For skating fans, waiting for Skate America to kick off the new Olympic cycle after Sochi was like anticipating Christmas. After a long off-season that cooled off excitement and controversies lingered from the Olympics, it was finally the first major international competition of the season that debuted new programs for some and announced comebacks for others. The ice dance event was the forerunner for the gold metal battle in the coming U.S. nationals between Madison Chock/Evan Bates and Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani. The fact that Olympic gold medalists Davis and White are taking the year off makes this year’s domestic battle open to two young and upcoming teams. Chock and Bates hung on to their four-point lead after the short dance and claimed their first Grand Prix title on home turf. While I do agree that Chock and Bates skated with much abandon, speed and emotion and deserved to win, the huge gap of 11 points simply did not make sense to me. The Shibutanis had deeper edges and smoother movements; however, Chock and Bates were given superior marks in skating skills and linking movement. Their higher presentation component score overall reflects the trend ice dance is moving towards: an exaggerated, emotional style (Chock and Bates skated to “An American in Paris”) over a traditional European one (The Shibutanis skated to “The Blue Danube”). Another point to make is that Chock and Bates were really smart by choosing the technique-oriented Igor Shpilband over the Shibutanis’ coach, choreography-oriented Marina Zueva, when the dream coaching team split up in 2012. Their improvement on lifts and twizzles was spectacular to see. By contrast, the Shibutanis did leave a few points on the technical aspect.
In the ladies event, it was two Russian junior world champions, Elena Radionova and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, against the defending U.S. champion Gracie Gold. Competing in hometown Chicago, Gold seemed to be a bit carried away with extremely high expectations from the crowd, missing several elements in both the short and long, and finished third behind Radionova and Tuktamysheva. Ladies’ figure skating is so much about landing the hardest jumps these days. Despite feeling the pressure and having a few shaky landings, Radionova secured the gold medal with ease after landing two triple-triple combinations in the long, including an impressive triple loop- half loop-triple Salcow in the second half of the program.
To me, it was a fair ranking under the current judging system, where the ability to jump is given the top priority. The artistic aspect, such as choreography, transitions and interpretation of music is not so much differentiated once a skater establishes a reputation of a great jumper. This gives an edge to the petite early-adolescent girls like the 15-year-old Radionova, who spins in the air faster than anyone else in the competition. As Gold turned 19, it became much harder for her to keep up in both the difficulty level and the consistency. At the same time, she did not get an edge on the performance side, either. Many analysts, including Johnny Weir from NBC, did not like her music choice, “Phantom of the Opera” with lyrics. To me it seems like people are overusing lyrics this year, the first season that lyrics are allowed in the ladies’ event. Gold does not handle the maturity of the music well and did not use it to her advantage.
Like the ladies’ event, the men’s was also a jumping game. However, besides being the best jumper, Tatsuki Machida won gold with two sophisticated, well-choreographed programs. He came so ready and prepared, as if this were the world championships. After coming to a close second in last year’s world to his teammate Yuzuru Hanyu, he seems to be really determined to be crowned world champion this season, and he is definitely in great position to do so. It will be interesting to see how Hanyu will react to the domestic rivalry. Chicago native Jason Brown presented two artistic programs that rocked the stadium. However, as he has been plagued over the years, he does not have a quad jump and, therefore, his base value was lower than those of his major competitors. What exacerbated his loss on the technical side were two mistakes on the Triple Axel, the most difficult jump that he had to offer. In the end, the alleged home crowd advantage was not enough to hold him up. He finished in second behind the sensational Machida.
Last but not least, the pairs event was highlighted by a strong comeback performance by Russia’s Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov. Having been away from competition for a year and missing the Sochi game due to injury, they came back stronger than ever. They delivered two clean performances, highlighted by a throw quad Salcow in the free. American pair Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier also made history by taking the silver. They have shown clear signs of improvement since the legendary German coach Ingo Steuer, who coached Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy to five world champion titles, joined their coaching team this summer. Their “Lion King” long program is one of the best choreographed pair programs of the season, as Steuer is known for creating innovative programs.
China’s Cheng Peng and Hao Zhang had a rather disappointing start of the season. Going into the competition as one of the gold medal favorites, she missed all three side-by-side triple jumps in both programs. It is uncharacteristic of her to miss especially the two triple toeloops because that was her strongest jump during summer training from what I observed. They will have to win Cup of China to secure a spot at the Grand Prix Final.
Overall, the audience was lucky to see a few world champion level performances, though most headlining American skaters did not live up to the expectations. It is still the very beginning of the season and there certainly will be many more delightful programs to see.