2014 Skate America: the road to PyeongChang has begun

The American Jason Brown (here at 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard) definitely has his eyes on 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea

The American Jason Brown (here at 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard) definitely has his eyes on 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea

With 2014 Skate America hosted last weekend by Chicago, the four-years cycle leading to PyeongChang has started – and some of the competitors in Sears Central Arena are definitely targeting the 2018 Winter Olympics. Let’s take Elena Radionova, for example – this wonderful young lady, skating to Rachmaninov, swept us all in her performance, conquering the gold medal on American soil and punctuating she’ll be a force to be reckon with the years to come. Don’t let her angelique figure fool you – Elena is a rock, a skater with nerves of steel, giving 100% percent to save some of her shaky landings during the free skate. The 15-year-old Russian skated her heart out in Chicago – and her strength and determination easily entered my list of highlights from the first Grand Prix of the season. Here’s the rest.

by Florentina Tone

Madison Chock and Evan Bates: could this be their season to shine? To me and to many others, their short dance, skated to music from “Don Quixote”, was, without any doubt, the short program of the night. There was such an air of mistery and sophistication in their routine – such a different approach to the Paso Doble – that you couldn’t resist being amazed by the story they told on the ice. One thing is sure: I completely forgot there was a pattern dance in front of my eyes – and when this happens you know it’s good. I’m not as enthusiastic about their free program for this season – to “An American in Paris”, by George Gershwin – but Madison and Evan are selling it beautifully. And when she’ll decide to retire from competitive skating, she might very well turn to acting; that convincing she is.

You should have seen this: Denis Ten and Tatsuki Machida, both in white shirts, black pants, rehearsing the same type of piruette during the warm-up prior to their skating. Each one, a reflection of the other – as if a mirror had been miraculously placed in the middle of the skaters. In my personal list of memorable images, this is one of my favorites.

Letting aside the triple axel, the short program of Michael Christian Martinez was a joy to watch – and I may have developed an addiction to Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 2. Of course, Mao Asada has something to do with that – her Olympic program, her tears and emotions in Sochi tied me irrecoverably to Rachmaninov – but the 17-year-old skater from the Philippines is nonetheless a wonderful interpreter of this powerful and touching piece of music. I loved the routine, the overall atmosphere of the program and this was clearly a great debut for Martinez, at the first Grand Prix of his career. Not to mention he is the first skater, not just from the Philippines, but from the Southeast Asian region to compete in the International Skating Union series.

Jeremy Abbott’s short program at Skate America. I have to say I’m amazed: I could watch this particular program, skated to “Lay Me Down” by Sam Smith, a thousand times. Letting himself loose, Jeremy created an aura of freedom and tranquility, of hope and perseverance; a story having his particular signature – he choreographed the program, alongside Yuka Sato. For 2 minutes and 50 seconds, I followed him in his journey and I was definitely hoping for a podium placement in the end. But, in spite of an equally gorgeous long program, on a shivering music, Jeremy couldn’t escape his old habits; a first mistake was followed by many others – and this wonderfully talented skater ended up on the fifth place. All in all, I’m glad he didn’t give up on the competitive skating; his programs are food for the soul.

Yuko and Alexander: Russian drama at its peak. One of the biggest stories of this season has already happened on October 25th and 26th in Chicago, with Yuko and Alexander looking for redemption, after last season’s struggle. Alexander’s injury kept them off the competition for the Russian Olympic team and this must have been terribly hard for an incredibly talented pair, left just outside the podium in Vancouver-2010. On Saturday, they skated a marvel of a program, to Méditation by Jules Massenet – and Yuko, in her azure dress, was like a feather, like a whisper; they both reminded me, in a way, of my all-time-favorite pair, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze.
On Sunday it was a completely different type of program, with Yuko and Alexander getting standing ovation for their dramatic interpretation of Tchaikovski’s Manfred Symphony. It was greatness in its purest form on the ice of Sears Central Arena in Chicago – and I loved every single second of this impressive, touching routine, that featured a triple toe-triple toe sequence, level four lifts and spins – and a gigantic throw quadruple Salchow. 140 points for this program, 209.16 points overall and a great start of the season for these perseverant, hard-working skaters. At the end of the night, Eric Radford wrote on twitter: “I am EXTREMELY impressed by kavaguti/smirnov. Impressed and inspired”.

There is so much to admire at Yuko and Alexander (here, at the 2012 Worlds in Nice, preparing to skate to Clair de Lune, by Debussy)

There is so much to admire at Yuko and Alexander (here, at the 2012 Worlds in Nice, preparing to skate to Clair de Lune, by Debussy)

Elisabeth Paradis and François-Xavier Ouellette: a pretious discovery. Their free program in Chicago, to wonderful music by Jean-Pierre Ferland (“Un peu plus haut”) and Karl-Hugo van de Kerckhov (“Composition”), was a true gem – and definitely the most impressive free dance of the night in my personal classification. I was touched, marveled, overwhelmed, and my mind, invaded by tens of questions: Who are they? Why haven’t I seen them before? Why, where, when?… and a magical moment in Sears Central Arena, a powerful dance, with amazing innovations. And as soon as it finished, I wanted to see it again. Hats off to Elisabeth, Xavier and their team of coaches, Patrice Lauzon, Marie-France Dubreuil, Pascal Denis, Romain Haguenauer – and I can’t wait to see them again at Skate Canada, the second Grand Prix of the season. Marie-France Dubreuil congratulated the pair on Facebook – and I do find her message wonderful: “Travail, détermination et croire en sa bonne étoile. Eli, Xav, félicitation pour cette belle 4ieme place à Skate America et continuez à avoir le courage de suivre ce chemin. On est très fière de vous!”

Alexandra, Ivan and their Stepukin twizzles. Just the first Grand Prix of the season – and the figure skating admirers have already baptized those gorgeous twizzles of the Russians. Remember this particular name, “Stepukin” – you’ll heard it a lot all throughout the season. Leaving aside the controversy – Are they really twizzles or are in fact spins? Why have they received a level 1 in both Short Dance and Free Dance? – I have to say I admire this young Russian couple, with a beautiful posture on the ice and great innovations. I’m not sure about their Paso Doble – they seem to be too soft, too lyric for this particular dance, with character, with attitude – but I’m definitely conquered by the wonderful simplicity of their free dance, which suits them and their style of skating like a glove. One thing is sure: it’s about time for them to confirm the 2013 World Junior crown. I was looking forward to seeing them shine on the (Senior) international stage – and I’m glad Skate America was the first step to their success; a bronze medal here and a great future ahead.

The Shibutanis and the Blue Danube: a match made in heaven. I’ll be brief: I am utterly in love with this waltz, first showed in Bratislava, at Ondrej Nepela Trophy, at the beginning of October. I can not imagine a better musical choice for Maia and Alex, emphasizing their style, their strenghts – and the American themselves pointed out this is already one of their favorite programs in their career so far. “Thank you”, Marina Zueva told them at the end of their free dance; and I feel like saying the exact same thing. Smooth, lovely – and, to me, the difference between them, on one hand, and Madison and Evan, on the other hand, was way to big. As a reminder, Madison Chock and Evan Bates scored 102.07 points for their free dance (and 171.03 overall), while the Shibutanis received 96.19 points for the free (and 160.33 overall). “Skate America was a great experience, highlighted by the standing ovation we received”, wrote Maia on twitter, adding: “Now we’re ready to get back to training! Ready to show improvement across the board, but even more excited to go out and compete again”. Their next competition is Cup of China, November 7-9.

Denis Ten: his programs are definitely golden. Well, the Olympic bronze medalist is not there yet in terms of shape and confidence – Denis is struggling again with boot problems, also recovering from a viral infection that forced him to withdraw from Nebelhorn Trophy – but both of his programs have a huge potential to turn into masterpieces by the end of the season. The short is skated to Caruso, emphasizing the wonderful musicality of the Kazakhstani skater, and the free program, to music by Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble, is already one of my favorites: wonderful steps and transitions, great musical cuts – and the costume, a true work of art… And I’m sure we’ll see a different face of Denis at Trophee Eric Bompard, three weeks from now.

Tatsuki Machida: a real contender for the World gold medal in Shanghai. If we take into consideration the shape he is in now – and the programs he skated in Chicago – we might say the 24-year-old Japanese skater is already with one foot on the World podium. Technically brilliant, Tatsuki scored 269.09 points overall, winning Skate America’s gold medal for a second year in a row – the first man to repet as SA champion since Timothy Goebel (2000 in 2001). And with a huge difference too: the Japanese was almost 35 points ahead of the American Jason Brown. Actually, after the short program, Tatsuki was already 12 points ahead of Jeremy Abbott – and, to me, it was virtually impossible for him to lose the gold.
As for his impeccable routine to Symphony No. 9 by Ludwig van Beethoven, I must say I’m impressed: big music, big program – and a completely exhausted Tatsuki in the end. At the press conference he confessed: “This new program is very challenging for me, and I have to give my 120 percent, otherwise the performance will not make it. While I am practicing, I can skate clean. But to perform in front of spectators is much harder. It was not easy today, but after hearing how the spectators responded to my performance, everything was rewarded”.

Nam Nguyen vs Adian Pitkeev: the 16-year-old Canadian wins again. 2014 Skate America was their first encounter since the Junior Worlds (gold for Nam, silver for Adian, this March in Sofia) and I was looking forward to a replay. Well, the replay happened – and Nam Nguyen won again, due to a great strategy and a great team of coaches and advisers. Since March, the Canadian took part in the 2014 (Senior) Worlds in Saitama and he continuously learns from the experience of both Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernandez, with whom he shares the ice of Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club. At his first Senior Grand Prix, Nam had the second best free program of the night and won the bronze medal overall, while his fellow Russian only managed a sixth place at his Senior debut. “The greatest moment in my life so far”, wrote Nam on Instagram, as a caption for a podium photo in Chicago – and the season starts well for both him and Mr. Orser.

It’s raining plushy toys on Jason Brown. I’ll definitely remember Jason’s free program in Chicago – a dramatical story on the ice, to Tristan&Iseult by Maxime Rodriguez – but I’ll remember even more the stuffed animals flying over the ice, at the end of his performance. Jason had previously stated he would donate the gifts to the Ronald McDonald House Charities – and he definitely received tens of them after both the short and the free. On his social media accounts, the very popular American skater thanked everyone for their support: “There are literally no words to describe my gratitude & thanks in regards to everyone’s contributions & support towards the ‪#‎RonaldMcDonaldHouseCharities‬! I got to host a ‪#‎RMH‬ family at ‪#‎SA2014‬ today & they had a blast and were so excited when they saw all the stuffed animals I will be donating over thanksgiving on behalf of all of you! This truly wouldn’t have been possible without all of your support & from the deepest part of my heart, I want to say thank you…”

A final reverence to the following: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (this is a wonderful beginning of the season for Liza: gold at Nebelhorn Trophy, gold at Finlandia, gold at Cup of Nice, silver at Skate America; what a great team she and Mr. Mishin are); Elene Gedevanishvili (I’m thrilled to see her like that so early in the season; she seemed to have gained her lost confidence); So Youn Park (what a future this girl has, following into Yuna’s footsteps); Samantha Cesario (she is Carmen! I loved her attitude in both short and free at Skate America – not to mention her costumes); Ingo Steuer (as strange as it was to see him at the boards and in Kiss and Cry with some other pair that Savchenko/Szolkowy, I have to say I’m thrilled he decided to try something else, challenging again his creativity).