Skating’s quarter-season report cards
Last week, the 2009 Grand Prix series officially hit the halfway mark. At this point, besides reigning world silver medalist Patrick Chan and two-time world champion Stephane Lambiel, we‘ve seen performances from the most likely contenders for Olympic medals. For some skaters, the first four Grand Prix events have been filled with excitement, surprise medals, and satisfaction. But for others, the start of the season hasn’t gone as planned. Here’s how things currently look in the men’s and ladies’ events as we inch closer to the Games.
The biggest story in the men’s event has been the victorious return of 2006 Olympic gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko. Plushenko was terrific at his season opener three weeks ago in Moscow. Picking up exactly where he left off before his retirement four years ago, Plushenko currently holds the highest total score of any man this season.
Although Plushenko was amazing in Moscow, he was only slotted for one event so we won’t see him in December’s Grand Prix final. Because Plushenko has a few months before his next competition, he should use this time to focus on keeping up the momentum from his first event and working on the few areas of his skating that need improvement, namely the speed and position of his spins.
Like Plushenko, Japan’s Nobunari Oda has had a fantastic start to his Olympic season. Winning both his events and securing himself a spot in the Grand Prix Final, Oda’s displayed an entirely new look this season. In his “Charlie Chaplin” free program, he shows increased personality and enthusiasm, which have been greatly enjoyed by fans and rewarded by the judges. Along with intricate and exciting choreography, Oda’s jumps have been very consistent this season. After such a strong start, the question now is whether or not Oda has peaked too soon. If I were him, I’d take a few days off, regroup, and start slowly training for the Grand Prix final. He has everything he’ll need to do well in Vancouver, and for Oda, it’s all about keeping up this high level of skating for the next few months.
Oda’s second win on the series came against reigning world champion Evan Lysacek. Lysacek skated with impressive speed and command in the debut of his short program at the Cup of China but was hit with a downgrade on his triple flip and had a scratchy landing on his second triple axel in his long, leaving him to settle for the silver medal. Cup of China was a good first outing for the two-time U.S. champion, but when watching his long program, it’s easy to see how formulaic Lysacek’s skating has become. Over the past few seasons, the choreography and construction of his programs have looked very similar, and when compared to Oda, Lysacek’s packaging comes across as somewhat weak. Look to see if Lysacek has worked on the security on his landings and adding a little bit more excitement to his long program this week when he competes in his second event, Skate America.
The two skaters who will act as Lysacek’s biggest threat this January at the U.S. Championships are Jeremy Abbott and Johnny Weir. Abbott was incredible in his short program last weekend in Nagano, but after a error-filled long program, slipped to finish fifth overall. Abbott’s progress over the summer was evident in his short, but the biggest downfall of his skating has always been his inconsistency. Like Abbot, Weir’s biggest clutch has always been his inability to skate clean programs under pressure, but Weir seemed more focused and competitive than Abbott last weekend, winning the silver medal. Weir and Abbott both have the ability and opportunity to act as the dark horse in Vancouver, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see either one of them on the podium.
That said, neither Abbott nor Weir have a consistent quad, and if five-time world medalist Brian Joubert is able to build upon the momentum after his win last weekend in Nagano, he will be a major threat in February. Joubert rebounded after a tough outing a month earlier in Paris, and he has the potential to sneak in and surprise by winning Olympic gold. Outside of Plushenko, Joubert has the most solid quad and speed of any of the men.
It should be noted two-time world champion Stephane Lambiel didn’t compete on the series but could be a potential medalist in Vancouver. We’ll have to wait until Europeans to see how he looks heading into the Games and what progress he’s made on his triple axel. The success on his triple axel will be paramount to Lambiel’s success in Vancouver. Along with the Lambiel, Tomas Verner has shown the potential to land on the Olympic podium as has Japan’s Takahiko Kozuka.
There is no question that reigning world champion Yu-Na Kim is in a class of her own among the ladies. In her season opener, Kim blew the field away, setting a new world record of total points in the ladies‘ event with a score of 210.03. There seems to be little lacking in Kim’s skating: She’s fast, consistent, and beautifully packaged. At this point, the only thing Kim needs to be worried about is preventing any injuries and the off chance that she completely implodes under Olympic pressure. She seems so solid–mentally and physically–but like Oda, Kim needs to watch peaking too soon.
Beyond Kim, it’s shaping up to be quite the fight among the top Japanese ladies. Reigning world bronze medalist Miki Ando won both her Grand Prix events and at this point is serving as Kim‘s biggest threat this season. Although Ando struggled on a few of her jumps in both her events and seemed particularly sloppy last weekend in Nagano, this season she’s shown signs of improvement, particularly in her spins and her ability to fight through her programs. For Ando, right now it’s all about skating consistently and staying focused. With her teammate, Mao Asada, struggling this season, an Olympic silver medal isn’t out of Ando’s grasp.
Along with Ando, Japan’s Akiko Suzuki is a skater to keep an eye on. Suzuki blew the field away at her first event in Beijing, skating both her programs cleanly and grabbing her first win on the Grand Prix. Where Ando has a tendency to struggle under pressure, Suzuki seems to rise to the competitive occasion, generally skating solid programs with an immense amount of confidence. Still, Suzuki lacks Ando’s speed on her spins and can look slightly sloppy in her choreography. Although these are areas she needs to work on if she wants to contend for an Olympic medal, Suzuki’s consistency will carry her far. And after watching reigning world silver medalist Joannie Rochette struggle with her jumps two weeks ago in Beijing, it was clear how important skating consistently under pressure can be.
For Rochette, who moved up from seventh after the short program to win the bronze medal at the Cup of China, this Olympic season is off to a rocky start. While her new programs look strong, Rochette will have to keep her nerves in check when facing the magnitude and pressure of this year‘s events. She’s one of the most polished and technically-sound ladies competing today, and hopefully she’ll leave her struggles in Beijing behind her when she performs in her second Grand Prix next weekend.
Unfortunately, Rochette isn‘t the only lady we’ve seen struggle this season. After two lackluster skates in Paris and fifth-place finish in Moscow, 2008 world champion Mao Asada’s hopes of making the Grand Prix final were crushed. Asada has a lot of ground to make up over the next few months. She needs to work on improving her confidence, consistency, and mental training. If Asada were to win an Olympic medal, it would be viewed as a huge victory after such a rough start to her season. There is still hope for Asada to make this a reality, but it will take a lot of work and a change of focus.
Although we’re used to seeing the U.S. ladies in the mix for Olympic medals, the American women haven‘t been very strong on the Grand Prix and probably won’t contend for any Olympic hardware. Because of this, the main excitement for U.S. fans won’t necessarily be what happens at the Games, but rather how the competition plays out this January in Spokane. There, we’ll see five contenders duke it out for only two spots on the U.S. Olympic team.
After the first round of Grand Prix events, Ashley Wagner looks to be the safest bet to make the U.S. team. Wagner is the only U.S. lady to stand on the podium so far on the Grand Prix, winning the silver medal at the Rostelecom Cup and the bronze last weekend in Japan. Although there is still an opportunity for the other U.S. ladies to improve upon their first events, the season hasn’t started off as hoped for many of the U.S. ladies.
With four Grand Prixs down and only two to go, now the focus shifts to who shows improvement after their first event and stands out in the second half of this series. A lot can change in the next few months, with injuries and illness always playing an unfortunate role. For skaters like Oda, Plushenko, and Ando, the next few weeks are about resting and keeping their energy up for the rest of the season. For Rochette, Nagasu, and Flatt, the focus should be on improving upon their first outings and learning from early mistakes.
And the most important thing for all skaters–particularly Oda and Kim–to remember?
This season is a marathon not a sprint.