Torino, Italy

This weekend in Torino, Italy, the world’s top figure skaters will compete in the 2007 Grand Prix Final, with six dance teams fighting it out. Unlike every other event of the season, the Grand Prix Final will not have a compulsory dance section. This means that teams who traditionally excel in the compulsories will have to come out strong in the original dance in order to build momentum going into the free dance. Likewise, teams who have weaknesses in the compulsories may find themselves in a better position to medal here.

Two teams who have qualified for this year’s final have won two grand prix titles this season. France’s Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder captured the gold at both Trophee Eric Bompard and NHK Trophy. Americans Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto topped the podium at Skate America and Cup of China. Even though the Americans and French may be ahead of the others by way of medal count, their competitors have posted personal best scores all season that will no doubt challenge Belbin & Agosto and Delobel & Schoenfelder for the top spot this weekend.

Russia, an ever-present powerhouse in ice dancing, will be represented by two talented teams in Torino. This year’s Cup of Russia champions, Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin, will be skating a traditional Ukrainian folk dance OD that has been warmly received by the judges this fall. A strong OD will put them in medal contention going into the free dance, where they are skating to “Masquerade Waltz.” A glitch on a spin during their free dance at Cup of China knocked them down to third in that portion of the competition. Although they had placed first going into the free, they wound up placing second overall behind Belbin & Agosto. 

Russia’s second team, Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski, may very well have one of the most exciting free dances of the year. Set to the music of “A Night on Bald Mountain” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” their free dance is innovative, daring, and athletic.  They came in second at Trophee Eric Bompard with a personal best score of 191.01. Competing against this year’s top teams in Torino, they will want to post a stronger score in the original dance in order to be in reach of the podium.

Like Russia, France is also sending two teams to compete in Torino. Veterans Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder have posted strong scores all season in the compulsory dances as well as in their French country dance OD. Their weakness this season has been in their free dance, skated to Michael Nyman’s breathtaking score of “The Piano.”  Isabelle & Olivier have had problems attaining level fours on some of their elements, which have hurt their overall score. If they can hit all of their planned elements, their free dance could propel them to the top of the podium at Torino. 

Another French team, Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat, have garnered new fans this season with their eclectic free dance to “Organ Donor” and “Space Monkeys.” Pechalat & Bourzat placed second at both Skate America and Cup of Russia.  Their original dance, set to Flamenco music, is also a chorographical highlight this season.

Veterans on the international scene, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto have shown judges and fans alike that their hard effort since the World Championships in Tokyo has paid off. With a tough 2006-2007 season behind them, Belbin & Agosto are ready to return to the Olympic city in which they captured the silver medal in 2006. This year’s OD is to an Appalachian hoedown and is both intricate and entertaining. Their free dance to selections by Frederic Chopin is elegantly interpreted and filled with difficult and innovative elements. With the compulsory dance usually being their lowest-scoring portion of the competition, Belbin & Agosto will likely benefit from its absence at the Grand Prix Final.

Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir of Canada won their first Grand Prix title in front of a home crowd at this year’s Skate Canada. They placed second to Delobel & Schoenfelder at NHK Trophy, but their romantic performance to “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” won them the free skate in Sendai and will likely bolster their placement in Torino. The youngest team in the competition, Virtue & Moir already exhibit maturity beyond their years. Despite winning both the original dance and free dance at NHK, they were forced to settle for silver behind Delobel & Schoenfelder because the Canadians could not overcome the deficit from the compulsory dance. With the Grand Prix Final eliminating the compulsory dance, Virtue & Moir will be no doubt be in the hunt for a medal here and should be top contenders at the 2008 World Championships.