Last weekend I traveled to Lake Placid, NY for Skate America. I was officially accredited to cover the event for Russian sports daily sovsport.ru – but could not leave my blog followers without these highlights!
Skate America was sixth and last event in 2017 ISU Grand Prix of figure skating series – and it finalized the list of best (6 in each disciples) skaters for the Grand Prix Fnal in Japan next weekend (scroll down for the list of finalists at the end of the article). Here are my first-hand take-aways from this event representing a beautiful and dramatic fusion of art and sport that is figure skating.
Lake Placid is forever the Olympic town with rich sports history – and it continues being a part of sport history by holding international competitions in different sports year-round. The audience at Skate America was quite special, jumping to their feet and celebrating each breath-taking performance, regardless of the country of origin of the performer. Among the skaters of several countries who told the press about the magical effect of Lake Placid, were the Shibutani siblings of U.S. (first in dance competition), Canadian pair Duamel/Redford (third in pairs event) and Russian skater Sergey Voronov (third in men’s single skating).
You Might be Only Able to Do it Once- When it Matters the Most
Despite supportive audience and the best intention of skaters, ice is slippery and things go wrong. And they did – during the free program – for 18-year old Nathan Chen (2017 U.S. Champion) – known as first (and only) man who landed all 5 quadruple jumps (the “quads”) in one program in competition. Nathan has been having issues with his blade here- which he overcame using a different jumping technique in his short program- but in his long program, where he had five quads planned, he ended up “only” attempting four and landing two (albeit the most difficult ones- the lutzes).
“It is not just the blade,” said his coach Rafael Aruthunyan. “There are a lot of issues, which I don’t really want to discuss – we are working on them….I hope at the right time at the right place he will be in the right condition… To successfully do the program he is planning with all its elements is very difficult, you cannot expect him to do it each time. If he can do it at least once but at the right time- this is our goal!”.
It was not a perfect free skate, but enough to keep Chen in the Grand Prix Final (in Japan next weekend).
You Have to Be Ready for Anything
I asked Nathan in the mixed zone, what goes through his mind when he makes a mistake. “I have to think fast how to save the program and add all the required elements”, he said. Nathan can think fast, after all, he is applying to Harvard and Stanford for next year.
Men’s free skate was the most dramatic event at Skate America. After Daniel Samohin of Israel dislocated his shoulder during the fall and withdrew, the scoring system’s glitch added to the wait before the 30-year old Russian skater Voronov (hoping to make the Olympic team in his third attempt) was allowed to perform. “An additional wait time is very difficult, but he is an experienced skater, he was able to push through it,» said his coach Inna Goncharenko.
When 28-year old American skater Adam Rippon took the ice to perform, the judges asked him to …collect the bugs spread all over the ice. His shoulder “popped” after his first jump, but Adam told the reporters that he was able to “fix” it and continue: “I have a lot of experience. I have a goal and I’m focused, and literally nothing is going to get in my way. I’m ready for anything […] you can throw rocks and bricks and put bugs on the ice – it doesn’t matter. I’m going to do my job and I’m going to go out there. I’m a fighter and I’m a warrior.”
2015 and 2016 World Champion Canadian Megan Duhamel (in pairs, with Eric Redford) did not allow her mistake on a triple lutz in the beginning of the program to cause the whole problem to unravel: “we were coming around the corner into the quad and I mentally refused myself to let the program unravel because I know how well trained we are and I refused this mistake to define our performance. “ The secret, according to Megan, is to train to refocus after mistakes.
You Need Your Teammate To Push You
Another secret is having your strong teammates to push you to do better. Adam and Nathan train together in California under Aruthunyan. “ Nathan and I have been skating together for 5 years now, – said Adam. – He was really young kid; watching him come through the ranks is inspiring, he is pushes me everyday; there is competition going on every day…we are pushing each other to new heights.”
Voronov’s coach Inna Goncharenko commented that “it is difficult to train strong single skaters -who each requires individual attention- at the same time…. But, it is necessary. When somebody is training next to you and pushing forward, it helps you to move forward as well.”
The Newcomer Takes it All
The debut of a 19-year old American Bradie Tennell who took bronze in ladies’ skating (with the highest international score by a U.S. woman this season (204.10) was a welcome break after another American lady – 26-year old Ashley Wagner, who had a shot at making the Gran Prix Final if she had placed first or second, withdrew for medical reasons.
Artistry vs. Jumps?
An increase in technical difficulty, especially in men’s programs which may now include as many as six quadruple jumps, adds a huge challenge to choreography. “Is it even possible to focus on artistry when you have to perform so many quad jumps?“ I asked Marina Zueva, coach and choreographer of Olympic champions ice dancers Maryl Davis/Charlie White and Skate America winners Alex/Maia Shibutani:
“This is very new. It is a new experience for the choreographers to create programs with six quad jumps in it…All of us who work on these programs are doing it for the first time. It is a challenge and an experiment, and a hard work of the mind. You need less of a creative inspiration and more of a skill and knowledge…but inspiration still has to be there of course.”
One of Marina’s pupils, Canadian Patrick Chan (2014 Olympics silver medalist) is considered “the best skater” of his generation. “He is unique and his skating is unique. Nobody comes close,” says Marina. Patrick is in fact struggling with the quad jumps. He is currently taking time off from Grand Prix to refocus and rethink the rest of the season.
Another very talented skater artistically- Misha Ge– who is representing Uzbekistan – has not attempted quadruple jumps in his recent Grand Prix performance in France where he earned bronze medal, his first Grand Prix medal. Misha is thinking about transitioning into a role of coach-choreographer after this season, a role he is trying at Skate America with the coaching group of Inna Goncharenko. Misha has choreographed 19 competition and show programs for other skaters this season, while he is still competing himself. He has been choreographing for 2015 World Champion Elizaveta Tuktamusheva, 2016 World bronze medalist Anna Pogorilaya, European medalists Sergei Voronov, Maxim Kovtun and Elena Radionova (all-of Russia), Kevin Reynolds of Canada, Elizaveta Tursunbaeva of Uzbekistan and Gracie Gold of the U.S. (Gracie is taking this season off).
Enjoy the Ride
“If you’re 28 and you’re still skating and you’re not having fun, girl, get out of Lake Placid,” said ever dramatic Adam Rippon. “I had a lot of fun, and that’s why I still train and I still compete and I still love being out here.”
Pairs skater Aljona Savchenko, two-time Olympic medalist, 34, who is getting ready for her fifth Olympics (representing Germany with hew new partner Bruno Massot) says she is enjoying every moment of the process. It was widely believed that Aljona chose to stay in sport with the new partner after Sochi to win the gold in 2018.
“Will you be happy with any medal, or just the Gold?” I ask her about the upcoming Olympics.
“I am not thinking about it yet. First, we have to get there. I am enjoying every step”.