Beginning December 1, over 500 Canadian skaters will invade the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, ON. For seniors, juniors, and novices, places to nationals are on the line. For pre-novices, this is it — the national championship event. Mississauga’s four-pad ice surface and proximity to a major airport and plenty of hotels make it one of the most convenient places to cram so much action into five days. This is the fourth consecutive time and the sixth time overall that the event has been held at the Hershey Centre.
On the senior level, all 13 dance teams in the country have pre-qualified for the Canadian Championships in Vancouver. The Senior Challenge, then, is simply a formality and a way for the skaters to ramp up their preparation for nationals.
Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill (pictured, right) lead the roster of five teams slated to compete in Mississauga. Even if Canada had more than 15 teams this year, Ralph & Hill would not have been required to compete; they receive a bye for their Grand Prix assignments. On the Grand Prix this year, the young Scarboro team has had a decent showing, but not an outstanding one. Last weekend, they finished sixth out of eight teams in Paris, so Challenge is a quick turnaround for them. If it goes well, though, they will grab some momentum heading into the Canadian Championships next month.
Tarrah Harvey & Keith Gagnon, last year’s sixth-place finishers at Canadians, have a great shot at challenging Ralph & Hill for the title this week. Their highest score of the season, 122.13 at Minto Summer Skate, nearly matches Ralph & Hill’s highest score, 122.37 at the Isabella Henderson Memorial. However, Harvey & Gagnon did not have the best competition at Nebelhorn Trophy, their first senior international assignment, so they are also looking to build momentum for Canadians.
Hélène Létourneau & Kevin Boczar are the most likely of the remaining three teams to take the bronze, but Audrey Dupont & Marcus Connolly have been steadily gaining ground this season. This is Létourneau & Boczar’s fifth season together and just the first for Dupont & Connolly. Anne-Chloé Bissonnette & Dylan Lockey, another new team this year, round out the roster.
The junior level in Canada has experienced some major shake-ups this year. Teams expected to do well — based on last year’s results — have not necessarily flourished this year, and the top of the roster is full of fresh faces and young talent. Without a clear frontrunner, Challenge is going to be an interesting event that will set the stage for Junior Nationals next month. Beyond the medal race, the 23 teams will also be fighting to qualify for 15 spots to Junior Nationals.
Nicole Orford & Thomas Williams notched the highest score by a Canadian junior team this year, and it was earned internationally, on the Junior Grand Prix. Originally scheduled as JGP substitutes, they did not even get assigned until the fifth event. When they surprised with a bronze medal in England, their season went into overdrive. They headed home for a week, and then were off to the Czech Republic for the last JGP competition. At that event, they scored 120.12, four and a half points higher than their first JGP, but only enough for fifth place this time. Only together for about six months, they fought through some inconsistency during their summer events, but rebounded for the JGP. This week will be crucial to see if all the new-partnership jitters have been ironed out.
Andréanne Poulin & Marc-André Servant (pictured, left) were another inconsistent team at the start of the domestic season. After finishing fifth last year at Junior Nationals, they felt a lot of pressure to skate well and earn a JGP assignment. After a couple of rough competitions, though, they thought their chances were over. But toward the end of the series, a spot opened up, and Poulin & Servant were sent to the sixth JGP in Germany. They just wanted to skate their best, but they ended up soaring to earn 118 points and a fourth-place ranking, just .21 off the podium. They’ve already proved that they can contend — now they just need to stay calm and skate clean.
Last year’s novice Canadian champions, Kelly Oliveira & Jordan Hockley, have been one of the busiest teams this season, skating in six events already. Their best score of 117.28 came domestically at Octoberfest, but they were also one of the three teams to break 110 internationally, with 111.99 at the JGP in Japan. The energetic young team wasn’t quite as dynamic at Sectionals, where they chose to skate an exhibition, but they are definite medal contenders this week. Their average score this season of 107.85 is highest among the Canadian juniors this year.
Along with Orford & Williams and Oliveira & Hockley, Abby Carswell & Andrew Doleman were the third team to receive two JGP assignments this season. They are also the most experienced competitors in the field. As last year’s bronze medalists at Junior Nationals, they went to the World Junior Championships, where they finished 23rd. At their first JGP this season in Romania, they finished fifth, but at their second, they were eighth — five places behind Orford & Williams, and almost nine points lower than what they scored in Romania. Challenge presents a great opportunity for them to rebound from the JGP, and with strong skates, they could certainly find themselves back on top.
Edrea Khong & Edbert Khong, Victoria Hasegawa & Connor Hasegawa, and Carolyn MacCuish & Tyler Morris all had one JGP assignment this year.
Of the three teams, the young Khong siblings fared the best, scoring 100.13 en route to a ninth-place finish in Austria. They have been consistent this season, as always, never dropping below 100 points. Austria was their last competition, though, and that was two and a half months ago, so timing could be a factor. Last year, after a dramatic scoring snafu, they finished a close second on the novice level at 2010 Junior Nationals to Oliveira & Hockley.
The Hasegawa siblings were one of the only junior teams to skip Minto Summer Skate, so they haven’t skated against everyone in the field yet. However, their result at Central Ontario Summer Skate, where their combined total would have been ranked first at Minto, was enough to earn them a JGP assignment. In Japan, they struggled and finished tenth with a score of 95.14. However, last month, they rebounded with their best score of the season, 112.79 at Québec Sectionals, winning the free dance and the silver medal.
MacCuish & Morris had a ton of momentum last year. They were the reigning novice champions in their first season together and did well in their first JGP series, earning two assignments and placing as high as seventh in Germany. Disaster struck last fall, though, when MacCuish spiked herself with her blade, ending their season. The injury was a nasty one, and recovery took some time. Their return to competition at Minto Summer Skate was much-anticipated, and turned out to be quite perplexing. They won the free dance, but finished 21st of 24 teams in the short dance. At the first JGP of the year in France, the short dance was a struggle again, and they finished eighth, scoring just 90.61. MacCuish & Morris have not competed since that event in late August, so it’s hard to gauge how they will finish here; everything hinges on Thursday’s short dance.
A couple of teams from Québec didn’t quite make the JGP pool, but have had strong seasons and could end up challenging the international competitors. In fact, if Canada had used all of its allotted JGP slots this year, Laurence Fournier-Beaudry & Yoan Breton and Elisabeth Paradis & François-Xavier Ouellette would have been the most likely choices for additional teams in the series.
Fournier-Beaudry & Breton just won Québec Sectionals, where they beat the Hasegawas. Their sectionals score of 113.78 ranks them fourth this season when listing teams by highest score. Last year, their partnership began late in the season. They barely made the deadline to register for sectionals, but they went on to finish seventh at Junior Nationals in a strong novice field. This year, they have had more time to prepare and appear to be on a steady climb.
Paradis & Ouellette are a new team this year, and have shown improvement throughout the season. Their scores have steadily increased towards sectionals, where they soared past the 100-point mark to 107.43 and the bronze medal. Last year, in their former partnerships, they both qualified for Junior Nationals and finished 14th and 13th, respectively. This year, it seems like they are on a path to move up in the rankings.
Other qualifiers from last year’s Junior Nationals looking to make a repeat trip are Jazz Smyl Joly & Ryan Behnia (eighth last year) and Mélissande Dumas & Anthony Quintal (10th last year). Sebastien Buron, Olga Lioudvinevitch, Benjamin Brisebois, and David Mackay-Perry also all qualified to London last year and are looking towards Victoria this year with new partners.
Twenty-two novice teams will compete in Mississauga for 15 spots. They kick off the competition on Wednesday morning with their pattern dances and are done by Thursday afternoon. So far this season, with only a couple of exceptions, the novice teams have skated the Blues and the Quickstep as their pattern dances, but the schedule at Challenge throws a curveball, as it does every year. The Blues will still open the event, but for the second pattern dance, they will skate the Westminster Waltz. Some of the teams have not yet competed this dance, which was skated on the junior level just last year.
In 2009, Madeline Edwards & Zhao Kai Pang (pictured, right) won the national title at the juvenile level. Last year in Mississauga, they won the pre-novice title. This year, the talented youngsters, who train at the BC Centre of Excellence under coaches Megan Wing & Aaron Lowe, are among the favourites at the novice level. Their average score over four competitions this year is 83.73, and they’ve topped 89 and nearly hit 90 at their last two competitions. Most recently, they scored 89.35 when they won the BC/YT sectional title last month.
Hot on their heels are their trainingmates, Noa Bruser & Timothy Lum. Over the past three seasons, Edwards & Pang and Bruser & Lum have had a fantastic, but friendly, rivalry. Most of the time, Bruser & Lum have finished behind the two-time national champions, but they never let them get too far ahead. In the free dance at BC Summer Skate back in August, Bruser & Lum came out on top, and their average score of 81.81 is only two points less than Edwards & Pang’s. Anything could happen this week, and it won’t be over until the free dance, when both teams are sure to charm the crowd with their free dances. Edwards & Pang have a ‘20s theme using music from The Muppets, and Bruser & Lum are taking on The Wiz.
Caelen Dalmer & Shane Firus finished fifth nationally last year on the pre-novice level. Since then, they have switched coaches and now skate with Edwards & Pang and Bruser & Lum, and the gap between the teams keeps narrowing. The only time this year that the BC teams have faced the teams from the Eastern part of the country, BC swept the medals in the free dance. They would love to do the same thing again, but they’ll have competition.
Mackenzie Bent & Garrett MacKeen have the best shot at challenging the BC teams and breaking up the threat of a sweep. Last month, they won the Eastern Ontario sectional title with a score of 80.92, but their high score this year of 82.45 was set at Central Ontario Summer Skate. They have a charming free dance, too — also a ‘20s theme, but with a more gentle approach than Edwards & Pang’s. Bent & MacKeen won the national silver medal on the juvenile level in 2008 and were fifth on the pre-novice level in 2009, but last year, they just missed qualifying for 2010 Junior Nationals on the novice level. Tenth heading into the free dance, they were expected to easily make the cut, but in a stacked novice field, they fell to 16th, missing a trip to the national championship by .58. As one of the favourites, that surely won’t happen this year, so hopefully, they can relax and just skate well.
Like the BC camp, Scarboro also has a fantastic rivalry at this level. Training alongside Bent & MacKeen, Katie Desveaux & Dmitri Razgulajevs have consistently done well, often finishing just behind their teammates. Desveaux & Razgulajevs won the Central Ontario sectional title last month, though their score of 75.07 isn’t the best they’ve done this year — they broke 80 points at Central Ontario Summer Skate.
Rebecca Nelles & Nicholas Lettner, also training in Scarboro, paired up just a few months ago, too late to skate in summer events, but they are steadily improving. Nelles missed qualifying for Challenge last year, while Lettner finished seventh at Challenge on the pre-novice level. The two have joined forces to create an energetic partnership. They stayed close to Bent & MacKeen at Eastern Ontario sectionals last month and if they continue to improve, they could break into the top five.
The 33 pre-novice dance teams will skate in Mississauga with an extra bit of pressure. For them, this is the national championship. And except for the few teams that will compete at the Canada Winter Games (one from each province), this is where the season ends. In addition to the extra pressure, the pre-novice teams also have the task of skating two new pattern dances, the Keats Foxtrot and the Harris Tango. Fortunately, though, most of the skaters have competed these dances in recent seasons.
As on the novice level, a team from the BC Centre of Excellence will arrive as the favourite. Jessica Jiang & Nikolas Wamsteeker are only in their first year at this level, but they have blown away the competition at all of their events this year. When they won the BC/YT title last month, they scored 67.32, easily the highest score in Canada this year. If they just skate well, the title should be theirs.
Four teams from Ontario are also contenders, two from Eastern Ontario and two from Central Ontario. In addition to medals this week, these four are also fighting for Ontario’s one berth to the Canada Winter Games. Although several factors are considered, the team is named at Challenge, so results this week will likely factor strongly into Skate Ontario’s decision.
Samantha Glavine & Jeff Hough train at the Minto Skating Club in Ottawa and are in their second season together. Last year, they finished sixth at this event on the strength of a great free dance. They sometimes struggle with compulsories (and with consistency, especially on twizzles) so skating clean is going to be essential for them.
Melinda Meng & Andrew Meng have split their training this year between Ottawa and Montréal. Also in their second year at this level, they finished 12th last season, but have made huge improvements this year. The compulsories have always been a strength for them, but their free dances have been getting stronger.
Nicole Kuzmich & Jay Tam, representing Central Ontario, are newcomers to the pre-novice scene this year. They’ve finished behind both Glavine & Hough and Meng & Meng at events this season, but their score of 60.82 at Central Ontario sectionals, which they won, was comparable to what the EOS teams scored.
However, Kuzmich & Tam are not first in Central Ontario’s “Grand Prix” rankings, which totals scores from Summer Skate, Octoberfest, and Sectionals. That honor goes to Abby Savoie & Dennis Romanenko, who finished second at Sectionals with a score of 58.56. They broke 60 points at Octoberfest, though, and they can’t be ignored. Last year, Savoie & Romanenko finished 14th at this event.
A pair of teams from Québec can’t be counted out. Bianka Gadosy & Simon Dazé won the sectional title last month while setting a season’s best score of 60.78. Audrey Croteau-Villeneuve & Simon Longtin-Martel were right behind them with 59.15. Both teams are new partnerships this year, but all four skaters were at this event last year. Of the four, Dazé finished the highest at tenth place.
Finally, Christina Penkov & Christopher Mostert from Alberta have a great shot at challenging some of the Eastern teams. Although their sectionals score of 53.36 was quite a bit lower than what the other teams score, they have scored in the upper 50s twice this season, and even topped 60 points at Sask Skate. Penkov & Mostert were 13th here last year.