Its that time of year when figure skating fans start to get a bit nutty. We are anxious to see the new routines of our favorite skaters and equally curious about who has done what over the summer months.
The Grand Prix series brings together top skaters from all International Skating Union (ISU) countries in a showcasing format of limited-entry competitions. Skaters earn the right to compete at these events (and the right to try and earn some much-needed prize money) based on how they fared internationally the year prior.
We begin the 2016-17 season tonight in Hoffman Estates, Illinois with Skate America. And so begins this year’s rivalry between our own Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold.
While Gracie’s talent is incredible and her jumps are gorgeous she has some in the skating community holding their breath when she leaps from solid ground. Er, solid ice.
A lack of consistency knocked her off the top of the podium at this spring’s World Championship. Sitting in 1st place after the short program she faltered on a night when the other women brought the house down, including Ashley. Gracie ended up apologizing to the nation with tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat when she placed 4th.
Ashley and Gracie met up early in October at the Japan Open, an early-season event where professional athletes can compete against the amateurs. Ashley earned some of her highest points ever and skated lights-out after telling reporters that she had worked her butt off this summer to gain consistency and strength.
Ashley Wagner is no stranger to the media. She is often out-spoken (at times annoyingly so) but she backed her words up earning the silver medal at Worlds last spring and is starting to look like she wants to kick some ass.
She is a military brat and most people would agree she doesn’t have the talent that oozes out of Gracie Gold. She has been criticized for being stiff at times and she often has point deductions for under-rotating her jumps. Her triple-triple combination (a necessity for the top women these days) usually is a hair short and hasn’t been consistent.
But maybe her hard work this summer and her commitment to pushing through to the next Olympics as well as her taste of silver medal glory at World’s will keep her hungry enough to bring the best Ashley Wagner to every competition.
I like that she’s gone back to her darker hair coloring this season. It is more her and more real and that’s what the judges need to see.
And hopefully we will see Gracie share in some of the limelight this year. I just feel that her heart was crushed at World’s and she felt like she let the country, her coaches, her family and herself down.
We don’t get to see her bubbly, playful side as much anymore and practice reports from Illinois reflect that. “Straight face” and “poker face” are what I have read although she apparently had a decent short program practice today.
I used to always tell my skaters that if they weren’t enjoying themselves out on the ice the audience and the judges could tell. Nobody enjoys watching a skater have a complete meltdown as they achieve human-Zamboni status during a bad skate (a la Carolina Kostner a few World’s ago… oh, man, that was rough).
(As an aside, I love 29 year-old Carolina, who is returning to the party this year after a ridiculous ban forced upon her because of actions and choices a former boyfriend made involving performance-enhancing substances. We are the lucky ones to be able to watch this gifted, amazingly styled, musical, mesmerizing skater yet again!)
I’m hoping to see Gracie have some fun again because when she is on her game its like watching her put on a jumping clinic. She floats effortlessly around the ice in shimmering Swarovski crystals, leaping into her triples with a lightness and grace that defy her height. I want to see happy Gracie tonight because that will bring the US crowd to their feet. Gracie took almost a full month off her training this summer (unheard of in the skating world) and we are all hoping it recharged her desire batteries.
But this isn’t a 2-horse race this weekend. There are some other tough competitors sharing the shiny, slippery surface with the Americans.
The balletic, triple-axel-wielding Mao Asada is in Illinois and although she hasn’t performed her full arsenal in the early season, practice reports are looking good so far. Of course, its all about what happens that night, under the lights and pressure, with television cameras at every corner of the rink, the coaches lined up along the boards and an arena full of knowledgeable fans who want to see every single skater bring it.
Mao is older than many of the others but with age comes a maturity to her skating that I absolutely love. A confidence that women achieve only with age. The knowledge of our own bodies and how to hold ourselves shows strongly in this petite performer and much of what Mao puts out there is more of a show than a competition.
She also has some of the most beautiful dresses I’ve seen on the ice and I can’t wait to see her programs this season.
Another skater to pay attention to is the young upstart from Canada, Gabby Daleman.
Daleman has been on the international scene for a couple of years and while she has enjoyed podium love in Canada I get the feeling she is ready for a real breakthrough. She’s tough, polished, stunning and fast. I love her speed and it allows her jumps to soar.
Canada needs their women to join every other discipline on the World stage. Pairs, men and ice dance all have Canadian global champs but its been a generation since we have had women at the top.
We thought we had the next big deal in Katelyn Osmond from the Maritimes (training now in Edmonton) but bizarre injuries plagued her for the last 2 seasons. This did allow Gabby to gain some confidence, though, which is why she has earned spots in this year’s Grand Prix.
And we can’t count out the experience of Japan’s Kanako Murakami. Kanako suffered the fate of rising to the top of her game in a country that was full of rising stars. Fumie Suguri, Mao Asada, Akiko Suzuki, and Miki Ando were tremendous skaters when Kanako was trying to claim her stake among Japan’s skating elite.
She can be a bit stiff with her skating but she definitely skates from the heart. Unfortunately, she is one of those skaters who “wraps” their freeleg while in the air during jumps. Its a technique that some skaters just naturally have but it can lead to slower rotations and its just plain unsightly.
The unsightly quality is a big deal in our International Judging System where the base points for a jump can be added to or subtracted from based on the Grade of Execution. If not a negative GoE, it certainly doesn’t gain positives.
But you can’t argue with the fact she is still committed to the sport and there is something to be said about experience.
The ladies short program will air on Ice Network (www.icenetwork.com) tonight if you have a membership. NBC will also show some of the event this weekend.
The ice dance event will be ground-breaking in that the short dance is combining the Blues set pattern dance with a hip-hop section. I have seen some of the programs and its going to be a blast. I won’t detail the event just yet but know that I’m hoping the American siblings, Maia and Alex Shibutani are on their game.
The Shibutanis (Shib-Shibs to their fans) became cult favorites last year when they skated to Coldplay. No, wait, they made art to Coldplay. I just got shivers thinking about their routine from last year that earned them the World silver medal.
This year they are combining Sinatra and Jay-z. Yeah, that’s right. Remix that, Baby! I’m curious to see what the judges think. Figure skating judges have been known to be stuffy old farts wrapped in wool coats and fur hats who glare at skaters and drop marks when new boundaries are pushed. Just think of how long it took Canadians, Shae-Lyn Bourne & Victor Krantz to break through ice dance barriers long established by European skaters.
But they did and it paved the way for creative performers like the Shibutanis and it has moved ice dance into a new era.
Reports from Illinois say Maia’s outfit for this routine is as amazing as their skating skills and the routine are. I can’t wait.
I love this time of year.
I love the Grand Prix of figure skating.
I hope you’ll be able to see some of the skating this weekend and feel free to share your comments or ask questions. Figure skating is my first language and I remain fluent in it. Next up on the circuit is Skate Canada in Missisauga, Ontario next weekend. I shall keep you all posted.