Sep. 14, 2016
This Weekend in Men's Skating: JGP Saransk and US International Classic
Figure skating season is in full swing now, and you can tell by the griping about the poor quality of the live streams. The complaints are well-justified. During the second half of the ladies' short program at the Junior Grand Prix event in Saransk, Russia, the sound was a good 90 seconds ahead of the video, which not only irritated the viewers but made it impossible to assess the skaters' artistic performances. Fans had to pay to watch this weekend's Challenger Series competition, the US International Classic, which streamed on IceNetwork, and the live feed skipped so badly through most of the events that it was impossible to tell what was going on. I had to speak with customer service for an unrelated issue during the event, and it became clear from those conversations that the feed problems were beyond IceNetwork's direct control; there were issues with the internet speed and bandwidth in the arena in Salt Lake City. That's why the replay videos are high quality and don't skip. If the Salt Lake City Sports Complex continues to host the event, as it has for the past several years, it needs to ensure that it's equipped to provide a functioning stream for IceNetwork's paying customers. This isn't to let IceNetwork off the hook by any means, since they have a long history of wonky live streams, just to acknowledge that there are a lot of things that can go wrong when you're streaming live sports events and don't have the budget of the National Football League. And even if you do have that kind of budget - remember a few years ago when the Super Bowl got held up for an hour because of a power outage? Basically, my take-away is, keep complaining and demanding better quality, so the live stream providers know we care and are watching. But also recognize that IceNetwork isn't a horrible conspiracy to steal your money, and that you probably pay more for Netflix.
Now that I've stepped down from my soapbox, it's time to talk skating. This season's Challenger Series continues to boast a level of competition almost as high as at the Grand Prix. Indeed, of the 13 men who competed this weekend, eight have at least one Grand Prix assignment. The US Classic field was also more evenly balanced than at many Grand Prix events, with a number of guys who could have won on their best day. This week's Junior Grand Prix, on the other hand, was a low-key affair compared to last week's quad-off in Yokohama, but it gave several young, lower-profile skaters a chance to shine. The plucky fifteen-year-olds in Saransk contrasted with the striving veterans in Salt Lake City in a lot of ways, but both groups proved that style and presentation are what make this sport worthwhile.
Junior Grand Prix - Cup of Mordovia
The fourth week of the Junior Grand Prix series presented hard-fought battles and giant scores in some of the other disciplines, but the men's field was more modest than in other weeks and featured an all but preordained winner in Alexander Samarin. Nonetheless, there were plenty of fun and eye-opening performances in Saransk. It was a pleasure to see Eric Sjoberg, an American who has just moved up from the novice level, starting to develop a personal style on the ice, focusing on movement quality and stamina as much as on his jumps. He reminds me of Adam Rippon's early days, not only in his on-ice finesse but in his wild jump technique. I also enjoyed watching Tangxu Li of China, who regrouped mentally after a disaster two weeks ago in Ostrava to not only land every jump in his free skate but express the nuances of his music. Performing to the Enchanted soundtrack, he looked like a fairy tale prince. Georgia's Irakli Maysuradze led off his free skate with a spectacular triple Axel, but it was his infectious energy that made him one of the stars of the event. Like many of the competitors in Saransk, he blew away his previous personal best scores and seemed to surprise himself with what he was capable of.
The Russian Federation has shown great confidence in Petr Gumennik over the past couple of seasons, and this weekend, I finally saw why. He was Saransk's comeback kid, rising from 7th in the short program after some jump trouble to come just short of a bronze medal overall. He's one of the few skaters I know of with a bona fide triple loop-triple loop combination, secure on the exit edge of the first jump so the second is cleanly rotated. Gumennik also has beautiful control over his spin positions, tying himself in knots but never looking pained or contorted. He's a charming performer, too, although as he grows up, he's going to have to learn to be less adorable and more genuinely expressive. Russia has been rewarding well-rounded men's skaters more and more, and Gumennik is a great example of that shift in approach.
This weekend's showstopper, without a doubt, was Matyas Belohradsky of the Czech Republic. He's coached by Tomas Verner, and his upbeat flair and floppy blond hair have Tumblr fans calling him Verner's "mini-me." Belohradsky is definitely a performer, and this weekend, he had the jumps as well, opening his short program with an enormous triple lutz-triple toe loop and sailing through the rest. He was only 9th at his other Junior Grand Prix competition, in Ostrava, and he beat his overall score there by more than 20 points. He also earned the Czech Republic's third JGP medal of the season - only Russia, Japan, and the USA have gathered more. If he can keep up the consistency and composure he showed here, and upgrade those jumps, he could become a true successor to Verner.
Andrew Torgashev might be my favorite American junior man. I've been a fan since I watched him win Nationals at the intermediate level in 2013, and I spent last season fretting about how he'd look when he recovered from an ankle fracture that sidelined him for a full year. I'm thrilled to report that the kid is not just alright, but terrific. Torgashev continued the USA's silver medal streak, becoming the third American man in a row to finish in second place. He did it despite some unsteadiness on his jumps - his triple Axel dogged him throughout the competition, and he lost credit for unclear or wrong edges on all three of his triple lutzes - and a bizarre cut of "Bohemian Rhapsody" that intersperses Freddie Mercury's voice with Muzak. He made up for those issues by fighting for the landing on his quadruple toe loop, executing the fastest and most polished non-jump elements of the competition, and rocking out like a tribute to Wayne's World in the final minute of his free program.
It was no surprise that Russia's Alexander Samarin ran away with this one, taking gold by an impressive 24-point margin. He was the only man in Saransk to show confidence in his quad, and the triple Axel in his short program was the best I saw all weekend at any level. He had some jump troubles elsewhere, falling in his short program and missing a combination in his free skate, and it looks like he's still working on the transitions and choreographic moves that will keep his components marks competitive when he moves up to seniors. But his performances were refreshing in another respect. Samarin is this season's poster child for just letting skaters compete to music they like. Last season, skating to a jazz standard and a movie soundtrack, he looked awkward and stiff. This year, he's all rock 'n' roll - a recent shout-rock hit for his short program, a classic hair metal ballad in his free skate - and you can see in his eyes that he never gets tired of hearing these songs. Although they belong to the same musical genre, the two programs have contrasting moods and rhythms, showcasing an artistic range that nobody realized he had. He posted the best overall score of his career in Saransk, but he made a more important statement in his fiery step sequences than in any of his jumps.
US International Classic
The unreliable skaters were out in force in Salt Lake City. Nam Nguyen's quadruple salchow seems to be degenerating: he just barely hung onto one in his free skate, but a fall in his short program and a costly pop on his first free skate attempt reflect a loss of confidence in the jump. His choreography and performance style also challenge him less than his programs from the past couple of years, a strategy that has not improved his technical consistency and has lowered his components scores. The US Classic also brought us the most facepalm-inducing versions of Ross Miner and Keiji Tanaka. Neither fell, but both popped a ton of jumps, looking more and more frantic as they realized how many points they'd left behind. Miner did have a few brilliant moments, including a high, effortless quad salchow in his free skate, but both gave the kind of performance that dooms an athlete from a high-talent country to sit on the bench for the rest of the season.
Elladj Balde filled us all with false hope in the short program, only to melt down thoroughly in the free skate. His SP showed off the Elladj that gets him invitations to galas, though, and the promise that we all keep seeing in him. Wisely forgoing his unreliable quad in favor of triples on which he could earn high grades of execution, Balde skated clean and smooth, opening with a huge triple flip and seeming to time his spin rotations to the music. Unfortunately, Balde is one of those skaters whose performance style doesn't necessarily translate to high components scores; his programs lack the intricate connecting moves that let his American and Japanese competitors absorb a few technical mistakes. His music choice is brilliant, though. More short programs to metal covers of Simon & Garfunkel, I say.
After this weekend, we all have to stop doubting that Brendan Kerry is the real deal. His short program was just all right, but his free skate was the cleanest of a long and messy night. Kerry landed two very plausible quad toe loops in his free skate - the first, in combination, was downright terrific - and found his feet on everything else, even if he had to fight for a landing or two. He also embraced his pirate theme with delightful gusto, swashbuckling through his step sequences and bringing some Jack Sparrow eye twinkle to his breath pauses. His fourth-place finish was a well-deserved surprise, but one that also revealed his limitations. He's an entertaining skater with remarkable power, but he gets slow toward the end, and his choreography gives him a lot of room to recover after each element. That's why he was less than a point behind Rippon in technical elements but 11 points back in program components. He has the charisma and instincts to close the gap. If he gets his transitions and skating skills up to par, we'll stop being surprised every time he posts a success like this one.
How can a skater be dirty and clean at the same time? Adam Rippon showed us the answer in his short program, executing jumps so pristine that he soared into the high 80s without attempting a quad. Rippon's choreography, on the other hand, made us all need a cold shower. Most male skaters are cautious about displaying raw sexiness on the ice, but when Rippon gets to shake his hips and wag his fingers, it's like he's been let out of the chaste choreographic cage that his coaches had stuck him in for a decade before he won a National title and stopped having to care.
After Rippon's short program, I wondered what he has left to prove in this sport, but his free skate provided an answer. He's still chasing that quad lutz, as well as consistency in his triple Axel and an overall smoothness in and out of his jumps. He's also chasing the kind of focus and sharpness that pull down his components scores when he makes mistakes. He's filled in his free skate choreography quite a bit since he premiered the program over the summer, but you can see him trying to hold himself together when those Axels aren't going his way. The same genuineness that lets Rippon treat the ice like a red-hot dance floor also makes Rippon an open book when he's unhappy with himself.
Many fans thought that Takahito Mura should have won both the short program and free skate and were perplexed that he finished behind Jason Brown in both segments. If figure skating were judged purely on technical difficulty, Mura would have had it in the bag. He made a handful of errors - a popped Axel in his free skate, a slightly wonky landing on the quad toe loop in his short program - but he was easily the best jumper in Salt Lake City this weekend. He's also improved artistically over the past couple of years, working with Charlie White to find his inner ice dancer, but like many technically proficient skaters, he trades away a lot of precision and intricacy so he has enough energy to land those big jumps.
At a different competition, up against a different kind of field, the judges might have let his less impressive skating skills slide, but this is America, where even the men have to be pretty in order to succeed. Watching his free skate next to Brown's and Rippon's, Mura looked unsophisticated and, toward the end, winded. His jumps give the top American men something to aspire to, but he's got something to learn from them, as well. Like Rippon, Mura skates like he has something to prove, and I suspect it's that desire for originality and memorability.
Unlike the army of meltdown kings he was up against, Jason Brown is nothing if not consistent. Every time he falls on his quad toe loop attempt, he bounces onto his butt and picks himself up exactly the same way. He's landing the jump more and more often in practice, and he got full rotation credit for the one in his free skate, so it's coming along at the slow pace that Brown's technical upgrades always do. It took a couple of seasons for his triple Axel to show up, and now he executes it with such power and control that he gets huge GOE bonuses for it. That's why it was such a surprise to see him pop his first triple Axel attempt in his free skate. Everything else was glorious, though, from the catch-foot camel spin in his short program that seemed to go around a thousand times to the triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow in the final minute of his free skate that earned more points than anyone's quad. I wish his programs this season were a little less restrained - Brown's personality is more Susan Cooper from Spy than James Bond, and that's part of his charm - but they demonstrate artistic sophistication.
Brown is also one of a very small number of current skaters who can win on the basis of program components, and deserve to. I was actually surprised that his free skate components score didn't break 90, because even with the jump errors, his edges, turns, and speed put most of this weekend's ice dancers to shame. Watching live, I was surprised that Brown won, but on replay, it made sense. If we're truly going to consider PCS to be half of a skater's score, then Brown excelled so much at that half of his job, he left everyone else in the dust.