Preview & Photo by Melanie Heaney
This week, the top skaters from the United States and Canada will face off at the pre-Olympic test event, the 2017 Four Continents Championships in Gangneung, South Korea. This should be one of the most exciting and competitive events of the season thus far, with four of this season’s Grand Prix Final qualifiers, along with two additional qualifiers from previous seasons. Although Canadians Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir are still expected to win, the rest of the competition could be anybody’s game.
Virtue & Moir seem to have settled back into their traditional role as the favorites, and displayed peak form at both December’s Grand Prix Final and last month’s Canadian Championships. Despite approaching 200 points at the Final and topping the benchmark at Canadians, Virtue & Moir have still not maxed out their levels this season and will certainly be watching their calls on the step sequences here as they prepare for the World Championships. If they skate without a major mistake, they are probably not beatable here, based on how the season has been going, but if they falter, a number of teams could leap through that open door. The Canadians will have a slight disadvantage, though—they will not skate in the final group for the short dance, since they have not yet built up enough world standing points after their two-year furlough from competition.
The two-time and reigning U.S. champions, Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani, also cleared 200 points at their national event last month, but they were bested in the free dance by Madison Chock & Evan Bates, who have been chasing the sibling duo since they lost their national title in 2016. The Shibutanis were a solid third at the Final in December, and Chock & Bates were sixth, after a freak fall in the short dance put them out of the running for medals. At U.S. Nationals last month, though, Chock & Bates looked very sharp and refocused, especially in their free dance, which really highlights their strengths and was one of the performance highlights of the event. Both teams have momentum heading into this event, and it will be fascinating to see which team comes out on top.
Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, the third U.S. entry, were fifth at the Grand Prix Final, just ahead of Chock & Bates. However, at the U.S. Championships, when Chock & Bates skated much better, Hubbell & Donohue were over 7 points behind them, finishing with the bronze medal. They have made big strides over the past two seasons, but are probably still a notch behind the top teams in the field.
The two remaining Canadian entries, Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje and Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier, both faced tough fields and a bit of bad luck on the Grand Prix Series this season, eliminating them from the Final, but they are both still serious contenders in this field. Weaver & Poje looked quite strong at Canadians, especially in the free dance, which shows off their speed and mature performance quality. Gilles & Poirier have a set of diverse yet equally entertaining programs and were right on Weaver & Poje’s heels last month at Canadians.
Beyond the top six competitors, this year’s Four Continents roster is one of the largest, with three entries from China and Australia and two from South Korea and Japan.
Japan’s Kana Muramoto & Chris Reed, South Korea’s Yura Min & Alexander Gamelin, and China’s Shiyue Wang & Xinyu Liu are three teams to watch outside the North Americans. All three teams have personal best scores between 149 and 152 points. Muramoto & Reed were seventh at this event last year and 15th at the 2016 World Championships. Min & Gamelin were eighth at Four Continents last year and are heading to their first World Championships next month. Wang & Liu were ninth at this event last year and 22nd at Worlds last year. All three teams will be looking to qualify an Olympic spot for their countries next month at Worlds.
This exciting event at the 2018 Olympic venue kicks off on Thursday morning with the short dance (Wednesday night in North America). The dancers will wrap up their competition with the free dance on Friday afternoon.