A Few Surprises at Skate America

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Every Olympic season, skaters up the ante and the best of the best come out to play, 2010 being no exception. This weekend, some of the top competitors competed at the Cancer.Net Skate America event in Lake Placid, NY, the fifth in the Grand Prix series, a carefully planned collection of international events across the globe that lead to one final event where only the top skaters compete having qualified by medaling at each of the individual Grand Prix events. These early season competitions help skaters prepare for the Olympics, and it introduces some new skaters to the international scene.

The 1980 Olympic arena in Lake Placid, where I had the opportunity to compete in 2000 at the Adult Nationals, is a special rink, well maintained so it still looks pristine. For skaters vying for spots at the Games, I can only imagine it must be inspiring to compete there. In the ladies' Short Program, Emily Hughes was first to skate, a last minute replacement for Sasha Cohen, also attempting to return to the Olympics, who withdrew due to injury. New York being Emily's home state, she was welcomed warmly by the crowd. She popped her triple lutz combination into a single, but her other two jumps were solid. It was nice to see her do a long spiral sequence in her signature style. Unfortunately, the loss in points put her in eleventh place going into the Free Skate, so her long program wasn't on NBC earlier today, but it will most likely be on cable later today at 4pm Pacific/7pm Eastern when Universal Sports shows the event.

The newest American on the scene, Alexe Gilles, tripped out of her first jump and popped her second, finishing tenth in the SP.  Elena Glebova landed a beautiful triple-triple combination, pulling into fifth, Fumie Suguri nailed her jumps with a smooth short program, putting her in fourth, with Julia Sebestyen, another veteran, in third leading up to the Free Skate. Rachel Flatt skated a fun program and went for her triple-triple, but fell on the second jump, earning 58.80, only .3 ahead of Sebestyen and 2.8 ahead of Suguri.  Glebova, Gedevanishvili and Helgesson of Estonia, Georgia and Sweden were only four points back at 52, very close together, meaning any of those six had a shot at the podium. Then Yu-Na Kim came out and her triple lutz-triple toe combination was gigantic and skated a flawless and entertaining program to the James Bond theme, earning a standing ovation and beating her previous world record for a short program with 76.28 points total.

As they announced the final group for the ladies' Free Skate, they named each skater's home country.  The group included skaters from Georgia, Estonia, Japan, Hungary, the U.S., and Korea. Just thinking about the relationships between those countries over the past century and what it means for representatives from each to be in competition together, the rules of the ice being the same regardless of where you're from. These athletes just want to make it to the Olympic Games so they can be a part of that, even knowing the chances of winning are so incredibly slim.

Suguri was first to skate in the Free Skate, her light and elegant style augmented with huge jumps, but she faltered later in the program, doubling a triple, then unfortunately singling another, then stepping out of two more jumps. It was enough to earn her the lead at that point, but with three skaters remaining, there wasn't much hope for a medal. Sebestyen took the ice and started off strong, but also doubled one of her jumps and made some small mistakes, singling her final axel. She barely squeaked ahead of Suguri, earning a podium spot. Scott Hamilton kept mentioning the altitude issue possibly affecting some of the skaters in Lake Placid; that won't be a factor in Vancouver.

Rachel Flatt received a loud welcome to the ice from the American crowd. She took her time on her tough intro triple flip-triple toe combination, landing both solidly, followed by a great triple lutz and later a triple loop and a triple lutz combination. She looked a bit tired on her footwork and spins toward the end, but she skated a clean, energetic program with a bright smile and brought the house to their feet, moving ahead of Sebestyen by a over a dozen points.  Flatt, in my opinion, is the best chance at an American medal in ladies' figure skating in Vancouver. I hope she makes the Olympic Team.

Before Kim took the ice, Brian Orser was interviewed on TV asking whether Kim had any real competition and he said no, but he said she does have to rebuild in-between competitions.  Kim was well positioned for the Free Skate, but she fell out of her triple flip in the warm-up, looking uneasy.  It was almost as if you could see it coming - her fall on the warm-up and his admission that she's not always perfect.  She took the ice after Flatt's incredible skate and re-laced her skates, having been off ice for approximately thirty minutes while the others skated their programs. Something was going on with her balance, confidence or otherwise and she stepped out of her first triple lutz combination, fell on her triple flip and slipped on her triple lutz later in the program. Very unusual.

Whether it was the crowd wowed by Flatt before her or something with her skates, who knows, but it wasn't the Kim we're accustomed to seeing. It showed a sign of weakness - a possible opening for someone to beat her in Vancouver.  As we waited for the scores to come up, Kim had a 19 point lead coming into the Free Skate. She ended up not having the points to win the Free Skate (Flatt actually won that), but her lead from the Short Program held her up for the gold medal, finishing overall 13 points above Flatt, who took the silver. Other Americans: Emily Hughes came in 7th - not bad considering she's been out of competition for two years - and Alexe Gilles finished 10th.

In the Pairs event, Shen & Zhao embodied perfection in their Short Program, but they wobbled on a couple of things in the Free Skate. Still, they skated beautifully and came out 16 points ahead of Zhang & Zhang and Volosozhar & Morozov (of the Ukraine) the silver and bronze medalists respectively. Americans McLaughlin & Brubaker came in fourth, followed by Evora & Ladwig and Castile & Okolski in fifth and sixth, also American pairs. Although all the teams were good, no one takes my breath away like Shen & Zhao, well positioned now for the Grand Prix Final.
 
In the mens' Free Skate, Ryan Bradley hammed it up as a fluffy character skating to chamber music, landed two quads and earned both the bronze medal and a standing ovation, putting him in a strong position to make the U.S. Olympic team at Nationals.  Canada's Shawn Sawyer skated a fluid, dramatic program with a lot of speed and expression, taking the silver.  Then World Champion, American Evan Lysacek performed a powerful portrayal of Scheherazade in an unusual costume by Vera Wang, putting a lot of depth into the feeling and character of his program and landing two giant triple axels plus executing a whole host of other complex moves, making only one mistake.  He won by 34 points - a huge margin.

Ice Dance teams never cease to amaze me in their innovative costumes and sometimes bizarre portrayals, but as we've seen with Dancing with the Stars, it's not as easy as it looks. Belbin & Agosto came in the American favorites, set to skate last. As silver medalists at the last Olympics, they are probably the best chance the U.S. has of winning gold at the Olympics. They held the lead through the end of the Original Dance, twelve points ahead and won the Free Dance, bringing their point total to 195.85, 24 points above the second place team.  Americans Navarro & Bommentre skated an electric program to "One Love" and placed fifth, followed by Americans Chock & Zuerlein. Israeli brother and sister team Zeretski & Zaretski of Israel placed third, following Italians Cappellini & Lanotte, who took the silver, surprisingly overtaking the Russians Khokhlova & Novitski who fell into fourth.

In all four events, the winners trounced the rest of the pack, with significant point differences over the rest of the competitors, showing how strong Kim, Lysacek, Shen & Zhao and Belbin & Agosto are as favorites for medals in Vancouver.  While some of the other top medal contenders were not at Skate America - Mao Asada, Evgeny Plushenko, Nobunari Oda, and Savchenko & Szolkowy, for example - they should be at the Grand Prix Final.

Next weekend, NBC and Universal Sports will show Skate Canada, the final Grand Prix event. Some of the best American and Canadian skaters will be there, in addition to others from around the world. I plan to be live-tweeting during some of the events, from @segsk8 and I'll do another write-up of the event here.  Skate Canada is the last event in the series, so once that's over, we'll know who qualified for the Grand Prix Final, which will be the best indicator of who the top skaters will be at the Olympics.

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Sarah Granger enjoys doing flying camels, Ina Bauers and loop jumps, someday hoping to regain her double.

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