Crystal ball of the Grand Prix
During the past few months skaters have undergone the rigorous process of preparing for this crucial competitive season. They chose music, choreographed programs, designed and beaded new outfits, and polished every detail of their skating in order to put the pressure on their closest competitors.
For the most competitive skaters in the world, their off-season work will be put to the test in just six weeks when the 2010 Grand Prix series kicks off. This series consists of nearly two months of consecutive international competitions and features the top contenders for a medal at this year’s Games.
With the start of the series just around the corner, here are a few predictions and skaters to keep an eye on this fall.
Sasha Cohen’s return to competitive skating will be the most exciting factor to the ladies’ event. She’s been out of the spotlight for a few years and hasn’t faced the pressure of international competition since her disastrous long program at the 2006 World Championships. In order to come away with a win on the series, she’ll have to land a triple-triple combination in her long program–something that she hasn’t been successful at completing in the past–and she‘ll have to display a newfound focus and consistency. If Cohen doesn’t medal her events and fails to earn herself a spot in December’s Grand Prix Final, I don’t see her sticking the rest of the season out.
That being said, if she proves to be back in competitive form this fall and makes the U.S. Olympic team, her toughest competition at the Games will come from Yu Na Kim and Mao Asada, whom Cohen will face in October at Trophee Bompard. Kim, who is the reigning world champion, skated beautifully on the Grand Prix circuit last year. She’ll be the frontrunner heading into Vancouver and will probably end up on the top of the podium in both of her events this fall.
Asada, who placed fourth at Worlds last year, is reportedly adding a triple axel-triple toe loop combination to her long program. In the past she has struggled with her consistency and ability to fully rotate the axel and triple-triple combinations under pressure. Asada will have to keep her nerves together during the big events this year and skate consistently with fully rotated jumps in order to be a threat to both Cohen and Kim.
Joannie Rochette and Miki Ando, reigning world silver and bronze medalists, are also expected to medal at their events and will probably join Kim and Asada at the Grand Prix Final in December. Along with those four ladies and possibly Cohen, we’ll see either Americans Rachael Flatt or Caroline Zhang at the Final as well. Look for how the American ladies skate and place during the series, because U.S. Nationals is going to be a tough event, and the Grand Prix will be a good indicator as to who will make the U.S. Olympic team.
An American pairs team hasn’t been a threat on the international stage in quite some time. This year, however, Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker are expected to come out with a new look and polish to their skating and should medal at both their Grand Prixs. They recently switches coaches and moved to California to train under John Nicks, and when they debut their new programs at the Rostelecom Cup, they’ll have a more mature look to their skating and could contend for the gold. The one variable, however, will be their consistency. Brubaker underwent surgery last spring, which hopefully won’t affect his jumps or ability to successfully throw McLaughlin, and McLaughlin has struggled with her triple jumps in the past. If they’re healthy and keep their nerves together, though, they will be a strong force on the series.
Like Cohen, the surprise announcement of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao’s return to the competitive arena has piqued interest throughout the skating world. Despite an injury in 2006, the three-time world champions captured the bronze in Torino. Their season debut will take place at the Cup of China, where they’ll face the 2006 Olympic silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang.
Zhang and Zhang are a powerful team with great throws and speed across the ice. Their main weakness is a lack of artistry and connection to one another–which is where Shen and Zhao excel. For the past few seasons, the Zhang’s toughest competition has come from reigning world champs Savchenko and Szolkowy and teammates Qing Pang and Jian Tong; however, this season they won’t compete against either team until the Final. Both Savchenko and Szolkowy and Pang and Tong will walk away with easy victories at their fall events.
Last spring, 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko announced his comeback to competitive skating. A few months ago, a video of him practicing was posted on youtube, and he looks surprisingly well-trained and in pretty good shape. His season opener will be the Rostelecom cup, and American Johnny Weir and Canadian Patrick Chan will probably be joining him on the podium in Moscow.
Chan, who surprised some by winning the silver medal at last year’s World Championships, plans to add a quad to his long program this season. It‘s smart for him to try the quad out during his fall events, and based on his success, assess whether or not the element should stay in for Vancouver. In the past, he has struggled with successfully landing two triple axels under pressure, and if he isn’t able to consistently perform clean programs without the quad, adding it only improves the likelihood of an assured mistake.
As for Weir, he had a tough end to his 2009 season. He finished 5th at the U.S. Championships and wasn’t named to the world team. He’ll probably place second behind Plushenko in Moscow, but he has a shot of winning the NHK Trophy, where his strongest competition will come from world bronze medalist Brian Joubert and American teammate Jeremy Abbott.
After winning the Grand Prix Final last year, Abbott struggled with his consistency last March at the World Championships. He should medal at both of his Grand Prixs and could come away the victor in either Japan or Canada–if he is able to skate consistently. A win on the series could boost his confidence heading into Nationals, where he’ll face some stiff competition–primarily in the form of Evan Lysacek–when he attempts to defend his national title.
Lysacek’s season will begin at the Cup of China, and he’ll probably walk away with wins at both of his events.
Keep an eye out for U.S. silver medalist Brandon Mroz. This is only Mroz’s second season on the senior Grand Prix, and he’ll probably take home a medal from Skate America. The biggest test for him, though, will be U.S. Nationals, where he’ll have a tough time beating either Lysacek, Abbott, or Weir.
Most of the top contenders in dance have separate Grand Prix events, so the results at December’s Grand Prix Final will be the litmus test as to how things will stack up in Vancouver. Reigning national champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White will probably win silver medals at their two assignments this fall, solidifying them a spot at the Final. Success on the series will give them some much needed confidence heading into the U.S. Championships, where they’ll try to defend their title against world silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto.
Belbin and Agosto will be one of the biggest threats on the series for 2008 world champs Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder. Delobel and Schoenfelder were unbeatable on the Grand Prix last year before they withdrew from the World Championships due to a shoulder injury Delobel suffered last December. They shocked the skating world when they announced that although Delobel is pregnant and is due this fall, they still plan to compete on the series, which begins just a few weeks after her baby’s due date. What kind of shape she will be in when she and Schoenfelder face Belbin and Agosto at Skate America is unknown, and it won’t come as a surprise if Delobel and Schoenfelder end up withdrawing from their fall events.
Besides Davis and White, and a healthy and competition-ready Delobel and Schoenfelder, Belbin and Agosto’s biggest competition this season will come from Canadian’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and reigning world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin. Both teams will most likely take home gold medals from their respective events.
There you have my predictions for the top contenders on the Grand Prix series. One of the most import roles of the fall events is to serve as a final dress rehearsal for the rest of the season. If the quad doesn’t go well for Patrick Chan, or Mao Asada doesn’t receive full credit for her triple axel combination at her events, it would be smart for them to take these elements out of their programs before Vancouver. Look for a lot of changes as a result of skaters’ performances during the series, and keep an eye on how the comeback kids–Cohen, Plushenko, and Shen and Zhao–handle being thrust back into the pressure cooker they left years ago.