The 2014 Cup Of China

After Skate America and Skate Canada, the ISU Grand Prix made its third stop in Shanghai, China with the LEXUS Cup Of China. In this event which was organized by the Chinese Skating Federation, skaters from all over the globe put their axels on the line in an effort to earn points that would potentially qualify them a spot in the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain this December. A little disclaimer before we get down to it. 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. Many of them 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... which had more than a few surprises.

To briefly recap for those who haven't watched the event yet, the biggest news that came out of the Cup Of China was the collision between Yuzuru Hanyu and Han Yan during the warmup for the final group in the men's free skate. Both skaters collided at high speed and were clearly badly injured. Han Yan, who was hit on the shoulder and chin was incorrectly rumored to have withdrawn from the men's event and Hanyu (who by accounts passed out because of a concussion) appeared in the later second warmup with a bandage on his head. Rather than withdraw when he was clearly in pain, he was allowed to continue... as was Yan.

Russian Champion Maxim Kovtun was expected to be Hanyu's biggest competition at the event, what with finishing fourth at Worlds last year and winning the silver at this same event last year. I wanted to be able to say that his programs to "Bolero" and Muse were certainly a huge improvement on what we saw from him last season and whatever this was, but both programs left me uninspired. One thing I think Kovtun DOES really have going for him is his strong basic skating skills but to be honest, things like jump technique and the delivery of his footwork for instance just leave me thinking more about what could improve about his skating than about the jumps he's ticking off. Although he won the short program with two quads, I think it was clear that Kovtun was as shocked by the events of the men's free skate as anyone and his win here with a score of 243.34 might have been with a program with a quad toe and a triple axel, but it certainly wasn't with an inspired or flawless skate.

Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu entered this event as the reigning Olympic and World Champion and the overwhelming favourite to take the title. That said, he withdrew from the Finlandia Trophy citing back pain so who was to say just what to expect from him at this event? Although his music choices to Chopin and "Phantom Of The Opera" looked sleepier than a free dance event at Russian Nationals on paper, the short program choreography was quite lovely but a step out on a triple lutz and omission of a combination left Hanyu trailing after the short program with a score of 82.95. The collision in the warmup left Hanyu clearly injured and while I admire his determination to get up and fight, when you do your warmup with a bandaged head, fall five times, cry your eyes out and have to be carried away from the kiss and cry... you probably didn't make the safest choice. So many questions here... and I think the biggest one is if medical staff should not have intervened and said no. I get the determination to go for it and applaud it (I probably would have done the same in his boots because that's what skaters do) but yeah... Safety has to be considered and he was clearly NOT OKAY during that program. With five points deducted for the falls, Hanyu still finished second with a score of 237.55... raising more important questions. I almost feel like the respectful thing to do here is not to argue about the usual calculus lesson at hand but to wish him well instead. I think that's the ONLY right thing to be doing in the here and now of things.

With a quad toe and two triple axels, Richard Dornbush delivered one of the few strongish free skates in this bizarre men's event to claim the bronze medal behind Hanyu. His free skate might not have been perfect, but considering the events of the day and the presentation of Kovtun's program, I think there's a very real argument for Dornbush placing higher in this event. His total score in Shanghai was 226.73.

Canada's Nam Nguyen was fresh off playing spoiler at Skate America and nabbing the bronze medal unexpectedly with two clean skates (not to mention a beautiful quad) when he came to Shanghai. Working with incredibly talented people like Brian Orser, David Wilson and Jeffrey Buttle has clearly paid off dividends and you can SEE in his skating what they have done for him. The improvement from last season to this one is definitely marked and the programs themselves - "Sinnerman" and "La Strada" - are skated with maturity beyond his years. Although he looked a bit more tentative than he did in Chicago and speed remains an area that he could work on, he pulled off a fine effort here, even if he did pop his first of two triple axel attempts in the free skate. He finished fourth with 221.85 and like Dornbush, I'm not so sure why.

Misha Ge is a joy to watch. He choreographed his own programs this season to "Ave Maria" and "The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg" and brought his own distinctive style and fresh sense of interpretation to both. When I interviewed Misha last year, I really respected the fact that much like Ashley Wagner for instance, he didn't mince words. I feel that holds true in his skating. He's unapologetically musical and while is skating or jumps may not have the power of some of his rivals, what he lacks in athletics he makes up for in artistry. I saw more speed and confidence on the triple axel in his short program, which was one of his finest skates in competition period in my opinion. His free skate was lovely as well, and I really felt that overall, he got screwed here.

Han Yan finished seventh at both the Olympics and World Championships last season and I hate to say it considering the injury he suffered today, but he didn't make a fan out of me at either event. In the short program, I was left scratching my head at "If I Were A Rich Man" from "Fiddler On The Roof". It didn't do it for me. Athletically though, he's great when he's on. I can't say I agreed with his short program scores here though. A PCS score of 39.78 for a program where he didn't successfully land ANY of the four jumps he attempted and the musical interpretation was lacklustre at best doesn't add up in my books, home audience or not. As with Hanyu, I just hope Yan is okay! That crash was scary as anything. He did make it out to perform his free skate and like Hanyu's... it was a disaster. I don't even know... He finished sixth with 206.65.

All in all, my feelings about the men's free skate are so conflicting. Should the ISU have intervened and prevented the injured skaters from participating? What message does the judging given to their gutsy but fatally flawed routines send to other skaters? The bottom line in my mind remains is that this was scary, scary stuff. I just hope they are both truly okay and some lessons were learned today by all involved. A somewhat related/unrelated side note regarding the men's event: one example of judging in the men's SHORT program actually had me shaking my head so much I was this close to whipping my hair back and forth like in that song (and I shave my head) so I decided to actually write a separate blog to revisit the issue of the evaluation of PCS scores. Stay tuned for it in the coming weeks!

Elizaveta Tuktamysheva has been on a ROLL this season! She's already won three events - the Nebelhorn Trophy, Finlandia Trophy and Cup Of Nice and finished a strong second at Skate America (even winning the short program ahead of Elena Radionova). Speaking of Elena Radionova, I'll save my thoughts on her "Queen Of The Night" exhibition from Skate America for a rainy day... maybe a whole rainy season because I've got THAT much to say about that program. Anyway, back to Elizaveta... the technical side of her skating is her obvious strength and a clean short program left her just back of Lipnitskaia with a score of 67.99. Although Elizaveta isn't as developed a skater in terms of PCS as many others, I can't say that Lipnitskaia necessary is either so I'm not sure how I feel about the short program result but hey... with the same jump content and two rather comparable programs, I certainly don't think anyone was robbed here. When Lipnitskaia faltered here in the free skate, Tuktamysheva went out in beast mode and despite a doubled triple lutz attempt skated a flawless program. Of course, her PCS score was suddenly then better than Lipnitskaia's and her total score of 196.60 was enough for the gold medal here.

Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia was last season's "it girl". She won the European Championships, was one of the stars of Russia's Olympic gold winning roster in the team event, showed her humanity in the Olympic ladies event by finishing fifth and rebounded to win the silver medal at last year's World Championships in Japan. The diminutive Muscovite has been dazzling audiences for a couple of years now but with the rest of her fellow Russian ladies already looking on point faces perhaps a bit more competition this season though. Even without the triple lutz in her short program, she managed to go clean when many other ladies faltered and won the first phase of the event with a score of 69.56. The short program choreography - and even costuming - managed to make her look even more 'youthful' and I can't say the "Romeo And Juliet" free skate did her any major favors either. Where she was technically sound in the short, that was not so much the case in the free and several jump errors saw her finish fourth in the free skate and drop to second with a score of 173.57. For all of you Lipnitskaia fans out there... don't fear! This was one performance. The Lipnitsky is not falling. I repeat... The Lipnitsky is not falling. Those PCS scores will ensure that Lipnitsky stays right where it is.

Japan's Kanako Murakami started off strong last season with a silver medal and a performance of a lifetime at the Japanese Championships and a win at the Four Continents Championships but seemed to unravel at both the Olympics and World Championships. With Asada, Suzuki and Ando all out of the picture and Satoko Miyahara being the talk of the town, I was interested to see how Murakami fared in her first Grand Prix event of the season. She arrived with softer programs than some of her competitors and although she stepped out of the triple flip in her short program and missed her first two jumping passes in the free skate, still found herself in third with a score of 60.44. As much as I don't want to ever see anyone skate to "Phantom" again aside from Boitano, Cousins, Hamill and maybe Drobiazko and Vanagas, she did interpret the music competently here and I liked the fact that after the single axel/single toe in the free, she pulled herself together and did four more triples and a double axel like nothing happened. Her total score was 169.39 and enough for bronze.

Polina Edmunds won the U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City with two strong performances and very good scores, setting her up in the eyes of many to be the dark horse to give the other U.S. ladies a run for their money this season. While she's young, she is the current U.S. Silver Medallist and certainly proved herself at both the Olympics and World Championships last season, where she placed in the top ten in both on her first try. Her programs this season are age appropriate and are really quite elegant and balletic. You can thank Rudy Galindo for that. Her skating is actually really growing on me and I have a hard time warming up to the 'younger skaters' I find. There's just that 'wise beyond her years' thing that's starting to develop and the jumps are great to boot, so how can you not appreciate that really? A fall on the triple lutz in the short program left her in seventh place, but she rallied wonderfully in the free skate with a clean performance to rack up a total score of 161.27 to move up to fourth place.

Canada was represented in this event by Gabby Daleman, who won the Skate Canada Autumn Classic last month and told me in the Canada Month interview I did with her that her goals for her Grand Prix events were top five finishes. In a deep field at this event, she finished fourth in the short program with a score of 58.49 and fought her way through her free skate and despite several mistakes, managed to get in a triple lutz and double axel/triple toe combination. Gabby is definitely a more athletic skater but I'd love to see some more attention to detail in choreography in the free skate. You see it in the short program and just a little more softness in the free skate could go a long way. I don't know though. I like her power in the same way I enjoyed watching a Midori Ito, a Tonya Harding or a Surya Bonaly. These weren't skaters who stylistically I'd imagine I'd enjoy watching as much I did but their skating was exciting, as is Daleman's. Her final score of 161.26 saw her achieve her goal of a top five finish here.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Christina Gao at this event but I was crossing my fingers and toes because I think she's just a lovely skater. Her eighth place finish at the U.S. Championships last year must have been a hard pill to swallow and I think it's a testament to the depth of the U.S. ladies field right now. I LOVE her program choices - Emeli Sande is fantastic and I used to perform to Linda Eder all the time when I did drag so I was like HAYYYY when I heard what she was doing this year. Downgrades proved to be her nemesis here unfortunately in the short program and her free skate started with a fall on a triple flip and kind of fell apart after that, although she did manage to land two triples. When she's on, she's just such a lovely skater to watch and let's cross our fingers and toes again and hope she fares better in her second assignment, the NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan. Her overall score here was 125.04.

Texan Ashley Cain might have finished out of the top ten at last year's U.S. Championships but her bronze medal at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial in Bratislava earlier this season ahead of skaters like Viktoria Helgesson, Haruka Imai and Nathalie Weinzierl certainly turned some heads. Her programs are quite a bit bolder and more dramatic than we've seen from her in the past and I particularly have to say I particularly enjoy her short program to an orchestral arrangement of the "Mission Impossible" theme, which really showcases the quality and "levels" of her spins. This event really didn't go her way though but her total score of 124.81 did manage to move her up one place in the standings at the end of the day.

After claiming the silver at Skate America, Cheng Peng and Hao Zhang were certainly crowd favourites in their home country. They are currently ranked fifth in the world and have a solid quad twist. Their free skate to to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich wisely leaves both throws as the last two jumping passes, and the fact they landed both the loop and salchow nicely in the free skate left a good final impression with both the judges and the audience. Their score of 194.05 won them the pairs event by almost twenty points and certainly threw their name into the conversation about who the teams to watch this year are REALLY going to be. A great job in Shanghai for this pair.

For what World Junior Champions Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin of China lack in the presentation department, they make up for in athletics. They remind me a fair bit of a very young Shen and Zhao which makes absolute sense considering the Olympic Gold Medallists are their idols and Zhao coaches them. Like Shen and Zhao, in time they will grow into their programs and this year's pieces are already a vast improvement on what we've seen from them the past few years. A total score of 173.33 left them well back of Peng and Zhang but it was enough for silver. Their teammates Xuehan and Lei Wang made it a Chinese podium sweep in the pairs event by claiming bronze with 172.15 points.

Last year's European Bronze Medallist with former partner Yuri Larionov, Vera Bazarova has teamed up with Andrei Deputat to represent Russia. The duo already won medals at the Lombardia Trophy and Cup Of Nice this season and hoped to make a strong Grand Prix debut at this event. Their rather traditional program choices leave me feeling colder than a Maria Butyrskaya death stare (and that's cold) but what they lack in originality they make up for in good, quality skating skills. Unfortunately, they weren't able to produce programs that were competitive with the three Chinese teams and they finished off the podium in fourth with 166.44 as their total score.

Finishing just off the podium last month at the Skate Canada Autumn Classic, the new team of Natasha Purich and Drew Wolfe made their Grand Prix debut, finishing sixth of the eight pairs competing here with a score of 153.70. Although this team isn't 'there yet', the same can be said for many of the new partnerships that we're seeing in Canadian pairs skating this season and come January the pairs event in Kingston will be VERY interesting to see unfold.

The ice dance event was "names, names, names sweetie!" (totally said in an Edina Monsoon voice). Though the field was sparse with eight entries, many of those who were competing were teams to watch.

After their thirteenth place finish from last year's World Championships, France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won the ice dance event ahead of the reigning World Champions and two other very strong teams. Think about that. That's huge! Their paso doble looked sharp here and while their was an almost flamenco influence it still maintained a distinctly ballroom feel in terms of execution with good closeness in steps and a great build towards a climax at the end. The nineteen year old's free dance to "Adagio from Concerto No. 23" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart which was choreographed by Marie-France Dubreuil. In contrast, it showed a much softer side and I thought they pulled it off quite well with good expression throughout. Their higher marks in PCS (taking three of the five categories) show the judges clearly gave them the nod here both technically AND otherwise and they finished the event with a score of 160.12.

After settling for silver at Skate America to teammates Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Maia and Alex Shibutani entered this event as the sole U.S. ice dance entry. They hoped to improve upon their score of 160.33 from their first Grand Prix event and laid down solid performances of their paso doble and Strauss waltz free dance... so strong that they beat the reigning World Champions here and actually led after the short dance. Their final score of 157.36 may not have been enough to better their Skate America score or give them the gold, but it showed that in the grand scheme of themes, the judges seem to be rewarding their more traditional programs this season.

The reigning World Champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte came out looking strong enough with a short dance set to "Cappricio Espagnol" and a free dance to "Danse Macabre". I personally love the music "Danse Macabre" and enjoyed this program much more than the operatic program that won them a world title last year in Saitama, Japan. I noticed a marked improvement in their free dance in terms of attack from their recent performance of it at the 1st Italian Ice Dance Championship in Milan in late October, particularly in the speed area. While I liked the program, it didn't have the same flair or excitement about it that their competitors exhibited and I think this team is going to have its work cut out for them if they hope to return to the podium this March at Worlds. Their score of 149.58 was enough for bronze but was over twenty five points (you read that right) short of their score from the 2014 World Championships. I'm not a math person, but even I know that's not good.

Olympic Gold and Bronze Medallist Elena Ilinykh and her new partner Ruslan Zhiganshin made their international debut at this event and I was as curious as any cat about how they would fare on their first outing. With a very traditional short dance set to Bizet's "Carmen" (yeah, I know) and a free dance to music by Secret Garden and "Anthony And Cleopatra Theme" they did well enough and finished fourth with a score of 144.70. Similarly to the Italians, this score was thirty points shy of Ilinykh and former partner Nikita Katsalapov's score at the 2014 Worlds so it's apparent that from a technical standpoint especially, this team is going to have a fast track their first season together by adding even more difficulty and speed to be competitive.

Canada's Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam finished tenth at last year's World Championships and after a fourth place finish with a botched dance spin in the free dance at the Skate Canada Autumn Classic in Barrie last month hoped to make up some serious ground here, no doubt. In my Canada Month interview with the team, Alexandra explained that the team's "main focus will be continuing to progress in the way we train. We have to learn to attack our elements more and look fearless when we compete. We want to make ourselves look more mature and more like we belong in that 'last warm up group'." Of the team's two programs this season, I really think their free dance is going to be their strength. Frank Sinatra is a great vehicle for this classic team and I think this program has some nice highlights and is quite charming. Of the eight teams, Paul and Islam were fifth with a score of 140.46 but again... less than ten points back of the reigning World Champions.

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