The 2014 Skate America International Competition

Carvings from a skate on ice

When I started the blog, I had no intention of going down the yellow brick road of event recaps... then the Sochi Olympics and Saitama Worlds happened! "By popular demand", I hope you will enjoy the more extensive "event coverage" this year. I will be blogging about my thoughts on each of the six senior Grand Prix events, the Grand Prix Final, the European Championships, Four Continents Championships, World Junior Championships and of course, the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships set to take center stage from March 23-29, 2015 in Shanghai, China. Where the powers of be have decided in their infinite wisdom to again hold the Canadian and U.S. Nationals at the same time this coming January and I'm dead set on making the trip up to Kingston, Ontario this year, I don't know that I'll be able to follow the U.S. Championships closely if I'm in Kingston, but we'll see how things all play out. Bottom line... as much as professional and artistic skating is really my thing, I do still have an immense respect and appreciation for the efforts of these talented skaters competing in the ISU ranks and I know how many of you do as well, so I want to keep skating in the forefront as much as possible. If that means blogging about those cookie cutter IJS step sequences I despise so much, so be it. It's all about keeping skating in the forefront!

Please keep in mind with all the coverage of any competition on Skate Guard as always I'll post videos of some of the most standout performances. It's always possible that they might be geoblocked in your country, and for that I apologize. Around the time of major competitions, videos go up every minute and come down and get geoblocked just as fast. If you're unable to watch videos in your country, I've got some great advice for you. Go to YouTube, and under your search settings you can select 'Upload Date'. If you type in keywords for the competition or skater you want to see, you can narrow it down to 'Today' or 'This Week' and usually find just what you're looking for in minutes! And now, on to the event at hand...

The 2014 Hilton Honors Skate America was held in The Windy City of Chicago and I totally just said Chicago in a Chicago accent.

At twenty four years of age, last year's Skate America Champion Tatsuki Machida entered this competition fresh off his most successful season yet. Winning the silver medal at the World
Championships behind Olympic and World Champion Yuzuru Hanyu, Machida looked ready to ride and continue his time on the top. His short program was clean and featured a quad/triple combination and his free skate boasted two quads, a triple axel/triple toe-loop as well as three other triples. He earned a total score of 175.70 and repeated as this event's gold medallist.

After injecting a whole lot of life, energy and excitement into the skating world with his "Riverdance" free skate, the expectations on Olympic Bronze Medallist Jason Brown to come out and 'top' his material from last season were probably a bit of a tall order. Intelligently, he went in a different direction and "Juke" and "Tristan et Iseult". I personally feel not one but BOTH programs absolutely play to his advantages and artistically shine. Rohene Ward masterpieces? Can we even act surprised? Jason blew my mind at the Nebelhorn Trophy and I expected a lot of him at this event. He wasn't perfect, but let's just remember that this is October and not February or March. Rather than approach Jason's skating with Helen Lovejoy cries of "won't someone PLEASE think of the triple axel?", let's appreciate the great programs he's bringing to the table. His overall event score of 234.7 is nothing to scoff at.

The surprise to some of the event was the bronze medal winning performances of Canada's Nam Nguyen. A student of Brian Orser, Nguyen came out gangbusters at this event and couldn't put a foot wrong and made a bold statement that his time isn't the future, it's right now. He landed the quad and I have to say flat out that I thought his PCS score in the free skate of 71.64 (lower than Artur Gachinski?) didn't make a lick of sense to me. If he keeps skating like this, the judges are going to reward him duly. I thought he was just fantastic.

2014 Olympic Bronze Medallist Denis Ten told me "I had to deal with so many challenges and in particular with injuries for last two years. These problems sometimes didn't let me train properly and also to compete well at international competitions. However, when it's a very important event I know how to get myself together no matter what's going on." Ten finished in fourth at Skate America with a score of 224.74 but despite some errors in the free skate, I thought he showed some great fight for the landings. Ten has proven to be a slow and steady wins the race kind of skater who has peaked when it counted the last two years, so that's definitely something to keep in mind.

Changing his mind on retirement from ISU competition, the four time and reigning U.S. Champion and Olympic Bronze Medallist Jeremy Abbott returned to competition with a new "back to basics" strategy this season. He choreographed his own short program to Sam Smith's "Lay Me Down" and worked with famed choreographer Sandra Bezic on his free skate to Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings". Jeremy was outstanding in the short program and finished second in that portion of the event with a score of 81.82. His short program (to me) proved case and point the argument why lyrics belong in competition. If entertainment and artistry draw in new fans, that's the whole point of it all. He unraveled a bit in the free skate and dropped to fifth overall, which I'm sure will give the sockpuppets of the internet plenty to go on about. While he did land five triples in his free skate, he just seemed a little off but it was his first time out of the gate with this program and I have every faith it'll come together for him. Artistically, the glimpses of genius were already there. My only other note about the men's event is that anytime Chafik Besseghier wants to show us his chesteses, he is more than welcome. Hay Girl Hay!

The buzz in the off-season has been about Russia's Elena Radionova. At fifteen years of age, she's won the last two Junior World titles and in her senior Grand Prix debut last season, she medalled at both of her assignments, including last year's Skate America. Again, she proved why she's the talk of the town here with challenging programs and her consistent triple/triple combinations. My criticism of Radionova's skating is that it almost looks like she's skating on a fast forward setting. While she hits absolutely stunning positions in her spins and without question has the jumps, the in-between's and choreography are not there just yet in my opinion - but that will come with time. There's a growing period for developing the style that takes you from juniors to seniors and while I feel her short program suits her well enough, the free skate isn't working for me and gives the impression of a young girl trying on her mother's dresses. It just doesn't aesthetically do it for me. I think the example I can give goes back to Tara Lipinski. I wasn't a big Tara fan in 1996, loved her in 1997 and then kind of went "meh" in 1998. If Radionova can channel her inner 1997 Tara Lipinski and package herself in a way that plays to her strengths (which are many) she might sway me to her camp but I think a lot of my opinion on her skating comes from - truth be told - maybe a little of my own ageism. At any rate, she won gold with 195.47 and served notice that although she's not queer, she's here and we're going to have to get used to it.

I've been thrilled that Liza Tuktamysheva has kind of been the comeback kid this season. Last year a tenth place finish at Russian Nationals derailed her Olympic hopes but rather than give up, she came back fighting... and that's what I like to see. I like her musical choices this season even if I do think the "Bolero" music is a little big for her britches choreographically perhaps. I'd like to see a bit more between the jumps in terms but she does have this very athletic package that reminds me a tiny bit of Debi Thomas and I don't know, I kind of like it. I'm just happy her and Alena Leonova are proving that they too are in this to win it this year and NOT to be met with dismissive narratives with little founding. Liza threw down two VERY strong programs, winning the short program in fact. Her overall score was 189.62 and the silver medal was hers.

We can't talk about Gracie Gold at Skate America without talking about the highlight of the whole competition... Frank Carroll in the kiss and cry. How awesome was that? I died! After some tentative skating in practice, Gracie actually really surprised me here. Despite a couple little blunders with a two footed jump and a problem on the spin in the short, her free skate might have got dinged for two many toe-loops but the jumping itself was actually just great. I can't say the programs themselves did a lot for me but as Carol Lane aptly said on CBC's coverage... "just because a program doesn't appeal to you style wise doesn't mean it's not a good program." Gracie took home the bronze and a score of 179.38.

Samantha Cesario told me that "one of my main goals is to perfect a triple/triple and up my technical side to keep up with the talent we have here in the U.S. as well as internationally. Another main goal is to improve on my skating skills and speed while continuing to bring entertaining programs to the audience." She threw down in Chicago with a free skate that featured seven triples, earning a score of 174.58. She's a mature, elegant skater and I think she's putting the U.S. ladies on notice that she's up for the challenge and a podium threat at Nationals this season.

After a disappointing 2014/2015 season that saw her deliver strong performances, finish third and be left off the U.S. team in favor of two time U.S. Champion Ashley Wagner, anyone else but Mirai Nagasu would have thrown in the towel. The 2008 U.S. Champion's determination to succeed was evident in her renewed focus and drive heading into this season, but a fifth place finish behind Polina Edmunds and Courtney Hicks at the U.S. International Classic earlier this fall wasn't the comeback that she had perhaps hoped for. The judges seem to love to nitpick Mirai's landings on jumps and as usual, for that reason she found herself out of favor with them. The skating itself was gutsy, inspired and athletic and I have a lot of respect for her for sticking with it. Her sixth place finish here "is what it is".

Maé-Bérénice Méité came into this event with the goal of "really getting better and better and to get better places on the Grand Prix". She finished sixth at Skate America in Detroit last year so her ninth place finish at this event wasn't a great event for her but the attack was as always there and I like her material this year. Another skater I wanted to mention was Brooklee Han. Although she finished tenth, her free skate was simply fantastic and much like Nguyen in the men's event, if she keeps skating like this the judges are going to have to take notice.

After missing the 2013/2014 season due to Smirnov's ruptired patellar tendon, Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov returned to - and won - their first competition of the season, the Nebelhorn Trophy, last month. I just love their free skate. It has this very sweeping old school quality and there is more than enough meat choreographically going on. Take that wonderful section before the overhead lift and throw triple loop for instance. It's got to be at least a Pasha on a scale of one to Angelika Krylova back row Carmen theatre face. Coming from me, that's a compliment. I'm the kind of skating fan who would have loved to have Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin turn their "Raputin" program into a full length TV special with Laetitia Hubert, Olga Markova, one of those Hallowe'en sound effects tapes, Toller Cranston, a smoke machine, confetti cannon, cash bar and the off off off Broadway cast of Cats. Their winning performances at this event were convincing and technically unreal. Although the speed might not have been there, a throw quad salchow is NOTHING to sneeze at and I think this team's storyline this season is one that is going to serve the skating world notice.

In winning silver in the pairs event ahead of the Chinese pair, Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier were fantastic. The U.S. pairs are really stepping it up a notch and this particular team I think is really one to watch. I also predict a great future for Vanessa Grenier and Maxime Deschamps, who (despite some problems on the technical elements) showed flashes of brilliance and a lot of promise.

The ice dance event was all about the Americans, with Maia and Alex Shibutani squaring off with Madison Chock and Evan Bates. Both teams have impressive résumés and brought somewhat comparable styles to the table at this event. After a high energy crowd pleasing free dance set to Michael Jackson music last year, 'The ShibSibs' opted for a much more subdued style in their free dance set to ""Rosen aus dem Süden" and "The Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss. Chock and Bates also opted for a more traditional free dance set to "An American In Paris". Whereas the music choices might not have had me on the edge of my seat, the skating was anything but lifeless. I thought both teams brought a high technical standard to the table.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates' short dance didn't really work for me as a paso doble but I certainly appreciated (as always) their speed, lifts and carriage. With regard to their free dance to "An American In Paris", I again thought their speed and lifts were incredible and the closeness in their twizzles was something else. I didn't have any issue with their TES score... but PCS wise, the slow section was lovely but there's a certain contrived quality of the choreography that just didn't do it for me. The final up and down merry-go-round liftamigger in the program didn't work for me either. I think my opinion with regard to this team really comes down to the fact that "An American In Paris" was preceeded by "Les Mis" and "Doctor Zhivago". They are so technically good and the program choices that they continue to select are so far from what I personally go for that it's just hard for me to relate with their skating. That said, they are a damn good team and a score of 171.03 is certainly impressive.

Now... time to talk about the ShibSibs. I personally thought they should have won the short dance. Their free dance was a very effective program with great timing, expression, twizzles (which were confident, a highlight, full of speed and textbook) and character. What they did ON the ice as opposed in the air was far for more impressive than any acro-tactics we saw from some of their competitors. I can't say the waltz entirely grows on me as much as the Michael Jackson program did, but that said, it's a classic, effective program and I admire their sticktuitiveness. 160.33 and ten points back of first? Yeah, I don't know how I feel about that at all.

Stepanova and Bukin's "Eleanor Rigby" free dance was a complete fail for me, despite those badass sitting twizzles. However, I did enjoy that dance spin where she was... Stepanova him. The lifts were creative but the program lost steam and the innate connection between music and movement just wasn't there from start to finish. They won the bronze medal with a score of 143.87 (over twenty five points back of first) but I think the strength of their short dance should serve them well as they go through the season. Let's not forget how that worked for Cappellini and Lanotte in Saitama.

A couple of other notes... A huge jump for Paradis and Ouellette in the free dance. Marie-France Dubreuil has created some magic with this team and you can just see her influence in their skating. That closing rotational movement in their free dance was to die for and fourth place overall (coming from last after the short dance) was just crazy. Good for them! With regard to Orford and Williams, I love me some old school "Titanic" and actually skated to the soundtrack myself when that was the in thing in the late nineties. The program really caught my attention at the beginning but the jig section just needed a little more outward projection and camp for it to really sell itself more. The lifts were great and I think with a little fine tuning, this dance will be just fine by Nationals.

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