World Junior Championships – Sofia, Bulgaria
by Michelle Wojdyla // Katie Weigel contributed to this preview article.

The World Junior Championships get under way this week in Sofia, Bulgaria. Competition opens Tuesday with the Cha Cha Congelado compulsory dance. After a day off, the Country/Folk original dance takes place Thursday, followed by the free dance on Friday. Thirty-two teams from 23 countries will compete. Canada and Russia both have three teams entered. Five countries have two: Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, and the U.S. 

Team U.S.A. is comprised of 2008 U.S. junior champions, Madison Hubbell & Keiffer Hubbell, and the senior pewter medalists, Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates. Both teams left Obertsdorf, Germany (the site of the 2007 World Junior Championships) with results far below expectations. 

Samuelson & Bates, who were in second place heading into the free dance, were forced to withdraw after a severe injury to Samuelson. The team fell near the end of their free dance, and Bates accidentally stepped on Samuelson’s hand. The cut was deep and required surgery. They were not able to finish the competition. 

The Hubbells, World Championship rookies in Obertsdorf, took themselves out of medal contention after a fall in the CD left them in 12th. They had won the 2006 Junior Grand Prix title a few months earlier, but were unable to repeat the podium finishes of that fall’s season. 

This year, the Americans are ready to claim their spots on the World Junior podium. 

Samuelson & Bates had a successful Junior Grand Prix Series, winning both their events in Lake Placid and Austria and taking silver at the JGP Final. At the U.S. Championships last month in St. Paul, they competed as seniors for the first time, finishing fourth overall. Because the free dance length is different at the senior level, Samuelson & Bates had to add another 30 seconds of choreography at Nationals. It was in this new section that they took a tumble, but a strong Yankee Polka and OD earned them the pewter. Their original dance set to the traditional Russian folk song “Kalinka” and free dance to “Luna” by Alessandro Safina have been well-received by both the audience and judges this season and will likely put them in strong contention for the 2008 World Junior Championship title. 

The Winter Sports Hall in Sofia, Bulgaria, is an arena in which the Hubbells know how to win. They previously triumphed here at the 2006 JGP Final, taking gold to Samuelson & Bates’ silver. This familiarity may play a key role in the Hubbells’ international season debut. 

A hip injury to Keiffer kept the siblings from competing on the Junior Grand Prix circuit this past fall. Despite limited training, they were able to compete at the Midwestern Sectional Championships in November, finishing first and qualifying for Nationals. 

And then another setback: food poisoning for Keiffer the day before the free dance in St. Paul. 

The 19-year-old received intravenous fluids that allowed him to finish the competition. Despite Keiffer’s illness, the Hubbells skated an edgy free dance to “Hope” by Apocalyptica Cult and won the title. If they skate to their potential in Sofia, they could challenge for a world medal, possibly even gold. 

A pair of Russian dance teams will also be fighting for the highest step on the podium. 

Maria Monko & Ilia Tkachenko are 2-1 in international competition this season, having won both the Junior Grand Prix Final and the JGP in Great Britain. Their lone loss was at JGP Vienna, where they placed second to Samuelson & Bates. 

2008 marks Monko & Tkachenko’s second trip as a team to the World Junior Championship. They placed fifth last year. (Tkachenko won bronze with his previous partner, Anastasia Gorshkova, in 2005.) Surprisingly, the duo does not come to Sofia as the Russian National junior champions. A fall in their free dance to Karl Jenkins’ “Waltz of the Spirits” cost them the title by .59. 

Winners of that Russian junior title were Kristina Gorshkova & Vitali Butikov. They’ve had a strong season so far, with the full collection of Junior Grand Prix medals this fall: gold in Germany, silver in Croatia, and bronze at the Final. Gorshkova & Butikov’s free dance to Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is quite different from the other top competitors’ music, and they hope to improve upon their fourth place last year in Obertsdorf. 

In a pattern reminiscent of Samuelson & Bates, Canadians Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier are their country’s 2007 National Junior champions and placed fourth in 2008 as seniors. Also like their American counterparts, Crone & Poirier won both their JGP events (Romania and Croatia). This earned them their first trip to the JGP Final, where they placed fourth. Sofia marks the team’s second appearance at the World Junior Championships. Last year they were ninth, but this season have upped their technical difficulty. Their emotional tango free dance to “A Los Amigos” and their Romanian OD both received all level fours at Canadian Nationals last month in Vancouver. 

A North American sweep of the World Junior Championships dance podium has never been accomplished. In fact, you would have to go back to 1977—the second World Junior Championship—to find a podium that did not include at least one Soviet or Russian dance team. 

Will history be made in Sofia?