Sunday, July 7

Happy Birthday, Michelle Kwan

Today, Michelle Kwan celebrates her 33rd birthday! To pay tribute, I have picked some of my favorite performances over the years.

1998 World Professional Championship, Artistic Program
This is my absolute favorite. Skating to 'East of Eden' , it doesn't get any better. I watch this and still get the same chills I had 15 years ago.

2003 World Championships, Free Skate
The audience, the reaction of Dick Button after the final triple Lutz, the footwork sequence. Amazing.

1998 US National Championships, Free Skate
Probably the most famous Michelle Kwan performance. Look at how confident and relaxed she looks at the very beginning of this video. 8 6.0's for presentation!

1995 Skate America, Free Skate
Surprising choice possibly, considering she won Worlds with this program later in the season. However, I still remember the opening clip to this competition and Terry Gannon saying something to the extent of 'I had to ask who this skater was' because of the transformation she had undergone in the off-season. I only saw that clip once. 18 years later, I still remember.

1998 Keri Lotion Classic, Interpretive Free Skate
My favorite exhibition/interpretive free skate from Michelle, to Loreena McKennitt's 'Dante's Prayer'. Simple skating, beautiful choreography, and such haunting music.

Some other favorites (there are so many!):

2001 World Championships, Free Skate
2002 Olympic Games, Exhibition
1996 World Championships, Short Program
2009 Ice All-Stars. Exhibition
1995 World Championships, Free Skate

Which performances were your favorites?

Monday, June 17

Ukrainian Judge Handed Two-Year Suspension-- But There's a Bigger Issue, ISU

Earlier this week, the ISU published a detailed communication describing the actions of Ms. Natalia Kruglova of Ukraine at the 2012 Cup of Nice competition. In short, it is reported that Kruglova approached another judge on the Senior Pairs panel and asked her to give higher Grades of Execution for the technical elements (ie. a +1 instead of a 0). This was likely due to the fact that the ISU had established minimum technical scores needed for each skater or team that needed to be reached in order to participate in the 'Championship' events (Europeans, Four Continents, World Juniors, Worlds). A slight boost on each of the elements, and the team had a much better chance to hit the benchmark needed.

The 2013 World Championships took on extra importance because 80% of the qualifying spots for the Sochi Olympic Games were determined by the skaters' final placements. Had the Ukrainian team (Julia Lavrentieva and Yuri Rudyk) qualified to compete in London, Ontario, they could have been among the 16 'spots' earning an automatic entry for their country had they placed high enough in the final results. In the end, the team did not reach the minimum technical score and will be vying for one of the four remaining Olympic entries at the Nebelhorn Trophy in September.

First and foremost, credit should be given both to the judge who reported the incident and to the referee of the event, Jeroen Prins of the Netherlands, who proceeded with the necessary steps to have action taken against the offending judge. While this can be seen as revolutionary and a stepping stone to getting dishonesty and cheating out of the International Skating Union, I have my reservations.

Remember when I wrote about Italian judge Walter Toigo copying the marks of the judges around him during a Junior Grand Prix competition in 2010? His incident was caught on video and looked into by the ISU. In turn, they issued him a two-year ban. The date of this ban was on or near February 18, 2011.

Sound good so far?

At the 2013 World Championships, less than one month after coming out of his ban, Walter Toigo was on the judging panel for the mens free skating competition. I was assured by those 'in-the-know' prior to writing this article that Toigo definitely received no additional training after coming out of his suspension, and he did not have to take any kind of competency test with the ISU to verify that he understood the system. Instead, it was more of a situation where once the ban was lifted, he retained the credential to judge the 'Championship' events. Italy named him as their judge, and essentially no questions were asked.

If I see a judge copying every single grade of execution from another judge, this tells me that the judge either A) doesn't care and doesn't want to be there or B) doesn't know what he is doing.

If it leans more towards A, problem solved: don't assign him another event and tell him to volunteer in something he actually enjoys.

If it's B, don't you think the ISU should make sure he receives adequate training on the IJS so that he does not feel the need to copy off of other judges? Also, is it really the best idea to assign him to the WORLD Championship as his very first event back after serving a suspension?

This is where the powers that be need to step it up. Do you think that judges who are caught cheating should be banned for life? If not, is the two-year suspension fair? If you lean towards the latter, do you believe that both the national federation and ISU should take much more interest in re-training from the bottom up in hopes that cheating does not happen again? In my opinion, Toigo should have been put through courses re-training him as a judge, and then he should have been judging some regional or national-level competitions for a long while before he even had the option of being appointed to another ISU event.

As far as we all know, Toigo might have taken a two-year vacation and come back with no better understanding of the way the sport is scored.

Come on, ISU.

Saturday, June 15

Skate for Hope 10th Anniversary Show

My lovely town of Columbus, Ohio plays host to Skate for Hope, one of the premiere figure skating exhibitions each off-season. Over the past ten years, an amazing $500,000 has been raised for the Stefanie Spielman Fund at the Ohio State University James Cancer Center and The Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer. I had the opportunity to attend the show on Saturday night, and it featured an amazing cast including both of the current US National singles Champions, a former Olympic Champion, several other Olympic and World competitors, and over 130 young skaters and adults!

The nice thing about exhibition skating is that the quarter-turn cheats, the changes of edge at the last minute, the number of revolutions in spins, and all of that other nit-picking is thrown out the window. Falls here aren't going to get you a mandatory one-point deduction on top of the -3 grade of execution; instead, the skaters get up with smiles on their faces.

With that said, every single skater in the show really delivered amazing performances. Alexe Gilles, an Canadian ladies competitor, started off the headliners with a graceful, beautiful performance complete with a double Axel and triple toe. Adam Rippon was next, and he continues to improve the quality of his overall skating tremendously. He now has a great combination of power behind his skating to go with the softer elegance. Naturally, he included the Rippon triple Lutz here!

One of the most consistent American ladies over the last year has been Christina Gao. She is an Ohio native, and this is her first time at Skate for Hope. She landed two triple toe loops in an exquisite program, skating to 'You Raise Me Up'. Rachael Flatt skated a fun number to 'Catch My Breath' performed live by Columbus resident Jenny Alu. Even though she has decided to focus on college, Rachael still easily managed a double Axel and triple loop here and there is always such freedom and happiness in her skating.

Emily Hughes has been a long-time performer in the show, and she and sister Sarah dedicate each of their performances to their mother Amy, a breast cancer survivor. There was a nice video montage of the family leading into her gorgeous performance to 'Hallelujah'. Another touching performance was from Emily Samuelson and Lee Harris. Samuelson competed in the 2010 Olympics as an ice dancer, and Harris is a former US Junior Pairs Champion. Lee dedicated the performance to his mother who was in attendance, and the program was beautifully constructed. At one point, Harris skated over to his mother and drew a heart with his hands.

Dan Hollander competed at the World Championships in the mid-90's, and has been a staple in exhibition skating for many years. He was a late addition to this show, and he brought the house down with a performance that included the Nutcracker Suite in a tutu and Beyonce's 'Single Ladies' in, yes-- a leotard. Jeremy Abbott skated to 'Bring Him Home' from Les Miserables and landed a perfect triple Axel. Jeremy's skating skills are remarkable, and he listens to every single note of the music with his entire body.

Current US Mens Champion Max Aaron skated to a medley of popular songs and had the audience in the palm of his hand, complete with a kiss for a lady in the front row. That same fearless attack he shows in competition was also evident here, and it adds to the excitement of his skating. Ashley Wagner, two time and reigning US Ladies Champion, skated to the haunting 'Young and Beautiful' by Lana del Ray and the program had a great tension that commanded the audience. 2002 Olympic Champion Sarah Hughes, who was originally not scheduled to perform, closed the night as a surprise skating beautifully to 'What I Did for Love'. She still has a perfect spiral and I witnessed a sweet moment after the show where a young skater in the crowd was visibly awe-struck and told Sarah that she was such an inspiration.

The local and visiting skaters were part of group performances that included an energetic synchronized skating program to 'Scream & Shout', and a fun Justin Bieber medley. Every single one of the skaters looked so happy to be on the ice in front of the large crowd and with some of the biggest stars in the sport.

Special thanks to Doug Mattis for spending much of his free time around the arena with me and to Carolyn Bongirno, President of Skate for Hope, Kristen Izzie, Mel Shilling, and everyone else involved in the show that were so kind to me the last few days!

Next year, Skate for Hope will feature two shows! It will remain in Columbus, and will also be held in Estero, Florida. If you are near either of these areas, I highly recommend attending and seeing some great skating during the quiet months of the year.

Until then.. :-)

Monday, June 3

Mahbanoozadeh Retirement

American skater Armin Mahbanoozadeh announced today via Twitter that he will not be competing in the upcoming season or in the foreseeable future. Here is his full set of Tweets:
Hello Twitters! I am announcing that I will not be competing this coming season or for the foreseeable future. I am a full time CompSci student and I have many amazing plans for my future. I want to sincerely thank everyone who has supported me throughout the years and for some of the most amazing friends and fan a person could hope for. I wish everyone the best of luck this Olympic season and into the future.
So he plays piano and he's a computer science student AND he posted about being excited about Arrested Development coming back last week? We could be the best of friends.

While he's had a disappointing string of events throughout the last few seasons, I have to say that one of the absolute highlights of this Olympic cycle was his free skate from the 2010 Skate America, where he won the bronze medal.

I even named my event review for the competition Thank You, Armin

Best of luck, Armin Hammer.

2013/2014 Grand Prix Assignments Announced

Links to the full rosters: Men || Ladies || Pairs || Dance

This has to be one of the biggest days in the off-season for the hardcore fans: the ISU has released the initial rosters for the six Grand Prix competitions in the upcoming Olympic season. Doesn't it seem like Vancouver just happened?

Lack of Diversity
First things first-- a few seasons ago, in an effort for the ISU to save an additional few dollars, they decided to drop the fields down from 12 in singles to 10, and down to 8 in pairs and ice dance. Since the spots are mostly based upon World Standing and Season Rankings, we see the issue in the mens fields. Aside from world silver medalist Denis Ten (KAZ), Alexander Majorov (SWE), Michal Brezina (CZE), Peter Liebers (GER), and world bronze medalist Javier Fernandez (ESP), all other entries come from one of the six Grand Prix stops (USA, Canada, China, Japan, France, and Russia). That's 51 of 60 possible spots going to the 'powerhouses'. While I agree that many of the skaters from those six countries are indeed the best in the world, I wish the ISU would return to the 12 entries in each event, so decent skaters such as Misha Ge, Viktor Pfeifer, and Jorik Hendrickx, although not top 12 in the World Championships, could still have a chance at an event.

At the same time, I would have liked to see skaters such as Americans Hannah Miller and Angela Wang get a chance at a senior Grand Prix.. But there's just so much depth!

Comebacks and New Teams
Evan Lysacek is on the roster once again for Skate America. We'll see about that. I like the guy but how many times have we heard excuses or last-minute injuries in the last few seasons?

On the other hand, I fully expect Evgeny Plushenko to compete at Rostelecom to start his season.

Yretha Silete (FRA) is back from injury and will be at Eric Bompard.

Davis and Brubaker (USA) are assigned to Skate Canada, Purich/Tran (CAN) have Eric Bompard, and Takahashi/Kihara (JPN) are on the Rostelcom Cup roster; they are likely to also get the TBA for NHK Trophy, since there is no other Japanese pairs team.

Depths of the Fields
Sticking with the men, all I can say is wow. I am planning on attending Skate America, and just look at the roster (and believing that Lysacek will actually be there), here are the accomplishments of the nine confirmed men:
  • Olympic Champion (Lysacek)
  • Three World Champions (Joubert, Lysacek, Takahashi)
  • Six World Medalists (add Kozuka, Ten, Gachinksi)
  • 2012/2013 Grand Prix Final qualifier Machida (along with Takahashi and Kozuka)
  • 7th-place World Championship finisher and US National Champion Aaron
  • 6th-place finisher at Europeans Majorov
All of the mens fields are strong, especially considering the unpredictability of a large group of top men today, but Skate Canada (Chan, Brezina, three Japanese, and three Americans) also is particularly stacked. And then you look at NHK and think the same.. and France.. and Russia.. and China :-)

Somewhat surprised that Adam Rippon only has one event, but he did not have an ideal 2013 season. Jason Brown also grabbed an event, scheduled to compete at Bompard. I am really excited to see the rise of Joshua Farris, who has Chan-comparable skating skills and flow. Watch for him!

Tomas Verner (CZE) is missing from the Grand Prix this year, and he was in the Final just a few short years ago. I really hope he finds some confidence in what is likely to be his final season.

Elena Radionova (RUS) is making the move to the senior Grand Prix, coming in as reigning World Junior Champion. She's not old enough for the Olympics, but remember Mao Asada took the same route in 2005/2006 and ended up winning the entire thing in the Final!

Even though she had a disastrous Worlds (to the point that she has to qualify a spot to the Olympics at Nebelhorn), I have to say that I'm surprised Sonia Lafuente of Spain was not given an event after her great performance at Europeans. All ladies in the top 14 at Worlds have two events, as does Valentina Marchei who finished in 18th. Even Elene Gedevanishvili (GEO), who failed to qualify to the free skate, earned two spots based on her high World Standing.

Caroline Zhang (USA) surprisingly? earned an initial spot at Skate America. I am fine with that decision, as I think she was hosed at Nationals after great efforts.

Strongest field in my opinion? Probably Canada, with NHK and Bompard behind. 

No big surprises here, although I don't know if we should hold our breath about the Chinese team of Pang/Tong showing up to their events. They looked like they were running on empty at the World Championships after going through the Grand Prix series last season, and the Olympics are clearly their target.

The German team of Hausch/Wende took last season off due to family-related incidents and, I believe, injury. Does anyone know if they plan on coming back and attempting to earn the second German spot for the Olympics? They did not receive any events.

Ice Dance
Again, no major surprises. Nice to see Papadakis/Cizeron get an initial event, with a second likely using the TBA at Eric Bompard. 

The TBAs
Will someone like Alissa Czisny be able to grab the open spot at Skate America after missing last season, or will the USFS decide to go for someone new such as Samantha Cesario? Or even someone else?

Is Johnny Weir done for after his abysmal showing in the short program at Rostelecom last season, or has he been working seriously on improving his skating in the last several months? Although highly unlikely for the Skate America spot, will we see him next season?