This was an exciting week in pairs! At Skate Canada, we got to see the Grand Prix debuts of both Duhamel/Radford and Sui/Han. We also saw Stolbova/Klimov skate for the first time this season at a Russian Cup event.
Before recapping this week’s programs, let’s first review the pairs results from Worlds 2014. (Note: I have added Volosozhar/Trankov to this list, even though they didn’t compete at Worlds.)
With all the retirements, splits, injuries, and illnesses the last 6 months, we are left with Stolbova/Klimov, Duhamel/Radford, Peng/Zhang, and Sui/Han as the top 4 currently active pairs coming into this season. Kavaguti/Smirnov, out last season, effectively joined this top group with their outstanding gold-medal performances at Skate America.
At Skate Canada, Duhamel/Radford confirmed their standing with a big victory. Let’s take a look at each team and how they did.
Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford
Duhamel/Radford recorded their first Grand Prix victory in Kelowna and completely dominated the competition. I think this was the best I’ve ever seen them perform on the Grand Prix. Their short program was very strong. They completed all elements cleanly, with their SBS spins being particularly strong. They skated with a lot of speed and just looked tremendously confident out there. Their lyrical SP by Ginette Reno is similar to last season’s soft SP to music by Radford. I don’t think of this pair as lyrical skaters, particularly Meagan. However, both of these short programs have undeniably worked for them and produced good results. In the SP here, they had many 2s for GOE and also scored well in PCS.
Their long program to a Muse medley was also very successful, although not quite as clean as the SP. They again attempted the throw quad Salchow, and Meagan almost hit it, with just a turnout on the landing. Overall a great attempt. I’m really impressed with how they’re upping the technical ante this season with the throw quad Sal. It’s a bold move, and it’s working for them so far. Their other elements were mostly very good, although they had only a level 2 on the twist. GOEs were lower than in the SP.
In both segments, Meagan and Eric had tremendous support from the Canadian crowd and really seemed to take that energy and use it. They look much more comfortable this season than last year. The Muse LP suits them well. I think their decision to go for less difficult transitions this season and concentrate on skating well is a good one. They are not a team who can make difficult transitions look easy, seamless, or interesting, so I think it’s probably best to focus on what they do well, which is the technical side. I am not personally a fan of this team, but they are skating extremely well at this point. I think they are setting themselves up to challenge for that World title, and they may well get it if other teams falter.
One negative, however, is I don’t know how much more room they have to grow in these programs. My feeling is they are skating close to the top of their abilities right now. And they won’t have home-crowd support at other events. Kavaguti/Smirnov, as good as they were at Skate America, can potentially skate their LP much better than they did at SA. K/S are already at a high level but still have a lot of room to grow. I’m not so sure about Meagan/Eric. It will be fascinating to see them match up in Japan in what will likely be a preivew of the GP Final and Worlds.
Next: NHK Trophy
Wenjing Sui/Cong Han
Sui/Han had some uncharacteristic technical problems at this event. In their SP, their SBS spins were pretty off and they had only a level 2 on the death spiral. Then in the long program, Sui had problems on both SBS jumps. Despite this, they managed 2nd place in both segments of the competition. They performed a successful quad twist in the LP, which earned 9.03 points and was the highest-scoring element in the entire event. Their throws were all successful as well. Their lifts are improving in quality too.
Overall, I think they’re on the right track right now. They are finally, after all these years, starting to look more mature and less juniorish. (Thank goodness.) The Stray Cat Strut SP is one of their typical upbeat programs. But it is less cutesy and more mature than their hoedown or Kalinka programs.
Their long program to Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini is dramatic, classical, and unlike anything they’ve done before. This program is a bit of a gamble, but I think it’s going to pay off. At a certain point, they had to grow up and force the judges to take them seriously, and I think this program is their vehicle. I like the choreography a lot. The program is out of their wheelhouse, deliberately so, and I think if they can grow it and execute it cleanly, it will work. On Universal Sports, Peter Carruthers questioned whether the program is too far from their typical style. But I like it. I think it’s a “developmental” program in the same sense that Meryl & Charlie’s tango FD was in 2011. Both teams were perceived to have certain weaknesses that were holding them back, and both programs went out of the comfort zone to attack and surmount those weaknesses.
In terms of execution, however, Sui/Han were not in their best form yet at this competition, as was also the case with Peng/Zhang last week at Skate America. It makes me wonder if these two pairs should have done a senior B event to help them kickstart their seasons. K/S and D/R both did a senior B, which helps get out those first-competition jitters and offers a chance for feedback. On the other hand, I feel almost no doubt that Sui/Han and Peng/Zhang are both going to be much stronger at GP Final and Worlds. The Chinese are generally excellent at pacing themselves through the season and almost always perform strongly at the big events. So I expect to see continued growth and better execution from Sui/Han throughout the season. Right now, I’m liking them better than I ever have before.
Next: Trophee Bompard
Evgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov
This new Russian team, in only their first senior season, skated a strong competition to earn the bronze. As has already been much discussed, this pair shows incredible talent and promise for the future. They may well be the most potentially important pair to appear on the scene since Volosozhar/Trankov in 2011.
They have that classic Russian pairs look that we all love. They are well matched physically; their unison, interaction, and speed on the ice are strong; they have good lines and interpretive ability; and their technical elements–when they hit–are very very good. Right now, their programs are fine but very much first-year-senior. I don’t see them on the World podium this year (unless all the top teams implode). But I think they will start to challenge very soon, even next year possibly.
Here, they followed up their successful Nebelhorn debut with a very strong short program, in which the only significant error was a two-foot landing on the throw 3L. She had lovely positions in the lift and a very nice arch in the death spiral. This “Sarabande” SP is nice and has worked well for them so far. The highlight of their long program was the level 4 triple twist, which was beautifully executed and earned all 2s and 3s in GOE. Their triple twist is, I think, one of the best in the world right now. It is a sight to see. They had some errors in the rest of the LP but overall it was a great competition for them, earning bronze in their first senior Grand Prix.
Next: Rostelecom Cup
Madeline Aaron/Max Settlage
Maddie & Max placed a surprising fourth in Kelowna, in the process beating a top 10 team from Worlds (James/Cipres). They really seized the moment here and performed very well, and this after already posting a strong performance at Skate America last week. I think they should be very proud; they’ve had an excellent debut season on the Grand Prix.
They put out a good SP here. Their SBS 3S were excellent, and the lift and death spiral featured nice positions from Maddie. There was a foot down on the throw 3L and slight unison problems on the SBS spins but overall a very good performance. In the LP, they had underrotation calls on the SBS jumps but kept up the performance level and scored quite well in PCS.
I personally love their Coppelia and King and I programs. I think they are just right as senior-debut programs. They show off the best aspects of Maddie & Max’s skating (her posture & line and their charming quality on ice) while not being too serious or beyond their abilities. And they’ve really been competing well and fighting for the elements, which impresses me a lot. I definitely see a lot of promise in this pair. I’ve read some criticism that Max is not quite at Maddie’s level in terms of presentation, and that is true, but I think Max also has a nice quality to his skating, and if he continues working hard, he will improve.
More importantly, right now he and Maddie work very well together on the ice, and seem to get along well. They’ve already been together 4 years, which is an aeon in American pairs skating, so I want them to stay together and continue to improve. One area of concern is the triple twist. They had only a level 1 in the SP and level 2 in the LP. That element needs to get stronger.
Next: U.S. Nationals
Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres
This was not a good competition for James/Cipres. They placed 5th in both segments of the competition and overall, which has to be a major disappointment after their top-10 finish at Worlds in March. Prior to this, they also had a disappointing season debut at Nebelhorn, finishing off the podium.
Not much is going right for them at this point. Their triple twist is a problem. The catch is low, and they got only level 2 in both programs here. Their footwork in the SP was very slow. Their SBS and throw jumps are inconsistent. Some of their lifts look scary and also are not getting the levels. Their GOEs are rather low (1s, 0s, or negative for the most part).
Their tango SP is okay, but they need to deliver it with much more speed and energy. They have kept their Angels & Demons LP, which I think is a mistake. The program is heavy and ponderous and doesn’t suit their athletic style. It wasn’t particularly successful last year, so I don’t know why they kept it this year. Overall, I am seeing no improvement following their coaching change to Russia. Two years ago, it seemed like this pair had a lot of promise, but right now they’re treading water. I would expect another coaching change after this season unless things improve significantly.
Next: Trophee Bompard
Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro
To me, the look on KMT’s face in the kiss-n-cry was: “What have I done?” It was not a promising debut for her and new partner Michael Marinaro. I’m not a KMT fan, but I respect her as a competitor and, although I questioned her decision to split with Dylan, I figured she must know what she was doing. Now I’m wondering. Marinaro seems like a nice guy, but I just don’t know if he’s a good partner for KMT. What worries me most is his lift technique. It just seems very off. I’ve never seen a male skater with the weird standing/carrying position he has in lifts, and they were just all very scary. You can’t be a pairs skater if you can’t do lifts properly. The programs themselves are fine, very much in KMT’s typical style, but they have a long, long way to go as a pair.
Next: Trophee Bompard
Brittany Jones/Joshua Reagan
I see less promise with this team than MT-M 2.0. They were slightly better here than at Autumn Classic, but that’s not saying much. The only good thing about them is their long, lean look. Aside from that, there’s just nothing there. They landed some elements, but their basic skating is not fun to watch. Her lift positions are among the worst I’ve seen (why can’t she straighten her knee when her leg is fully extended?). And his skating is just really sloppy. There’s no stretch, no effort, he’s just going through the motions. Their SS score should be around a 3.0.
Next (I think): Canadian Nationals
Mari Vartmann/Aaron Van Cleave
This pair has a Beauty-and-the-Beast thing going on which I find oddly endearing. Aaron always looks like he’s trying hard, at least (unlike Reagan), so I kind of root for him, despite his round shoulders. Alas, they had their usual string of errors here in both programs. Their Petersburg Secrets SP is meant to be winsome & charming, but just seemed long. The LP wasn’t much better.
Next: NHK Trophy
This week also saw Stolbova/Klimov debut their new programs at a Russian Cup competition. After their Olympic/World silver medals last year, this pair enters the season as the team to beat (unless Volosozhar/Trankov come back this year, which seems doubtful). So, their programs were definitely much anticipated.
Surprisingly, Stolbova/Klimova were only second in the short program at the Russian Cup after a few errors. Fedor turned out of the landing on the SBS 3T, and Ksenia put both hands down and nearly fell on the throw 3F. Aside from that, the elements were very good. The new SP is set to music with . . . prominent drums. Just like last year’s SP. The program is fine on its own terms, but it is so similar to last year’s program, it lacks excitement. I found it interesting that they placed second in this segment to Zabijako/Larionov, a brand-new team with no reputation. Would Volosozhar/Trankov have placed second in a similar situation, even with a few errors? I don’t think so.
Stolbova/Klimov went on to take first in the free skate and overall. Their long program was almost perfect, except for a slight problem on a lift exit toward the end. Other than that, it was technically outstanding. And yet somehow, there was no excitement. Their Notre Dame de Paris long program is nice–fine–but it lacks the fun, interesting character of their Addams Family LP. It’s possible the program may improve a lot over the season, especially when skated in front of a big crowd. But as it stands now, it’s a bit paint-by-the-numbers.
Stolbova/Klimov are a team whose recent success is based mostly on execution and competence. They are highly competent; their elements are well done and consistent. And their basic skating skills are really strong, with attack, quality, and decent speed. What they do, they do very well. But they’re not breaking new ground, either technically or artistically. And I’m not sure they have that intangible chemistry/charisma/magic that the great pairs have.
I’ve always felt that skating is all about moving forward. Getting a little better each year. Right now, I don’t really see Stolbova/Klimov moving forward with these new programs. And if they’re not moving forward . . . they may find themselves moving backward this season.