The 2007 Junior Grand Prix Final gets underway this week in Gdansk, Poland without the Canadian duo of Joanna Lenko & Mitchell Islam, who were forced to withdraw due to medical reasons. They have been replaced by Ukraine’s Alisa Agafanova & Dmitri Dun, who were first alternates.
Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates, one of only two teams in Gdansk who qualified for the JGP Final last season, look to improve upon their silver medal finish in 2006 by taking the gold in Gdansk. Samuelson and Bates won the first (Lake Placid) and third (Vienna) JGP events this season to qualify and have had nearly two months to prepare for this event. The team has used this time wisely.
“The long period of time between Vienna and the Final has given us the opportunity to consistently train and polish our programs,” Bates said. “We’ve been trying to improve our presentation and the relationship to one another, as well as many other aspects of our skating.”
The team’s highest score this season was at the Vienna Cup, where they set a new personal best of 171.84.
Their biggest challenge will most likely come from Maria Monko & Ilia Tkachenko of Russia. Monko & Tkachenko finished second to Samuelson & Bates at the Vienna Cup, but then scored 173.98 en route to a gold medal at the final JGP, the John Curry Memorial, in Sheffield, England. This is their first season on the JGP, although Tkachenko qualified for two previous Finals with former partner Anastasia Gorshkova.
Also in the mix for top spot on the podium will be Canada’s Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier, who racked up 169.04 in Zagreb while only winning the free dance portion of that event. In their third season on the JGP circuit, Crone and Poirier qualified for the Final by winning both of their events, the aforementioned Croatia plus Romania.
Kristina Gorshkova & Vitali Butikov of Russia are the only other team in this field who qualified for last year’s event, where they finished fourth. The team finished second to Crone & Poirier at Croatia Cup with 168.84, but did win the compulsory and original dance portions of that event. Gorshkova & Butikov also won the Blue Swords event in Germany, capturing firsts in each phase en route to a 10+ point victory over the other medallists.
If the scores from the JGP events are any indication, this ten-point gap between the top four and the rest of the field is possible in Gdansk. That said, it should be a close race among those lower-scoring teams as well.
Italy’s Isabella Pajardi & Stefano Caruso are in their third season on the JGP and finished third at Vienna Cup and first at Sofia Cup to earn the opportunity to compete in Poland. Their personal best is 155.36.
Russia’s Ekaterina Riazanova & John Guerreiro finished second at both of their events (Romania and Germany) to qualify. Their personal best is 153.72.
Madison Chock & Greg Zuerlein of the U.S. are in their first season on the JGP circuit and are probably the biggest surprise to make the Final. They swept all three dances in Estonia to win by six and a half points, and their 152.65 at Blue Swords earned them a bronze and a ticket to Poland.
As previously mentioned, Alisa Agafanova & Dmitri Dun are the first alternates for Final and are replacing Joanna Lenko & Mitchell. The team from Ukraine posted their highest score at the Blue Swords competition, 151.56.
Last year’s Junior Grand Prix Final champions, Madison & Keiffer Hubbell, were forced to miss this season’s circuit due to an injury to Keiffer’s hip. The siblings were able to compete at the U.S. Figure Skating Midwestern Sectional Championships in late November, debuting their programs and qualifying for nationals in St. Paul next month.