Four Continents 2017: Pairs Review

Prior to the event, the pairs competition at this year’s Four Continents looked a bit unpredictable. For three of the top pairs, it was their first international event of the season after time off due to major injuries/illness. Another question was how World champions Duhamel/Radford would rebound from their bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final. Ultimately, it proved to be a great competition overall, with many strong performances. Here’s my look at what happened.

Sui/Han

What a difficult off-season it was for Sui/Han of China! After 2 back-to-back World silver medals, Wenjing Sui was compelled to undergo surgery on both feet this spring, to repair tendon and ligament damage. The procedures left Sui in such pain that, initially, she could not sleep at night nor rest comfortably. Long months of rehab lay ahead. The next time we saw Wenjing Sui after Worlds, she was in a wheelchair at a show in China. 😦

It’s sad to see any skater deal with such a serious injury. But especially Wenjing Sui. Since day 1 of her international career, we’ve all known Sui as a feisty, sassy firecracker– the spark & soul of the dynamic pairs team that is Sui/Han. Although she stands just 4’11” (150 cm), Sui’s presence on the ice is so much bigger. To see this bold spirit sidelined by such an injury was a bit heartrending.

But now Sui/Han are back—and looking better than ever. I knew they wouldn’t return unless they could put out performances they’d be satisifed with; but still, I was expecting some rust. I thought maybe they’d win bronze at 4CCs. Instead, Sui/Han dominated the event and won gold by a commanding 12-point margin.

Sui/Han’s new “Blues for Klook” SP was absolutely stunning. This music–so iconic after Daisuke Takahashi’s famous 2011-12 LP—was an unexpected choice for Sui/Han. But they interpreted it brilliantly. The choreography by Lori Nichol is terrific, with lots of effective staccato transitions to match the music. But it’s the way that Sui/Han themselves invest each movement and facial expression with so much intensity that really makes the piece sing. All the other pairs in this event were putting out short programs; Sui/Han were the only ones to really put out a performance, I felt. I found myself just enjoying every move and hardly caring about the technical elements. Yet, the elements were in fact great–as good as if Wenjing Sui had never been away from the ice. Sui/Han opened with strong, confident SBS 3Ts; continued with their trademark sky-high throw 3F; and performed their level 4 Tano triple twist with ease. Sui/Han were in complete command throughout the program, and their scores reflected this. Their GOE marks were almost all +2s/+3s; their PCS marks were mostly in the mid-9s. It was probably the best short program of the season in pairs. Sui/Han earned 80.75 points, just .07 off Tarasova/Morozov’s top pairs SP score at Europeans.

Sui/Han were brilliant again in the long program. Their new LP is set to “Bridge over Troubled Water”–another somewhat surprising musical choice. I wouldn’t have necessarily thought this lyrical ballad would be a good fit for Sui/Han’s dramatic, intense style. But, like the SP, it turns out to be an inspired choice from choreographer Lori Nichol. The idea behind the program is to tell Sui/Han’s own story over this past challenging year; and it’s starkly emotional, with Sui/Han giving it such power and drama. As in the short program, I found myself focusing on the transitions more than anything. But, again, the technical elements were fantastic. Sui/Han started off with a solid level 2 quad twist that earned 9.43 points (highest-scoring element in the whole event). Their only mistake in the program was Sui’s fall on the SBS 3S. Every other element was clean and beautifully done. The throw 3S had incredible speed coming out; the throw 3F was very high. Lifts were excellent as well, with two lifts scoring in the 9-point range. Sui/Han’s elements in this program were so strong that they earned 13.65 points in GOE alone—amazing! Their PCS scores were mostly in the mid-9s, with some judges going as high as 9.75. They scored 144.28 total for 1st LP/overall.

It was a triumphant return for Sui/Han, and I’m so happy to see them back in such unbelievable shape.

Duhamel/Radford

Duhamel/Radford skated fairly well in Korea to claim the silver medal. However, they continue to struggle with unexpected jump problems.

Skating last in the final group for the short program, Meagan/Eric put out a strong performance of their “Killer” SP. They had one major mistake: Eric fell on the SBS 3Lz. But the rest of the program was really very good. Their throw 3Lz was very high and the SBS spins particularly good. I thought their energy level was great—they really sustained speed and intensity throughout, with the step sequence looking the best it has yet this season. It was a fast, powerful program and fun to watch. They scored 74.31 for 3rd place.

Meagan/Eric had more jump issues in their “Je Ne Regrette Rien” LP. Their opening SBS 3Lz/2T combo was rocky: Meagan put a hand down on the 3Lz and 2-footed the 2T; Eric singled the 2T. Both throws also had issues—hand down on the throw 4S, 2-foot on the throw 3Lz. These mistakes were a bit distracting, and probably cost them 7 points or more off what they were hoping/planning to score. So, definitely disappointing. Yet, the rest of the elements were more than good enough to keep their overall score high. Their SBS spins and death spiral were very strong, earning mostly +2s, and lifts were also good. I really enjoyed the program artistically. Despite the technical errors, the emotional performance level was high. Meagan/Eric have such a big presence on the ice, and the program is really sweeping and moving. What’s nice about watching Meagan/Eric is that I feel there’s such confidence and trust between them. There is never a fear that a lift will end disastrously or that a spin could get out of control. They have such solid technique and consistency on their non-jump elements. The jump mistakes kept them from contending for the title, but they scored 137.92 for 2nd LP/overall (and improved 3 points from their GP Final LP).

Duhamel/Radford now have one month to prepare for Worlds. How will they do in Helsinki? It’s tough to say. As two-time defending champions, they will definitely be feeling the weight of expectation. And this season has not been as consistent for them as the last 2 seasons. However, if they can clean up their jumps a bit, they absolutely still have all the tools to contend for a third title. They have strong base value, solid quality overall, and great programs. I wish them good luck as they prepare for Worlds!

Ilyushechkina/Moscovitch

This event was a big breakthrough for Ilyushechkina/Moscovitch! They earned their highest scores ever and won their first major ISU championship medal (bronze). Two years ago, at their debut Four Continents in 2015, I wrote about the talent and potential of this team. It hasn’t been a completely smooth road for Lubov/Dylan in building their partnership, but they’ve kept at it and haven’t allowed themselves to become discouraged, and now it’s all starting to come together. How satisfying for them, and their many fans!

Lubov/Dylan’s “Tango Jalousie” SP wasn’t perfect, but it was still very impressive. Their opening level 2 triple twist had great speed and earned +2s/+3s. Their Axel lasso lift was also strong, with great turning speed from Dylan. Lubov 2-footed and stumbled on the SBS 3T and had a slight hesitation entering the SBS spin; however, these small errors didn’t cost them much. Artistically, I find this program really interesting to watch. It’s not a super-dramatic tango like you would see in ice dance, but there are many dance holds, sharp arm movements, and small, quick hops that set the tango mood and character. What really makes the program shine is Lubov. Her posture is so straight and gorgeous; her movement so sharp and attuned to the music; and her intensity so very in character with the tango. Of all Lubov/Dylan’s programs, I feel this one is the best showcase yet for Lubov’s considerable talent. The judges agreed, apparently. Lubov/Dylan had third-best PCS overall (32.45), and they scored a personal-best 73.04 to place a close 4th.

Lubov/Dylan then put out a career-best long program to Josh Groban’s “When You Love Me.” They had only one major error in this routine—Lubov fell on the throw 3Lp. Otherwise, it was a triumphant and beautiful performance. Their triple twist was again very good, and their lifts were truly stunning, with great ice coverage from Dylan and achingly beautiful air positions from Lubov. They had all +2s/+3s on the lifts, netting almost 5 points in total GOE on lifts. Even more exciting, Lubov landed both of her SBS triple jumps! (The triple Salchow was a bit underrotated–but who cares, I was just so excited to see her go for it!!) Very few pairs could pull off this overtly romantic program without veering into cheesiness—but Lubov/Dylan make it work with the sincerity and commitment of their skating. Their PCS was great: 67.10, just .11 behind Duhamel/Radford. Overall, they scored 132.27 for 4th LP/3rd overall.

All season long, the judges have indicated through PCS scores that they see Lubov/Dylan as close to that top group of pairs. This competition only confirms that impression. If Lubov/Dylan can land their jumps and continue to improve and refine their other elements, all now seems possible.

Yu/Zhang

Yu/Zhang have had a great deal of success in their debut season, which continued in the short program in Korea. However, they hit some snags in the LP and dropped to 4th place. A rather disappointing event for them, after their Grand Prix Final silver in December.

Yu/Zhang opened the competition with a clean, very well-skated short program to “Eternal Flame.” All of their elements were so very strong. Their level 4 triple twist was terrific (8.40 pts), and the throw 3Lp had great height and flow. Their reverse lasso lift had nice speed and a good dismount as well. This “Eternal Flame” SP doesn’t really move me or take me anywhere, yet somehow it suits Yu/Zhang and conveys an impression of strength and beauty. The sheer size and speed of their elements creates excitement; and the clarity and simplicity of Xiaoyu Yu’s movement is gorgeous. There’s a very yin/yang feel to this partnership–Xiaoyu is delicate and beautiful; partner Hao strong and sure-footed. Yu/Zhang are remote from each other on the ice–yet complement each other. It’s an interesting dynamic.They scored a very strong 75.20 for 2nd.

Yu/Zhang’s “Cavatina” LP was less successful. They started the program with their first attempt at a quad twist. They completed it, but it wasn’t as clean as their triple twist usually is.They earned 8.74 points (only .34 more than they got for their triple twist in the SP). From that point on, the program felt quite tentative. Xiaoyu doubled the 3T in their SBS jump combo, and they had scratchy landings on their SBS 2A. Both throw jumps were a bit off and didn’t earn the high GOE they normally get. Lifts were also a bit more labored than usual. Artistically, the performance was lackluster: Xiaoyu/Hao didn’t seem connected to the music. When their big technical elements aren’t clicking, the new team’s lack of chemistry becomes more obvious. They scored 128.20 points, 4 points below their season’s-best, and fell to 5th LP/4th overall (also losing the LP to former partners Peng/Jin).

Looking toward Helsinki, it will be interesting to see if Yu/Zhang go for the quad twist in the LP at Worlds or stick with the triple twist. The triple twist has been an extremely strong element for them this season; I would go with it at Worlds. Especially considering it will be Xiaoyu’s first World championships, and their first together as a team.

Peng/Jin

New pair Peng/Jin had an odd, fluky mistake in the short program in Korea, but redeemed themselves with a beautiful 3rd-place performance in the free skate.

Peng/Jin’s clever, amusing “My Drag” SP started off so well! They hit their opening SBS 3Ts very nicely, the throw 3Lp was solid, and the level 3 triple twist was so light and easy, earning high GOE. They were skating great—Jin in particular shone in this program, with his funny, beleaguered facial expressions. But unexpectedly, disaster struck on the SBS spins—Cheng Peng had an issue getting her spin rotation going and then fell! She quickly got up, but could only stand there as Jin finished out the spin by himself!! Peng/Jin received no credit for the element, which cost them roughly 4 points off their total score. What a fiasco. They scored 66.44 overall for a very disappointing 7th place.

However, Peng/Jin came roaring back in the free skate, with the best performance yet of their beautiful Umbrellas of Cherbourg LP. They started the program with 2 SBS jump sets, and hit them both! From there, it just got better. The triple twist was again strong and the death spiral lovely, with great speed. The throw 3Lp was outstanding and earned a majority of +3s; the throw 3S was also excellent. Their Axel lasso lift was a highlight, just flying across the ice. It was a terrific performance overall. The music for this program is so big and romantic, but Peng/Jin totally rose to the challenge, skating with a lot of emotion. I was again especially impressed with Yang Jin’s tender attention to his partner in this routine, very much in keeping with the music. Peng/Jin set a new personal-best score of 136.48 for 3rd LP/5th overall.

I’m so happy to see Peng/Jin end their season on such a high note! Watching them, I felt very excited for their future. Cheng Peng has been competing internationally for so long already that, sometimes, I forget Peng/Jin are just 19 and 22. Potentially, we might see this team competing for as much as 2 more Olympic cycles. They’re already so good; it’s exciting to think of how much better they may yet become. 🙂

Scimeca Knierim/Knierim

Alexa Scimeca Knierim’s offseason this past year was as challenging as Wenjing Sui’s. She had a beautiful wedding to partner Chris Knierim in June, but then was stricken with a serious gastrointestinal ailment. She had to endure anxious weeks of waiting as doctors struggled to even diagnose her problem, much less treat it. Finally a diagnosis was arrived at; two surgeries followed. Meanwhile, Alexa lost weight and strength and training time. It was winter before she and Chris were fully back into training, and they had to withdraw from U.S. Nationals.

Considering this ordeal, it’s little wonder that  Alexa looked overjoyed simply to be back on the ice in the short program. Her smile wide and her eyes sparkling, she looked like a bird set free to fly! And although it wasn’t a perfect program for the Knierims, they skated quite well. Alexa/Chris landed their SBS 3S cleanly. The reverse lasso lift had nice positions and coverage. They did have a slight adjustment on the landing of the triple twist, as Alexa appeared to land on her toe or inside edge, but they avoided negative GOE. Their closing level 4 death spiral left a lovely final impression. Alexa/Chris’s “Come What May” SP is gentle, romantic, and lyrical—quite a different look for them, compared to their programs the last two seasons. It’s a nice package, and Alexa really sold it with the obvious joy in her skating. They received pretty strong PCS marks (31.01) and scored 69.10 for 6th place. A good result, considering the few technical bobbles.

Like their short program, the Knierims’ new Ghost LP is soft and lyrical. It’s a bit unusual to see a pair have both their programs in the same musical genre; usually, teams choose contrasting types of music for the two programs. However, Alexa/Chris do look comfortable and natural skating in this style. They opened with a great level 3 triple twist, which received +3s across the board! Wow. Their level 4 death spiral and reverse lasso lift were also highlights and scored well. Their jumps were a bit of a mixed bag—the throw 3S had great height, but appeared to be 2-footed (although the judges seemed to miss this, awarding all positive GOE). Chris popped two of the SBS jumps, and the throw 3F landing was a bit tight (but again, got positive GOE). You could definitely see a bit of rust in Alexa/Chris’s skating; the SBS spins and a few of the lifts weren’t as fast as usual. But this was only to be expected, after such a long layoff. Their PCS was again good (63.27), and they scored 124.81 overall for 6th LP/overall.

It was great to see the Knierims back on the ice again! With a month to prepare for Worlds, hopefully they’ll be even better in Helsinki.

Moore-Towers/Marinaro

This was the first international event this season for Moore-Towers/Marinaro. They had to skip the whole Grand Prix series when Kirsten got a fairly serious concussion in late summer. However, they looked surprisingly strong at Canadian Nationals, and continued so at Four Continents.

Kirsten/Mike’s “Heartbreak Hotel” SP was very successful. The only problem came on their triple twist, which earned only basic level. All the other elements were clean and good. Kirsten had a great landing edge out of the throw 3Lp; the SBS 3Ts were excellent; and their Axel lasso lift had an exciting dismount. What was striking was how comfortable and confident Kirsten/Mike looked out there, despite missing so much of the season. I think it helps that this bluesy rock program is very much in Kirsten’s wheelhouse. She just sells it effortlessly, with a lot of sass, and it totally works. With their strong skating skills, they also have the speed needed to pull off this tempo. Kirsten/Mike scored an eye-opening 70.89 points (4+ points above their personal-best score at 2016 Worlds). They placed a strong 5th.

Moore-Towers/Marinaro followed with a nice performance in the free skate. Their new long program, set to a bittersweet song called “Un Ange Passe”, is soft and plaintive; different than anything they’ve skated to before. I was surprised how much I liked this program on them. There are nice varaitions in mood—some moments are romantic, some sad, some a bit playful. It’s an interesting and well-choreographed program, and I thought Kirsten/Mike interpreted it well, with good flow and attention to detail. Technically, the program wasn’t as strong as their SP. I love their new SBS 2A/1Lp/3S combo, but unfortunately Kirsten fell on the 3S. Both throw jumps were 2-footed, and Mike’s landing on the SBS 3T looked a bit uncontrolled. Again their triple twist was a problem—Kirsten landed on Mike’s shoulder and they got only basic level. Fortunately, their non-jump elements were pretty strong. The death spiral was great, earning level 4 and +2s, and their lifts have improved considerably (although the last one was a bit slow). Kirsten/Mike scored 121.46 for 7th LP/overall.

Considering how much practice time Moore-Towers/Marinaro lost this fall due to the concussion, I think they skated very well in Korea. I’m impressed with their programs this season and the progress they’ve made. Now in the third year of their partnership, they seem to have fully gelled as a team. It’s too bad that they will not appear at Worlds in Helsinki. In all honesty, I think the decision to send Seguin/Bilodeau to Worlds over Moore-Towers/Marinaro is open to question. Seguin/Bilodeau have not been at their best this season. Meanwhile, with their 8th-place finish at Worlds and their results here, Moore-Towers/Marinaro are clearly trending upward (despite the concussion setback). MT/M’s scores 4CCs were fairly comparable to S/B’s most recent scores at Rostelecom and GPF. A tough call.

Denney/Frazier

New U.S. champions Denney/Frazier performed pretty well in Korea, but had to settle for 8th place.

Denney/Frazier had an enjoyable, if slightly flawed, performance of their Don Juan SP. The opening triple twist was neat and light; but Haven did not get a great split position, and it was level 2. The throw 3Lp had lovely flow and distance and earned +2s. Unfortunately, Haven underrotated and fell on the SBS 3S (a loss of about 3 points). Haven/Brandon finished out the program well, with nice speed and expression. Their extended level 4 step sequence was a highlight, as usual, with its sophisticated choreography and smooth execution. I was a bit disappointed in their scores for the step sequence (mostly +1s, although one judge gave +3). This sequence has significantly more difficulty and is also longer than many other pairs’ step sequences this season, plus Haven/Brandon skate it very well, so I’d like to see them get a little more credit for it. I feel like this program shows off a growing maturity in Denney/Frazier’s skating. Now they just need to own it a bit more and work on really commanding the ice. They are skating well overall since Haven’s return, but there is still a slightly tentative feeling at times. Haven/Brandon scored 63.39 for 8th place.

Denney/Frazier delivered a solid performance of their lovely Somewhere in Time LP. Their level 2 triple twist had nice height. Haven slightly 2-footed the landing of the throw 3Lp. The SBS jumps have been a struggle lately for Haven, but she fought hard to stay vertical on the SBS 3S, only underrotating the jump a bit. Unfortunately she fell on the SBS 2A, which was downgraded. After those jump miscues, Haven/Brandon recovered well, putting out some nice spins and beautiful lifts. Their reverse lasso lift got great GOE (8.80 pts). I really love this gentle, dreamy program for them, and I thought they skated it beautifully. Denney/Frazier finished with a score of 116.06 for 8th LP/overall.

Haven/Brandon looked a bit disappointed with their scores in the kiss-n-cry … and I can understand why. Their GOE marks at 4CCs seemed just a bit on the low side, as was their PCS. Although they are struggling to regain jump consistency, I’d like to see them get a bit more credit for the elements that they do well. What to do going forward? I think Haven/Brandon just need to stay patient and keep working. Hopefully, with more time, the consistency and higher marks will come. Meanwhile, they can work on their confidence level and really selling the programs and projecting more to the audience.

Cain/LeDuc

Cain/LeDuc had a fairly good showing in their first major international event together.

Ashley/Tim started with a pretty good short program to I Put a Spell on You. They landed their SBS 3Lps and completed the triple twist. However, Ashley put a hand down on the throw 3F. Their best element was the step sequence, which was strong and powerful and earned good GOE. Cain/LeDuc looked a bit slow and tentative on some of the other technical elements; only to be expected, as they are such a new team. They scored a personal-best 62.58 for 9th.

Cain/LeDuc then had some technical issues in their long program to The Prayer. Their SBS 3Lps were underrotated, and they got a downgrade on the last jump of their SBS 2A/1Lp/3S combo. Ashley put a hand down on the throw 3F and fell on the throw 3S. Their spin elements toward the end were also a bit weak and received some 0s/-1s. Ashley/Tim’s total GOE in this program was negative; not a place you want to be. On the bright side, they presented the program very well, skating with nice flow, extension, and musicality. They create a lovely picture in this progam, and I thought their speed looked better here than in the SP. Ashley/Tim scored 106.29 for 10th LP/9th overall. Not bad, considering the technical problems. Again, their base value on the SBS jumps helped keep them afloat.

All in all, it’s been a great debut season for Cain/LeDuc. I look forward to seeing how they progress over the off-season!

Suto/Boudreau-Audet

This Japanese team, now in their second year together, placed 10th.

I enjoyed Suto/Boudreau Audet’s short program to Sakura (Spring Blossom). This routine is delicate and lyrical, yet interesting due to the unfamiliar music choice. Sumire/Francis completed some nice technical elements. The throw 3S had good flow, and the Axel lasso lift had smooth transitions and a nice exit. Their SBS spins were a bit off, and Sumire 2-footed and turned out of the SBS 3S. However, these errors didn’t detract much. The program was pleasant to watch, and particularly shows off Francis’s elegant line and musicality. Sumire needs to work on her presentation and line to better match her partner. Her posture needs to be straighter; her back more arched; her arms more refined. Also, to compete with the top teams, they need a bit more speed and attack. Still, it was a nice program, and they scored a personal-best 58.14 for 10th.

Suto/Boudreau Audet’s long program to Umbrellas of Cherbourg was okay. They landed a good set of SBS 3S, but had problems on the other jump elements. Lifts and spins were fine, but not outstanding. I don’t feel this program is the best choice for them. The plush, overtly romantic mood of the music is a little beyond their ability to interpret as yet. They can’t summon the intensity/connection needed; and as a result, the program feels bland. They scored 106.82 for 9th LP/10th overall.

Although there are some areas to work on, Suto/Boudreau Audet have shown solid improvement in their second year together.

Wrap-up

What will linger in my memory from this Four Continents are Sui/Han’s amazing comeback programs. They simply blew me away with the intense emotion and beautiful quality of their skating. With these stunning performances in Korea, Sui/Han instantly reestablished themselves as top contenders for this year’s World title and next year’s Olympic title. What an amazing return for them!

But there were many great performances from the other pairs in Korea as well. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this event! It seems like most of the pairs are on a good trajectory to hopefully peak next month at Worlds in Helsinki. It should be a great competition!!

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2 Responses to Four Continents 2017: Pairs Review

  1. ernasmith says:

    I could not agree with you more about Sui/Han and the overall quality of this competition. And isn’t Lori Nichol on a creative roll with short programs this season–first Caro and now Sui/Han.

    Liked by 2 people

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