Sofia, Bulgaria

Thirty-three teams representing 24 countries will take the ice this week in Sofia, Bulgaria for the 2009 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. Though the championships were originally to be hosted in Ostrava, Czech Republic, the ISU reassigned the event to Sofia this fall. The city successfully hosted the 2008 World Junior Championships and eagerly stepped in to tackle the 2009 event. This will be the third time since 2001 that Sofia has served as host to the ISU’s most prestigious event for juniors. Bulgarian Skating Federation president Albena Denkova and her organizing committee have no doubt created a fantastic environment for the athletes competing at the Winter Sports Hall this week. 

All of the medalists from the 2008 event have moved on to the senior level, leaving the door open for a new slate of competitors to capture gold, silver, and bronze in Sofia. All of the teams who competed at the JGP Final in December will compete here. 

Siblings Madison & Keiffer Hubbell of the U.S., who finished fifth in 2008, will make their third appearance at the World Junior Championships. Sofia holds special memories for the team as they return to the site of their first ISU championships win, the 2006 Junior Grand Prix Final. Though the Hubbells fell to sixth in the original dance at the 2008 JGP Final, the team came back in the free dance to capture the silver medal. In their senior debut at the 2009 U.S. Championships in January, they finished fourth with three strong performances and appear to be in top form heading into this event. 

Russia’s Ekaterina Riazanova & Jonathan Guerreiro are competing in their second World Junior Championships. They finished sixth in 2008 and, in December, won the bronze at the 2008 JGP Final. Riazanova & Guerreiro head to Bulgaria having recently won the Russian junior ice dancing title. This dynamic team has one of the more entertaining original dances of the field and improvements to their free dance should have them in medal contention this week. 

Americans Madison Chock & Greg Zuerlein, the 2008 JGP Final champions, will make their World Junior Championships debut in Bulgaria. The 2009 U.S. junior champions have an enchanting “Phantom of the Opera” free dance that has continued to develop in performance and expression since its debut in August. Chock & Zuerlein have won every international event they have entered in the 2008-09 season, building momentum heading into this final competition.  They train in Canton, Michigan, under Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva. 

Also making their World Junior Championship debut are Maia & Alex Shibutani. The siblings, who are trainingmates of Chock & Zuerlein, are in their first season of international competition and finished fourth at the 2008 JGP Final after winning gold and silver at their Junior Grand Prix events this autumn. That fourth-place finish marked the first time the siblings had not medaled in a competition. In January, the Shibutanis captured the silver medal at the U.S. Championships on the junior level. 

Riazanova & Guerreiro are joined by fellow Russians and JGP finalists, Ekaterina Pushkash & Dmitri Kiselev and Marina Antipova & Artem Kudashev. Pushkash & Kiselev finished fifth at the 2008 JGP Final and are coached by Alexander Svinin, who is also the coach of 2009 European champions Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski. Antipova & Kudashev have been skating together since 2001 and were replacements at the JGP Final for injured Americans Piper Gilles & Zachary Donohue. 

Canada sends a trio of teams including Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill, who qualified for their first JGP Final in 2008 where they finished sixth. The team, coached by Carol Lane, Jon Lane, and Juris Razgulajevs, won the silver medal at both of their JGP events and recently finished fifth in their senior debut at Canadian Nationals. They finished eighth at the 2008 World Junior Championships. Also returning are Karen Routhier & Eric Saucke-Lacelle who finished 10th in 2008. Routhier & Saucke-Lacelle were alternates to the JGP Final after winning bronze at both of their JGP events. Tarrah Harvey & Keith Gagnon, who are coached by Megan Wing & Aaron Lowe, round out the Canadian contingent. 

Alisa Agafanova & Dmitri Dun of Ukraine are competing in their second World Junior Championship after finishing seventh in 2008. The duo finished seventh at the 2008 JGP Final and spend part of their time training in Canton, Michigan with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva. 

Igor Shpilband knows how to win a World Junior ice dance title — he won gold in 1983 and a silver in ’82 for the U.S.S.R with partner Tatiana Gladkova. The next year, Svetlana Liapina took bronze with Gorsha Sur and followed that up with a silver in 1985. Liapina’s son is Jonathan Guerrero, one of the favorites in Sofia. Juris Razgulajevs, who coaches Canadians Ralph & Hill, won the gold in 1991. That following year, the silver was captured by Iasa Netchaeva & Iouri Tchesnitchenko, who coach the Hubbells. All of those coaches competed under the Soviet flag. 

Only once has a country has swept the ice dance podium — the 1988 World Junior Championships in Brisbane, Australia. The Soviet Union claimed all three medals, and among those on the podium were two-time Olympic champion (1994, 1998) Oksana Grishuk (gold in Brisbane) and 1998 Olympic silver medalist Oleg Ovsiannikov, who took bronze. Twenty-one years later, Canada, Russia, and the U.S. all bring a strong trio of teams to Bulgaria. The Americans nearly swept the podium at the JGP Final, finishing 1-2-4. Will they make history or will the Russians have something to say about that?