Paris, France

The same weekend that concludes the ISU Junior Grand Prix series marks the opening for the seniors. Unlike past seasons when the series would kick off with Skate America, this year the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating starts in Paris, France with the Trophée Eric Bompard Cachemire at the Palais Omnisport de Bercy. Competition begins Friday with the Golden Waltz. Skaters will compete for medals, prize money, and points for qualification in December’s Grand Prix Final. And since this is an Olympic season, every competition feels like it has more weight than usual. 

Ten teams are schedule to battle it out for the ice dance podium, and the field is led by two-time world medalists Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir of Canada. As the only team in the field to have won world medals (silver in 2008 and bronze in 2009) and an ISU championship title (2008 Four Continents), the two-time and reigning Canadian champions are faced with high expectations in Paris. Virtue & Moir missed last year’s Grand Prix when Virtue had surgery on her legs for chronic exertion compartment syndrome and returned to competition before she had fully recovered. Reportedly injury-free now, they debuted their free dance, set to the “Adagio” from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, to rave reviews at Central Ontario Summer Skate in August. While their strength has always been in the free dance, they may face an even greater challenge in the first segment this week; the young duo has never competed the Golden Waltz, thought to be the most difficult of all the compulsory dances. 

The French fans have never shied away from vocal support of the home team, so reigning French national champions Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat are in for a wild weekend. Last year they had their best season to date, highlighted by two medals on the Grand Prix, a close fourth-place finish at the European Championships, and fifth at the World Championships. They moved to Moscow last year to train full-time under Alexander Zhulin, a move that has been praised in light of the improvements they have made to their technique. The French entertainers have quite an original dance, as they plan to take on American country music this season — a move that could either be a huge success or a fantastic flop. Allez Dolly Parton? 

Six-time British champions Sinead Kerr & John Kerr had a breakthrough last season, winning their first two medals on the Grand Prix (including a bronze medal at this event), as well as a bronze medal at the European Championships. They have already competed internationally this year and kicked off their Olympic season with a victory at Finlandia Trophy last week. With a chance to train for a few days in between events, it will be interesting to see if they have made any changes to their programs, based on judges’ feedback that dinged them on extended lifts and multiple level 2s and 3s. Like Pechalat & Bourzat, the Kerrs are also using American country for their original dance, taking on Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” 

While there are three frontrunners for podium finishes, the Grand Prix proves every year that it is a perfect setting for up-and-comers to make their moves. Americans Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates have never beaten Virtue & Moir, the Kerrs, or Pechalat & Bourzat in competition before, but they did win a bronze medal last year at NHK Trophy during their first year competing as seniors. Their bronze medal at the Four Continents Championships last year and a respectable 11th-place finish at their first World Championships mean that the 2008 World Junior Champions are entering this event with an ISU ranking that is second in the field. The team has been criticized in the past for their technically proficient but dramatically bland free dances, but they are an extremely consistent team — always strong in compulsories — and should not be counted out. Look for them to continue the American country theme with a Dixie Chicks medley OD. 

New international seniors Madison Hubbell & Keiffer Hubbell train with Samuelson & Bates in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and will be accompanying them at Trophée Eric Bompard this year. After three successful seasons on the JGP, this will be their Senior Grand Prix debut. The reigning U.S. senior pewter medalists are known for attempting very difficult programs, but have been prone to mistakes in the past, especially when the pressure is high. This season they are rocking out to a Lenny Kravitz medley for their free dance after making a 180 from their Ukrainian folk OD. 

Rounding out Team USA are Kim Navarro & Brent Bommentre. After a disappointing ’08-’09, Navarro & Bommentre got an early jump on the Olympic season, competing in the free dance at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, which they easily won. Their emotional free dance to “One” by U2 and Mary J. Blige was described as “four minutes of two powerful dancers soaring across the ice, embracing the music, reaching out to the audience, and drawing us into their love for this sport. The music fill[ed] the arena, [a] look of joy and freedom on Kim’s face as Brent raises her up into a lift that flies down the center of the ice”. Navarro & Bommentre had one of the best-received ODs last time folk was the theme, and their Brazilian-Afroshay dance takes the best of ’06-’07 and pushes it to the next level for this season’s original dance. 

Like Samuelson & Bates, Russia’s Kristina Gorshkova & Vitali Butikov are another team beginning their second season as seniors after some success during their debut senior season. While Gorshkova & Butikov did not medal on the Grand Prix last year, they came within two points of the podium at both Skate Canada, where they beat Navarro & Bommentre, and NHK Trophy, where they barely lost the bronze medal to Samuelson & Bates. Gorshkova & Butikov have actually been longtime rivals of Samuelson & Bates. The two teams have faced each other six times and the results have generally been quite close. However, the only time that Gorshkova & Butikov beat Samuelson & Bates was at their first meeting — at the JGP in Slovakia in 2005. 

Ekaterina Rubleva & Ivan Shefer, also from Russia, have the distinction of being the oldest partnership in the field — they have skated together for 15 years (an impressive feat with a roster that boats Virtue & Moir, who have been together since 1997, Gorshkova & Butikov (1999), Pechalat & Bourzat, Samuelson & Bates, and the Kerrs (2000), and the Hubbells (2001)). This is their fourth season on the Grand Prix, and their best result thus far was a sixth-place finish at Skate America last year. Rubleva & Shefer won the silver medal at the Russian National Championships last year ahead of Gorshkova & Butikov, which earned them a trip to the European Championships. They finished eighth there, and went on to close their season at the Winter Universiade, where they won the silver. 

In addition to Pechalat & Bourzat, France is also sending two more teams. Zoe Blanc & Pierre-Loup Bouquet are entering their third season on the Grand Prix and are also appearing at Trophée Eric Bompard for the third time. They finished ninth at this event last year and 19th at the 2009 World Championships. 

Pernelle Carron & Lloyd Jones are a new team (the next “newest” team is Navarro & Bommentre, who got together in 2005), skating in their first international event. Carron won a bronze medal on the Grand Prix in 2007 with former partner Mathieu Jost and also finished ninth at the 2009 World Championships. Jones previously skated for Great Britain; he went to the 2007 World Junior Championships with Leigh Rogers and finished 17th. Carron & Jones have been skating together since April. 

The dancers tackle the intricate Golden Waltz on Friday afternoon. The original dance is scheduled for Friday evening and then the free dance will close the competition on Saturday night.