Skate America 2016: Pairs Review

The Grand Prix season started this week at Skate America in Chicago, and luckily, I got to see the event live! This was my second year attending Skate America, and it was a lot of fun! The level of competition in the pairs event wasn’t the highest. But there was drama and some emotional highlights, too. Let’s take a look at what happened.

medalists

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Seguin/Bilodeau

Julianne/Charlie won their first Grand Prix in Chicago, building on the two GP bronze medals they earned last year. Their victory, while not unexpected, was still a great success for this young team.

In practice before the competition, Julianne/Charlie seemed calm and well-prepared. Their elements were pretty consistent, although Charlie did have some misses on SBS jumps.

seguin-bilodeau

Seguin/Bilodeau:  First Grand Prix gold

Seguin/Bilodeau had a decent start to the event with their “Skokiaan” SP, choreographed by Shae Zukiwsky and Shae-Lynn Bourne. They hit a good triple twist and solid throw 3Lz. However, Charlie doubled the SBS 3Lp, a new element for them this season. His pop out of the jump was a bit awkward, and broke the flow of the program. Julianne/Charlie completed the routine without further error, but the audience response was tepid. So far, I’m not totally loving “Skokiaan” as a vehicle for Julianne/Charlie. I appreciate the “danciness” of the choreography, with many quick moves right on the rhythm of the music. However, for some reason, the program seems a bit hokey. I think the combination of the old-fashioned, cheery music with Julianne/Charlie’s big smiles and facial animation is all just a little too much. It feels cute, rather than elegant or exciting. The judges’ PCS perhaps reflected this, with S/B receiving 3rd-place PCS, behind both Tarasova/Morozov and James/Cipres. They were 3rd overall.

But Julianne/Charlie put any disappointment aside and skated a terrific long program the next day to claim gold. Their Cinema Paradiso LP was really a pleasure to watch. They opened with a good triple twist, landed both sets of SBS jumps without issue, and completed a nice throw 3Lp that had great flow out. The closing lift was a bit slow, but the other elements were quite well done. Most important, Julianne/Charlie brought a lot of emotion to this performance and seemed totally invested in it. Julianne said afterward: “We are working hard to skate our best and skate with our heart.” And this was evident. In a mistake-filled competition, it was refreshing to see Seguin/Bilodeau so fully in control of their material. While other pairs seemed to be reaching and hoping to complete their elements, Julianne/Charlie skated as if there was no doubt in their mind they would pull off these skills.

With their gold medal at Skate America, Seguin/Bilodeau are well-positioned to make the GP Final. Their next event is Rostelecom Cup, where they should be favored to win silver behind Savchenko/Massot.

Denney/Frazier

For me, Denney/Frazier’s silver medal was one of the highlights of the entire competition. It was so inspiring to see this young team come back from a serious injury and win a Grand Prix medal in the first big event of their comeback. Wow! I was so happy for them.

Denney/Frazier looked quite strong and well-prepared in the early practices at Skate America. They started the competition with a good short program to Don Juan de Marco. They had nice height on their level 3 triple twist and landed a gorgeous throw 3Lp, which earned all +2s/+3. Their step sequence was also a standout: At least 1/3 of the sequence is skated in hold, raising the level of difficulty and sophistication. They were appropriately rewarded with level 4 and mostly +1s; if they can just increase the speed and flow of the sequence a bit, they should get +2s easily, going forward. The only hitch in the program was Haven stepping out of the SBS 3S, which cost them about 1.4 points in GOE. They were 2nd.

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Denney/Frazier:  A successful return to the Grand Prix circuit

Haven/Brandon followed with a lovely performance of their Somewhere in Time LP. This program is tender, romantic, and gentle; a new look for them, and I love it. Haven again had some issues with the SBS jumps: She singled the SBS 2A, and her 2T in the combo was downgraded. However, the rest of the elements were rock-solid; they received no negative GOE except on those SBS jumps. Their twist was again good; the throw 3Lp was smooth, with good distance; the throw 3S fine; and their lifts were very good, receiving a majority of +2s. Haven/Brandon have a strong foundation to their skating; they’ve been doing these elements for a long time, and there’s a level of comfort and confidence (despite their year off) that’s simply missing with some of the other pairs. Haven was radiant in this performance, with a lovely smile, and Brandon is much improved in his expression and skating skills. The judges seemed to appreciate their performance as well; they earned over 6 points in positive GOE, and their 2nd-place PCS score of 64.14 in the LP was just .12 less than Seguin/Bilodeau.

With their silver medal, Denney/Frazier now have a real chance to make the Grand Prix Final—which would be a remarkable achievement, coming off such a major injury. However, it won’t be easy. They face a strong field of podium contenders at Skate Canada this week: World champions Duhamel/Radford, current World #7 Iliushechkina/Moscovitch, former European champions Kavaguti/Smirnov, and also rising Italian champions Della Monica/Guarise. It’s going to be tough, but fingers crossed for Denney/Frazier! If they skate as well as they did at Skate America, they should be in contention. (For more details on their inspiring comeback from injury, see my September interview with Haven/Brandon.)

Tarasova/Morozov

Tarasova/Morozov were favored for gold or silver coming into this event. In the early practices, they looked like the team to beat. I really enjoyed watching Evgenia/Vladimir on practice in Chicago. They spent time in each practice session skating big footwork patterns around the entire length of the rink; and wow, is their basic skating impressive. They commanded the ice effortlessly, with total ease and impressive speed. Tarasova/Morozov are a rather tall team, and this also adds to their presence. They were landing great throws in practice, and some pretty good solo jumps as well (although those were not as consistent as the throws). They also practiced quad twist a little bit; none of the attempts I saw looked completely smooth.

Tarasova/Morozov opened the competition with a career-best short program. Their triple twist was huge, earning level 4 and +2s/+3s. The SBS 3Ts were close and in sync; the throw 3Lp was big, with great runout. Their other elements were also strong, with good levels. I think this new program to “Glam” by Dimie Cat is a good choice for them; it helps show off their speed and skating skills to good effect. They seem to enjoy skating it, especially Evgenia, who had lots of smiles during the program. They still need to work the step sequence a little harder and maintain the energy level right up to the end. But it’s a good package and they earned a personal-best score of 75.24 for 1st place. Their PCS score was almost 3 points higher than anyone else’s.

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Tarasova/Morozov:  Terrific in the short program  (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Evgenia/Vladimir had almost an 8-point lead going into the long program and looked set to win the competition. However, their long program was little short of disastrous, and they lost their entire lead and fell to 3rd place. Things went wrong at the start: They opened with the quad twist, and Vladimir was late on the catch. Evgenia slipped through his arms and fell to the ice, causing an audible gasp from the crowd. This mistake seemed to leave Evgenia/Vladimir shaken; they got through the rest of the program, but it was clearly a struggle. Evgenia singled the SBS 3S; Vlad doubled the SBS 3T; the throw landings were not as good as in practice. Vlad also struggled with a couple lifts; the last one in particular was slow and awkward and got negative GOE. Altogether, it was tight and shaky perfromance; quite unfortunate after such as strong start in the SP. Their base value was about 10 points lower than usual, and they could only place 5th LP/3rd overall.

It was an odd competition for Tarasova/Morozov; but I think they will probably rebound well at Trophee de France in a couple of weeks. The question is, should they go for the quad twist at that event, or stick with triple twist? It’s a difficult decision. The triple twist is their strongest element by far, and it’s good for 8+ points every time. Going for the quad gives them a chance to earn maybe 2 points extra—but only if they perform it well. And judging from the practices at Skate America, it doesn’t look like this element is solid yet for them. With only a bronze here, they probably need to win silver or gold in France to make the Grand Prix Final. I think the smart choice is to go with the triple twist in France to hopefully ensure that trip to the Final. Then, bring back the quad twist at the Final. It’ll be interesting to see what they decide.

James/Cipres

Vanessa/Morgan came into this event off an excellent long program at Autumn Classic a few weeks ago. They were aggressive in practice at Skate America, going for a lot of SBS jump attempts, as well as throw quad Salchow and their new throw Rippon triple flip (with both of Vanessa’s arms over her head). They weren’t landing everything in practice, but were going for it all, so I was excited to see what they’d put out in competition.

Their short program to “Earned It” by The Weekend was pretty good. They began with a high triple twist. Their SBS 3S were a bit far apart, but had good speed going in and got +2s. Vanessa 2-footed the throw Rippon flip, and they also had a few mistakes on non-jump elements; Morgan almost lost his pivot in the death spiral and they were a bit off in the SBS spins. Those errors cost them GOE points and left them in 4th place. However, they had 2nd-place PCS from the judges, which was encouraging. I think this new short program is fantastically effective for Vanessa/Morgan. The music choice is brilliant. The slow, measured, but emphatic beat of the music helps disguise their relative lack of speed/flow compared to other top teams. The explosive bursts in the music match the explosive power in their jump elements; and the sexiness of the music emphasizes their charisma and general hotness. Basically, it’s close to perfect music for them, and when they skate it well, it should score big.

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James/Cipres in the stands at Skate America

Vanessa/Morgan’s LP to “The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed is an almost equally good choice. Again, the power and measured tempo of the song work well for them, and their athletic, modern style is a good match for the music. They showed how effective this program could be at Autumn Classic a few weeks ago. But unfortunately, they could not replicate that performance at Skate America; their LP in Chicago was, frankly, pretty much a disaster. Vanessa fell on 3 jump elements: the opening SBS 3T, throw 4S, and throw Rippon flip. Also she doubled the SBS 3S. They had negative GOE on some other elements as well. Too bad–but the interesting thing was how the crowed continued to stay engaged in the program, despite the falls. This shows, I think, how well-choreographed it is. The lifts, in particular, are very well placed on big highlights in the music and earned nice applause from the crowd. But the technical mistakes really cost James/Cipres; they scored 108.87 (almost 25 points off their score at Autumn Classic) and dropped to 7th LP/4th overall. The scene afterward in the kiss-n-cry was tense; Morgan strode out as soon as the marks came up, leaving Vanessa behind in tears.

I’m sure James/Cipres really wanted to medal at this event and fight for the Grand Prix Final. Yet, as disappointed as they must be, there’s great hope for their season. Their programs are the best of their career, by far. Their twist and lifts are better than they’ve ever been before. The throw Rippon flip, when they land it, is a showstopping element. And then there’s the throw quad, which isn’t consistent yet, but could become so. Basically, if they can just execute better at their next competitions, this could be a breakthrough year for them.

Their next event is their home Grand Prix in France, which should give them a boost. Looking at that field, there is every reason to think they can make the podium there, if they just skate more consistently.

Astakhova/Rogonov

This was Astakhova/Rogonov’s second consecutive appearance at Skate America. They improved from last year’s 7th place to finish 5th at this year’s event.

In practice, I noticed that Kristina/Alexei skated with good strength and power, and their triple twist looks improved from last year. However, a lot of their jump elements were messy, their unison is pretty off at times, and they just don’t seem that “together” as a pair, for lack of a better word.

Kristina/Alexei’s short program to “Io Ti Penso Amore” was okay. They got good height on the triple twist, but Kristina turned out of the SBS 3S and two-footed the throw 3F. The lift also seemed a bit shaky and slow; but their SBS spins were well done and nicely set to the music. This short program is quite new—they only put it together after the Russian test skates, where their original Eugene Onegin SP was rejected—and it didn’t make much of an impression on me. They presented it well, but it feels more generic than their usual programs. They were 5th.

astakhova-rogonov-2

Doll 2:  A worthy sequel?  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America)

Kristina/Alexei’s long program, a sequel to last year’s doll/puppet LP, was pretty rough all around. They had problems on every jump element, starting with their opening SBS 3Lp. They actually landed the loops (a new element for them), but then Kristina fell a moment after the landing, which cost them 1.70 points. Alexei spun out of the SBS 3T, the catch was low on the triple twist, Kristina two-footed the throw 3Lp … you get the picture. There were lift problems as well; I noticed on the second 2 lifts that Alexei was hardly covering any ice at all. It was almost like he was rotating in place. Accordingly, their GOE marks on those lifts were mostly 0s and even a few -1s. Artistically, I can’t say the performance was much better. The new music pieces for this “Doll 2” program are kind of overpowering, and although Kristina/Alexei did their best to skate up to the music (and Kristina is bringing more intensity this year), it just seemed strained. Overall A/R went into negative GOE territory in this program (losing more than 3 points off their base value), but with poor performances from the rest of the field, they hung on to 6th LP/5th overall.

It wasn’t a strong start to the GP season for Astakhova/Rogonov, and there are several things I don’t understand: 1) Why didn’t they pick better pieces of music for Doll 2 (the original music last year was more stirring/engaging), 2) Why did they go back to the original Doll 1 costumes here, instead of the Doll 2 costumes they wore at Finlandia (which were good and gave the program a fresher look), 3) Why don’t they have better unison after 3 years together, and 4) Is coach Artur Dmitriev really paying attention to what’s going on here?

Astakhova/Rogonov have a week off, and will then compete at their home Grand Prix, Rostelecom Cup. Let’s hope things come together a bit more by then.

Kayne/O’Shea

U.S. national champions Kayne/O’Shea came into this event off a rough showing at Finlandia Trophy. Tarah has been dealing with tendinitis in her knee, which has reportedly limited them in terms of jump repetitions.

In practice at Skate America, Tarah/Danny struggled quite a lot with their jumps. There were many falls, doubles, etc. But they were able to pull it together and actually skated better in the competition than in practice.

Kayne-O'Shea.jpg

Kayne/O’Shea:  Improvement from Finlandia  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America)

Tarah/Danny’s “Take Me to Church” SP had some problems, but also some good moments. The opening death spiral was lovely and earned level 4, and their Axel lasso lift was attractive and gained positive GOE. However, Tarah fell on the throw 3Lz, and the triple twist was only basic level. They placed 8th.

As is often the case, Tarah/Danny’s long program was stronger. They hit a level 2 triple twist and landed both SBS jumping passes. Unfortunately Tarah again fell on the throw 3Lz, but their lifts were pretty good, and they had a cool exit from the death spiral. Their new long program, set to Slave Marche/Song of India, is exotic and intriguing, with interesting transitions. Tarah/Danny presented it as well as they could right now, but I think going forward, they’ll want to bring more power, speed, and bigger movement into the piece. The music is quite intense, and I feel like they’re not really owning it yet. Understandable, with the injury problem. Tarah/Danny scored 115.57 in the long program, a 12-point improvement over their score at Finlandia, and actually placed 3rd in the LP/6th overall.

Tarah/Danny now have a month’s break before their second GP, NHK Trophy in Japan. Hopefully by then, they’ll be more fully recovered and back to their normal condition.

Castelli/Tran

As a Mervissa fan, this was a tough competition to watch. Marissa/Mervin tried hard, but just were not able to put out the programs they wanted.

In practice, Marissa/Mervin were exciting to watch, as usual. Their skating skills and speed never fail to impress me; they were probably the fastest team in this event, aside from Tarasova/Morozov. They worked a lot on their jumps in practice; some were good, some were not. Maybe 60/40 overall? It was good to see them really training them, though. Hopefully, consistency comes with time and repetition. As we know, they lost several weeks this summer with Mervin’s concussion. However, he told me he’s feeling good now.

Marissa/Mervin’s “Fallin’” SP actually started off quite well. They landed their SBS 3S and throw 3S, and the level 4 step sequence was also strong, earning many +2s. They were on their way to a good score when, suddenly, Mervin had to abort the reverse lasso lift. I’m not sure what happened—it looked like perhaps the lift went up too fast, and then Marissa’s weight got a little behind or to the side of Mervin’s center. Well, at least they got some credit for the lift. (They had already completed one rotation when it went down.) But with this mistake coming right at the end of the program, it kind of ruined the overall impression, and Marissa/Mervin placed 7th.

mervissa-lift

A tough event for Castelli/Tran  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images North America)

Unfortunately, the long program was also a struggle. There were a few bright spots—they landed the throw 3F for the first time in competition, and got a level 2 on the triple twist. Ironically, considering what happened in the SP, they had all positive GOE on the lifts, with many +2s. However, there were quite a lot of errors elsewhere in the program, and lost about 2 points off their base value. With all the mistakes, it was hard for them to keep up the energy of the program. They scored 110.78 for 4th LP/7th overall.

Castelli/Tran now have a few weeks to regroup and train before their second GP, Trophee de France. Hoping for a better performance there!

Marchei/Hotarek

This was also a disappointing event for Marchei/Hotarek. After a strong start to their partnership two years ago, progress seems to have stalled for the Italians.

Valentina/Ondrej’s SP was okay. They landed the throw 3Lz, and their level 4 step sequence was pretty good. However, both of them put a hand down on the SBS 3Lz, the triple twist was very low, and the death spiral was slow. Also their lift looked very shaky and got negative GOE. The program is fun, but was missing something in Chicago. They were 6th.

Things didn’t get much better in their James Bond long program. Valentina/Ondrej stumbled in the opening moves, which unfortunately set the tone. They did land a good throw 3Lz and performed a couple good lifts. But they doubled both SBS jump sets, got only basic level on the twist, and had an imperfect landing on the throw 3Lp. Worse yet, they simply had no spark in this program. They didn’t seem to be enjoying it. They went through the motions, but that’s about it. It’s kind of sad to see Valentina without her usual sparkle. Their PCS score was 55.72, the lowest in the event; almost 2 points lower than Astakhova/Rogonov’s. Not encouraging.

Marchei/Hotarek have a week off before their second GP event, Rostelecom Cup.

Wrap-up

So that’s my take on the pairs event at Skate America! Although it wasn’t the strongest competition, I still really enjoyed the opportunity to see all the pairs live, and there were many highlights. I wish all the pairs well in preparing for their second events, and am looking forward to the rest of the GP series!

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