Grand Prix Series Starts with Skate America


U.S. wins two golds and seven medals overall at their home event; favorites win three events with a surprise in the fourth.

As is traditional, the senior Grand Prix of Figure Skating opened this week with Skate America, this year held in Chicago. There were glitches here and there. The music was perhaps played a little softly, after the first night coach Rafael Arutunian, whose students would take three medals here, even complained about it. The camera feed blinked out at one point during the free dance. The pairs competition was a mess. But all in all it was a good event, with more than one performance for the ages among the medalists.


(Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The Japanese men’s winning streak at Skate America might have been disrupted last year, but this year Shoma Uno resumed it. He continued to impress with his ridiculously hard quadruple flip jump. He needed it to lead after the short, since there he went down on his quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination. But in the free he not only landed it again, and more smoothly, but he also landed two quad toes, including a quad toe-double toe combination after the halfway mark. Between that and some good triples, even a fall on an underrotated triple axel didn’t make him beatable by anyone here. He won his first Grand Prix gold by nearly eleven points.

Right below him, hometown skater Jason Brown and countryman Adam Rippon were just trying to land a quad toe. Rippon didn’t try it in the short. He skated clean, and muscled his way to second. Brown fell on it, did the rest of the program beautifully, still failed to get credit for a spin when he failed to grab his skate blade at a crucial moment, and was in third. He did get credit for the rotations, with many questioning that call from the tech panel. He also got the highest presentation scores, just edging out Uno.

(Photo by Stacy Revere – ISU/ISU via Getty Images)

Poor Rippon went for the quad toe in the free instead of the quad lutz in the hope of landing it, then didn’t. But after he got up from that fall, he nailed the rest of his new program, a breathtaking piece that awed everyone. Then, in the opening of Brown’s program, it initially looked like he’d finally landed his first quad when he stood up on it. But ironically this one the tech panel did call underrotated, another call many questioned. Nonetheless he again skated beautifully through the rest of it. This time he got credit for all the spins too, and even came within an eyelash of maxing out the value of one of them. Uno edged out the presentation scores, but Brown took silver. Rippon had to settle for bronze.

In fourth, Russian Sergei Voronov jumped not unlike Jason Brown. He too fell on the quad toe in his short, and easily stayed on his feet in the free. Unlike Brown’s, he got credit for rotating the quad in both programs. However, while he’s improved his presentation, in terms of everything outside jumps he couldn’t begin to approach the top three. He edged out Boyang Jin by two tenths of a point. The young Chinese world bronze medalist was expected to contend for at least a medal. But in the short he crashed on lutz and toe quads, and his triple axel wasn’t much better. Down in eighth, he fought back with a fourth place free. There he landed the lutz and quad toe in combination. He got the salchow with a stepout. But he underrotated and fell on the solo quad toe, and stumbled on his solo axel again.

Below them came in two skaters trying to come back after struggles last season. Nam Nguyen got off to a good start. His fourth place short included a quad salchow-triple toe combination, though like Brown he had a spin invalidated. Jumpwise, his free wasn’t bad either. It included a quad salchow, and everything was clean. But through both programs, he was a little slow and a little dull, and though he did most things well, he didn’t do them better than that.  It kept him down to seventh in the free, and he dropped to sixth. Russian Maxim Kovtun landed the same quad combination in the short, but blew both his solo jumps and was dead last. He pulled up to seventh with a free program that included a quad toe, a quad salchow, and a fall.


(Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The U.S. was hoping for a 1-2 home finish in the ladies competition. They were also hoping for a proper showdown between their top two ladies. They got the former, but not as they expected.

Ashley Wagner came through to do her bit no problem. She had a knockout performance of her short program, nailing most of it with a ferocity perfect for the music and better than ever. Even when she underrotated her triple flip-triple toe attempt, she still took a decisive lead. This was ultimately what got her the gold. In her free, she had two underrotations, including one attempting the same triple-triple, and failed to execute her three-jump, although in her usual determined manner, she tried it twice. However, she performed the program with passion and beauty throughout, and though she was second in the segment, she held on to win.

It was easier for her to win because Gracie Gold did badly. In her short, she managed her triple lutz-triple toe, only to underrotate and fall on her flip. She held on to third by a fraction of a point there, but her free was much worse. There she was unable to repeat the triple-triple when she got too close to the boards, before falling on two more triples and doubling another one. A lovely double axel-triple toe-double toe and delicate musical skating couldn’t keep her from dropping to fifth. Even then, she was the first to call her score “overly generous.”

(Photo by Stacy Revere – ISU/ISU via Getty Images)

Rising to the occasion instead was Wagner’s new training mate Mariah Bell. She might have been a last-minute substitute, one not expected to figure into the medal picture.  But she skated throughout the competition like a seasoned competitor and contender. She went for the content of one as well, including a triple lutz-triple toe in both programs. She didn’t rotate it in the short, where she was sixth, but she pulled it off in the free. There she had trouble only with her difficult three-jump attempt, otherwise skating with grace and confidence, and she broke 130 on her way to winning the free skate and the silver. It’s a huge breakthrough for her, as she shows herself capable of going very far indeed.

Continuing the breakthrough she began at the Nebelhorn Trophy was Japanese skater Mai Mihara, who won the bronze. She was second in the short, where she landed the triple lutz-triple toe, though a wild loop she was lucky not to fall on kept it close. Then she landed it again to open her free skate, which she got through the first half of very well. She even attempted it a third time, after she doubled the second jump of a double axel-triple toe attempt. This one was not a success, and she doubled the final triple of the program, mistakes which definitely cost her the silver. She finished just ahead of Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman. Daleman’s triple lutz-triple toe was fully downgraded in the short, but she landed it in the free. She might have even medaled, but a fall and a double in the latter kept her in fourth.

Mihara’s more well-known elders continued to falter. Mao Asada forewent her triple axel here due to some leg pain. Her short was flawless, but without even a triple-triple its technical content was weak. In the free she went for a triple flip-triple loop, the most difficult triple-triple attempted by a lady here, but doubled the second jump. Multiple costly errors then ensued. She finished sixth. She could at least claim artistry and beauty superior even to Wagner. But Kanako Murakami lacked even that consolation. She struggled to either pull off her jumps or connect with her music, and finished tenth.


CHICAGO, IL – OCTOBER 22: (L-R) Brandon Frazier and Haven Denney of the United States, Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau of Canada and Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia pose with their medals on day 2 of the Grand Prix of Skating at the Sears Centre Arena on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere – ISU/ISU via Getty Images)

After the initial favorites withdrew, it looked like an easy win for Evgenia Tarasova & Vladimir Morozov. It looked even more like that after the short. There the Russians went for the easiest jumping elements in the competition, but they skated clean for an eight point lead. The only team even expected to come near them, Canadians Julianne Seguin & Charlie Bilodeau, were nine points back in third. They’d gone for side by side triple loops and a throw triple lutz. The throw went well, but he doubled his loop.

In the free, Seguin & Bilodeau tried easier, but still hard, side by side triple salchows. They pulled them off, along with a throw lutz, and also everything else in the program. Combining it with presentation skills that are only getting better, they too broke 130. Meanwhile, Tarasova & Morozov went to pieces. Going for the quad split twist, he failed to catch her before she hit the ice. Their attempted salchows and three-jump ended in disaster. They had to hold on to even their easier throws. Seguin & Bilodeau were left with a mildly surprising gold.

(Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The Russians were lucky that five of the six other teams who wouldn’t have beat them normally failed to rise to the occasion. However, Haven Denney & Brandon Frazier did. Not entirely; they didn’t pull off any of their side by sides, though their salchows in the short came close. But they nailed everything else, and did so with a level of presentation that has gone up during the season they had to sit out. It was enough to easily take the silver. Tarasova & Morozov ultimately settled for bronze.

Behind them, French team Vanessa James & Morgan Cipres barely held on to fourth ahead of the other Russian team Kristina Astakhova & Alexei Rogonov. James & Cipres went for very difficult elements throughout. It paid off in the short, where they more or less pulled off salchows and a throw triple flip with her arms in the air, which remains rare in pairs. But in the free it ended in disaster, with three falls and no clean jump elements, although they got credit for rotating the quad salchow. For Astakhova & Rogonov it was a very similar story in the short. In their free they landed the throw lutz, and nearly landed side by side loops, but she slipped down on the last second, and that wasn’t their only mistake either.

Denney & Frazier’s fellow Americans had disappointments. In the short, Marissa Castelli & Mervin Tran managed their jumps, including side by side salchows, only to botch a lift. The free had their usual multiple jumping errors, mostly minor, but including a fall. They finished sixth. Kayne & O’Shea were dead last in the short, where they landed the salchows, but barely, struggled with the twist, and fell on the throw lutz. They managed a third-place free, where their salchows went better. But their other elements didn’t, and on that throw lutz she fell into the boards. They were only able to pull up to seventh, ahead of Italians Valentina Marchei & Ondrej Hotarek. Marchei & Hotarek were ambitious enough to go for side by side triple lutzs as well as throw lutzs in both program. The former were clean in neither, and their free was disastrous.

Ice Dance

(Photo by Stacy Revere – ISU/ISU via Getty Images)

Maia & Alex Shibutani kept their new programs under wraps this year until they were ready to debut them. Their short dance has a jarring music change, which they sell as best they can. Their free dance is absolutely sublime. They were at their best performing both of them this week. In the short dance the levels of difficulty for their elements weren’t quite what they would’ve liked, but in the free they came close to maxing out the value of more than one of them. In both segments they were pretty much untouchable by anyone here.

As in the ladies, the home country went 1-2 here. It wasn’t as easy for Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue though. They and Russians Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev both skated sexy, aggressive short dances, but whether it was from more intensity or simply reputation, the judges favored Bobrova & Soloviev, who took second. A better level spread from Hubbell & Donohue, however, kept it to within two tenths of a point. The Russians wound it up for the free, and nearly maxed out on one lift, only to having trouble getting out of another. Hubbell & Donohue stayed more consistent, got higher levels again, and inched ahead for the silver.

(Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The second Russian team, Elena Ilinykh & Ruslan Zhiganshin, suffered a bigger disappointment.  They were fourth after the short dance, thanks to a good technical tariff and her ability to sell, but he couldn’t match her. Then in the free dance, where a couple of bad levels sent the tariff the other way, and they got awkward on more than one lift as well as their spin. Sixth in the segment, they dropped to fifth behind Italians Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri. They were fifth after a sometimes sexy, sometimes slow short, but pulled up with a quicker and stronger free dance which included an innovative set of twizzles.

Next: New Coach for Chen, New Program for Rippon

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Next week the Grand Prix series continues with Skate Canada in Mississauga, Ontario. The reigning World Champions in both ladies and pairs will be competing, as will reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, and ice dance legends Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir. That competition begins Friday.