Sep. 14, 2016
Junior Grand Prix Ostrava: Recap and Skaters to Watch
We're not even two weeks into the figure skating season, and I'm already behind on blogging. Part of the problem is that the entire Junior Grand Prix series is on the other side of the world, at least from my perspective, which means a lot of early mornings yawning in front of the live stream. The other part is that the first weekend in September might be business as usual in the Czech Republic, but it's a national holiday here, the kind on which your friends expect you to pry yourself away from the computer and have a social life. Because nobody wants to celebrate Labor Day at 6 AM, I did manage to watch most of JGP Ostrava live, but I've had to wait until the festivities ended to write up what I saw.
Before I get to the juniors, though, I want to spare a few sentences for Nathan Chen, who has not only recovered from hip surgery but unveiled an arsenal of blisteringly difficult quadruple jumps. In his short program at the Golden West Championships, a club meet in California, he attempted both a quad flip and a quad lutz, and the jumps were impressive despite the falls. I still wish he'd bring more personality to his performances; he moves a bit like a clockwork ballerina in this program, and what the top men in the world have proven over and over is, the quads don't mean a thing if you can't bring components to match. Chen will be a massive wild card this season, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he measures up.
But the juniors were the main event last weekend. Ostrava's field was illustrious, as much as a competition can be at the junior level: it featured two teams of reigning World Junior Champions and a number of up-and-coming ladies who'd been getting buzz on the message boards all summer. Overall, the top of the field delivered, although there was less depth in Ostrava than in St. Gervais a week earlier. There were plenty of great performances, but not a lot of New Faves this time around.
Only half of the Junior Grand Prix events include pairs, so Ostrava was our first opportunity to see the best juniors in the discipline. Unfortunately, most were a mess: it was the kind of competition where talented but inconsistent Americans Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson could eke out a bronze medal despite three falls and an illegal element. Czech team Anna Duskova and Martin Bidar had the pleasure of skating for a hometown crowd but the pressure of proving that they really are the pre-eminent junior pair after their surprise victory at Junior Worlds last winter. They made a strong case for themselves, building up an enormous lead with a technically flawless short program that featured a huge throw triple lutz. Duskova and Bidar struggled a bit more in the free skate, but their short program advantage held up, and they started their season with gold. My concern about Duskova and Bidar is their so-so artistry; they're clean and poised, but even their graceful lifts don't show a lot of emotion or chemistry.
Russia's Amina Atakhanova and Ilia Spiridonov might not have kept up with Duskova and Bidar's massive technical scores, but they stole the show for me. They're the kind of team that has chemistry even when they're not looking at each other, and their "Singing in the Rain" free skate is a great match for their light, fleet-footed style. And they're no slouches in the technical department, either: their opening triple toe loop-double toe loop-double toe loop combination was one of the weekend's biggest wow moments. They more or less tied with Duskova and Bidar in program components in both the short and the free, and they won the free skate outright. Atakhanova is only fourteen years old, so these two have plenty of time to grow together.
As in pairs, the ladies had trouble staying on their feet. Of the top six finishers, only one managed to keep herself upright through both programs. That was South Korea's Hanul Kim, and she had other problems, receiving deductions for underrotations on the two hardest jumping passes in her free skate and every triple jump in her short program. Underrotations plagued other skaters, too, especially Russia's Alisa Lozko, who took deductions on five of the seven jumping passes in her free skate but still did enough for a bronze medal. Lozko had some terrific moments - she is, among other things, an extraordinary spinner - but she looked unsteady throughout. Yuna Aoki of Japan had an even rougher ride, testing out extremely tough jumps that included a triple lutz-triple loop combination in the second half of her free skate. But the lutz was her enemy; out of three attempts, Aoki fell on two and barely hung onto the third. With so many teenagers presenting incredible jumps, I understand Aoki's desire to stand out, but the hard technical content seemed to overwhelm her. All three of the girls in this paragraph are fourteen years old, and so many difficult jumps are a lot to ask of such young skaters.
Megan Wessenberg, of the United States, was the oldest skater at the top of the field, but she still seemed to let her nerves get to her. She looked like she had it all together in her short program after a high, controlled triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination, but she ran out of gas toward the end and fell on an easy double Axel. Even so, her energy and musicality made her short program one of the artistic highlights of the event. It's rare to see a junior lady who can reel the audience in with a hip shimmy.
The other notable underdog at Ostrava was Michaela-Lucie Hanzlikova, a Czech skater who climbed up from 17th in the short program to 9th overall on the strength of the afternoon's cleanest free skate. Hanzlikova doesn't have the triple-triple jump combinations that bring giant scores to the ladies at the very top of the sport, but she had enough stamina and focus in Ostrava to maintain great height and controlled landings throughout her program. She's also one of the few skaters I've seen with enough intensity to pull off Carmina Burana, not to mention a fierce blue ponytail. It was the kind of performance that justified waking up extra early to catch the skaters in the middle groups.
Rika Kihira got loads of pre-season attention from fans because, at barely fourteen years old, she competes a triple Axel. She landed a terrific one in the warm-up to her free skate, but nerves and timing seemed to get to her in the program itself, and she not only fell but received a downgrade for underrotation. The stricter rules of the short program forced her to focus on the big picture, and she fared much better there, establishing an early lead. The judges rewarded her mightily for one of the best triple lutz-triple toe loop combinations I've ever seen, with the kind of height and power I'm used to seeing in men's skating. I'm a tough critic when it comes to Ravel's "Tzigane," since it's a piece of music I love, and I wish Kihira had captured its frenetic joy a bit more. But she has a natural sense of rhythm, clearly using the music to help her time those beautiful jumps, and she got great mileage out of choreographic touches like the twizzles in her step sequence. It was like she'd taken a brief, brilliant detour into ice dance.
At the very top, the ladies' event was exactly the type of nail-biter that keeps fans watching, and a terrific contrast to the blowout in St. Gervais. Anastasiia Gubanova is one of the most promising of this year's crop of tiny Russians; it will be interesting as the season progresses to see how she stacks up against last week's winner, Alina Zagitova, not to mention last season's breakout stars, Polina Tsurskaya and Alisa Fedichkina, both of whom will compete later in the JGP series after a summer recovering from injuries. Gubanova's free skate doesn't game the system nearly as much as Zagitova's, but she makes up for it with extraordinary skating skills, especially for her age. Gubanova is whip-fast, with secure edges and clean jump technique that contrasted admirably with the rotation and edge errors that most of her competitors committed. Like many young skaters, Gubanova is still developing her personality on the ice, although she's already learned to project a quiet elegance and maturity. Her Interpretation and Performance components accounted for far more than her slim 0.08 advantage over Kihira, and I agree with the judges that it was Gubanova's performance quality that ultimately pushed her ahead.
Everyone knew that dance was going to be the Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter show, and indeed it was. The reigning World Junior Champions won by almost 17 points, which is a margin we seldom see in any discipline, but almost never in dance. I had to set McNamara and Carpenter aside to watch the rest of the field on their own terms, and when I did, I still saw a lot of disappointment. Chloe Lewis and Logan Bye arrived with hopes of erasing a rocky 2015-16 but instead more firmly established themselves as a team with problems, especially in the twizzle department. In both their short dance and free dance, Lewis and Bye stepped out of their difficult twizzle sequences, dropping down to a low-scoring level 1 and receiving negative grades of execution. I was also disappointed to see Canadians Danielle Wu and Nik Mirzakhani get savaged on their components scores, falling to 7th overall despite impressive technical content. And one of the event's two young, newly formed Russian teams, Evgeniia Lopareva and Alexey Karpushov, proved the importance of the required pattern dances in the short dance, knocking themselves out of medal contention with timing errors and missed checkpoints.
The other Russian team, Arina Ushakova and Maxim Nekrasov, looked like a pair of tiny peanuts compared to competitors with several seasons of Junior Grand Prix experience, and I can't wait to see what they look like in a couple of years. Now, they're already strong enough for a bronze medal in their international debut. In both programs, their rotational lifts were the biggest highlights, transitioning smoothly through difficult changes of position and showing off Nekrasov's steady, confident partnering skills. Artistically, Nekrasov can't quite stand up to Ushakova's charismatic face-pulling, but he's the stronger technical skater. If they can each learn from the other as they grow as a team, they'll be a full-package threat.
Nicole Kuzmich and Alexander Sinicyn were back for the second week in a row with their delightfully weird Charlie Chaplin free dance, and skating in the Czech Republic seemed to inject them with an extra dose of energy. This week, they upgraded their score by eight points in the free dance alone and boasted the highest technical base value in the field (a tie with Wu and Mirzakhani, actually, although Kuzmich and Sinicyn earned much higher grades of execution). In addition to performing the heck out of everything, they synchronized their moves perfectly, making a tough twizzle pass look smooth and easy. They're so stylistically different from the other junior teams, building difficulty from upper body and arm positions in ways that other teams apparently don't think to do. It's also refreshing to see such a whimsical free dance, when ice dance so easily descends into glurgey seriousness. A JGP silver medal should be a great boost to their confidence, and it might even be enough for them to snag a spot at the Junior Grand Prix Final.
Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter were the undisputed headliners of the ice dance event, and they delivered as advertised, setting a new personal best in the short dance and blowing the rest of the field out of the water. They've stuck with their signature style, quirky and a little menacing, but they've applied it in a new way with this free dance, blending conventional ice dance lyricism with very rock-and-roll moves that remind you they're skating to Metallica and AC/DC. The judges nailed them on levels in their step sequences and dance spin, some of which can be chalked up to conservative judging overall in Ostrava, and the rest of which is probably the result of technical upgrades they're not quite comfortable with at this early point in the season. Their new lifts are spectacular, though: a rotational lift that looks like an assisted, airborne sit spin and a straight line lift in which McNamara swings back and forth across Carpenter's body like the needle of a metronome. We already knew they were awesome, and it's fun to see them getting even more awesome.
After a low-scoring men's event in St. Gervais, quads were busting out all over Ostrava. All three medalists scored over 200 points this week, and the winner's score might have placed him on the podium in the senior Grand Prix. On the other hand, the men's field in Ostrava lacked the pleasant surprises of St. Gervais, with the podium shaking out more or less as expected and few bright spots beyond the top three. The ISU commentator, whom I think of affectionately as Father Ted, was very excited about Canada's Joseph Phan, who is trying so hard to set himself up as the next Patrick Chan that their names rhyme. But Phan's jump technique worries me, as does his failure to complete a triple-triple combination in his free skate. Lovelier to watch but equally prone to underrotation was Kevin Shum of the USA. On the national level, Shum has gotten far with clean performances and elegant execution, but he can't afford the kinds of mistakes he made in Ostrava.
Last week's gold medalist, Russian up-and-comer Roman Savosin, took a few steps forward and a few steps back. He beat his overall score from St. Gervais by about nine points and achieved a full set of new personal bests, but it was only good enough for a bronze medal in this more challenging field. It looked like he'd spent the week restoring consistency to his triple Axel, the jump he fell on in St. Gervais, but that success came at the expense of his quadruple toe loop, which he couldn't hang onto in Ostrava. He did give the most engaging and artistically mature free skate performance of the three medalists, although that's mostly because he has a natural dancerly quality, while the other two have to work hard to avoid looking like a sack of bricks. In any case, I'm pleased to see Savosin perform consistently well, and his results should be more than enough to take him to the JGP Final. Since that's not until December, he'll have plenty of time to figure out how to land all his tricky jumps before his next big meet.
Alexei Krasnozhon ensured that the United States took home a medal of every color this weekend. Evoking Adam Rippon, he took a wild stab at a quadruple loop. While it was exciting to see a junior-level skater attempt such a difficult jump, it was downgraded for underrotation, and Krasnozhon got scant credit for it. Elsewhere, however, his jumps were terrific, especially the triple-triple combinations that earned him the two highest single-element point totals of the weekend. But what really impressed me was how much Krasnozhon has progressed artistically, even though he still has a long way to go. Reportedly, he studied Brian Boitano's iconic free skate to Copland's Rodeo while developing his own, and he's picked up a keener sense of how to hold his upper body and express emotional range. It's hard for me to resist a skater who identifies a problem and says, "Let me spend hours researching that on YouTube." If that's his path to finding an original artistic voice, that's wonderful; if not, I look forward to years of entertaining cover versions of classic performances.
When Dmitri Aliev is on his game, it's easy to forget that he's ever off of it. His quad toe loops and triple Axels looked stunning, and although the judges found fault with his rotation of a few of them, it's hard to deny their impact when he launches them. Aliev's knee slide to triple flip remains the kind of transition gimmick I can't get enough of, but his free skate is a bit choreographically empty otherwise, especially in comparison to Savosin's and Krasnozhon's. There are an awful lot of back crossovers in there, and an awful lot of breathing room in between major elements. I suspect that Aliev is capable of more, because when his choreography gives him a chance to perform - as in the mock sword fight that makes his step sequence a delight - he really sells it. But this is a concern more for his future career than for the present, since he established himself last weekend as a tough act to beat.
This weekend brings a double bill: the third event in the Junior Grand Prix series, and the first in the Challenger Series of "senior B" events. Since this week's JGP is in Japan, and I enjoy sleeping, I'm going to opt for watching the Lombardia Trophy live and saving JGP Yokohama for the YouTube replay. People message me on social media a lot about where and when to catch events like these online, and the best resource for viewing info is So You Want to Watch Figure Skating. I am certain that you will be much less of an idiot about verifying time zone differences than I am.