Tokyo, Japan

 

For the second consecutive season, the ISU Junior and senior Grand Prix competition concludes with a combined Final, and once again it takes place in Asia, with Tokyo, Japan receiving hosting honors. Although the juniors and seniors do not compete against each other, the eight events (dance, ladies, men, and pairs) are mixed throughout this week’s schedule. The top six senior and top eight junior skaters/teams in each discipline qualify for the GPF, although injuries, illness, and other issues may call the alternate list into play.

Prize money is awarded to all competitors, with the senior gold medalists receiving $25,000, silver $18,000, and bronze $12,000. No team leaves with less than $3,000. Pairs and ice dance teams receive the same amount as their singles counterparts. However, at the junior level, the couples receive 50% more, but the dollar amounts are lower. Gold in juniors earns $6,000 for ladies and men, $9,000 for pairs and dance. Silver is worth $5,000/$7,500, bronze $4,000/$6,000 and continues down incrementally. Juniors also receive a participation bonus of $2,500.

The highly anticipated three-way battle for senior ice dance gold is not to be in Tokyo. Americans Meryl Davis & Charlie White and Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto and Canadians Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir each won two of the six qualifying events. Belbin & Agosto withdrew last week. First alternates Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski of Russia passed on the trip to Japan due to illness, so second alternates Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier of Canada will take their place. This is not the first time the ice dance field has been decimated. Last year only four teams actually finished the competition.

So the three-way battle is now a head-to-head fight for bragging rights (and that extra $7,000) between training partners Davis & White and Virtue & Moir. Both teams know what the other is capable of doing, as they see each other every day. Davis & White have the standout original dance of the season, while Virtue & Moir struggled through theirs at Skate Canada. Virtue has been wearing extra long skirts this season, so it will be interesting to see if she keeps up the trend that may be tripping her up, literally.

Davis & White have competed internationally three times this season; in addition to their Grand Prix events in Russia and Japan, they also took gold at Nebelhorn Trophy to kick things off. Virtue & Moir have had one international in Paris, and they wrapped up the GP series at home in Canada. Davis & White win the frequent flier mile award, but the top step on the podium is too close to call.

Aiming for that final medal–or the upset of the Grand Prix season–should be a fierce battle among the remaining teams. France’s Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat have the highest personal best score of the four teams and have previously competed at the Final (sixth in 2008), so on paper, that would make them the favorite. The other three teams are GPF rookies: Sinead Kerr & John Kerr of Great Britain, Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte of France, plus Crone & Poirier.

It’s exciting to have an event that’s too close to call, and the fact that the Grand Prix Final does not have a compulsory dance adds a bit of a twist. Plus where else could you see Johnny Cash vs. Bollywood as well as two very different interpretations of “Requiem for a Dream”?

The junior dance competition could have some unexpected results, as the three double-gold medalists at six of the JGP events won by margins that ranged from 12-23 points. None of these teams, however, have yet to face each other.

Reigning World Junior silver medalists Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani may not blow everyone away as some are expecting. They are superb skaters and freakishly consistent competitors whose only time off a podium was at last year’s Junior Grand Prix Final, where they placed fourth. To qualify for this year’s Final, they won Lake Placid and Croatia, and set the highest junior ice dance score of this year’s JGP with their 175.95 in Lake Placid.

Russian teams are not going to make things easy on the Americans. Ksenia Monko & Kirill Khaliavin have been on the JGP circuit for four seasons, but this is their first time making the Final, and they do so with two golds from their autumn events. They have the second-highest score, 173.15, earned in Turkey, and won their competition in Belarus by more than 15 points.

Elena Ilynikh & Nikita Katsalapov also won both their competitions (Hungary and Poland) by an average of about 20 points. Though 2009 was their first season on the JGP circuit, the duo skated together until 2005 before reuniting in the spring of 2008.

Ekaterina Pushkash & Jonathan Guerreiro competed at the JGPF last year, but with different partners, and finished fifth and third, respectively. They won gold in Germany and took second in Turkey to earn their spot in Tokyo.

Marina Antipova & Artem Kudashev are returning to the Final. Last year in Korea they were a late replacement and finished eighth. Canadians Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill have one of the best original dances–junior or senior–this season and can never be counted out. They also competed at last year’s JGPF and were sixth.

A pair of Final rookies round out the roster. Team Italy will be represented by Lorenza Alessandrini & Simone Vaturi who won silver in Germany and bronze in Hungary. Americans Isabella Cannuscio & Ian Lorello snagged the eighth qualifying spot to earn their trip to Japan after earning a pair of bronze medals in Poland and Turkey. The senior ice dancers compete Thursday and Friday, while the juniors go Saturday and Sunday. (Local time)