Skate America Kicks Off Figure Skating Season, Looking Toward Olympics

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Figure Skating fans can prepare for a wild ride between now and the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada.  With fifteen months to go, the 2008-2009 figure skating season began this past week with Skate America in Washington, and not only were most of the major American contenders at the event, but so were some of the best in the world.  Blowing away the rest of the pack of the ladies, Kim Yu-Na of South Korea, record holder for highest points ever in short and long programs, won handily in her first American competition.

Yu-Na, who's known for exquisite technical style as well as beautiful artistry, literally rose above the others in her group with huge, dynamic jumps culminating with the free skate on Sunday.  Beating out 2007 World Champion, Miki Ando of Japan and her teammate, Yukari Nakano, who took the bronze and silver in Skate America, followed by Rachel Flatt, 2008 U.S. Silver Medalist and reigning Junior World Champion, who came in fourth.

Getting into the details of the event, it's time to take a memo: the days of triple-triple jumps required to place in the short program are officially here.  All of the top contenders had them and they were incredible.  Flatt's new "Moon River" program, technically challenging, took on a lightness with her triple-triple and a fantastic layback spin.  Mirai Nagasu, rising American star, followed with a double axel so high she could've easily fit in another rotation, and her Charlie Chaplin theme allowed for some fun choreography and a strong combination spin.  Nakano, who skated well in the short, lacked on her jump positions.  Ando had an uncharacteristic fall, but her triple-triple was tight and flawless.  Yu-Na's triple-triple was huge, and combined with her her complex, dramatic footwork, she held a 12 point lead after the short.

The story from the long program includes Flatt, who seemed a bit slow on her spins compared to some of the others, but who performed a nice triple lutz and several other solid jumps, Nagasu, whose delicate speed surprised me, along with her pretzel positions in her spins.  Sadly she faltered with two-footed landings, putting her in 5th.

Nakano skated first of the final three with a dramatic portrayal of Giselle, a fine blend of speed, jumps and artistry, and fresh, innovative choreography.  She skated a perfect program and the leg wrap on her jumps was barely noticeable - a big improvement - gaining her the silver.  Ando, who has a more elegant look this season, executed more tight jumps and with only one wobble, took the bronze.

Kim Yu-Na, coming in with that giant lead, popped a triple loop turning it into a single, but otherwise skated cleanly in her new Sheherazade program with a dress I absolutely love - gorgeous red beading and really flattering on her.  She had an incredible split spiral position, more gigantic jumps, and her use of ballet style finger positions and full arm extension put her well on top in terms of artistic expression.  She also has a joy and a love of skating that shows through, similar to that of Michelle Kwan.  She won with a total score of 193.45.

Kimmie Meissner, 2006 World Champion, deserves an honorable mention for being at Skate America, but she fell in both programs, struggling with getting enough height on her jumps and finishing eighth.  She has a tough climb ahead if she wants to make the world team this year following a couple of disappointing seasons.

As to the rest of the groups, relative newcomer, Takahiko Kozuka, beat out American rivals Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir.  His program was not as emotionally moving as theirs, but his jumps were clean in terms of rotation, whereas Weir and Lysacek were docked points for not completing full turns.  All three top men attempted quadruple jumps to help train them for Worlds and the Olympics, and all three failed.  In ice dance, Americans Belbin & Agosto actually won the free dance, but took the silver medal behind French World Champion ice dancers, Delobel & Schoenfelder, who won by a hair.  Kerr & Kerr of Great Britain took third and Americans Samuelson & Bates, fourth.  In pairs, Savchenko & Solkowy of Germany took first with a significant lead over Americans McLaughlin & Brubaker who captured the silver.  Up and coming Russian pair, Mukhortova & Trankov, took third, with Duhamel & Buntin pulling into fourth after placing third in the long program.

Skate America, first of the multi-event Grand Prix Series that takes place across the globe over 2 months, always attracts more Americans than the other events, and this year due to its location on the West Coast, it attracted a large group of competitors from Asian countries.  Japanese ladies, soaring in figure skating for the past few years, skated strong even without World Champion Mao Asada, long time rival of Kiim Yu-Na.  Also missing from Skate America was the reigning World silver medalist, Carolina Kostner of Italy.  Of the top skaters in the world, there are at least ten incredible ladies with a real shot at gold in Vancouver, so they're all now debuting new programs and testing more difficult moves leading up to that event.

Skate Canada takes place this week in Ottawa, beginning Thursday.  I'll be reporting about that competition after it concludes.  Three Canadians - Cynthia Phaneuf, Joannie Rochette, and Myriane Samson - will be competing, as well as three Americans - Alissa Czisny, Beatrisa Liang, and Caroline Zhang - along with Carolina Kostner of Italy, Fumie Suguri and Nada Takeda of Japan.  Check back next week.

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Guest contributing editor, Sarah Granger, is feeling old this week after realizing Kim Yu-Na was born the year before she graduated high school. Still hoping to get her double loop back someday, she watches these skaters for inspiration.

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