Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Figure Skating 2010/11 - NHK Trophy

The Figure Skating season has officially started. This weekend skating fans turned their eyes towards their computer screens and Japan as the Grand Prix openned with the NHK Trophy. It's a new Olympic Cycle, and while there are still many familiar faces, it's a whole new era in the making.

The events seemed to be evenly matched between the well knowns of the last few seasons, as well as those primed to make their mark in the next four years on their way to Sochi 2014. World Medalists met Junior World Medalists in each field, and some surprising results happened in each disipline.

Most surprising was the rise of 15 year old Japanese dynamo Kanako Murakami. She states that Mao Asada is her idol, and yet there were no stars in the girl's eyes as she laid down an impressive senior debut. Her short program was fun and upbeat, a perfect match for a 15 year old. Her long program - set to the soundtrack from The Mask of Zorro (I believe?) - had some rough patches, but as far as making her mark, she's done so with flying colors. She won bronze and it was well deserved. If she can keep herself protected from the mounting expectations, and survive any growing she may have yet to do, she just might topple Mao Asada's plans for gold in four years.

Not that Mao needs any help toppling those dreams. The world champion had a rough outing ending up well below the standard. Asada has changed coaches, again, and is now taking from Mr. Sato (1994 World Champion Yuka Sato's father). This should help Mao is several ways, mainly that her coach will be in the same country she is and will be hands on and available at every practice and competition, something Asada did not have with Tarasova. They are also "going back to basics" and reworking a few of her jumps. It worked for Joannie Rochette, but it does take time. Time that Rochette had as ladies skating in Canada is not as deep and competitive as it is in Japan. Asada cannot afford to have a rough few seasons to make it to Sochi. There are too many girls nipping at her heels and are willing and ready to knock down doors to get there.

World Medalist Carolina Kostner has had an up and down career, and at NHK it was up again. A confident, happy looking Kostner won the event, and has the message boards buzzing. Is the spirit back in this skater? We haven't seen such an energized performance out of her in quite some time. While some believe Murakami should have won the Short Program and not Kostner, there's no mistaking that whatever demons Kostner faced last season have at least decided to take a break for the opening of the Grand Prix.

Kostner has also been working on her artistry and in both programs it shows. She's taking her time in and out of each element, which can only help her consistency as the season progresses. Her programs suit her, and the style is subtle yet completely her. It seems to be a new leaf for her, and it's a welcome one. Will she keep the momentum through the grand prix, or are we headed for more up and downs? Time will tell, but here's hoping we're seeing the emergence of a new and improved Carolina.

US Champion Rachel Flatt put the naysaying to rest last weekend when she put down two strong performances to capture the silver medal in Japan. Sporting a new bob, she gave off a Dorothy Hamil vibe as she ticked off elements. She allowed time in both programs for a bit of her personality to show, especially in the footwork sections. Her long program had moments of flirtation and fun, which will only shine more as the season progresses. She looks like a national champion, and the few flaws throughout the programs will be worked out before the season kicks into high gear. This was the perfect jumping point for her as she decides what to do next. She is taking a year off of school - she's been accepted to Standford University, as you may recall - to focus on skating. Looks like it's paying off. She fills her downtime tutoring and playing piano.

Caroline Zhang was also on hand in Japan. She, like Kostner, had an up and down season last year. Unlike Kostner, however, Zhang's season debut was not a good one. She's had several coaching changes, growth spurts, and is retooling her jumping technique. Her confidence is shot. She was touted as the next big thing when she hit the scene just a couple of seasons ago, and now she's being written off by just about everyone in the skating fandom. She doesn't appeart to enjoy skating anymore, it shows on her face, and one has to wonder why she's still in the game.

Jeremy Abbott and Daisuke Takahashi were in a league all their own with their refined skating styles. Both vied for gold, with the Japanese World Champion making it to the top of the podium. Takahashi's programs look better than ever, and more refined than one would expect for the start of the season. Daisuke knows how to perform and knows what it takes to stay on top. He hit his first quad in a very long while, and, should he stay healthy, there's no reason to doubt that he will retain his world title next March.

Takahashi has gone with a tango theme this year, and it really works. He's sultry, passionate, and holds the character well. He's got the good to back up the technical, but still allows himself the freedom to express the character of the music within the program. This is what makes the skater great, as well as the sport. It's masculine, artistic, and just good. This is not to say that he is the only one who grasps that. It seems that the crop of skaters we have in this Olympic cycle are the perfect blend. There are a few others thrown in for good measure, but the medal contenders are a good balance of athletiscm and artistry.

Two Time US Champion Jeremy Abbott is trying out a new look this season, and so far it's working. Yes, there's a bit of negative critiquing going on by fans of the sport and skater alike, but over all Jeremy's season has started off just like it always does. A solid performance, a silver medal. What remains to be seen is when he will peak. Normally, we see Jeremy top the Nationals podium with a passionate couple of performances and then he has a lackluster - if not embarassing - showing at the World Championships. We saw that disaster happen last season where he defeated himself in the Olympics.

However, Jeremy's change to Yuka Sato for a coach has emphasized the need for calming himself before a competition and going through one thing at a time. It seemed to work here as Abbott seemed more focussed and in control as ever. Never before have we seen the skater without a look of terror on his face as he took center ice. If this is a permanent change of attitude for Abbott - watch out world. He's ready to take you on!

Michael Jackson inspired Florent Amodio to a third place finish with his entertaining, if not a bit odd, long program set to a medly of the late Pop King's hits. Amodio channelled the legend with several crotch grabs, weak moonwalks, and other Jackson-esque moves in his footwork sections. Amodio is someone this sport needs, someone who isn't afraid to be entertaining and yet still get the job done. He has four years to get polished to make it to an Olympic podium. As long as he has fun, he'll have the crowd behind him, but it remains unclear if the judges will take to his style.

Sadly, Kevin Van Der Perren's decision to stick it out one more season has not started off well. He appeared to be distant from the competition and his programs. That disconnect let down to a very sloppy competition on his part. It remains to be seen where his season will lead, if anywhere.

Not surprisingly, the pairs and dance events had clear champions set out from the start. The competive field was horribly one sided with more new faces and up and comers than there were seasoned champions. So it was no surprise who hit the top of the podium.

World Champions Qing Pang & Jian Tong won the event easily with their new, more romantic style. They let it be known after the Olympics that they are a couple off the ice and now feel free to share it with the world and in their skating. They have their sites set on the 2014 Olympics, but it looks like they may have some challenges in the next season or two for staying on top.

American teams Caydee Denney & Jeremy Barrett and Caitlin Yankowskas & John Coughlin skated well for a seasonal debut. Denney & Barrett switched coaches and training centers this summer and are currently working with US Pairs Champion (and hottie) John Zimmerman. They've decided to take a new approach to their skating, a new direction for their choreography, all in the hope of building better chemestry on the ice. David Wilson supplied their choreography, and while the Short Program seemed to work, their Long Program has a long way to go. However, this young pair has a lot of expectation riding on it, and they've not been skating as long as some of the other countries' champions. It takes time to build a rapport, four years is more than enough time.

Yankowskas & Coughlin are looking to build up momentum leading into US nationals where they should rise easily in teh standings. They had a good debut this weekend, skating a touching tribute to John's mother in their long program. John's mother passed away earlier this year, and so they have dedicated this season's long program to her memory. As they finished the program, John was obviously emotional. If they keep refining their programs they will be a force to reckon with in January.

Russia has reason to celebrate with their new to seniors pair of Vera Bazarova & Yuri Larinov taking silver in their debut. They are the classic Russian pairs team. Channelling classic Russian ballet, this team harkens back to the greats of Russian skating. If their senior debut is any indication of what is to come, we can be sure that Russia will not be off of the Olympic podium in their home country. After a dismal outlook for pairs and dance last year, Russia seems to be finding a foothold to reclaim their dominance. Hopefully it isn't too late.

The Ice Dance event saw Meryl Davis & Charlie White win gold easily. It's obvious that they are hungry for the top spot of the World podium and their new programs do not let them rest on last year's success. Their season debut sent a message to the rest of the world class field that they are ready to take that next step. They are well on their way to doing what Belbin & Agosto couldn't - win a World title. With their main rivals Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir out with an injury - Tessa recently went through surgery and is out for the Grand Prix - they have the perfect opportunity to lay claim to the season.

The NHK also was the senior debut of the new "Short Dance" which is a combination of the Compulsary and Original dances. Admittedly, when the news broke that CDs were being done away with, many were upset with the change - while many of the ice dancers, especially from Igor Shpilband's camp, like the change. However it seems that, so far, the Short Dance is a success and blends much more seamlessly than many thought possible. It did not throw the seasoned skaters at all, and Meryl and Charlie won that portion of the event convincingly.

American siblings, Maia & Alex Shibutani marked their senior debut with a bronze medal finish and hope for a still growing still prosperous American Ice Dance program. They are the latest senior team from the stables of Igor Shpilband & Marina Zoueva out of Michigan. The brother sister pair created buzz around 2008 as being the next IT team, and so far the predictions have been true. After a freak fall in their footwork in the Short Dance where Alex's blade got caught in Maia's skirt, tearing the fabric, they came back to skate a beautiful waltz in their free dance. The duo grew up a lot over the summer and offer a light and mature look to the ice. They're looking to make a huge splash at nationals, and with Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates out due to a freak accident that ended with Evan going to the hospital for surgery and stitches in his foot, Maia and Alex are an almost lock at this point for a podium placement, and it's well deserved.

Overall, NHK was a successful debute of the 2010/11 season. Skate Canada is up next, with another batch of skaters looking to take hold of the new Olympic Cycle. It's a great post Olympic season!

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