This summer, I was honored to have my web site featured inArtistika, an online magazine devoted to the arts and the artistic sports. Artistika republished my interview with Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran, and also included a little interview with me about pairs skating in general. Many readers have probably already seen this interview, but I wanted to post a direct link to it here, in case anyone missed it earlier.
A big thank-you, again, to Artistika for featuring A Divine Sport! If you haven’t seen an issue of Artistika already, I encourage you to check it out! The magazine is gorgeous and includes lots of skating articles, in addition to stories about gymnastics and the arts. It’s great reading! 🙂 The first edition of the magazine had a great story on World champions Papadakis/Cizeron; the second edition includes an interview with British champion Philip Harris, as well as beautiful drawings by figure skating artist Yoshie Shibaike. Enjoy!
Meagan Duhamel and partner Eric Radford have been World champions for 2 years now and have led the pairs discipline technically since the Sochi Olympics. Yet, despite all their accomplishments, this pair continues to be the target of criticism from skating fans, some of whom do not appreciate D/R’s style or approach to the sport. So much of the criticism of this team is over the top and unbalanced, in my opinion. I therefore feel compelled to offer just a little bit of a counterpoint!
Welcome to the second annual edition of my Best, Most, and Worst of Pairs! This is a review of my personal highlights of the year in pairs. I’ve expanded some of last year’s categories and added a few new ones! Included are my picks for the top 10 long programs and short programs of the season (with videos). Enjoy (and feel free to disagree)! Continue reading “Best, Most & Worst of Pairs: 2015-16”→
Skating fans are pretty lucky. Every season, there are many good, and often great, programs to enjoy. Once in while, a perfect program happens. It’s a rare and special thing: When the right piece of music and the right choreography all come together at a particular moment in a skater’s career. When it happens, the program becomes part of the skater’s success, even part of their public identity sometimes. A perfect program may become iconic; a part of skating history. Continue reading “A Perfect Program: Patrick Chan’s Chopin LP”→
It’s been 2 days, and I still can’t shake the sadness and confusion I’ve felt since Saturday morning, when I learned that 127 (now 132) people were killed in terrorist attacks in Paris and that Trophee Eric Bompard was canceled midway through the competition. Things don’t feel right with the world. Both the larger world, and our own much-loved world of figure skating—which, for many of us, helps makes the larger world a better place.
Of course, my thoughts lie with the victims in France. And with the French skaters and coaches, who were particularly affected by the tragedy, as most of them train in the Paris area.
In the aftermath, it felt odd to do my usual pairs review of the event. Instead, I’ll just touch on some of my thoughts from this weekend.
1. The ISU needs to implement a crisis management plan.
The ISU was clearly caught unprepared by this crisis. It was the French authorities who determined that TEB must be canceled (not the ISU or the French federation). Questions immediately arose as to how the cancellation would affect qualification for the Grand Prix Final, as well as allocation of TEB prize money. The ISU apparently had no existing rules regarding canceled competitions and the resultant issues. We now wait for the ISU Council’s emergency decisions on these matters, to come on Tuesday.
Some say the ISU could not have anticipated such a tragedy and therefore couldn’t have been expected to plan for it. I cannot agree. The concept and advisability of crisis management planning is well understood in the business world. Developing contingency plans for unlikely, but possible, events is considered good management practice. Crisis planning goes by different names—crisis management, disaster recovery, business continuity, risk management—but whatever the jargon, the concept is easy to grasp. Anyone running a business or organization of appreciable size should think about, and plan for, as many eventualities as possible. No one could have imagined this particular tragedy, but anyone could imagine a competition interrupted by a natural disaster, mass power outage, or political crisis.
The ISU can and must do a better job of crisis planning. There are many tools to help, including dozens of books on crisis management and disaster recovery; consulting firms that specialize in crisis planning; and many organizations, such as the Red Cross, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and FEMA, which provide guidelines and protocols.
2. I wish the ISU would also consider implementing a stronger policy regarding concussions.
The day before the Paris tragedy, we saw a worrisome event at TEB itself. While attempting a throw quad Salchow in practice, Cheng Peng of China fell and hit her head on the ice. This accident was caught on video by The Blade Boys.
It was scary to see Cheng fall and hit her head this way. She appeared to be okay afterward and continued practice, following a very brief break and exam by the Chinese coaches and members of the Russian/French staffs. However, appearances don’t always tell the full story with head injuries; sometimes an athlete can have a concussion, yet not realize it. In the short program the next day, Cheng fell before the program even began and then fell again on the SBS 3T. It’s very possible that Cheng’s problems in the SP were completely unrelated to the practice accident. But I would have felt much better if she had received a thorough medical examination before continuing.
The ISU does not currently seem to have any specific policy on concussions (either at, or outside, competition). Rule 141 of the ISU Constitution and General Regulations 2014 simply states: “It is the responsibility of all Members to ensure that their Competitors can physically and mentally compete safely.” So, the federations are charged with evaluating any head injuries.
In this respect, ISU policy isn’t too different from that of FIFA, NFL, or NHL. All of those governing bodies require examination of head injuries during games by team doctors (as opposed to league/FIFA representatives). However, one difference is that the NFL and NHL require team doctors to use a standard concussion assessment tool to determine a player’s fitness. The ISU could consider implementing a similar requirement. Or it could provide independent medical consultants at events, as the English Premier League does with its “tunnel doctors,” although this would obviously be an additional expense.
I’d like to see the ISU get more involved in this issue because it seems concussions are a growing problem in skating. This season alone, there have been 5 confirmed cases of concussions among elite skaters (Joshua Farris, DeeDee Leng, Caitlin Yankowskas, Ondrej Hotarek, and of course reigning World champion Gabriella Papadakis). There may be more unconfirmed cases. Another worrisome factor: Some studies suggest that female athletes may be more susceptible to, and/or suffer more serious, sports-related concussions than male athletes. Although this is still a theory, it’s something to consider in figure skating, a sport with many female participants.
Bottom line is, I’d like to see the ISU think proactively about this issue and take steps to address it, even if it’s just a matter of further investigation or issuing more detailed guidelines to federations.
3. On a happier note, it was great to see Olympic champions Volosozhar/Trankov back in Grand Prix competition.
This fall, Volosozhar/Trankov became the first reigning Olympic pairs champions to return to competition in 22 years. The last time this happened was back in 1993, when reigning Olympic champions Mishkutionok/Dmitriev returned for the 1993-94 season. I give Volosozhar/Trankov a ton of credit for coming back to competition–especially now, with the technical demands of pairs skating escalating and the discipline in flux. To me, it signals that Tatiana/Max’s competitive spirit has not dimmed and that they still want to make an impact in the sport, even though they’ve already achieved all the highest prizes.
I enjoyed seeing them in the short program at TEB. Tatiana/Max are not yet back in top competitive shape, but they were much stronger at TEB than at Nebelhorn. I liked their new Bollywood SP and felt it was a cut above the other pairs’ short programs in terms of concept and choreography. I’m glad that the Olympic champions decided to return, and it will be interesting to see what they can bring to the discipline over the next few seasons.
4. I hope that everyone can accept whatever solution the ISU chooses for Grand Prix Final qualification.
The debate on skating forums and Twitter about the TEB cancellation and how it should affect GP Final qualification has been bruising and contentious. It’s pretty clear at this point that no solution can be perfectly fair to all the skaters. Sometimes you just have to take the best of the bad choices, and move on. One thing to bear in mind: It’s just the Grand Prix Final. Yes, it’s an important event, and there’s prize money involved. But it’s not like anyone is missing out on a spot to Worlds or Olympics.
Will things return to “normal” as Grand Prix competition resumes at Rostelecom Cup next weekend? Probably not, with thoughts of Paris still in everyone’s mind. But perhaps the skating world, at least, can start to get a little closer to normal. I hope.
In April, Sonia Bianchetti Garbato of Italy was elected to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Sonia was a figure skater in her youth; she competed in Dick Button’s era. However, Sonia was elected to the Hall of Fame not for skating achievements, but for her off-ice contributions to the sport as a longtime ISU leader.
Cracked Ice: Figure Skating’s Inner World is Sonia’s account of her life in figure skating. Like many skating fans, I knew Sonia’s name but had never read her book or learned details of her career until I obtained a copy of her book recently.
Cracked Ice was published in 2004, at a time of unrest in the skating world. The dust from the 2002 Salt Lake City judging scandal was still settling. A proposal to replace the ISU with a new World Skating Federation failed. Meanwhile, Ottavio Cinquanta had just introduced IJS and anonymous judging.
The initial reception of Cracked Ice was somewhat affected by the turmoil of the time. And because the book was not widely available in stores, it wasn’t easy for skating fans to just pick up a copy. The result is that I’m not sure Sonia’s book was widely read by skating fans. This is a shame, because the book contains a great deal of important information about the history and development of figure skating.
Now that over a decade has passed since the tumultuous time of its publication, it seems a good moment to take a fresh look at Sonia’s book and what we can learn from it.
The First 30 Years: 1958-1988
Sonia Bianchetti Garbato was born in Italy in 1934. She started skating in 1940, at six. But World War II interrupted her lessons, and, like so many skaters of her time, she lost precious years of training during the war. She returned to the sport from 1948-1955, training and competing. At 21 she retired, then married and had two sons.
But she couldn’t stay away from skating. In 1958, at age 24, Sonia became a judge for the Italian federation. Her true career had now begun.
During 1958-1988, Sonia broke into the traditionally male-dominated leadership ranks of the ISU and built a career as a judge and leader.
Sonia was the first woman to be:
Appointed referee at an ISU championship
Elected to the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee (1967)
Elected chairperson of the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee (1973)
Elected to the ISU Council (1988)
Sonia wanted more, though, than just a role in the ISU. Her goal, from the start of her leadership career, was nothing less than the reform and modernization of the sport. Sonia pressed for change in the sport starting at her very first ISU Congress meeting in 1963.
In Cracked Ice, Sonia details how she supported and/or personally proposed the following reforms during her early years in the ISU:
However, the reform that Sonia is most closely associated with is the end of school figures.
“From the day I was elected to the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee in 1967, I set myself a goal: the elimination of the compulsory figures,” Sonia says in Cracked Ice. She pursued her goal steadily for 20 years, eventually gaining enough support to win elimination of figures in 1990.
Sonia’s quest to get rid of figures was interesting because her own strength as a competitor was, ironically, school figures. “Curiously, as a skater, I was very weak in the free skating,” admits Sonia, “while my figures were of an acceptable standard. It was only thanks to them that I obtained some good placements.”
Yet Sonia fought for the elimination of figures because she felt they had too much influence in the sport. In Sonia’s competitive days in the early 1950s, figures were worth more than 50% of the final score. She describes her shock at the 1951 Worlds ladies’ event: Jeannette Altwegg won gold (1st figures/6th free skate), and was whistled at on the podium because the audience didn’t understand why she had won. This incident planted the seed in Sonia’s mind that figures had too much weight on the result.
Let’s take a look at how much weight school figures actually carried through the years:
Originally, then, figures were the sport of figure skating. Now they no longer exist.
The elimination of figures has been a highly controversial issue, both in Sonia’s time and today. Sonia cites several reasons for cutting out figures, including problems with the judging. In the 1950s/60s, figures were rarely televised, the judging received little scrutiny, and it was not uncommon for judges to manipulate skaters’ placements in the figures portion. Skaters with good figures were often overscored in the free skate. By the 1980s, the pendulum swung the other way, according to Sonia. “Judges started to overmark the figures of the good free skaters,” says Sonia. “It was just the opposite of what happened before.” Sonia argues that pairs skaters and ice dancers did not have to perform figures, yet often still had great skating skills. Others felt that figure skating would develop faster in new regions globally if skaters didn’t need to make such a large investment of time/money to learn and practice figures.
Although Sonia is generally acknowledged as the driving force behind the elimination of figures, many supported her cause, including former ISU President Jacques Favart. When the final vote came in 1988, approval was nearly unanimous. Only 4 countries voted against dropping figures: USA, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand.
It’s been 25 years now since the last figure was skated in competition at 1990 Worlds. And although Sonia views the end of figures as a necessary and inevitable step in the development of the sport, others are less certain. Some former skaters and coaches continue to rue the loss of figures, arguing that they helped skaters learn good basic skating skills. And as many junior skaters emerge with lots of triples but a lack of good, deep edges in transitions, you do have to wonder a bit.
The still-significant support for school figures culminated last month in the debut of a new figures-only competition, the World Figures Championship in Lake Placid, NY. This event gives school figures their own specialized forum for competition.
What is the right place for figures in figure skating? Sonia felt there was no right place, that figures—and the judging of figures—influenced the outcome too much, even when figures were worth only 20% of the score. For Sonia, free skating was and is the true soul and future of the sport. Figures were extraneous. “Without music, there could be no figure skating,” Sonia writes. “What was and is really important for me in skating is that each movement is used to express a beat of the music.”
Whether you agree or not, it’s indisputable that Sonia had a vision of the future of skating and pushed until she made it reality. In the process, she changed the course of skating history.
Sonia’s other great mission during the early years of her career was to reform and improve the standards of figure skating judging.
Prior to the 1970s, “the education of the judges was left totally in the hands of the national federations,” explains Sonia. There were really no standards or requirements to become an international skating judge; the criterion was being nominated by your federation. This lack of standards also meant that “there was no uniformity of views among the judges,” Sonia explains. “This was particularly true in compulsory figures where for some judges, like the British, a wrong change of edge in a turn was a drama, while for others, like the Americans and Canadians, more importance was attached to the flow, the speed, and the shape of the circles.”
Sonia sought to change this situation. In her book, she explains how she supported an education program for ISU judges and practical/written examinations. In 1971, she wrote the curriculum for a judges’ seminar in Finland, including lectures and practical demonstrations/simulated judging. The curriculum and lectures that Sonia created for this course became the basis for the ISU’s judging seminars for years to come. Attendance at ISU judging seminars was eventually made mandatory for judges.
Sonia also had a strong focus on judges’ conduct. Corruption in judging is a controversial and, at times, taboo topic among skating fans. It’s like everyone suspects it exists but doesn’t really want to admit it, because it calls into doubt the legitimacy of the sport. If there’s one thing Sonia makes clear in her book, it’s that corrupt judging has existed for a long time. She provides example after example.
Sonia herself was approached during her very first assignment as an ISU championship judge and told to predetermine her marks. She recounts the story:
In 1964 I judged my first ISU championship, the Europeans in Grenoble. I was drawn to judge the men’s event. The day before the event started, I was approached by Ernst Labin, who was [an ISU] Council member … Labin, who was Austrian, plainly and openly told me that I had to place his country’s skater, Emmerich Danzer, ahead of Czechoslovakia’s Karol Divin in compulsory figures because Danzer had to be on the podium. … I was shocked and did not know what to think and what to do … I could not sleep that night, but when I went on the ice I was absolutely determined that I would ignore any pressure and would judge only what I saw during the competition.
A shocking incident, but not an isolated one. Judges in those years were not only subject to pressure from ISU officials or federations, but also haplessly implicated in the Cold War politics of the era. There was often strong pressure to conform with bloc judging, especially for judges from the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Warsaw Pact countries. “The judges of those countries were supposed to support [their skaters] and award them marks and placements reflecting the orders received,” asserts Sonia. Judges from Eastern and Western countries were often on opposite sides.
The judging in the 1970s was a real concern for the [ISU] Technical Committee. In the years 1970-1978, 38 judges were suspended … 9 from the Soviet Union, 7 from Great Britain, 6 from France, 3 from Canada, 3 from the U.S. … While the British judges were criticized more for errors and incompetence, those from France and the Soviet Union had shown a definite tendency to national bias.
Sonia felt the judging problems were hurting the sport and had to be cleaned up. At the 1977 ISU Congress, she proposed the Soviet federation be sanctioned for the 1978 season and not allowed to nominate judges for ISU championships “due to repeated national bias.” The sanction was approved. Subsequently, judging suspensions dropped from 42 overall in the 1970s to just 12 during the 1980s. Sonia felt that progress was being made, but the struggle was by no means over, as later judging scandals would prove.
The ISU Council Years: 1988-1992
After Sonia achieved her longtime goal of eliminating figures, she felt her time on the ISU Technical Committee was done. The next step was to run for the ISU Council. Sonia was elected to the Council in 1988. The following 5 years were the most difficult of her career.
The ISU Council is the highest elected governing body in the sport. It consists of 11 members:
ISU Vice President, Figure skating
ISU Vice President, Speed skating
4 Council members, Figure skating
4 Council members, Speed skating
Each country can have only 1 member on the council– either from figure skating or speed skating, but not both. The Council is composed equally of members from figure skating and speed skating. The ISU President, in theory, holds the swing vote.
In the Council, Sonia quickly found herself in conflict with then-ISU President Olaf Poulsen. Most skating fans know that speed skater Ottavio Cinquanta has held grip on the ISU for over 20 years now as ISU President. However, many probably don’t know, or have forgotten, that before Cinquanta’s 21-year reign came the 14-year presidency of Olaf Poulsen, also a speed skater. (Yes, it’s been 35 years since a figure skater actually ran the sport of figure skating.)
According to Sonia, Olaf Poulsen shared many of his successor’s traits. Like Cinquanta, he wanted to run the ISU as he saw fit; opposition and debate were not encouraged. Like Cinquanta, he was an expert at bending the rules and politik.
Poulsen represented the status quo. Sonia was, again, the voice of reform and modernization.
As a Council member, Sonia hoped to:
Change eligibility rules to allow skaters to earn money through shows, sponsorships, and open competitions
Modernize the secretariat structure of the ISU
Hire lawyers, TV consultants, press agents, etc., to help the ISU conduct business
Fix a retirement age limit for Council members (to ensure rotation of members)
Introduce a development program to help ISU member nations
When Sonia joined the Council in 1988, the ISU was being run in a shockingly unprofessional manner. She says that the ISU:
Did not have a treasurer or financial officer.
Did not retain a legal team. Contracts worth millions of dollars were signed without legal review.
Did not employ technical organizers to mount important events such as Worlds.
Did not solicit new bids for advertising contracts on a regular basis but instead retained the same advertising firm, Gloria International, for 16 years and was eventually implicated and sued in a scandal due to that firm’s financial problems
Retained a General Secretary whose powers and responsibilities were not defined
Engaged in questionable financial practices such as providing a zero-interest personal “loan” to the General Secretary and accepting free cars for ISU officials in exchange for advertisements
According to Sonia, her efforts to modernize ISU management were resisted at every turn by Poulsen and his chief supporter, General Secretary Beat Hasler.
In 1990, Poulsen and Hasler opposed Sonia’s proposal to allow skaters to earn money through shows, sponsorships, ISU prize money, and pro-am competitions. Sonia’s goal was not just to help skaters, but also protect the ISU. If skaters could not earn money, more might turn professional, and they could theoretically organize themselves into an international professional skaters’ federation. In Sonia’s view, a rival professional federation could damage the ISU’s prestige and ability to negotiate TV contracts (the ISU’s primary source of revenue). Sonia was acting in the long-term interest of the ISU, as well as the skaters. However, Poulsen and Hasler did not see it that way. Needless to say, the entire substance of Sonia’s proposal was later accepted by the ISU.
This was, in fact, the outcome of most of the reforms Sonia supported. She says that all were actively resisted by Poulsen; however, most were later accepted and implemented by the ISU. “I do not regret anything I did,” says Sonia, noting the ultimate success of her ideas. However, Sonia paid a steep personal price in her quest for reform.
“What is certain is that I clashed with Poulsen from the very first moment,” writes Sonia. By 1990, she says, Poulsen was determined to oust her from the Council. His tool to do so? None other than our good friend Ottavio Cinquanta.
Poulsen’s plan was simple. It was suggested to the Italian federation that Ottavio Cinquanta run for ISU Council in 1992. If Cinquanta were elected to the Council, Sonia would be automatically out, due to the 1-member-per-country rule.
Eventually, the plan worked. Sonia asserts that Poulsen’s allies used various ploys to smear her name, throw her off balance, and isolate her from other Council members. Sonia describes the back-door campaign against her in depressing detail; many of the relevant events occurred in private conversations in and around ISU meetings. The upshot: The Italian federation eventually threw their support to Cinquanta, and he was elected ISU Vice President of Speed Skating in 1992.
After 25 years, Sonia’s career in the ISU was effectively over.
The Post-ISU Years: 1992 to Now
The bitter end to her career in the ISU left Sonia devastated. The experience “taught me a hard lesson,” she recalls. “I learned that once you lose the favor of those in power, you are alone. … There were no more seats available for me around the tables with my ‘friends’ for lunch or dinner, or on the buses, or in the ice rink …. All of this had a profound impact on my vision of life. I tried to find the balance between what I had achieved and where I had failed. Surely the balance was positive for all that was inherent to the sport itself.”
Sonia had been a crusader–pushing hard for the things she believed in–instead of a player, who knew how to follow the rules of politik. She reflected on her lack of political savvy and naivete and what it had cost her. “I realized that my colleagues in the Council had used me on many occasions,” she asserts. “They found it very convenient to push me to take a stand, while they held back and waited to see how the president reacted before opening their mouths.” The reformer may get recognition, but not always appreciation from those who feel threatened by change.
In time, Sonia was able to reconcile herself to what had happened. In the late 1990s, she began to rebuild some of her old friendships in the skating world. In 1998, she went to Worlds for the first time since leaving the Council. She attended the next few World Championships as well.
Meanwhile, judging scandals grew more serious in the 1994-2002 period under Cinquanta’s rule. An interesting feature of these scandals was that the whistleblowers tended to be punished almost as heavily as the offending judges. Here is a look at some of the scandals from this era and their outcomes:
After Salt Lake, Cinquanta announced the ISU would implement a completely new judging system (IJS). The new system was created by a few officials behind the scenes; the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee was not involved.
In Cracked Ice, Sonia outlines the maneuverings Cinquanta used to get the new system adopted. Cinquanta proposed the system at the 2002 ISU Congress and stated prior to the vote: “You are not voting for the proposal word by word. You are voting in favor of the concept, let’s say, of the criteria, of the project. This I said many times. It is not a rule. This is not a rule, is a project, is an itinerary.” Yet in October 2002, the “project” was suddenly announced as a new paragraph of Rule 121 in the ISU General Regulations. The original proposal had not specified anonymity of all judges/marks throughout and after the event. But in August and December 2002, the ISU announced that all judges names’ and marks would remain completely anonymous, even after the event was concluded. No one, not even the event referee, would know who entered which marks.
Sonia opposed the new judging system. She felt that IJS, with its emphasis on numeric element scoring, did not allow sufficient scope for the appreciation and assessment of artistry. She also felt the system did not address the root cause of judging scandals:
The new judging system was presented as the solution to all figure skating judging problems. However, this is far from being true … The problem was cheating, not the scoring system. The ISU should have been fighting this problem …. by adopting lifetime bans for judges caught trying to fix competition results, strengthening the accountability and the assessment of judges, and taking over the right to nominate the judges for ISU championships … Instead, the ISU has merely been trying to adopt policies aimed at making judging completely anonymous. Every single judge could be cheating now and the public will never know it.
In the years since IJS was introduced, Sonia has remained an active observer of the sport and frequent critic of the ISU. She has published essays, open letters, and event reviews on her web site (http://www.soniabianchetti.com/), maintains a wide network of contacts in the skating world, and is active in the skating community on Facebook. Sonia keeps current by watching events online, on TV, and also attending as many competitions as she can. It’s a joy to see her comment on Facebook even about smaller events such as Junior Grand Prix competitions!
What stands out most in Cracked Ice is how much Sonia Bianchetti Garbato loves figure skating. With all her many roles in the sport—skater, judge, referee, leader, dissenting critic—Sonia is, above all else, a true fan and lover of figure skating. She jokingly refers to passing on the “virus of figure skating” to her son, Fabio. Those who love skating understand what she means. Once the virus (or passion) grabs hold, in many cases it just doesn’t let go. For Sonia, it hasn’t. “Despite all the problems … figure skating has progressed, year after year, in technique and beauty,” she declares in the final chapter of her book. “Figure skating is and must be the perfect blend of technical prowess and art.”
Cracked Ice is the testament of a woman who gave her life to the sport and probably influenced it as much as anyone else in the past century. This is a book that really shouldn’t be missed by any serious fan of skating.
A few weeks ago, Samantha Cesario announced her retirement from competitive figure skating at 21. In doing so, she became possibly the first skater to cite the current judging system (IJS) as a factor in her decision. “I’m a skater who has always prided myself on my ability to perform for an audience and bring music to life,” said Cesario. “Unfortunately, at times, the new system [IJS] didn’t lend itself to my strong suits, and that is something that wasn’t always easy to deal with.”
Many fans were surprised by Samantha’s retirement after just 2 years of senior international competition. However, for others who had been following her career closely, the reaction was one of subdued sadness, not surprise. Samantha had been struggling with her results under IJS for some time. This past season in particular, the judges’ scores for her programs gave her little incentive to continue. Yet, during this same period, Samantha became a favorite of many skating fans around the world. This week, Johnny Weir called her “a shining light in U.S. ladies’ skating.”
For me personally, Samantha was one of the few ladies whom I actually enjoyed watching this past season. I’m going to miss her very much. Her retirement is the saddest news of the offseason for me.
Since the announcement, I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around the question of why this talented skater was unable to reach the top competitively. How much of Samantha’s decision to retire was due to personal factors? And what, if anything, does the premature end of her career say about the current state of skating and IJS?
Looking back, Samantha Cesario’s career was always a little different. She is close in age to fellow U.S. skaters Ashley Wagner, Mirai Nagasu, Caroline Zhang, and Christina Gao. But unlike them, Samantha never left home to train with a top-tier coach or other top-level competitors. She stayed with Mary Lynn Gelderman as her main coach for 13 years. And although she doubtless shared rink time with many talented skaters, Samantha never trained alongside a Yuna Kim or Evan Lysacek or Adam Rippon. Another difference: The other U.S. ladies I named have all competed at U.S. Nationals for at least the past 8 years straight. But, due in large part to injuries, Samantha competed in only 6 total U.S. Nationals.
So, Samantha perhaps didn’t follow the typical track. However, when she did truly emerge as a senior lady at 2013 U.S. Nationals, she immediately made her presence felt. She landed 6 triples in her Black Swan LP that year and caught everyone’s attention with her elegant, dramatic skating.
A month later at 2013 Junior Worlds, Samantha took first in the SP and looked set to win or medal. However, in a sign of things to come, she was hit with 5 underrotation/edge calls in the LP and dropped off the podium entirely.
It’s interesting to listen to Nicky Slater’s British Eurosport commentary about Samantha’s Junior Worlds SP: “I love the little movement of the head, and all the hand movements, all those signatures that add to the overall program. Never any wasted moments,” said Slater. And, about her LP: “Absolutely fabulous, well done. Elegant, mature, strong, great height in the jumps, loads of power. Every moment was defined and definite in terms of the choreography and content.” To Slater, what stood out about Samantha was her ability to interpret music and present a beautiful performance. This is exactly what drew so many fans to Samantha.
However, just 9 months later, Joanne Conway of British Eurosport had the following remarks on Samantha’s SP at 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard: “For me, she’ll suffer a little bit with the skating skills. A little bit weak, a little bit slow. I’d like to see her move across the ice with more edges, more knee bend. Maybe [the spins] could have been worked on a bit more.” These comments reflected a contrasting view of Samantha: That her skating was hampered by a lack of speed in footwork and spins.
These dual views of Samantha’s skating continued to hold over the next 2 years. Among many fans, Samantha was a favorite because of her dynamic, artistically satisfying performances. But among judges, it was another story. As Samantha noted, her strong suits weren’t favored under IJS.
What were Samantha’s strong suits? Artistry and jump consistency.
Samantha’s skating was polished and sophisticated and expressive. She knew how to interpret music and hit the highlights of a program. She paid attention to the details—hand movements, head placement, extensions, straight back—and everything was in place in her skating. If you look at photographs of her, she’s almost always in an attractive, nicely extended position. Her programs were never less than entertaining to watch. And, best of all, she had her own distinctive look: Dramatic, strong, flirtatious, sultry.
Samantha didn’t do lyrical or princessy. She was all about fiery attitude and flamboyant expression. Often skating to Latin music, she had a clearly defined–and clearly mature—styleon the ice. This put her in strong contrast to some of her coltish competitors (especially this past season). Samantha skated to Carmen for 4 years, using the music twice as an SP and twice as an LP. It’s almost unheard-of to use a single piece of music for so long, but Samantha not only kept it interesting but actually made Carmen her signature program. How many other competitive ladies these days have anything close to a signature program that fans actually remember, talk about, and look forward to?
Yet Samantha received little credit for the quality of her presentation. Reviewing her PCS scores at three international events this season (Skate America, TEB, 4CCs), you can see the international judges placed her in their “second-tier” PCS corridor: 25-28 in SP, 50-57 in LP. Samantha was in this range with skaters such as Rika Hongo, Mirai Nigasu, Haruka Imai, Courtney Hicks, Mae-Berenice Meite, Maria Artemieva, Alaine Chartrand, and Gabrielle Daleman. Her PCS tended to be in the middle to top of the range, but not by a wide margin. For example, in the 2015 4CCs SP, she had less than .40 PCS advantage over Canadian skaters Gabrielle Daleman and Alaine Chartrand (neither yet noted for their polish or artistry). Samantha also received lower PCS there than Rika Hongo, a skater known primarily for her triple/triples and poor posture.
The general opinion was Samantha got relatively low PCS because she lacked speed: This was considered her Achilles’ heel. However, as FSU member @plusdinfo noted on the FSU forum, Samantha was strong in 4 of the 5 categories PCS is supposed to be marked on: Transitions, Performance/Execution, Choreography, and Interpretation. Yet she received little bonus. Through her scores, the judges seemed to indicate that slower relative speed was a bigger problem than bad posture, inability to express the music, uninspired choreography, and/or poor positions/extensions. Is this something the majority of figure skating audiences would agree with? I’m not so sure.
As strong as she was artistically, Samantha was also a very consistent jumper. In her final competitive season this year, she landed an average of 6.8 triples per LP. She did not fall once the whole season, and rarely popped, stumbled, or put a hand down. In contrast, Gracie Gold averaged 5.14 triples landed and .5 falls in her LPs, had numerous minor jump errors, and popped a total of 4 jumps in her 4CCs LP.
But although Samantha was consistent with her jumps, her technique was flawed, resulting in underrotation calls and an edge call on her Lutz. These errors cost her heavily on judges’ score sheets. Even when she landed a jump, she often lost 2 to 3 points in potential base value. For example, in her 4CCs SP this year, she underrotated her triple flip and got only 3.27 points (just 56% of the planned base value 5.83). Are we happy with a scoring system in which a skater loses almost half the value of a jump because it was landed a quarter-turn early (if that)?
Spins were another issue. Samantha always had beautiful spin positions, but since her rotations weren’t the fastest, her spin levels (and scores) fluctuated.
Samantha’s spins were negatively affected by the other big challenge in her career: Health problems. The stars seemed to align against her in this area. In 2010-2011, she suffered a serious back problem; in 2011-2012, she tore a knee ligament. She missed U.S. Nationals for 2 straight years–a major setback for a skater in the U.S., where so much rides on Nationals results. She also dealt with pronation of the knees, an ankle injury, and mononucleosis.
The fact that Samantha was able to forge on despite all these problems says everything about her character. In spite of the injuries, she continued to train and put out her best in every single program. I never saw Samantha give up on a program–ever. Even if it wasn’t going well, she always kept the performance quality up and kept trying on every single jump. I admire that so much about her. She had tremendous will and tenacity. I’ve seen few other skaters put out as many 6- and 7-triple programs as Samantha did in her career to such little reward.
But although Samantha kept fighting through all the injuries, no doubt they affected her career and held her back from accomplishing more. At a minimum, she lost significant practice time and competitive experience. There’s no way of knowing how her career might have developed if she hadn’t had so many health problems. Would she have moved to another coach/training center? Would she have been able to skate faster or rotate spins faster if she hadn’t had lingering effects from the injuries? Would she have skated better this season if she hadn’t suffered a two-month bout of mono? There’s no way to tell.
My guess is that Samantha’s retirement is in large part due to her health problems. You can only continue training in pain for so long.
But, as she made clear, the current state of figure skating and its judging system also played a significant role in her decision. Some people’s response to this is that Samantha should have simply fixed her underrotation/speed problems, and then she’d have had nothing to worry about. I guess my thoughts go in another direction. I question if we really want a judging system that has no place and no reward for such a talented, beautiful skater.
In the end, I doubt Samantha Cesario has any regrets. Her path in skating wasn’t easy or typical; it was always a little different. But she did it her way, on her terms, as much as her body would allow. And her decision to retire is, again, her own. Many skaters in recent years have found it difficult to take that final step. But Samantha decided the moment had come and made the tough call to walk away from 15 years of skating and start a new life. As usual, I’m left feeling admiration for the courage of this strong-willed, clear-eyed young woman.
When I started this blog, I had the intent to focus it partly on pairs skating. So I jumped right in and started writing reviews of pairs events last fall. Recently, it occurred to me that some people might be wondering: Why pairs? Why write so much about pairs?
Well, I started writing about pairs because it’s my favorite discipline of figure skating. I love watching all four disciplines, but pairs has been my favorite for quite a few years now. So, writing about it came naturally.
Why do I love pairs? I think it starts with speed. Going fast is what I love most about skating! I love stepping onto the ice and being liberated from the constraints of earthboundness. Instantly, you can move and glide at twice the speed you could ever achieve walking. The speed is exciting, exhilarating, like nothing else.
In pairs skating, that speed is multiplied. When you have two bodies connected on the ice, the speed and momentum they gain together is greater than a singles skater can achieve. Ice dance also involves two people skating together; but in dance, the speed is controlled and harnessed in the service of exacting, complicated patterns and footwork. In pairs, all that speed and power is unleashed fully to fuel the high-flying twists, lifts, and throws that define the discipline. In a SkateGuard interview, Paul Wylie talked about the speed of legendary pairs skater Irina Rodnina: “I watched her skate at the Broadmoor, and it was two crossovers to full speed and full ice coverage.”
The first pair I ever saw live was a young team at a local rink in Franklin, Massachusetts. They were probably no older than 10 or 12, and they didn’t have any big lifts or tricks. But, the second I saw them, I was captivated. Because even though they were so young and not very skilled, they took over the rink, racing past the singles skaters at impressive speed and effortlessly grabbing onlookers’ attention. It was fascinating. Watching them, I knew I wanted to see more of this pairs skating!
In the years since then, I’ve watched countless pairs competitions on TV. And I’ve been fortunate to see many famous pairs live, including Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze, Sale/Pelletier, Babilonia/Gardner, Duhamel/Radford, Castelli/Shnapir. But the best moment came last winter in Boston when I attended a full competition for the first time with all-event tickets—2014 U.S. Nationals.
The very first thing I saw at Nationals was senior pairs practice. Wow! That practice took my breath away. To me, it was every bit as exciting as a competition. Watching the pairs teams up close—the amazing things they could do—the speed with which they skated—their reactions after they tried difficult elements and succeeded or failed–was fascinating to me.
Blair Braverman wrote an in-depth article about 2014 U.S. Nationals for Buzzfeed. She was as captivated by the pairs practices as I was, and wrote eloquently about it:
I’m not planning to stay long at the senior pairs practice, but two hours pass before I can look away.
Four teams — eight skaters — take the ice at a time. They’re all dressed in head-to-toe black, long sleeves and long pants, identical except for the women’s shirts.
Even when they’re all skating separately, when all four pairs have divided and instead eight bodies arc around the ice in a mess of lonely directions, I can see exactly who belongs to whom. The partners’ connection is evident in their rhythms and the angles of their limbs, and when one by one they come together again, it’s almost a relief, things clicking into place. Their bodies are beautiful, made more beautiful by proximity to other bodies, without a trace of sex or romance; each pair seems less an ideal couple than an ideal male and female version of the same human essence.
The pairs practice is, and will remain, the most striking thing I see all week.
You could argue that pairs skating is more exciting than singles skating from a technical standpoint, because not only do pairs perform many of the same spins, jumps, and footwork as singles skaters, they also do the challenging pairs elements too. Of course, pairs skaters don’t usually perform the most difficult solo triple/quad jumps. That said, Duhamel/Radford and Marchei/Hotarek are raising technical standards with their side-by-side triple Lutzes, so who knows what the future will hold?
The thing that I love most about pairs, aside from the speed and sheer beauty of movement, is the artistic potential of the discipline. It seems only logical that you can create a wider range of different movements on ice when you have two bodies to work with, as opposed to one. I find the choreographic potential of pairs and dance far more exciting than singles skating.
So many of the most memorable, iconic programs in the sport are pairs programs. The Protopopovs’ Liebestraum. Underhill/Martini’s When a Man Loves a Woman. Gordeeva/Grinkov’s Moonlight Sonata and Reverie. Mishkuteniok/Dmitriev’s Liebestraum and Rachmaninov. Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze’s Lady Caliph and Meditation from Thais. Sale/Pelletier’s Love Story. Shen/Zhao’s Turandot. Savchenko/Szolkowy’s Pink Panther and Pina. When not performed at a high level, pairs can look prosaic and disjointed. But when pairs skating reaches its fullest potential . . . magic happens.
So, I wanted to write about pairs skating simply because I love it. And also because I feel it doesn’t get as much love (or attention) as the other disciplines. Singles skating is hugely popular, endlessly discussed in forums, and quite well covered in the press and specialized blogs such as Naked Ice. And with the emergence of North American ice dance teams in the last 20 years, ice dance also now has a large following, with its own blogs.
But pairs skating gets a bit lost. So I wanted to show it some love by writing about it here, in this blog. I hope fellow pairs fans have enjoyed the coverage so far, which I aim to continue and improve upon in the future!
“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” –Lev Tolstoy
In fall 2013, a milestone passed: The 10th anniversary of the International Judging System (IJS). The IJS was first used at the 2003 Nebelhorn Trophy event, on Sept. 3-6, 2003. This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the IJS at Worlds.
I’ve been a supporter of IJS from the beginning. I always found the 6.0 system to be an utterly abitrary and inexplicable system of judging. Yet, this season, I find myself questioning IJS and its effect on the sport like never before. Because the product is suffering. The skating is suffering. The programs and performances we’ve seen this year are not what I want to see in this sport. Of course, lots of fans may feel differently. But that’s how I feel, personally, as a fan.
The Grand Prix season this fall had many great moments, as always. Yet, when you look at the performances as a whole, something was missing. The ladies’ field was weak–as a whole. At Rostelecom Cup, Cup of China, and NHK Trophy, the nonmedalists’ performances were riddled with a myriad of mistakes and falls. Most of the programs themselves were utterly forgettable–one tired retread after another of Firebird, Carmen, POTO, Four Seasons. Although we saw some clean winning skates from the top ladies, we saw very few great programs.
The same applied to the men. Men’s programs have become so technically difficult that, in most cases, they cannot perform them well. The men’s event nowadays is a roller coaster of disappointing performances interspersed with the occasional, rare, brilliant program. Few men can maintain any consistency. We saw men follow up outstanding, Grand Prix-winning performances at one event with near-total collapses at the next. And, like the ladies, only a few men put out great, memorable programs.
I think one reason is that, in the last few years, we were blessed to have some of the most legendary, exceptional talent that’s ever been seen in this sport: Yuna Kim, Carolina Kostner, Mao Asada, Akiko Suzuki, Patrick Chan, Daisuke Takahashi, Savchenko/Szolkowy, Virtue/Moir, Davis/White. All of these skaters were so talented, they could deliver the technical elements necessary under IJS and still create superlative, beautiful artistic programs. Because these skaters were so exceptionally gifted, they made it seem like IJS was working.
But now that great generation of skaters is gone. And what is left? Jumps, spins, footwork–and a lot of programs that are barely worth watching.
Is the lack of good performances because of IJS, or something else? Reluctantly, I’ve come to conclude that IJS is the root of the problem. What I’ve always liked most about IJS was that it evaluated and rewarded all aspects of skating—spins, footwork, lifts, as well as jumps. Under 6.0, you could have the greatest spins in the world (like Lucinda Ruh), yet you wouldn’t get much credit unless you could also land triple Lutzes and flips. The fact that IJS quantified and rewarded all the components of skating initially seemed like a big step forward.
But there’s been an unanticipated side effect. Because everything is now evaluated, everything can now–theoretically–be perfect. Skaters know how much an element is worth in base value and how much extra they can get in GOE. They know the perfect—or maximum–score. The simple existence of this maximum score necessarily means that that is what they must strive to achieve.
Haven’t skaters always tried to perform as perfectly as possible? I suppose this should be a skater’s goal under any system. But what’s different about IJS is it spells out what perfection is for an element and the points skaters can get for it. So, whereas the pursuit of perfection under 6.0 was theoretically possible, it’s only under IJS that it’s become an actual logical necessity.
The pursuit of perfection under IJS has been spurred because–increasingly in the last quad–certain skaters actually attained technical perfection in certain elements. In the Sochi team event long program, Yulia Lipnitskaya received the maximum score possible for her Biellmann spin: Level 4 and all +3s in GOE, for a total of 4.20 points. She could not have scored any higher. Volosozhar/Trankov did the same with their triple twist: At Skate America 2013 and twice in Sochi, they received level 4 and straight +3s for their twist. Yuna Kim also came close to scoring the maximum with her 3Lz/3T in her 2013 Worlds LP; she had nearly all +3s.
So, the quest for technically perfect elements not only makes logical sense under IJS, it’s also now actually acheivable. And, because some competitors have achieved such virtuosity, the pressure is now on for all other skaters to reach for perfection as well. Because, as a pair, how can you beat Volosozhar/Trankov–with their perfect triple twist and near-perfect difficult lifts—unless you can do those elements or other elements perfectly, too?
Good is no longer good enough. Increasingly, perfection is necessary.
How does the quest for perfection affect skaters? The first effect is almost automatic: As skaters work harder and harder to improve and refine their technical elements, the rest of their skating almost inevitably suffers. Some skaters still find the energy to create great programs and perform them at an extremely high level. However, for the majority, the program becomes little more than a framework for the elements.
Consider a skater like Javier Fernandez. Even Fernandez, as great as he is–with charisma to spare, quality choreography, and great PCS–cannot give his programs the full artistic expression they could potentially have. This is particularly so in the long program–a minefield of quads and triples. Although I enjoy the character he’s portraying in his Barber of Seville program, I’m convinced it could be so much better if Javi only had the energy and freedom to really perform the program full out. But he must save much of his energy for three quad attempts.
At least he presents interesting, character-driven, musically and choreographically engaging programs. Although many skaters pay lip service in interviews to developing their programs and their overall skating, in actuality, their focus is very obviously on the elements. They whip through their programs with lots of arm movements and counters and rockers, but what they’re really focused on is jumps and spins. The audience can sense the lack of connection between skater and music—even if the judges choose to ignore it.
So, the quest for technical perfection leads in many cases to artistically unsatisfying performances.
It also has another, almost worse effect: In some ways, it’s draining the joy out of skating.
Years ago, you might see a great champion like Kristi Yamaguchi or Todd Eldredge skate pretty well but make a few mistakes in their program. They’d shrug afterward and look a bit rueful. But they’d still be smiling when they took their bows and went to the kiss-n-cry. Because they knew that, all things considered, they’d still put out a good performance overall.
I feel like we don’t see that kind of reaction much anymore. This season, when the music has stopped, I feel like I’ve seen either total joy—if the skater landed every jump, like Elena Radionova—or something close to despair. I’ve seen so many performances this season from ladies who landed 5+ triples but still looked really upset when they’d finished. Because they knew they’d fallen short of perfection, and they’d pay a price. (Not to mention the saddened, crestfallen faces in the kiss-n-cry as the underrotation calls started rolling in.)
It’s not like I want skaters to be happy about making mistakes. But I also don’t want to see them destroyed or devastated by it, like Anna Pogorilaya was at the GP Final. Things have gotten to the point where anything less than perfect just doesn’t cut it. And that’s just a lot of pressure to put on anyone.
I feel like the pressure for perfection has affected fans, too. Some fans seem to expect outstanding performances every time skaters take the ice. And the emphasis on technical elements has affected how we experience programs. Do we even watch a spin anymore for simple enjoyment of how it expresses the music? Or are we just looking at it as an element: How fast is she spinning? How high is she holding her leg? I’m not saying we shouldn’t appreciate the technical difficulty of spins. And it’s fun to read and evaluate protocols–I enjoy it, too. Yet at the same time, I don’t want to lose sight of the simple beauty of skating, beyond the elements.
I’d feel more hopeful about the whole situation if the ISU showed any ability or willingness to make reforms within IJS. But I don’t see that. Instead, it seems like practically the only changes the ISU makes in the system are to rack up the difficulty and deductions. Has skating benefited in any way from the increased underrotation penalties this season? I’d argue it hasn’t.
As I was briefly looking through the IJS updates this spring, I had to shake my head at ISU Communication No. 1860, which announced a new difficult feature in twizzles: “Executing Twizzles with the head bent all the way back with the face to the ceiling.” Hmm, that’s difficult—but isn’t it also a tad bit dangerous? If I were an ice dancer, I don’t think I’d want to be twizzling while staring at the ceiling. The ISU did later release a correction, changing it to: “[Twizzles with] the head clearly bent off the vertical axis to the side, to the front, or to the back.” Well, at least you don’t have to look at the ceiling to get the feature. But seriously, why is this change necessary in the first place, and what does it really add?
Zakrajsek argues that the stringency and inherent harshness of the system discourages kids from competing. When kids don’t do well in lower-level competitions, and their protocols spell out exactly how far away they are from the desired level of competency/perfection—well, many choose to walk away from the sport rather than continue down an uncertain and difficult path. And I can’t argue that that decision doesn’t make sense.
I don’t like seeing so many unhappy, sad faces after performances. I don’t like seeing so many robotic, mechanical, uninteresting programs. I love competitive figure skating, but I feel like something needs to change. I think many others feel the same.
The product we have now—competitive skaters’ programs & performances—could be so much better. The IJS needs major reform, in my opinion. I would never want to see the sport return to 6.0. But there’s got to be a middle ground somewhere that will take us back in the direction we want to go: Toward skating that is technically accomplished–but also beautiful, memorable, and joyful.