by Melanie Hoyt

For the first time since the beginning of the Eastern and Western Challenge events were introduced, senior competitors had to qualify through the 2008 BMO Skate Canada Senior Challenge. In the dance event, fifteen teams will skate at the 2008 BMO Canadian Championships in January. After byes were given to five teams, ten spots were available to the thirteen teams competing in Mississauga this weekend.

Less than two points separated the top four teams after the original dances, so the fight for the medals was on. In the end, Siobhan Karam & Kevin O’Keefe, a new international pairing this year, won the event by .52, although their free dance to music from Notre Dame de Paris was ranked a close second. Since their début at the Central Ontario Summer Skate in August, Karam & O’Keefe have improved their ice coverage and have achieved a more closely matched line. Their smooth program opened with an impressive serpentine lift where O’Keefe holds Karam in an arch over the backs of his shoulders, before they change to a completely different position. This lift was awarded +2 GOE by two of the seven judges and +1 by the other five. O’Keefe stumbled out of the twizzles early, which cost them two levels, was the only noticeable error in a solid program. Overall, it was a solid and secure dance, but they can aim to skate it with even more speed and more passion next month.

Although Mylène Girard & Liam Dougherty did not win the entire event, their first place free dance certainly won over the crowd. Scoring 80.11 points for their program to “The Mission,” it was arguably low levels of difficulty that cost them the title. Their circular step sequence and their spin earned only level twos due to mistakes, which contributed to a base value that was lower than Karam & O’Keefe’s. However, their program was spellbinding and their presentation was emotional. Their twizzles were extremely well done. One drawback is that while the subtle choreography matches the music, it may be too subtle to make a big splash at the Canadian Championships as a new team. Still, they appear to be well matched and, along with Karam & O’Keefe, both teams made a statement that they are prepared to fight for the podium at the Canadian Championships.

Lauren Senft & Augie Hill are another new team that arose from an international partnership. Although he was without a partner, Hill moved to train in Canton, Michigan. When Senft was looking for a partner in early summer, the two decided to skate together. Their début at the Central Ontario Summer Skate garnered a lot of talk, but since Hill cannot obtain a release from U.S. Figure Skating until next year, they could not compete internationally this fall. Their performance to music from Chicago was confident, error-free, and a lot of fun for the audience, but they lacked the flow of the top two teams, contributing to their third place ranking.

Only about a point off of the podium were Mylène Lamoreux & Michael Mee, the only veteran team in the top four. Skating to Josh Groban’s rendition of Nino Rota’s Romeo & Juliet, Lamoreux & Mee were secure, for the most part. Their soft opening made more of an impact than the powerful second half, since their skating did not quite match the power of the music. Elements of hesitation in their performance will need to be ironed out before the Canadian Championships, but overall, they are looking well-trained and ready to match or better their ninth place national ranking from last year.

Bethany Puttkemery & Kevin Gallagher’s confident and sassy free dance beat Lamoreux & Mee’s score by .03, but they remained in fifth place overall.  They skated to a medley of jazz music, including “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” Unison breaks on the twizzles were their only major mistakes. The rest of the program was extremely sharp and polished with good ice coverage. Both partners have skated on the senior level at the Canadian Championships, but this is their first season skating together.

After a gap had distanced them from the top of the field in the compulsory and original dances, Andrea Chong & Guillaume Gfeller came back in the free dance to score 74.64 points, on their way to a sixth place finish. The twizzles gave them problems. Gfeller lost his balance and touched the ice after them, resulting in negative GOE, but they still earned a level four for this element. Even with the mistake, they exhibited an impressive level of connection, especially for a new team, and sold the bluesy presentation of “This is a Man’s World.”

Although they were fifth entering the free dance, Christina Bourgeois & Jonathan Pelletier’s seventh place free dance dropped them to seventh place overall. There were some good choreographic highlights in their program to “The Angel and the Devil,” but they did not appear to be quite comfortable with it. Along with some random stumbles on connecting steps, Bourgeois also stumbled in the midline step sequence, which only earned a level one. Still, they were very into the performance and they showed promise.

Lisa Johnson & Joseph Scott earned 62.72 points with their eighth place free dance to music from Schindler’s List, which placed them eighth overall. The exuberant jig in the middle of an otherwise emotional program seems out of place, but they skated this section with good energy. Overall, the performance did not seem confident, since they looked shaky on several elements, including the circular step sequence and the rotational lift. Their nice edges and smooth sections of choreography indicate that they are capable of a much better performance and will aim for improvement at the Canadian Championships.

Megan Wilson & Garett Goodman’s entertaining free dance was ranked tenth in this segment of the competition, and their effort was enough to finish ninth overall. The first half of the program is to an orchestral selection, but at the midpoint, it changes abruptly to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The audience laughed and applauded at the effective surprise. Seemingly better suited to skate to music like “Thriller,” Wilson & Goodman skated with good speed and expression in the second half of their program. Their lifts were not quite solid and they had some problems on the twizzles, but it was obvious that they were committed to giving a performance that did not hold back.

Thanks to their ninth place free dance to music from The Mission, the team of Claire Tannett and Wendell McGrath earned the final spot at the Canadian Championships. After finishing eighth on the novice level at the 2007 BMO Financial Group Skate Canada Junior Nationals, the 23-year old McGrath and his 20-year-old partner chose to jump to the senior level this season. Although they did not have complicated steps between the elements, their clean, smooth performance earned them a trip to Vancouver next month.

Less than four points away from a trip to Nationals, Rebecca Fowler & Michael Olson finished a disappointing eleventh overall. This new team brought mixed experience to Mississauga. Although Olson has skated at this level before, Fowler had only previously competed on the StarSkate (recreational) track. Their selection of Irish music proved to be a good choice for them, as they looked like they were really enjoying the performance. The highlight of their program was an excellent lift with Olson in an Ina Bauer position. They did not make any major mistakes, but with a majority of level two and three elements, their base value held them back. They appear to have a good foundation, though, and with higher levels, could make a great case at next year’s Senior Challenge to qualify for the Canadian Championships in 2009.

Natalie Rithaler & Denis Kondrashin finished twelfth overall after placing thirteenth in the free dance. Their effort to qualify for the Canadian Championships was also hindered by their base value. Two of their elements, the midline step sequence and their final serpentine lift, were only given a level one. Overall, their performance appeared flat, as if they had already come to terms with missing out on the top ten. Rithaler did hit some nice positions in the lifts, though, and the curve lift at the beginning of their program was particularly strong.

Audrey Dupont & Pier-Luc Paquet, the thirteenth-place finishers, were another team who made the jump from novice. Last year, they did not even qualify for the 2007 BMO Financial Group Skate Canada Eastern Challenge as novices, so just competing in the Senior Challenge this year was a huge step for them. Although they did not have the difficulty or polish of the top competitors, their program to Vanessa-Mae’s “Happy Valley” was well-choreographed and featured interesting highlights and transitions. What they lacked in technique, they made up for in energy, and they gave a good performance of their free dance overall.

The top ten finishers will compete at the Canadian Championships in Vancouver from January 16-20, 2008. In addition to competing to qualify for the event, the senior teams were also fighting for start order in the compulsory dance. The qualifiers from the Senior Challenge will skate in reverse order at the Canadian Championships, followed by the teams that earned byes.