular program) – it seems obvious that the Japanese needs to make some changes).

Elena Radionova: I absolutely love her fluidity on the ice
Too bad that among the four Russians in the Grand Prix Final in Fukuoka, she’s the only one who can’t be taken into consideration for an Olympic berth: Elena will turn 15 in January 2014 (and she should have done that until June 1, 2013…) She started the event pretty tense, almost in a hurry, but he finished the short program with wonderful Biellmann pirouette and a large smile on her face; and apart from a fall in the long program – she stumbled, attempting a triple Lutz – everything else was exquisite, beautiful, fluid and soft. And her stamina for the season is already great – as if the applauds in the arena gave her enthusiasm, confidence and speed. Well done, Elena.

Yuzuru Hanyu: cruising through gifts and flowers, the young Japanese skater got himself an Olympic berth for his birthday
I’ll have to double check this, but to my knowledge, the skater highest ranked at the Grand Prix Final – in this case, Yuzuru Hanyu, who got the gold – might have secured himself a spot for the Olympics next year in Sochi. And given his performances throughout the season, Yuzuru definitely deserves this particular berth. Winning the Grand Prix Final a day before turning 19, Yuzuru becomes one of the youngest winners of the trophy – alongside Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko – and the second Japanese ever to do that; with Daisuke Takahashi being the first, last year in Sochi.

In the short, Yuzuru gave it all; he entered the ice with loads of confidence – and he left it with difficulty, cruising through tens of gifts and bouquets. This young skater is absolutely loved in Japan – and I couldn’t be happier that are wonderful and talented skaters to fill the blank which will be left by Daisuke Takahashi’s withdrawal, after this season. At the end of “Parisianne walkways”, Yuzuru received a world record score for his SP: 99.84 points. As for the long, the Japanese skater started with a fall, attempting a quad Salchow – but from now one everything else was just stunning, including a gorgeous Ina Bauer, that reminded me of Shizuka Arakawa. Except it wasn’t Shizuka on the ice, but a Japanese fighter, giving a 100% percent and stealing the gold from the favorite, the Canadian Patrick Chan.

Being two times runner-up behind the Canadian this season, at Skate Canada and Trophée Eric Bompard, Yuzuru managed to compose himself and win the final, being almost bombarded with flowers at the end of the routine. Brian Orser was red and happy – and he friendly kicked his student in the chest while seeing the scores, 293.25 points. “Happy birthday”, the coach said, with a large smile. As for Yuzuru, he shook hands with Winnie-the-Poof, did a Michael Jackson scheme and literally started to scream from the Kiss and Cry, in order to be heard by his admirers: “Arigatou gozaimashita! Arigatou gozaimashita!”.

Yuzuru Hanyu in Paris, at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard

Yuzuru Hanyu in Paris, at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard

* The Japanese selection for the Olympics, Men and Ladies
1. The first berth will go to the winner of the Japanese Nationals.
2. The second one will be chosen among the 2nd place of the Japanese Nationals, the 3rd place at the Japanese Nationals and the skater highest ranked at the Grand Prix Final.
3. For the third one, the selection will take into consideration the remaining skaters from the previous selection, the upper three Japanese in the world standings at the end of the Japanese Nationals and the upper three Japanese skaters with ISU season best score.

Patrick Chan: the Grand Prix Final proves to be his nemesis
Virtually unbeatable since the Olympic season started, the Canadian found himself in a difficult position in Fukuoka, stepping out from his triple Axel and doing a double Lutz in the short program. It was a very shaky routine, way below his best – and heading to the boards, Patrick pointed to the sky cam in the arena. You could hear him talking to Kathy Johnson, his coach: the sky cam had apparently created him some problems when attempting to land the jumps. During the press conference, on the other hand, he blamed it on himself – “I focused so much on the quad and didn’t really focus on the rest” – and alluded to the perfect routines in Paris, at the Trophee Eric Bompard, two weeks earlier: “When you achieved close to perfection like I did in Paris, it’s hard to do it again. It hurts even more when you don’t do it. So I’m pretty upset”.

One thing is sure: his second place after the short was definitely a surprise. As it was, in fact, the development of the entire event: I could have sworn that Tatsuki Machida and Maxim Kovtun would be higher than 5th and 6th place. A day later, during the long program, Patrick skated clean – but still not convincing; and lost again to Yuzuru Hanyu (192.61 points vs. 193.41 points). But for me, in terms of steps and choreography, Patrick’s long program, skated on Vivaldi and Corelli, is indeed a masterpiece, which could very well turn into gold in Sochi, next year.

If Patrick skates in Sochi, next year, as he did in Paris, at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard (photo), he'll definitely be a strong contender for the Olympic gold

If Patrick skates in Sochi, next year, as he did in Paris, at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard (photo), he’ll definitely be a strong contender for the Olympic gold

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy: dumping the throw triple Axel (at least for the moment) was the right thing to do; this and two flawless routines earned themselves a gold medal in Fukuoka. And, I have to say that, I’m thrilled for them: the win in Japan is a wonderful boost of confidence for the Germans – and they needed that, especially after the shocking fall in Moscow, just a few weeks ago. I felt sorry for Aliona and Robin at Rostelecom Cup – she seemed in terrible pain after the short program – and I could have sworn they would change tactics for the Grand Prix Final. They did – and the change paid off.

Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov: they are human after all
After a wonderful performance in the short a not-so-convincing long program followed: Tatiana’s knees look jellified, making more than one mistake in the first half of the program (she fell on the triple Salchow and gave up at the second jump of the combination); and this was really surprising: usually her skating is solid as a rock; and I do consider her the strongest skater of the couple. Until know, when mistakes were made, she used to comfort him. This time, Maxim tried to comfort her – and his hand on her cheek was one of the most touching images of this Grand Prix Final.

One thing is sure: they needed this kind of (unpleasant) surprise to realize the Olympic gold is not just around the corner; they need to fight in order to reach it. Their performances till the Grand Prix Final had created them an aura of invincibility; now, they need to get back to the basics – because they definitely have tough competitors for the gold in Sochi: Pang&Tong, Savchenko&Szolkowy. Unless one of the couples skips the event, their next encounter with the Germans will be in Budapest, at the middle of January.

Qing Pang and Jian Tong: their personal love story breathes throughout their routines
I have to say that: their short program, skated on music from “Lady Caliph”, is one of my personal favorite this season. The Chinese couple is a perfect mixture of softness and power and I’m truly sorry I’ve discovered them so late; for years, I wasn’t at all touched by their performances. This season I root for them and for an Olympic medal. And their little kiss at the end of the short program really announced the love story in the long: they skated with their hearts out, as if they were interpreting themselves on the ice – and, yes, I was conquered by their performances in Fukuoka.

Qing Pang and Jian Tong in Paris, at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard

Qing Pang and Jian Tong in Paris, at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir: the best skate of the season so far
You already know that: when it comes to the Olympic gold in the ice dancing event, I have only one pair on my agenda: the Canadians. It’s not that I don’t admire the power and the athleticism of Meryl and Charlie – but I do consider ice dancing should be also about fluidity, unison, softness, eye connection; something like “I’m here and I’m the most important person in the world while dancing with you…”. When looking at a couple dancing, I should forget they are on the ice – and I do just that while watching Tessa and Scott. They skate looking at each other, smiling, flirting, communicating with their eyes – as if they were alone on the ice, just him and her; and their dance. I simply can’t resist their charm, their unique bond on the ice – and I definitely cheer for their second Olympic gold.

Tessa and Scott, at their second Grand Prix event of the season (Trophee Eric Bompard)

Tessa and Scott, at their second Grand Prix event of the season (Trophee Eric Bompard)

During the short I was amazed: it was a sensational skate for them, the best of the season. A playful and intricate program, skated with freedom, with lightness, with a beaming smile from the beginning to the end. In the long, I was once again touched by their magic: I do have a soft spot for Glazunov’ “Seasons” and I felt as if they were breathing softness, lightness throughout their free dance. I’m a fan – what else is there to say?

Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bouzat: may this GPF’ bronze medal turn into Olympic bronze in Sochi
In spite of the emotions and the tears caused by a bronze medal at Trophée Eric Bompard (and a worrying second place after the short dance at Cup of China…), the Grand Prix Final showed the French are on the right track. Their goal is the Olympic Bronze on Sochi – the best medal they can aspire to… – and their bronze in Fukuoka is a wonderful boost of confidence for Nathalie and Fabian. The short program seems to be their weakness (it’s not as difficult as it may be and it definitely needs adjustments), but the free dance, on a theme from The Little Prince and his rose, is a true masterpiece; and I could watch it a thousand times without getting bored.

“Literally the most beautiful Bronze Medal” – wrote Nathalie on her facebook account after the GPF, as a caption for a photo with her, Fabian and Igor Shpilband, their coach. I couldn’t agree more: their work really paid off – but I wished, for a more realistic ranking of the ice dancing couples, the Russians Bobrova and Soloviev hadn’t had that fall during their free dance. The French’ next encounter with the Russians? The Europeans in Budapest, at the middle of January.

Nathalie and Fabian during their short program in Paris, at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard

Nathalie and Fabian during their short program in Paris, at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard

Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje: a shivering experience
I’ve said that and I will say it once again: this particular tango – “Maria de Buenos Aires” – and the Canadians’ interpretation give me shivers. A thrilling, emotional and captivating routine – and I almost want them to be given a second Bronze medal in Sochi, if possible. Of course, in Fukuoka, Kaitlyn and Andrew weren’t as energetic as in Skate Canada, at the middle of October, but, in terms of intricacy and sophistication, I would have definitely had them in front of the Russians Bobrova&Soloviev.

Bonus: “La Syplhide” with Alina Cojocaru, at the Bucharest National Opera
I know: this is not a figure skating related event, but what better end of the week for a figure skating/ballet/classical music admirer, than a beautiful encounter with Alina Cojocaru, “the ballerina of the decade”, at the Bucharest National Opera? It was a joy to watch Alina and her partner, Steven McRae, flowing in the air of Bucharest; hope to see them both soon. Until then, just a little question: has someone skated on music from “La Sylphide” until now? It might be a wonderful choice for a short program…

Alina Cojocaru and Steven McRae, in "La Sylphide" (Credit Photo: Gin Photo)

Alina Cojocaru and Steven McRae, in “La Sylphide” (Credit Photo: Gin Photo)