Junior level dance teams in Canada qualify for the Canadian Figure Skating Championships at the Skate Canada Eastern and Western Challenge events. Each section is allowed to send a maximum of four teams to their respective Challenge. In many sections, there are four or fewer teams, so a qualification at the sectional level is not always necessary. At Challenge, the top ten or top half, whichever number is larger, qualify for the Canadian Championships. Unlike the senior level, juniors are not seeded into a start order for the compulsory dance this year. Their Cha Cha Congelado start order was random, but, like the seniors, it was set several weeks before the start of the event.
This year, ten teams or fewer competed at each Challenge, so all junior dance teams qualified to skate in Vancouver. The close scores at the Challenges and the sheer number of teams that were given the opportunity to skate internationally this season have made this event almost impossible to predict.
The top two junior teams in Canada this year are arguably Karen Routhier & Eric Saucke-Lacelle and Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill. Both teams were given two assignments on the Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series, and not surprisingly, these teams were the top two finishers when they went head-to-head at the Eastern Challenge.
Routhier & Saucke-Lacelle are last year’s fourth-place finishers on the junior level, and with none of last year’s medalists competing again on this level, they are favorites for the podium. Their first Junior Grand Prix assignment, the Vienna Cup, resulted in an eighth-place finish. Normally, a Canadian team that finishes eighth would not be given a second event, but Skate Canada did allow Routhier & Saucke-Lacelle to compete again at the Sofia Cup. That time, they finished fifth. At the Eastern Challenge, they finished first in all portions of the competition and defeated Ralph & Hill by eight points. This secure victory may give them the edge heading into this week’s competition.
Ralph & Hill’s international experience was the opposite of Routhier & Saucke-Lacelle’s. With their fourth-place finish at the Junior Grand Prix event in Lake Placid, the 2007 Canadian novice champions earned a second assignment. Although their score at the John Curry Memorial in England was six points higher than their effort in Lake Placid, a deeper field meant a seventh place for the young team from the Toronto area. Though many expected a tight competition at Eastern Challenge between Ralph & Hill and Routhier & Saucke-Lacelle, Ralph & Hill finished a solid second in each event.
Sophie Knippel & Andrew Britten secured a victory in the Western Challenge with a score that fits between the top two teams in the East, but their victory was a bit surprising, giving their prior results. A new team this year, Knippel & Britten competed at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships (LPIDC) to earn their Junior Grand Prix assignment in Vienna, where they finished 12th . Since they train in Barrie, Ontario, they competed as guests at the Central Ontario Sectional, where they finished third. Just a month later, they improved on their sectional score by 15 points to win the Western Challenge. If they build on this momentum, they could certainly figure into the podium, something to which Knippel is no stranger. She won the bronze medal at this event last year with Matthew Doleman. Britten finished 13th on the novice level last year with Elyse Molnar.
The teams that finished second through sixth at the Western Challenge had total scores within five points of each other, and all of their scores were higher than the third-place team at the Eastern Challenge. Three of these five teams earned different rankings in all three portions of the competition, which sets up a very exciting week in Vancouver.
In this scramble to the podium at the Western Challenge, Sarah Arnold & Christopher Steeves won the silver medal on the strength of their free dance, which was ranked first. Arnold & Steeves finished fourth at the Central Ontario Sectional, their first competition together. Arnold has previously competed in singles, but this will be her first national championship. Steeves previously skated with Emily Young for eight years, and they were 14th on the junior level last year.
Maja Vermeulen & Andrew Doleman barely hung onto the third step of the podium at the Western Challenge, primarily on the strength of their compulsory dance. Vermeulen & Doleman’s effort at LPIDC this season resulted in an assignment to the Junior Grand Prix event in Germany, where they finished ninth. Last year, they were second at the Canadian Junior Championships on the novice level.
Less than three-tenths of a point behind them at the Western Challenge was the team of Tarrah Harvey & Keith Gagnon. This Vancouver-based team, with one of the longest-running partnerships in the field, has struggled with the compulsory dance this year, but they generally come back with strong original and free dances. They finished eighth this season at their first international competition, the Junior Grand Prix event in Croatia. After two 13th-place finishes in a row at the Canadian Championships as juniors, Harvey & Gagnon have a great chance to improve on their ranking in front of a home crowd.
Patricia Stuckey & Christopher Mior, a new international pairing, finished a strong fifth at the Western Challenge. They competed at LPIDC and the Central Ontario Summer Skate this season, and they finished second to Vermeulen & Doleman at the Western Ontario Sectional. Stuckey competed with Eric Field on the novice level last year in the United States, but they did not qualify for the U.S. Championships. Mior finished 12th at the Canadian Championships on the junior level last year with Krista Wolfenden.
In their second season together, Lindsey von Bloedau & Stefan Schneider have qualified for the first Canadian Championships with a close sixth-place finish at the Western Challenge. Von Bloedau & Schneider missed qualifying for last year’s Canadian Junior Championships on the novice level by one place, but their persistence this year has paid off.
Although their scores were noticeably lower than the comparably-ranked teams at the Western Challenge, the third through seventh place teams at the Eastern Challenge all have international experience this season. Their scores at the Eastern Challenge varied by less than five points.
Krista Wolfenden & Justin Trojek were at the top of that pack, winning the bronze medal. At this new team’s Junior Grand Prix assignment in Estonia, they finished ninth, but have not been able to match that 123-point score since then. Trojek finished 10th at this event last year with Marie-Joëlle Fournier.
Like Wolfenden & Trojek, Anna Stanislavka & Dylan Fieldhouse set their personal best at their international competition. They scored 125.06 and finished seventh at the Junior Grand Prix in Romania, but their fourth-place score at the Eastern Challenge was nearly ten points lower. Their strength this year has been the original dance, for which they have a flamenco-themed program. Stanislavska was sixth at this event last year with Michael Whitehead, while Fieldhouse and then-partner Ariane Emard-Lauzon withdrew from the event after a 15th -place original dance.
After finishing fourth in Canada on the novice level last year, Catherine St-Onge & Alexander Browne gave a successful performance at the LPIDC and were assigned to their first Junior Grand Prix event. They finished 14th at the John Curry Memorial in England. Their free dance, where the sleeves of their costumes create a yin-yang together, has been the highlight of their competitions this year, scoring well with both the judges and the audience.
Natalie Feigin & Jason Cusmariu have also enjoyed success in their transition to the junior level this year. Last year’s novice bronze medalists were awarded a Junior Grand Prix assignment in Bulgaria, where they finished thenth. Mistakes in the original dance at Western Challenge probably cost them several places, and they could finish well in Vancouver with clean programs.
Alexandra Nadeau & Charles-Edouard Bouthillette’s rough outing in the free dance at the Western Challenge set them back several rankings, but with solid performances this year, they should be able to improve on last year’s 11th-place finish at this event. In their second year on the Junior Grand Prix Series, they finished 14th in Germany.
Rounding out the field from the Challenge qualifiers are Tamiko Uyeda & Martin Nickel and Alicia & Thomas Williams from the Western Challenge, and Clara Gosselin & Sebastien Lapointe and Alissa Pettinicchi & Derek Green from the Eastern Challenge. Although Mélodie-Tara Tremblay & Jonathan Arcieri withdrew after the compulsory dance at the Eastern Challenge, they are permitted to skate at the Canadian Championships as the tenth team from the East. Helen Ramful & Justin Mohr did not skate at the Western Challenge, but since only eight teams competed, they will also skate in Vancouver.
The competition begins on Jan. 16 with the compulsory dance, followed by the original dance that afternoon. The free dance is on Jan. 17.