Archive for the ‘nationals’ Category

The View From My Seat: San Jose 2012 Nationals

I enjoyed capturing the magic of the US Nationals Long Programs and Free Dances from my 16th row seats. My Canon PowerShot SX 2010 IS, although not a professional SLR, gets me close to the action, with its 14X zoom.

There were so many unforgettable moments, more predictably including the tributes to Rudy and Michelle, and LPs/FDs by gold medalists Jeremy Abbott, Davis & White, and Denney & Coughlin. But, brilliance from dark horses Ashley Wagner and Adam Rippon, as well as up-and-comers Jason Brown, Jonathan Cassar and Doug Razzano, and a rallying comeback from Carolyn Zhang were equally thrilling. My top 20 photos reflect some of these moments, and more.

I hope you enjoy the view from my seat!

"Gold": Samuelson & Gilles (8th)

"Sibling Swing": Shibutanis (Silver)

"Longing Lift": Chock & Bates (5th)

Continue Reading The View From My Seat —>

The Best of Spokane: Buttercups, Fizzles & Knives

There’s SO much to say about the past two weekends of US Nationals: triumphs, let-downs, new faces, and the like. Here’s a saucy snapshot of less obvious highlights that I’ll take away from Spokane, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Lutz is to Flutz as Twizzles are to…


jcm’s newly coined term: “fizzles” = botched twizzles.

What a crime that the U.S. Olympic Ice Dance Team selection essentially came down to this element, and that it trumped what the discipline should really be about…connection, interpretation, and expression! Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre’s fourth place finish (likely thanks to fizzles) was heartbreaking. I fear that this over-valued element will be a deal breaker in Vancouver too.

Skaters, Skaters, Skaters


Tiger Beat Award: Mark Ladwig. Pushing aside Bommentre…he’s my new skating crush du jour. Evora & Ladwig’s unexpected win and emotional reaction also raised his temperature on my hawtness meter.

Most promise: Christine Gao: I agree, “Gao” = “Wow”; Armin Mahbanoozadeh: grace, style, and still memorable despite a nagging hip injury; Yankowskas & Couglin: star quality, great expression and performance TO the audience.

Most Blades of Glory: Ben Agosto’s FD costume. Whew!? What are they thinking? Trying WAY too hard to be a Ruskie!

Sentimental favorites prooved they were just that (this time): Bradley, Navarro & Bommentre, Cohen, and Inoue & Baldwin ALL just missed the podium or Olympic Team selection.

Interesting program discovery: Bebe Liang’s LP, made up of Dvorak, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff selections. It was refreshing, as I hadn’t seen it all season. It was also perfectly suited to her: high energy, driven, and rhythmic. Although she gave a good performance, too bad she didn’t nail it. Will she have her moment?

Skating Great who went largely unnoticed: Lisa-Marie Allen, four-time Nationals’ medalist was the Technical Specialist.

Off-ice couples:
Out: Tanith & Evan
In: Amanda Evora & Jeremy Barrett (both earned a ticket to Vancouver!)
(Rumored) In: Tanith & Charlie (of Marlie), Nastia Liukin & Evan

From the Boards: Coaches


Most welcome new presence: Yuka Sato & Jason Dungjen. They both have a very calm and grounding presence for Jeremy, and the TV audience. I love her, and Jason has never looked better.

In: Jim Peterson. His visible emotion from the boards was deeply moving. His commitment to the sport and his teams is so evident in these reactions, AND in the result, as both U.S. Olympic pairs teams are his (and Lyndon Johnston’s)!

Out: Dalilah Sappenfield. In 2008 she had the first place novice, junior, and senior pairs. I’m sure she’ll reign again, but had a much lower profile this year.

Not so Gaga


Biggest missed opportunity (aside from Navarro & Bommentre’s already mentioned woes): Johnny could have come out as Top in his rivalry with Evan, and wrestled away the silver. Evan opened the door, and Johnny closed it. No, he likely couldn’t have beaten Jeremy here, but this time Evan was not unbeatable.

Most hootchie: Trina Pratt & Chris Obzansky. Their country OD, which oooozed Texan sexy (and bust!), made me both swoon AND gag just a little. They are Shpilband protégés, and show real promise.

It sucks to be them: Castile & Okolski. Their LP, although carried over from last season, was very beautiful and satisfying. It’s so sad their success has been sidelined by her injuries. I hope they make a comeback, if they stick with competitive skating at least another season.

Most underrated achievement: Inoue & Baldwin garnering a bronze medal, at ages 33 and 36, and with a throw triple axel! Like ‘em or not, that’s astounding and worthy of note. Even though I’m not a fan, and cringed at John’s Plushy-esque gloat after Rena landed the 3ATh, I thought they were robbed of the silver.

Commentating & Public Opinion


Best quotes: “I keep saying, the sunshine that pours out of her…I wanna call her the buttercup of all time.” — Dick Button (about Mirai); “Such a precarious relationship between skater and ice...you’ve got knives on your feet…and (try to) make something impossible look easy.” — Scott Hamilton (during Sasha’s warm-up)

Village Idiot Award: Dick Button. Whew…he’s totally lost me. As a friend said, “he’s becoming a caricature of himself”. And, I used to really hang on his words.

Damned by faint praise: Emily Hughes (AGAIN!). In the old days Dick Button would repeatedly talk about “her great smile” (instead of any actual skating attributes.) Well, here are some new doozies used to describe her: “The victory is in being here.”, “She really worked towards a challenge, and you have to give that credit.”, “(She’s) the photo-negative (of Czisny.)”, “They (Hugheses) all skate for the right reasons, just because they love it.” WTF? You know she wants to win just as much as the other gurlz.

Most overlooked: Jeremy Barrett. The commentator’s focus was almost solely on Caydee Denney. YES, she is a sensational competitor and great for this sport, but he matched her element by element, skill by skill, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Blatant commentator favoritism: Nagasu, Davis & White, Navarro & Bommentre, and Bradley were given the benefit of the doubt, while Flatt, Weir, and Inoue & Baldwin’s achievements were downplayed. It was pretty shameless. Flatt’s win felt like a let down, because of the way it was portrayed, following Nagasu.

Most tired opinion in the blogosphere: (to paraphrase) “I should have known to expect this from Sasha.” Sure, some may consider what she did brave, others foolish, but either way, as Sandra Bezic put it, you can’t expect a fairy tale comeback at Nationals without some competitive preparation beforehand. Even Super-Evgeni had Rostelcom Cup before Russian Nationals. What she did in the SP was amazing, and she should be lauded for doing as well as she did.

My Nationals’ podium predictions: I was 6 for 12 (exact placements), and 10 for 12 (correct skaters on podium). Meh! But, not too bad. The Cohen/Nagasu wildcards, and McBru meltdowns were impossible to foresee. ALL my wish list items were met, except the last one. Ah well…you can’t have everything!

Next up…Vancouver!!!

Davis & White vs. Belbin & Agosto: A Comparison

Aunt Joyce’s Ice Cream Stand has shared a fascinating video (posted on youtube by a cangp08), allowing you to cross-compare the Compulsory Dances of the top two U.S. Ice Dance Teams, currently competing at Spokane Nationals. Although it’s not possible to fully absorb the details of both performances in this manner, you CAN easily compare overall speed and expression.

[UPDATE: Sadly, the referenced video has been removed from youtube. If it reappears, I will repost it, or please notify me if you find it elsewhere. In the meantime, I’ve posted a similar Belbin & Agosto / Virtue & Moir comparison video to at least share the split-screen technique.]

With this CD, Davis & White scored an American record (45.42), and Belbin & Agosto (Belgosto”) were second (45.02).

After reviewing it, I have to agree with the result. Technically they are VERY comparable, although D&W appear to have slightly steadier/smoother edges. But, for me the deal breaker is that D&W embody the spirit of “Golden Waltz” more fully. They skate more completely as one, and exude greater effervescence, giving their dance more lilt and “lift” (not in the literal sense). Their connection is not surprising, given that they’ve skated together for 13 years!

Here’s a technical question for a CoP geek greater than I: Does Belbin & Agosto’s lift at the end of the program provide garner any additional points? Or, is it considered purely interpretive in this context, as this waltz itself is supposed to allow the judges to compare CDs apple-to-apples?

All this being said, the point difference is so minimal that the results of the OD and FD will surely decide this title. In this top two race, I’m not rooting for either team over the otherso, may the best team win!

However, in the race for the bronze, I’m very pleased that my favs, Navarro & Bommentre, came out on top in this round (37.60). The team generally favored for the bronze, Samuelson & Bates, are close behind, in fourth (37.36).

jcm’s USFS Nationals’ Podium Predictions

Chime in with your own predictions! If you wish to take part in my Olympics’ Podium Predictions Contest, click here.

Ladies

(2 berths)

1. Rachael Flatt
2. Sasha Cohen
3. Ashley Wagner

IF Sasha withdraws:

1. Rachael Flatt
2. Ashley Wagner
3. Alissa Czisny

Although Sasha has confirmed her attendance as recently as last week, I’m providing a backup plan, as I’m still suspicious. If she competes, I predict her jumps will be sketchy as always, but her artistry and spirals will elevate her past Ashley. I love Alissa, and über-rooted for her at ’09 Worlds in LA. But, since she effectively lost our third spot there, I feel she had her shot (as well as her moment as Nationals’ Champion), and will karmically sit this one out.

Men’s

(3 berths)

1. Evan Lysacek
2. Johnny Weir
3. Jeremy Abbott

I think Evan has just been too consistent and confident to rule out, despite my biases (see below). Although Jeremy has more scoring potential than Johnny, I give Johnny the edge because of his season thus far. With Ryan Bradley & Brandon Mroz threatening to unleash a gauntlet of quads (ie: planning 3 quads each!) they could really shake things up, but I’m not betting on it. I don’t think Adam Rippon will get control of his 3A enough this time, but he will easily reign in the next Olympic season. And, Stephen Carriere has seemingly faded as a real threat.

Pairs

(2 berths)

1. McLaughlin & Brubaker (McBru”)
2. Denney & Barrett
3. Inoue & Baldwin

McBru will get on top of their programs enough to eek out another Nationals’ title. Denney & Barrett will play second fiddle this one LAST time. And, Inoue & Baldwin will just miss making the Olympic team. Although I salute their staying power and persistence, I don’t root for them this time, whether they land their throw 3A, or not. I just don’t think they have Olympic podium potential anymore, even on their best day.

Ice Dance

(3 berths)

1. Davis & White (Marlie”)
2. Belbin & Agosto
3. Samuelson & Bates

It’s becoming clearer and clearer, this may be Marlie’s first time to wrestle the Nationals’ crown from Belbin & Agosto in a head-to-head. Samuelson & Bates technical skating (ie: twizzles and speed) will land them bronze, a rung down from last season’s result. Fresh from Juniors, the Shibutanis and Chock & Zuerlein could shake things up for the bronze medal!

Wish List

These are my personal favs, and special requests.:

Flatt: to become a first-time Nationals’ Champion, and make the Olympic team
Weir: to become a four-time Nationals’ Champion, or at least get to Olympics
Abbott: to skate his best this season, and make the Olympic team
Jonathan Cassar: to get some tv air time, and be introduced to skating viewers
Denney & Barrett: to become first-time Nationals’ Champions
Navarro & Bommetre: to make the Olympic team (fingers crossed!)

Kanako Murakami: A Japanese Star on the Rise

The Deepest Ladies’ Field

Looking at the incomparable field of Japanese ladies, it’s hard to believe that Mao Asada is no longer the new kid on the scene. It seems just yesterday that we were left wondering what mark she would have left on the 2006 Torino Olympics, had she been a sliver older.

Fumie Suguri is their reigning veteran, debuting at Worlds in ’97, and Japanese Juniors in ’92! I wonder if she will announce her retirement from competitive skating soon, especially as her competitive season is now essentially over, after a seventh place showing at Nationals. Sadly, it appears she won’t be going out with a bang, perhaps erring by putting herself more recently in the hands of Morozov, Mishin, and Zhulin. She is one of the few remaining skaters in the intl. field that for me consistently calls to mind Kwan, since they were contemporaries, both born in ’80, and having rather comparable jumping ability (although Kwan was of course more consistent).

Hurricane Kanako

Judging from the recent Japanese Nationals, and Junior Grand Prix Final, Kanako Murakami appears to be the new one to watch, and the future (possibly very near future) of Japanese ladies’ skating.

This Nationals short program, performed to “Nectar Flamenco”, and “Frente A Frente” is very complete! She seems to have it all. Her eager nods to her coach before her program alone tell the story of her spirit. Although less artistically evolved, and with an erratic fall on her footwork, her long program, from the JGPF also shows her real competitive fire.

She won the JGPF, and came in fifth (in the SP and LP) at Nationals, less than 10 points behind Miki Ando, and two spots ahead of Suguri.

She exudes a real love of skating, has quite mature artistry and expression, beautiful extension, detailed footwork, and impressive jumps (nailing a 3/3). However, her spins can REALLY travel and could have better positions, and she struggles with the oft-criticized flutz, but those will hopefully be corrected with time.

She is coached by Machiko Yamada, who used to coach Ito and Asada, and still coaches Nakano. Thankfully, Ito’s and Nakano’s wrapped leg jumping technique appears to have gone out the window, as neither Asada nor Murakami display that technique.

A Supportive Gesture to Akiko Suzuki

Murakami and Suzuki appear to be linked in this emotional kiss and cry interaction, from Nationals. It shows an emotional gesture from one fellow competitor to another, belying her supportive character.

I was very touched to discover the following about Suzuki, who just landed a spot on the Japanese Olympic Team, by winning silver at Nationals.:

“Her story of coming back after suffering a serious personal ordeal made headlines in her home country. Due to the extreme stress of controlling her weight, Suzuki began to suffer from anorexia in 2003 and her weight dropped to the low 30kg range. She sat out the entire ’03-’04 season, and her first season back after that was disappointing. But she signaled her full recovery this year with a third place finish in the International Skating Union GPF earlier this month.”

That’s a mere 66 pounds!…quite a low point from which to regain health and wellness. Kudos to you, Akiko! Due to overcoming this, as well as her spirited “West Side Story” LP, she is easily my sentimental favorite in Vancouver!

Artistry: Innate vs. Cultivated

In any discipline with a creative facet there are practitioners that emerge on the scene as quite fully formed “artists”. There is still certainly room for growth, but their expression of themselves and their “art” is well on its way. On the flip side, there are those that arrive a mere figment of their later greatness. This certainly holds true for skaters, especially since there is a strong duality of artistry versus (or, with) athleticism.

“Baby Ballerinas” (and Ballerinos)

Here I borrow a designation from Dick Button, which I despised at the time, but which perfectly defines this first category of skater. These skaters emerge as quite (or, at least more) complete artists: highly expressive, sophisticated, and individualized, seemingly from the beginning. Sasha Cohen, Caroline Zhang, Naomi Nari-Nam, Oksana Baiul, Adelina Sotnikova, Johnny Weir, Evgeni Plushenko, John Curry, and Gordeeva & Grinkov, come immediately to mind.

They were either born dancers, had easy extension, or were passionately connected to their choreography and music. And, they seemed to have that something special, the X (or “It”) Factor, since day one. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe artistry ONLY comes in a classical balletic package. It just so happens that most “artistic” skaters at least initially lean heavily on this stylistic direction (excepting the rare few: Gary Beacom, the Duchesnays, etc.).

From Ugly Ducklings to Swans

Then, there are those skaters who hit the international scene, and although technically proficient, and holding great promise, didn’t strike us as having much artistry, or memorable expressive qualities. Or, they appeared to be more purely “athletic” skaters, but in hindsight we see that their artistry was more dormant at first. Sarah Hughes, Shizuka Arakawa, Angela Nikodinov, Ashley Wagner, Alexei Yagudin, Brian Boitano, Evan Lysacek, and Shen & Zhao come to mind.

They were either initially coltish, awkward, inexpressive, generic, or disconnected from their programs. You could chalk their more visible artistic trajectory and growth up to a later maturity (or peeking), to persistence and diligence, in nurturing skills that did not come as easily, or seem innate, OR to collaborating with a new coach or choreographer who helped them evolve.

Ice Dancers are more difficult to group into these two categories, since they are really nothing without artistry (as there are no jump requirements). So, that discipline does not breed or nurture purely “athletic” teams in the same way.

And, there are those skaters that remain primarily “athletic” skaters through the arc of at least their competitive careers (Ito, Meissner, Thomas, Bonaly, Goebel, Stojko, Joubert, Zhang & Zhang, and Brausseur & Eisler), but they are not the focus here.

Cases in Point

The Shizuka Arakawa we saw in Torino was an altogether different artist and skater than the one who won Japanese Nationals back in ’99 and ’00. Who could have guessed that the skater in the first video sample here could reach the artistic heights she did less than a decade later?

Before & After

Angela Nikodinov, in particular, seemed to literally be born again as a completely different skater, once under the tutelage of Elena Tcherkasskaia. She always had one of the best laybacks in the biz, but that was generally accompanied by a detached, going-through-the-motions approach.

Before (poor quality, sorry) & After

However, Sasha Cohen, in her Senior Nationals’ debut appeared with nearly all the extensions and expressivity she displayed nearly a decade later. Yes, there is certainly growth evident, but not in the same drastic way as with the previous skaters.

BeforeAfter

Legendary Gordeeva & Grinkov seemed to leap out of the womb with artistry and line, as in evidence here in both samples.

Before & After

Nearly Missed Skating Glories & Curiosities

So often we focus on “what could have been”, or titles that we feel were taken undeservedly. Well, this time I’m going to take a look at it from the cup half full perspective, or “what almost wasn’t”.

Wylie Squeaked into Albertville?


Rewind to the ’91-‘92 US Nationals. Many (including Dick Button) felt Paul Wylie was outskated by Mark Mitchell, however, he was awarded the silver, ahead of Mitchell’s bronze. Before the scores were posted, Button felt Mitchell’s triple axel would be the deal breaker. The US men had three spots to the ’92 Winter Olympics in Albertville, secured the previous year by ’91 National Champion Todd Eldredge. However, Mitchell was left off the team due to a medical bye given to Eldredge.

Because of Wylie’s mediocre performance at Nationals, and the fact that he had never finished higher than ninth at Worlds (four years prior), critics questioned his placement on the Olympic team. He had also surprisingly never won a National title.

However, he was sent to his second Olympics, and won the silver medal, with two very strong performances. What a way to make an exit from amateur competition, especially from a career without any international titles (excepting the ’88 Trophee Lalique). His SP was flawless, and his LP, although not containing a real jump combination, had only one error in a two-footed landing.

Alternatively, the USFSA left Wylie off the team for the ’92 Worlds, naming Mark Mitchell in his place, where he placed 5th, ahead of Eldredge.

From Middling to The Top


Sarah Hughes won the bronze at US Nationals the year she was Olympic Champion (’02). She, in fact never won gold at Nationals, receiving two silvers and two bronzes, behind Kwan (and Cohen). (Ironically, I rooted for Angela Nikodinov to snag that third ticket to Salt Lake, as I was always a fan of her quiet elegance. In hindsight, I’m sure glad Hughes prevailed, given the outcome.)

Shizuka Arakawa won her Olympic Gold SEVEN seasons after winning Japanese Nationals (in both ’97-‘98 and ’98-‘99). But, she never again won Nationals, curiously loosing them to a Chisato Shiina in ’99-‘00. Ever heard of her? (Shiina was in 14th place the following season, and then seems to have disappeared.) After that Arakawa lost to Suguri, Ando, and Asada.

Like Hughes, she won the bronze at her Nationals the year she was Olympic Champion (’06). And, she won nothing else in the seasons in which she won both her World and Olympic titles. Fascinating! She was on the ’98 Japanese Olympic Team, but did not make the ’02 Team. It seems extremely rare for a skater to attend two Olympics, but miss one inbetween. (Anyone know stats on this?)

Alexei Yagudin NEVER won Russian Nationals. He brought home four silvers, and a bronze, loosing to Ilia Kulik the first two times, and then Plushy the following three. Plushy has SEVEN golds from that event! However, when it really mattered at the ’02 Olympics, he delivered the goods, and brought home the goldthankfully before his hip gave out.

Emanuel Sandhu’s International Moment


Building up to the ’03-‘04 GP Final, Sandhu was the SECOND substitute, but thanks to Jeffrey Buttle and Timothy Goebel’s withdrawals, and Brian Joubert’s inability to step in quickly as first substitute, he competed and seized the gold! He was one of only two skaters (the other being Brian Joubert) to beat Plushy in that quadrennial. This win was even more notable, given that he had not medaled either of his GP events that season! He never returned to that level of glory again in his skating career.

The “Chinese National Games”


Did you know that there is a quadrennial competition in China called the National Games? Some of the top Chinese pair skaters do not participate in the Chinese Championships, preferring to compete solely at these National Games instead, for which they receive byes. (The Chinese Championships serve to qualify some skaters for these National Games.)

The big name teams competed at the National Games in those seasons, thereby filling up these podiums with teams unfamiliar to the West. Therefore, instead of names like Zhang, Pang, or Tong, etc. as Chinese Champions, in ’05, we see pair Ding Yang & Ren Zhongfei, in ’06, Zhao Rui & An Yang, and in ’09, Dong Huibo & Wu Yimin! Ever heard of any of them?

A Russian Star Still Under Wraps


As a curiosity…I could find no record of last year’s (’08-‘09) Russian National Junior and Nationals champion Adelina Sotnikova attending the recent ’09-’10 Junior Worlds (or, any record at all of her at isu.org)? That is because, amazingly, at 13, she was STILL too young for the event! The current requirements are for the competitor to have reached the age of 13 by the previous 1 July. She was born on July 11, 1996. Perhaps this 10-day discrepancy will proove fateful, allowing her time to evolve at this tender age, before her international debut. I’m sure she’s being nurtured well, as she could be Russia’s future, eclipsing Alena Leonova.

Have any memories of nearly missed glories, or curiosities you’d like to share?

GP Final: A Look Back

Kudos to Team USA on an historic first GP Final gold medal in Ice Dance for Davis & White, an historic three men competing, with TWO landing on the podium (Evan Lysacek, gold; and Johnny Weir, bronze), and Ashley Wagner holding on to the pewter with a strong LP.

Pairs

I’m very amused that Kavaguti (partner of Smirnov) apparently returned to the surname Kawaguchi, at least while in Japan (“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?). Perhaps she’s trying to avoid getting tarred and feathered in her homeland? Have you ever watched her in the kiss-‘n-cry? She appears so vacant, and I can never tell if she’s going to burst into tears or laughter.

I really wish Szolkowy hadn’t touched down in the SP. This, and the fact that they (he and Savchenko) didn’t skate their best in the LP, robbed us of an apples-to-apples comparison to Shen & Zhao. Have you heard any scoop if Savchenko and coach Ingo Steuer are a couple? I’ve been getting that vibe in the kiss-‘n-cry lately, but haven’t seen it qualified anywhere.

I wept watching Shen & Zhao’s LP. Their comeback is the most beautiful gift to this sport. They just have an ability to tug my heartstrings, and their “Adagio” LP really milks that. Perhaps their off-ice love imbues their skating with that extra something special.

It was nice to see Mukhortova & Trankov deliver two very strong, clean performances. Zhang & Zhang just seem to be languishing. Now is the time for them to RETURN to a program from a past season to salvage this more important Olympic season. And, something to keep the focus on their athleticism, and off their (mostly her) artistic and expressive deficiencies.

I predicted the correct teams on the podium, just in the wrong order. Not too bad, although very predictable.

Ice Dance

To my eye, Virtue & Moir should have come out on top both after the OD and FD, but this is the one discipline where the most subtle nuances between a performance or team often elude me, or feel highly subjective, because they are so comparable. Davis & White appeared more controlled in the OD, skating with less abandon, but that may just be the nature of an indian dance, versus a spanish flamenco number, which has inherent abandon. I understand that D&W may have skated with greater speed, but that is harder to perceive on tv, since the cameras trace the movement.

However, enormous accolades to D&W on their win! It’s especially interesting that they landed this distinction, not Belbin & Agosto. I do wish I cared more about D&W’s skating. I experience it on a more cerebral level, and it feels more technically strong than transcendent. But great work nonetheless!

I have a skater crush on Fabian Bourzat of France. Yum! His wavy hair and powerful legs get me.

Again, I predicted the correct teams on the podium, but, only the bronze medalists were in the right placement.

Mens

The men’s SPs made for a positively exhilarating competition! Now it’s REALLY heating up. This is the first moment where I felt that real Olympic vibe coming on. I believe Johnny’s SP is the best I’ve ever seen him skate. It was the most honest and revealing performance he’s ever given. In the past, his SPs may have been clean and even inspired, but they were more detached and inward (ie: “The Swan”). Daisuke Takahashi and Evan were perfection in the SP. Daisuke’s SP music is so rhythmically complex, and sophisticated, noone else could make it work like he does. Nobunari Oda didn’t have the luster of past competitions in either program, but skated cleanly enough, continuing to feature his miraculous jump landings…“like buttah”!

I was SO proud of Johnny for reaching his personal best in each scoring phase, as well as delivering the fourth highest total score of the season! I imagine this will be a great confidence booster for him. His legs did seem to be a bit tight in his jumps throughout (ala Butyrskaya). I hope he can soften his knees at Nationals, to offer up his signature smooth ride-out.

I LOVE Jeremy’s Abbott’s new ice-colored satin shirt. It has the glow and allure of a champion of the Winter Games, a great direction visually. He skated beautifully in the LP, after his initial quad fall. He has an ability draw me in to his lines, edges, and the ebb and flow of his footwork. When a skater like him or Kim Yu-Na use a mix of fast AND SLOW footwork, I find it much more effective.

Poor Daisuke. He could beat all of the men with two clean skates, but this LP wadn’t it, of course! It’s still not clear to me if this is training or more mind-related. We’ll see as the season progresses. We know he has it in him! Tomáš Verner is such a head case right now. I fear this could be a confidence killer. I hope he moves forward and learns from it. It would be hard to attend an event you didn’t initially qualify for.

Here, I only predicted correctly two of the medalists, and in the wrong order.

Ladies

I thought Ashley skated beautifully in her SP. She seemed to have good energy and was at least superficially clean. But, I understand there was a two-footed landing and edge deduction. However, her grace and facial expressiveness always make me care about her program and performance!

Miki Ando and Joannie Rochette were duller than dirt in their SPs. They’ve got to shape up.

It was heart-wrenching to see Joannie and Alena Leonova tank in the LP. This does not bode well for Joannie in Vancouver. Akiko Suzuki delivered the goods, and then some! I had hoped she would get the silver, and felt she was undermarked (or Miki was overmarked) in the LP. It is criminal that her PE, CH and IN component scores were nearly 1 point lower than Miki’s. Perhaps her transitions are simpler, but that should just influence TR (and SS at most).

Although Kim didn’t skate near her best, Miki’s LP fell completely flat for me, as it has all season. Yes, this does make the ladies’ field more interesting, for Kim to not win by slam dunk, but (whew!) close call.

Again, I only predicted two of the medalists, and in the wrong order.

Commentating Gripes

Since I tivo’d some of the competition on multiple channels I had the opportunity to see the men’s and ladies’ LPs commentated by Scott Hamilton on one channel, and Peter Carruthers on the other. The experience was night and day! Hamilton made the experience enjoyable and engaging, Carruthers, quite the opposite (annoying and disjointed). I really dislike his offering as a commentator, especially when covering the ladies. Give me ANYONE else, please!

I also found it amusing that when Evan was .10 behind Daisuke in the SP, the commentators called it a “virtual tie”, BUT when Kim was .56 behind Miki in the SP, they talk about it as if it was a near apocalypse. Puh-lease!!!

Next up: possible musings on Japanese, French and Russian Nationals at the end of December, and Canadian, US and Chinese Nats in January!

“Pop Star On Ice” @ The Castro Theatre

Johnny in heels

When my friend booked my ticket to “Pop Star on Ice” at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, I knew the flick would dish up plenty of bitchy humor and celeb-style entertainment, and figured it would reveal Johnny Weir as a fascinating, but also superficial and narcissistic personality. Instead, he thankfully comes out looking disarmingly and utterly real, complex, insanely and innately gifted, and truly one-of-a-kind. And, the documentary itself is a lovingly crafted piece, telling the story of his life, not just to frivolously entertain, but also to enlighten and inspire.

I’ve always rooted for Johnny, especially when pitted against Evan (Lysacek). My tendency towards the underdog, and his vulnerable, straight shooting (pardon the pun) personality has always drawn me to him. Clearly, as 3-time National Champion one could hardly call him an underdog, at least a few seasons back, but the traditional expectations and desired mold purported by the US Figure Skating Federation and community against which he has had to push qualifies him as such, in my mind.

I will try not to divulge too much detail about the movie, as I’d hate to steal any of the thunder of your experiencing it fresh, but I want to at least help tout this excellent film by dangling a few carrots.

The opening titles are accompanied by critical sound bits about Johnny, narrated in multiple dialects/accents, with hysterical comedic flair: flamboyantly gay, Paris Hilton Valspeak, Minnesotan housewife, Russian, and so on. At the end we discover that this is not the voice of just any narrator, but Johnny himself…yet another skilled and entertaining facet of this performer and personality. If you don’t mind a spoiler, of sorts, watch this intro segment here.

One of the opening scenes sets the tone…clearly Johnny does not take himself too seriously (off the ice), and is just as willing to make fun of himself as others, which is very endearing. He sits naked (presumably) in a frothy bubble bath with his best friend Paris Childers, wearing a campy blond wig, whilst interviewing him in a thick Russian dialect. He asks him questions about Johnny (himself), and Paris answers in queeny fashion. Johnny says they’re so close, “we’re like a married couple without the sex”. Wait, married couples have sex? jk!

Paris & Johnny

 

The story-telling of the documentary is crafted along a graphic timeline (complete with illustrated icons!) of Johnny’s skating career, and the three primary locales in which he has lived (Quarryville, Pennsylvania; Newark, Delaware; Lyndhurst, New Jersey). It moves back and forth along this timeline to give you a perspective of a competitive season, but also a bigger picture of an athlete’s progress over a longer span. This technique helps build drama, as we see Johnny train, and then how he holds up in competition (although the results are of course not a surprise, it makes the story more interesting).

We soon meet Priscilla Hill, Johnny’s coach from age 12 to 2007. Interestingly, he was drawn to her because she too was a clockwise spinner/jumper. Their relationship is just as complex as Johnny himself is. They clearly have/had a great love and admiration for one another (one part mother/son, one part fag hag/fag), and she helped make him what he has become, but also they had reached a point where they perhaps knew each other too well, and were steeped in some bad habits, which was leading to unsuccessfully training and poor competition results. As with any artist, sometimes one just needs freshening up, a new setting, and/or a new team to collaborate with. I even feel this in my profession, where every 5 years or so have found it best to move on to new horizons, and change things up a bit (of course, economic-related lay-offs have helped this along!). You learn different things from different people, and it would foolish to expect one person to be able to offer everything one would need in such an evolving sport.

Priscilla & Johnny

 

It is moving to see Johnny return to his childhood home, where he has both sentimental memories, as well as anxiety, as he is hardly the Quarryville status quo. His first-grade teacher Tawn Battiste is a big fan, and they share a mutual admiration. He visits her current class, and poses for a photo with them.

Other skaters Evan Lysacek, Brian Joubert and Stephane Lambiel have a presence in the film, and some are even interviewed. Johnny’s realness is magnified when contrasted with interviews by Evan, who feels much more calculated, and as if he is carefully measuring what he says, likely to please. Although I have nothing against Evan, think he has much to offer, and certainly believe he deserved to be ’07 National Champion, I was highly amused by (and shared in) the audience hisses at The Castro Theatre, anytime he appeared on screen. He comes across as a villain/antagonist-of-sorts in this film, which is exacerbated by the general media’s highlighting of their “rivalry”.

Given that Johnny was inspired to start skating in his backyard, after seeing Oksana Bauil win the ’94 Olympic Gold, it feels particularly fateful, and fortuitous that he leaves Hill to train with Galina Zmievskaya, Bauil’s former coach. Her more demanding approach, less “friend” or “mother” than Hill had become, appears to be a smart move for Johnny, at least for his ’07-’08 season.

A fallMore than any other source I’ve experienced, this film really allowed me to symphatize with the trials skaters and athletes must push against, and the roller-coaster ride of ebbing and waning commitment, passion, connection to one’s sport/art, etc. It is unbearable to watch Johnny train for the ’07 Nationals. We see a quickly edited succession of his multiple jump attempts (and frequent falls). The toll this takes on the body is so easily understood when seen in this way. We see him distracted, without focus, looking quite underweight, and also struggling to work well or even communicate with Hill. It was clear the outcome would not be good.

Perhaps I should find it more frustrating that Johnny does not “come out” even in this context, but after watching this film, I feel he is withholding little about his life. Some notion of his romantic life would have been welcome, and the lack of it leaves him looking a bit asexual, but frankly, that is his business, and perhaps is better fodder for his tell-all autobiography (in 2020?).

Johnny with the directorsThe question of whether Johnny is a Pop Star, or not, is answered in that he is indeed one in the eyes of “Johnny’s Angels”, and his fans throughout Russia, Asia, and yes, even America. But, as to whether he’s a true, mainstream Pop Star, not yet…once his competitive career is over (after Vancouver, I presume), I’m sure he could be easily launched into that ether, if he so chooses…as he has all the makings of one, and will have more time to nurture his “brand”.

I was heartened to discover that this same directing team of David Barba & James Pellerito will be involved in the upcoming 8-part reality series about Johnny’s quest for Olympic Gold. At the end of the film there was a Q&A with them. Their involvement in the reality series compelled me to ask the following (to paraphrase): “Since training for the Olympics is such a grueling process, how do you remain transparent to Johnny so that your filming, or the “celeb” aspects of being in a reality series are not a distraction for him?

The director’s responses were that they remain pretty invisible to Johnny and his team, and have developed a good relationship with him/them, so that if they felt their presence wasn’t welcome in a given context, they could give him/them space. But, Johnny and the team got so used to them that they weren’t playing for the camera, or really noticing them in the training contexts.

The reality series, which will pick up where this documentary left off, will air early next year on the Sundance Channel, building up to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics!

 

May the Best Man Win

I find it fascinating that commentators, writers, (and, yes, bloggers too) often malign older athletes who return to the amateur competitive field. Their argument, that they should allow the younger generation their chance at being champion, or of having their “moment”, and that they already had theirs.

Recent discussions of Kwan’s, and Cohen’s return have raised this discussion yet again. And, even though it wasn’t a comeback, I recall whisperings of this ageist complaint around Inoue and Baldwin’s participation in the ’09 Nationals (his 16th!). (BTW, the results of my February 15 poll about who is most likely to return next season has Cohen ahead with 47% of the votes.)

Torvill & Dean, '94 Olympics; Photo by Mike Powell/ALLSPORT

Torvill & Dean, '94 Olympics; Photo by Mike Powell/ALLSPORT

I think this is completely ridiculous reasoning! Sport is sport, and whoever the best athlete is should walk away with the victory and glory. The sport is all the more rich for having a generational depth in its competitions. And, my feeling is “may the best man win”! Frankly, discussions of Cohen’s possible return only make our sport all the more interesting, especially as it’s no secret our international potency in ladies skating is currently diminished. At the Beijing Games, the world witnessed the amazing comeback of swimmer Dara Torres, who at 41 took part in her fifth Olympics, after a six-year hiatus from competition, and became the oldest female swimmer in Olympic herstory. Such triumphs of “old age” athletes are the stuff dreams are made of, and sports stories fans should eat up.

Elaine Zayak came back to win the pewter medal at the ’94 Nationals (YES, the same season as the Kerrigan whack heard around the world). She was 28 years old, skated a near flawless LP (although of a lower difficulty level), AND after being away from competitive skating for a decade. She skated against a 16-year old Nicole Bobeck… 12 years her junior! Zajak had already impressively racked up ’81 US and ’82 World titles, ’81 World silver, ’84 US and World bronze, and bronze at the ’82 US Nationals. She was also a US Olympian in ’84.

But, thinking back, noone dwells on her finish. They remember the grace, nerve and heart that she displayed to make such a return, to the competitive aspect of the sport she loved and thrived in.

Due to the “Boitano Rule”, he, Petrenko, Witt, and Torvill & Dean came back for the ’94 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. None of these returnees effectively shifted the spotlight from the athletes of the hour, as only Torvill & Dean walked away with a medal, the bronze. But they proved something to themselves, and to us… that they were still in good fighting form, deserved their spot, and that they may not have been able to return to their former competitive glory, but that their emotional and symbolic triumphs were many.

Interestingly, Christopher Bowman planned a similar comeback for the ’94 Olympics, but his requests for reinstatement were not successful. He didn’t make it there.

What exactly was the “Boitano Rule”?: Due to Boitano’s lobbying, “the International Skating Union (ISU) introduced this clause, which allowed professionals to reinstate as ‘amateur’ or ‘eligible’ skaters. This had been the result of Boitano’s active involvement during the early 1990s, which saw professionals being allowed in the Olympic Games in the sports of tennis and basketball.” — Wikipedia

Along the same lines, the list of skaters who have maintained their high-level of training, or returned to it to compete in 3 (or more) Olympics is small. It includes Todd Eldredge, Elvis Stojko, Katarina Witt, Bestemianova/Bukin, Irina Rodnina, Sonja Henie, Gillis Grafstrom (SWE), and Andrée & Pierre Brunet (FRA). Have I forgotten any? Perhaps we’ll be adding some new names to the list next year.

Also, can you remember any other inspiring or effective returns to competitive skating, not just after a funk (ie: Lu Chen or Shizuka Arakawa), but moreso after an extended hiatus?

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