In Grand Prix Final Marred by Mistakes, Kim Lands On Top

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In the only major match-up of top figure skaters in the world since last year's World Championships, I felt somewhat let down.  Many of the ladies I felt have the strongest chance at a surprise podium position in Vancouver were not even at the Grand Prix Final this week, and those who were did not skate their best.  I hope they all get this out of their systems, because the clock's ticking.  Ladies take the ice February 23rd in Vancouver.

In Tokyo, Ashley Wagner was the only American lady who qualified (although Rachel Flatt actually beat Yu-Na Kim in the Free Skate at Skate America, she was an alternate for the Final).  Wagner skated a somber Short Program to sorrowful, slow music. IMHO she needs something more inspiring to light her up.  That's not going to win her any medals.  In the Free Skate, she took a lighter approach, leading off with a triple-double-double combination and continuing through a perfectly clean program.  He technical abilities and style really are excellent, but there was no fire or real emotion that you see with many of the other best skaters.  I enjoyed her performances, but I didn't come out of it feeling like she deserved to medal.

Joannie Rochette of Canada stepped out of her combination in the SP, putting her in fourth coming into the Free Skate.  Then in the Free Skate, she made five significant mistakes on her jumps, skating very poorly.  She ended-up in fifth.  Not a great placement for the World Silver Medalist going into the Olympics in her home country.

Alena Leonova got a new personal best score in the SP which clearly made her happy.  She's a fun, energetic skater - quite the juxtaposition following Wagner's program.  She was in third going into the Free Skate, but made several mistakes akin to Rochette's, putting her in sixth.  Akiko Suzuki, who did not skate her best in the Short Program, did a great Free Skate to a standing ovation at home in Japan and took the bronze, but she was ten points behind second place at the end of the day.

Yu-Na Kim came into the event after narrowly winning Skate Canada.  Still the expected winner, she popped her triple flip into a single in the Short Program, putting her in second just a hair behind Miki Ando.  In the Free Skate, she had a slight lean on her triple lutz, so she made her combination a triple-double instead of a triple-triple.  She also two-footed the landing on a double axel-triple toe, but otherwise it was a solid skate.  However, she left room for Ando.

Miki Ando wowed the Japanese crowd with a new personal best in the Short Program, pulling into the lead over Kim.  In her Free Skate, she skated  well but a tad tentatively, making one mistake on her triple salchow toward the middle of the program.  Ando is such a strong skater physically, but her technique has a clunkiness to it - I hate to mention Tanya Harding, but there's a style similarity there.  Powerful jumps but minus the flow that other skaters like Mao Asada and of course Yu-Na Kim have.  If she could have mustered just three more points in her program component score for artistry, she could have won, but Kim prevailed, keeping her place as the favorite going into the Olympics.  Still, that's not the program I would have wanted to see in Vancouver.  Nobody skated their best.  None of them seemed on fire - except Suzuki - who doesn't have the difficulty to compete with Kim.

In the Mens' event, American Johnny Weir looked his best in his Short Program and he skated very well in his Free Skate, earning the bronze medal.  Daisuke Takahashi had the Japanese crowd eating out of his hands in the Short, coming in with the second best Short Program in history (earned in 2006 by Evgeny Plushenko) at 89.96, followed closely by Evan Lysacek at 89.85, coming in at the third best SP score ever.  However, Takahashi made several major mistakes in the Free Skate and came in fifth.

American Evan Lysacek skated an incredible Free Skate and won handily, over Nobunari Oda, who took the Silver medal.  All of those guys brought their A games to the Short Program event except American Jeremy Abbott, who did not skate his best in either the SP or the Free Skate, missing jumps, but skating well overall placing fourth.  Looking at that, one might think there could be a chance of an American medal sweep in the mens' event, but Brian Joubert and Evgeny Plushenko were not at the Grand Prix Final and they will be major contenders for gold, Plushenko entering as the reigning Olympic champion and the favorite.

As to the Pairs, Savchenko & Szolkowy, reigning World Champions of Germany were second coming into the Free Skate and faltered on three moves.  Although they received a perfect program component score at Skate Canada for their new portrayal of beautiful, innovative choreography to "Out of Africa," they have some work to do polishing things before Vancouver.  They placed third.  Favorites Shen & Zhao set a new world record in their total Short Program score of 75.36, a new world record with their Free Skate at 138.89 and a new world total at 214.25.  Both programs were flawless and amazing.  They bring tears to my eyes every time I watch them; they are so incredible.  I can't wait to watch them in Vancouver.  Pang & Tong skated well and took home silver.

In Ice Dance, Americans Davis & White edged out (err... literally) Virtue & Moir of Canada by barely more than one point.  Pechalat & Bourzat of France took third, twenty points lower.  It would have been interesting to see Belbin & Agosto up against the top two teams, but any way you slice it, it's incredibly exciting for Americans and Canadians: no Ice Dance team from North America has ever won gold at the Olympics.  That title has always gone to European teams.

As a general observation, I don't get all of these costumes with nude inserts.  They have color and sparkles to cover most of what's important, but then nude covering the rest, so it looks like everyone's wearing bikinis on ice.  Not my favorite year in that respect.  This is the Olympic year; I don't get why coaches aren't requiring their skaters to show some faint modesty.  Maybe the trend in the costumes is to show as much faux-skin as possible, but that mixed with the weird angular lines and asymmetry just doesn't do it for me.  All of it is just a bit over the top and detracts from the skating.  (I guess this makes me officially old.  So be it.)

But the real question on my mind is whose skates won't arrive in Vancouver on time since everyone has to check them in their luggage?  Which airlines are up to the challenge?  I mean really... why is it every single event we hear about something like this?  The Grand Prix Final was no exception. It's not a fair competition unless everyone's equipment shows-up in Vancouver on time!

The U.S. Nationals begin January 14 in Spokane, Washington, just one month before the first figure skating event of the Olympics.  Hopefully it will all be shown live on TV.  I'll be covering the ladies' short and long programs, so BlogHer will have the scoop as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, catch my tweets @segsk8.

....
Sarah Granger schlepped her ice skates 5300 miles from Kansas City to Moscow by plane, train and Soviet subway in 1989, only to find the ice rinks all closed for maintenance.

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