Reading, PA

The 2007 Grand Prix Series kicks off this week at Skate America in Reading, Pennsylvania. The last time this event was held in Reading was back in 2003, the first time the “code of points” judging system was used on the Grand Prix. Back then, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto captured their first of three consecutive victories, ahead of Ukrainians Elena Grushina & Ruslan Goncharov and France’s Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder.

Since the Grand Prix circuit was organized for the 1995 season, Skate America—always the first competition of the bunch—has had a waltz as the compulsory dance, save the 1995 Silver Samba. 2007 marks the third time the Austrian Waltz will have been used, joining the other three-timers, the Golden and Ravensburger. The Westminster has been used twice, most recently last year. The Viennese had its only Grand Prix in 1999.

Of the ten teams competing this year, eight are making return appearances to a Skate America. Only Meryl Davis & Charlie White and Cathy & Chris Reed are debuting.

Belbin and Agosto have the most Skate America experience of the roster, with five consecutive appearances between 2001 and 2005. Last year, they passed on the Hartford, Connecticut competition in favor of later events. The remaining seven teams have all competed at Skate America one time. Italians Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali and China’s Xiaoyang Yu & Chen Wang both were in Reading in 2003.

Returning for their second consecutive year are three teams, France’s Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat, Americans Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre, and Israel’s Alexandra & Roman Zaretski. Siblings Sasha and Roman Zaretski were eighth in Hartford. Navarro and Bommentre made their Grand Prix debut (as a team) with a sixth place finish. Pechalat and Bourzat put themselves on the map with their bronze medal. Her cottonball-adorned costume didn’t hurt.

The final two teams, Kristin Fraser & Igor Lukanin, who represent Azerbaijan, and Russia’s Ekaterina Rubleva & Ivan Shefer, have competed in 2002 and 2005, respectively.

Two of the three medallists from last year’s event are not competing in Reading, leaving Pechalat & Bourzat as the only team to potentially repeat as podium finishers. Belbin and Agosto are as close to a podium lock as one can get, with a very high probability of taking the gold for their fourth time. Skate America has been known for some surprising dance results in past years (1999, anyone?) and Davis & White could certainly shake things up. Faiella and Scali should never be counted out, as they have captured bronze at four of their last five Grand Prix events.

Fraser and Lukanin, together since 2000, are currently training at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., so no jet lag for them as it is only a two-hour drive to Reading. An added bonus is that the airline can’t lose their skates! Although they compete for Japan, the Reeds are also within driving range, and can skip the worry about flying issues. Skate America will be the first Grand Prix event ever for the 2006 U.S. novice ice dance champions. At the 2007 Four Continents Championships, the Reeds placed 13 points behind Navarro & Bommentre and 13 ahead of Yu & Wang.

The Zaretskis and Rubleva & Shefer last battled each other at the 2006 European Championships, with the Israelis besting the Russians by less than a quarter of a point. Rubleva & Shever were not able to compete on last season’s Grand Prix, as he was recovering from appendicitis. Together since 1994, their partnership length surpasses even Davis & White’s 11 years. The Belarusian-born Zaretskis also boast a partnership that began in the 90’s and also train in New Jersey.

Skate America sets the stage for the 2007-2008 skating season. It wouldn’t be ice dancing without some drama and surprises. In a few days, we’ll see what’s in store for this mid-Olympic-cycle year. Stay tuned.