Take my word for it: this has been one of the best editions of the World Championships ever – a wonderful venue, an incredible audience and plenty of memorable moments to choose from. And, of course, some events to die for. Literally. That small were the differences between the medalists. And for those saying goodbye to competitive figure skating, Saitama Super Arena has definitely been the perfect place to bow out. In the name of the skaters, in the name of the fans, thank you, Japan.
by Florentina Tone
These were Mao’s Olympics. A world record for the ladies’ short program (78.66 points), a colorful, joyful shower of flowers and gifts, thousands of faces, happy faces, in Saitama Super Arena. And, above all, a beaming smile of Mao Asada, at the end of her flawless routine, after she had successfully nailed a gorgeous Triple Axel – and performed The Short Program of the Season. And even if it came a month later than planned, Mao’s golden routine, skated on Chopin’s Nocturne, will be from now on a part of the figure skating history. That good it was. Actually, to me, this year’s edition of the Worlds has been mostly about Mao Asada and her wonderful performance both in the short and the free – and I’m a fan of her Gala routine too; it suits like a glove the skater who said, before receiving her third World gold medal, that, despite of the troubles, the downs, the inconveniences, she understood that figure skating is wonderful. Well, a part of this wonderfulness is due to your presence, dear Mao Asada.
I’m absolutely in love with Carolina’s Ave Maria. A standing ovation followed Carolina’s short program in Saitama Super Arena – and I did exactly the same thing at the exact same moment, with the sole exception that my reverence to Ms. Kostner took place in solitude, in front of a TV, in an apartment from Bucharest, Romania. This is what figure skating does to people: unites them in a universal bouquet of wonderful emotions, makes them happy and proud and grateful to have experienced a marvel of a program. And this was by far the most touching routine of the season – and I’m thrilled that Carolina succeeded in creating once again magic on the ice. And her face at the end of the program – beautiful, serene, flowers raining on her – is definitely one of the best moments of the Worlds in Saitama. “I’m so proud of you!”, said, in a smile, Lori Nichol, while Michael Huth, the coach, put on Carolina’s shoulder the famous pink giraffe. As for the Bolero-routine, skated a day later, it was a completely different story: the Italian skater failed to master her nerves, missing the triple-triple combination and singling two other jumps – and only managed to grasp the World bronze medal due to her previous performance in the short. All in all, even if we take out all the jumps, Carolina’s Bolero is still a masterpiece; and I did enjoy watching it altogether.
Tatsuki Machida, the revelation of the 2014 Worlds. Of course, Tatsuki has been around for quite a while – he is not at all an anonymous when it comes to men’s figure skating. But, to me, the Worlds in Saitama have been the best moment of his career so far; the 24-year-old Japanese skater seemed to have found his serenity, his joy, his easiness just in time to produce one of the greatest moments of this edition of the World Championships. As if he were alone in the arena, in a bubble of peace and tranquility, Tatsuki Machida performed the program of his life, skated on music from the movie “East of Eden”. 2 minutes and 50 seconds – glowing, luminous, uplifting. Thank you, Tatsuki.
Yuzuru Hanyu: his resources – talent, energy, charisma – seem unlimited. Well, Yuzuru is only 19-year-old, but he has the maturity of a skater who’s been in the business for a considerable amount of time. After the mistake he made in the short, he skated his heart out to stay in the race – and, approaching Brian Orser after he’d finished the program, he told him, as if he were the coach: “Not bad” – and smiled. “Good”, nodded Orser seeing the scores, even if his student had to make up a 7-points difference, a day later, in the free. For most of the skaters out there, this would have been impossible to remount. But not for an extremely focused Yuzuru Hanyu who entered the ice decided to do everything in his power to win that first World gold medal of his career (first of many to come, take my word for it). The reigning Olympic champion from Sochi attacked confidently every bit of his free program, kept fighting until the end, not letting anything adrift; he was there, atop of everything, hanging on some of his landings as if he were a cat. “A lesser man would have been on his right ear” – said in amazement the British Eurosport’ commentator after Yuzuru had miraculously saved a jump. At the end of those 4 minutes and 30 seconds of the long program, Yuzuru was exhausted, his hands and knees on the ice, his back hurting, his breath difficult to regain. An unbelievable effort – and a reward made to measure: a gold medal. But it was mighty close, that’s for sure: only 0.33 points separated him from Tatsuki Machida.
Brian Orser: is he the most rewarded coach of the season or what? Quite a season Brian Orser had – one can only imagine the quantity of time and energy he put in preparing his students for the most important season of their careers, the Olympic one. But six months after the season started (and a lot of months after he’d started coaching them), his efforts paid off: through his students, Orser won the European gold medal (Javier Fernandez, Budapest, January), the Olympic gold (Yuzuru Hanyu, Sochi, February), the World Junior gold (Nam Nguyen, Sofia, March), the World senior gold (Yuzuru Hanyu, Saitama, March) and the World senior bronze (Javier Fernandez, Saitama, March). Not to mention the fourth place at the Olympics (Javier Fernandez) and the wonderful debut of Nam Nguyen at the senior World Championships in Saitama (12th place and a great start for this very young Canadian skater with Vietnamese origin). Adding here the Olympic and World medals won by Yuna Kim while she was trained by Orser, one can only conclude the Canadian is one heck of a coach.
A dream skate for Jeremy Abbott at the Worlds in Saitama. Choosing to return to Exogenesis: Symphony long program in his last season of competitive skating, Jeremy might have made one of the best decisions of his career. The American skater wraps himself in music, as if the music were a mantle – a warm and generous one. And Jeremy himself is generous, giving back to the audience as much as he receives. One thing is sure: I cannot think of a better place for Jeremy to have had ended his career than in Japan, at the World Championships. The 28-year-old skater is simply adored by his Japanese fans – and the flowers and gifts raining on him in Saitama Super Arena did nothing but prove it.
To me, Jeremy’s performance at this year’s edition of the Worlds was simply breathtaking – because you wouldn’t even dare to breathe for fear of losing a second of his program. At the end of it, after he’d done everything to perfection, Jeremy himself couldn’t believe what had just happened: “Oh, My God! Holly Cow!”. He was amazed, Yuka Sato, his coach, was amazed, I was amazed; and I’m pretty sure the thousands of people in the arena were amazed too by Jeremy’s last competitive long program. Unfortunately, given his lack of confidence in the short (for many skaters, attempting a quad is just like playing the lottery), Jeremy was only able to manage a fifth place in the end; he finishes his career without a place on the World podium, but with a massive fan base all over the world – and knowing he won our hearts. Not to mention the fact that Japan has definitely been a good home for him: Jeremy was third at the 2013 NHK Trophy, in November. And, to tell you the truth, I do love his Gala routine too, skated on “Latch” by Disclosure. A true gem.
I’m definitely proud of our European champion. With his second World bronze medal and his fourth place at the Olympics in Sochi, Javier Fernandez proved he’s consistent – and very well trained; adding these medals to his consecutive European titles (2013 and 2014) it means the Spaniard is here to stay – and his winnings were definitely not an accident. I first saw Javi skating at the 2010 Worlds in Torino: trained by Nikolai Morozov, he was the Pirate of the Caribbean – and finished the event on the 12th place; I might have even taken a picture of a Spanish flag back then. In 2011, he was 9th at the Europeans and 10th at the Worlds – and in the following season, 6th at the continental event and 9th at the Worlds. In 2013, he erupted like a volcano which had stayed too much asleep: first place at the Europeans in Zagreb, third place at the Worlds in London, Canada – and these results repeated themselves in the Olympic season.
His gradual rise on the figure skating scene and the fact that he was able to maintain himself at the top are a great joy for the European fans: we do have a great skater fighting for medals at the World Championships and Grand Prix Events. Not to mention he’s now followed at competitions by an armada of Spanish flags – and his fans’ joy and support are truly contagious (I let myself carried away by their enthusiasm at this year’s edition of the Europeans in Budapest – and I’m glad I did). Of course, at the 2014 Worlds in Saitama, the Spaniard couldn’t go higher than third place: Yuzuru Hanyu, his training colleague and friend, and Tatsuki Machida both skated wonderfully. But Javier produced two amazing routines (golden, I’d say, in any other circumstances), skating with confidence and composure; and being a part of Orser’s team might have proven the winning card for Javier Fernandez. I really hope to see him get a medal at the Grand Prix Final hosted by Barcelona this year, in December.
Then and now:
Ashley Wagner: a terrific free program in Saitama and a strong finish of the Olympic season. Well, this was definitely a tough season for the American skater. After winning silver at Skate America, gold at Trophee Eric Bompard and bronze at the Grand Prix Final in Fukuoka (what a gorgeous start of season she had), Ashley found herself struggling to get a spot in the US Olympic Team, after being 4th at the National Championships. For years, those winning medals at the US Championships were named in the Olympic team – and, at the event in Boston, Massachusetts, the order was: Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds, Mirai Nagasu. Ashley was exactly 8 points behind Mirai – and, once again, as in 2010, in great danger of not going to the Olympics. Eventually, she was named in the Olympic team – but in extremis and with a lot of fellow Americans contesting the US federation’s decision. To me, to the rest of us, Ashley definitely deserved her spot in the team – if not for other reasons than the one she actually helped winning three places in the ladies’ event at the Olympics in Sochi.
Surely, the Olympic experience was nothing as she expected – and, frankly, the results in the ladies’ event were among the most contested in all figure skating’ history – but at the Worlds in Saitama, Ashley had a shot at redemption; and after a not-so-convincing short program (she keeps underrotating some of her jumps), she did just that in the free: her decision to come back to the Samson and Delilah free program might have been one of her best decisions this season. She confidently attacked every single element of the routine – and sold it beautifully to the public; and the audience in Saitama Super Arena rewarded her with standing ovation. Though the result might have not been what she was hoping for (seventh place in Japan), Ashley definitely showed her true character on the ice: she’s a fighter.
So Youn Park: a new Yuna on the horizon? I have to say I’m amazed: the 16-year-old skater from South Korea, So Youn Park, was to me the revelation of the ladies’ event – and I really didn’t see that coming. She was confident and gracious – and I was totally conquered by the “package” she delivered in Saitama Super Arena: a wonderful jumping technique, gorgeous arms’ movement and a great feeling for the music. It reminded me of Yuna Kim – a lot, actually – and I’m pretty sure that Yuna has something to do with the rise of these young South Korean skaters on the international scene. On the other hand, when you already have this incredible amount of talent in the ladies’ event, who would have thought that a practically anonymous skater from South Korea would finish the Worlds in Saitama on the ninth place? Not me, that’s for sure. But I’m thrilled that something like this happened and I know now that South Korea takes this hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympics very seriously. And it should: with Yuna Kim, the popularity of figure skating in South Korea must be incredibly high at the moment – and one can only imagine the little girls from all around the country wanting to be like Yuna; just like in Romania, after the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, when all the girls wanted to be like Nadia Comaneci, the gymnast winning the perfect score.
Aliona and Robin: an era ends, a new era begins. For years on end, the pairs’ event was all about these talented skaters representing Germany – and about Ingo Steuer, their innovative coach, bronze Olympic medalist in Nagano, 1998, alongside Mandy Woetzel. In the last decade, this fabulous trio made wonders on the ice – and their programs were to me the highlights of the entire discipline. And what better way to end their competitive career as a pair than – again – a memorable performance, skated on music from the ballet ”The Nutcracker”… In a figure skating discipline dominated by technique, Aliona and Robin were artists – and doing ballet on ice in this last season together they actually discovered muscles they didn’t know they had. I had tears in my eyes watching their last skate in Saitama – and I could swear Ingo, their coach, was in tears too, touched by their students’ performance. And discovering that Aliona decided to continue competing – she actually teamed up with the French Bruno Massot, aiming to reach the 2018 Winter Olympics – I can only applaud her strength and perseverance. It must be incredibly hard to start from scratch with a brand new partner; and she knows that, but, still, she’s willing to try. Hats off to her, hats off to Ingo for continuously pushing the boundaries of the sport.
The second 4th place at the World Championships must be disappointing for Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch. For me, it is, that’s certain. I do consider Kirsten and Dylan a wonderful pair on the ice, but I actually don’t see this wonderfulness reflected in their scores. Giving their start of the season – second place at Skate America, third place at Rostelecom Cup – I was pretty sure they’d get a medal at the Worlds these time; but in spite of their impeccable routines, they failed (once again) in reaching the podium. With Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy withdrawing as a competitive pair (and Aliona having to sit out for a year before returning to competition with Bruno Massot), I will definitely cheer for the Canadians in the 2014-2015 season. I find their connection on the ice absolutely wonderful, as if they were playing, as if they were really enjoying their skating together. Their optimism, positive attitude really transpires from their skating – and I do love the breath of fresh air they bring to the pairs’ discipline. Can’t wait to the start of the season to see them again.
Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat: the rose and the prince – and their final reverence. At the beginning of the season, the French ice dancers were categorical: they wanted an Olympic medal – and they’d finish their competitive career in Sochi, at the Olympics. Well, in spite of their efforts and their wonderful innovations, Nathalie and Fabian were once again in the proximity of the Olympic podium and not on it. And it was incredibly sad to see them both upset and disappointed by this outcome, when their goal was clear and they did everything in their power to achieve it. Their last free dance as a competitive couple, “The Prince and his rose”, meant to incorporate all their strengths: their creativity, their freedom, their joy of skating; it was meant to be an Olympic medal winning routine – and for a lot of figure skating admirers it was just that. But for the judges in Sochi, it was only the fourth routine of the night and the skaters’ frustration was understandable. Finishing their career on this note would have certainly been a pity – after all, they have tons of fans all around the world – which is why I was absolutely thrilled by their decision to continue till the Worlds in Saitama. Leaving their Olympic regrets behind, Nathalie and Fabian skated in Japan the best free program of their season – a wonderful goodbye to their fans, to the appreciative crowd in Saitama Super Arena and a wonderful finish of their story on ice.
Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov: what a season they had. One thing is sure: if it weren’t for their mistakes at the Europeans and the Worlds, Lena and Nikita had had – alongside their Olympic bronze – the European title and also the World crown. This talented couple actually lost two precious gold medals due to their personal errors – and, in either case, the couple who took advantage of the Russians’ poor performance was the same: the more consistent Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte. Of course, Elena and Nikita are still young and some say (and I totally agree) they’re the future. They have the potential to be great, the talent, the charisma, the skills, the attitude – and if they don’t split until the beginning of the season they may very well be the pair who’ll dominate the next Olympic cycle.
Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje: 0.02 points to the gold medal. Can you believe it? I don’t. Looking at these scores – Anna and Luca: 175.43 points; Kaitlyn and Andrew: 175.41 points; Nathalie and Fabian: 175.37 points – I have to be honest with you: I wish it had been a way to award three gold medals at this year’s edition of the Worlds; the outcome would have certainly looked more credible – because, if I may ask, what’s 0.02 in ice dancing? Or 0.06? A wink of an eye? An extra movement of the arm? This is too small a difference to say one’s better than the other – and this issue might need to be addressed at some point in the future, when discussing the figure skating Code of Points. All in all, I have to say I’m happy: two of my favorite free dances of the season – “Maria de Buenos Aires” and “The Prince and his rose” – were awarded medals at this edition of the Worlds. And I am really thrilled about the Canadians’ silver, their first World medal, after they’ve been 5th in 2011, 4th in 2012 and 5th again in 2013. A great performance in front of the best audience ever – and a medal atop of that; this is what I call a wonderful end of the season. And I’m pretty sure they’ll come back in autumn, hungry for more.
A big hand of applause to…
In the end, a final reverence to the following: Christopher Caluza (his short program is an absolute gem); Ivan Righini (what a debut for the student of Oleg Vasiliev, I was impressed by his version of the Bolero); Jin Seo Kim (figure skating in South Korea is definitely rising; and this young man has wonderful skills, including an incredible knee bend), Zoltan Kelemen (he skated with joy, with ease – and I’m really proud of our Romanian champion); Maxim Kovtun (I’ll say it once again: his flamenco routine is a masterpiece); Takahiko Kozuka (I wish nothing but good things for this incredibly gifted skater from Japan; if only he could smile during his routines…), Han Yan (my favorite triple Axel in the competition – and a great talent to go along with jumping technique), Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (this season they shined: silver at the Europeans, silver at the Olympics, silver at the Worlds), Anna Pogorilaya (I love her maturity – and her skills on the ice; and I’ll definitely follow her in the years to come); Polina Edmunds (great skate both in the short in the free; I truly hope she won’t vanish); Kaetlyn Osmond (I’m conquered by her wonderful attitude on the ice; she fully enters the character she interprets), Akiko Suzuki (this Japanese lady is artistically brilliant; I can’t wait to see the routines she’ll choreograph); Julia Lipnitskaia (at the Worlds in Saitama, this talented girl seemed to have enjoyed the warm welcome she received from the audience – and this is definitely a step forward for a very serious, introvert skater…); Elladj Balde (what a free program and a what a soft, fluent skate he’s showed in Saitama); Nam Nguyen (at 15-year-old, he’s already mature – a great debut for him in Japan); Madison Chock and Evan Bates (are they convincing in “Les Misérables” or what?); Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier (the most innovative couple in the ice dancing discipline right now; it’s a joy to watch them every time…), Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte (I wasn’t a fan of their free program this season, but they are indeed one of the most consistent ice dance couple of the moment – and I loved their short); and, last but not the least, the gorgeous free skate of Valentina Marchei (I’d really love to see her again in the season to come…).