Nagano, Japan

This year, NHK Trophy is the fourth event in the ISU Grand Prix Series. Nagano, Japan, best known in the figure skating world as the site of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games and the 2002 World Figure Skating Championships, plays host for this competition. The venue this time will be Big Hat, which differs from the Olympics (White Ring) and the World Championships (M-Wave).

Fresh off of a record-setting victory at Rostelecom Cup two weeks ago in Moscow, Russia that saw them crush their closest competition by 32.53 points (the largest winning margin in the history of the Grand Prix for ice dance), Americans Meryl Davis & Charlie White are the overwhelming favorites for gold in Japan. In Russia, they set new personal bests in the compulsory dance, free dance, and overall, and only missed their best original dance score by 0.39 points.

Davis & White, last year’s fourth-place finishers at the World Championships in Los Angeles and the reigning U.S. champions, are steadily building momentum in this season that will likely include their first Olympic Games. Another victory here would qualify them for their second Grand Prix Final and would add fuel to what is already shaping up to be an exciting race for the U.S. dance title in January.

British champions Sinead Kerr & John Kerr won their third consecutive Grand Prix bronze medal at Trophée Eric Bompard three weeks ago in Paris, France and have a chance to move up a step on the podium this week. Although they did not skate without mistakes, their programs were well received. In Paris, they were one of three teams with an American country/western-themed original dance, but this time around, they will be the only cowboys in the field.

Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier may not have matched the success of their silver-medal-winning Grand Prix debut last year at Skate Canada when they finished fourth at Rostelecom Cup two weeks ago, but their performance was still quite an achievement. Poirier was battling a stomach bug on the day of the free dance and Crone had to practice alone that morning. It was unclear whether he would be able to compete, but plenty of determination, good training, and the strength of an eight-year partnership got the young team through the challenge. Despite the illness, Crone & Poirier had a respectable season debut in Russia, but it will be interesting to see what they can do with good health.

Anna Zadorozhniuk & Sergei Verbillo of Ukraine are competing in their second consecutive Grand Prix event. Last week, they finished fourth at Cup of China and skated well, although they were about seven points off the personal best that they set back at the 2008 European Championships. Their score of 158.09 was just above the 157.00 that Crone & Poirier scored in Russia the previous week, so it is possible that these two teams will be battling for the bronze medal. An advantage may lie with the Canadians in the compulsory dance. Crone & Poirier competed the Tango Romantica in Russia and will skate it again here in Japan. Last week, Zadorozhniuk & Verbillo faced the Golden Waltz. But possibly a bigger advantage may be the 14 hour time difference the Canadians face, versus the two the Russians hop from Beijing.

The only other team in Nagano competing in back-to-back weeks is Xintong Huang & Xun Zheng from China. The duo placed seventh overall competing at home, highlighted by a fifth-place OD, earning a few points more than at Nebelhorn Trophy back in September.

Right behind Huang & Zheng in Oberstdorf were the young Czechs Lucie Mysliveckova & Matej Novak. After Nebelhorn, Mysliveckova & Novak hit the Grand Prix and were seventh at Cup of Russia, just over 10 points behind Crone & Poirier.

While six of the teams competing this week have been assigned NHK as their second Grand Prix event of the season, Nagano marks the first stop for four of the teams, although they all have previous experience on the GP circuit.

Jane Summersett & Todd Gilles will join Davis & White on Team USA for their only Grand Prix event of the year. The past few months have been a roller coaster for Summersett & Gilles. An injury hampered their choreography and preparation for the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, and they were only able to show their classic rock free dance. A coaching change and a move from Colorado to Detroit followed in September. A few weeks later, the duo competed at Finlandia Trophy, where a fall on the midline step sequence in the original dance cost them dearly and they finished the competition in fifth place.

Gilles has previously competed at NHK Trophy in Nagano. When the competition was held here back in 2006, he and former partner Trina Pratt finished seventh behind Ukrainians Zadorozhniuk & Verbillo, who were sixth. Davis & White were fourth. They are the only five skaters making the return appearance.

Since making the jump to the senior level, 2007 World Junior Champions Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev from Moscow have struggled to emerge from the pack of strong Russian dance teams. In their four previous Grand Prix events, they have consistently placed in the fourth-to-sixth range. Bobrova & Soloviev’s personal best score of 164.72, which they earned at the 2008 World Championships in Göteborg, Sweden, would have been enough to finish on the podium at Rostelecom Cup this year, so a medal is not out of reach in Nagano.

Canada’s second entry is Allie Hann-McCurdy & Michael Coreno. The perky Canadians had a strong 2007-2008, when they won a bronze medal at the Canadian Championships, but they could not seem to please the judges last season. After failing to make the national team, they left Canada and headed to Canton, Michigan, to train with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva. They looked impressive at LPIDC, winning the original dance and the Open Tango Romantica. With ninth-place finishes at both of their Grand Prix events last season, they are hoping that a fresh perspective can help them climb in the rankings.

Last but certainly not least, Japan’s home team of Cathy Reed & Chris Reed has struggled with injuries in past seasons, and NHK Trophy is their only scheduled Grand Prix event. Last year, they had a slow start that included an eighth-place finish at this event and a withdrawal from the Four Continents Championships. However, their season ended on a high note when they finished 16th at the World Championships, just behind Zadorozhniuk & Verbillo, and secured a spot at the Vancouver Olympics. Their Japanese folk original dance is sure to be a hit with the home crowd.

The competition schedule is a little friendlier to the ice dancers in Nagano. They get three days for their events, rather than having it all crammed into two. The compulsory dance kicks off NHK Trophy at 2:25 p.m. local time on Friday. The OD leads the day’s events on Saturday and the free dance concludes the event on Sunday.