2011 World Championships Preview

stbasilsIn light of the natural and nuclear disasters that have shaken Japan in the past six weeks, the 2010-2011 season was unexpectedly lengthened. Fortunately for the qualified skaters, the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships will go forward — not as originally planned in Tokyo, but in Moscow, Russia, approximately one month later than scheduled. The International Skating Union selected Moscow as the replacement host after receiving bids from six countries. This event will hold special meaning as it showcases the resilience of the figure skating community that pulled together its annual showcase event in a matter of weeks, instead of two to three years that is typically allowed. The organizers have promised an event to remember and the Japanese skaters, favorites in the singles events, will undoubtedly receive a special welcome from the fans when they take the ice in Russia.

Changes by the International Skating Union (ISU) are in effect at the World Championships, meaning that qualifying rounds have been resurrected in the hope that knocking out some teams before the “real” competition begins will save money. In the recent past, all teams competed the compulsory dance(s) and the top 30 went on to the original dance. The top 24 after the OD moved on to the free dance.

This year, 15 teams will be designated a “direct entry” into the short dance; these skaters will first compete on Friday, April 29. Direct entries are awarded to countries based on 2010 results, not to individual teams. The United States, for example, had teams in 2010 place second (Meryl Davis & Charlie White), ninth (Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates), and 14th (Kim Navarro & Brent Bommentre). Even though two of those three teams will not be competing in the 2011 World Championships, the United States still receives three “direct entries” into the short dance because they had three teams in the top 15 in 2010. Canada had only two teams at the 2010 World Championships, and both teams placed in the top 15 (Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir first, Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier seventh). So although Canada’s teams placed high enough to earn a third couple for the 2011 World Championships, only two teams are “direct entries.” Several highly-ranked teams must skate their free dance in the qualifying round while much lower-ranked teams get the “bye” because of what their countrymen did a year ago.

The remaining entrants — in this case, 17 teams — must duke it out on Tuesday, April 26. Only the free dance is contested in this qualifying round, and the top 10 teams will move on to the short dance on Friday. No scores from qualifying are carried over. After the 25 teams skate the short dance, the top 20 will move on to the free dance that takes place Saturday — the final competition in this year’s World Championships.

Plenty of drama is promised for an exciting dance event that is scheduled to feature teams from 23 countries. The highly-anticipated contest will pit Canadians Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, the 2010 Olympic and world champions, against their friends and training mates, Americans Meryl Davis & Charlie White, the 2010 Olympic and world silver medalists. Davis & White have not lost a competition this season, whereas Virtue & Moir have not finished a competition this season. Newly-crowned European champions Nathalie Péchalat & Fabian Bourzat from France are hoping to spoil the North Americans’ plans to take the top two steps on the podium.

Never before have Davis & White built up so much momentum heading into the season’s final event. Scoring 172.03 at the 2011 Four Continents Championships, they have the highest score in the world this year by nearly five points. Although their tango free dance has undergone a few revisions this season, it seems that they have finally hit their stride with the program. At their last outing, they received level four on all elements — besides the level three step sequences — a majority of +2 GOE, and components marks as high as 9.50. The three-time U.S. champions know exactly what they are up against, since they train with their chief rivals, Virtue & Moir, every day.

Sidelined for most of the season due to surgery on Virtue’s legs, the Olympic champions have not completed a competition since they bested Davis & White at the 2010 World Championships 13 months ago. Virtue & Moir’s season debut did not occur until the Four Continents Championships in February, when they were forced to withdraw from the event after getting through just one-third of their free dance because of an injury to Virtue’s thigh. It was deemed to be unrelated to her surgery, and she has since recovered fully. In their only completed dance this season, the short dance at Four Continents, Virtue & Moir put up a score of 69.40 and narrowly defeated Davis & White on the strength of the technical mark. Due to the postponement of Worlds, Virtue & Moir have had nine weeks to prepare for Moscow, making them perhaps the dancers who have most benefitted from the postponement of the World Championships.

Though the matchup between Virtue & Moir and Davis & White may be garnering the most attention, France’s Pechalat & Bourzat have been celebrating a stellar season of their own. For the first time in their careers, the duo medaled in every event of the season. In fact, they won almost every event on their packed schedule, including the 2011 European Championships in January. Their only second-place outing came at the ISU Grand Prix Final, where they finished behind Davis & White. At the GPF, Pechalat & Bourzat’s score of 162.10 was almost ten points behind the Americans’, but at the European Championships, the French earned a personal best of 167.40. Pechalat & Bourzat bring a sophisticated style to their performances this season, especially in their free dance to “City Lights,” and they cannot be counted out.

After winning a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final and their first Canadian title, Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier are enjoying a fantastic season and are on track to improve upon last year’s seventh-place at Worlds. The young duo has turned heads this season with their Christopher Dean-choreographed free dance to “Eleanor Rigby.” Some love it, some hate it, some do not understand the costumes, some love the striking red and blue symbolism; but one thing is certain — people are talking about them and they will not go unnoticed in Moscow.

Always hot on their heels are their perpetual Canadian rivals, Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje. Last year, the teams battled for the second spot on the Olympic team, and it was Weaver & Poje who were left at home after being separated by just three-tenths of a point. This year, the story has been more of the same. The two teams have faced each other four times already this year, with the closest battle being again at the Canadian Championships. Like 2010, the margin was narrow, and like 2010, Weaver & Poje finished just behind Crone & Poirier. Weaver & Poje’s charming short dance has put them ahead of their rivals three of the four times this season, but their Moulin Rouge free dance has not been as consistently skated or as well received by the judges. Because they must go through the qualifying round (despite being the 2010 Four Continents champions!), Weaver & Poje will have an extra chance to put their free dance in front of the judges.

The Russian teams are not considered favorites for gold in Moscow, but skating enthusiasts know that you can never count out the Russians, especially when they are competing at home.

Last year, Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev were ninth at the European Championships, 15th at the Olympic Games, and eighth at the World Championships. This year, as Russia’s top team, they won their first two Grand Prix medals, including gold at Cup of Russia at Ice Palace Megasport, and finished fourth in their first Grand Prix Final. After winning the silver medal at the European Championships, they are expected to make another jump in the standings at the World Championships and are sure to get a boost from the home crowd.

Their Russian teammates are last year’s World Junior champions, Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov. Although Ilinykh & Katsalapov were third at the Russian Championships in December, they won their spot to the World Championships after their fourth-place finish at the European Championships in January bested that of Russia’s national silver medalists, Ekaterina Riazanova & Ilia Tkachenko. Ilinykh & Katsalapov’s strong transition to the senior ranks has been compared to Virtue & Moir’s first senior season, which also occurred in a post-Olympic year. Gaining momentum with every competition, Ilinykh & Katsalapov would be long-shots for a medal but are expected to finish in the top ten.

The United States silver medalists, Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani, are also enjoying a delightful year in their first season as a part of the senior ranks. The siblings generated a bit of buzz when they earned the bronze medal in both of their Grand Prix events, but they really exploded onto the scene when their Technical Element Scores at the U.S. Championships were on par with Davis & White’s. The momentum carried the Shibutanis through the Four Continents Championships, when they slid past both Crone & Poirier and Weaver & Poje to win the silver medal.

Madison Chock & Greg Zuerlein, like the Shibutanis, will be competing in their first World Championships in Moscow. Also like the Shibutanis, they won bronze medals at both of their Grand Prix events this season, but the gap between the two teams was about 13 points at the Four Continents Championships, where Chock & Zuerlein finished fifth. All three American entries train together at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Michigan.

One of the biggest question marks in Moscow is the Italian team of Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte, who have only competed twice this season. After a rough free dance and disappointing fifth-place finish at NHK Trophy, the duo withdrew from their second Grand Prix event, left new coach Muriel Zazoui to return to train in Italy, and made plans for a new free dance. Injuries prevented their participation in their national championships and Europeans, but they did finally debut their new Umbrellas of Cherbourg free dance at the Mont Blanc Trophy in mid-February, which they won.

Thirty-two teams are on the roster to compete at Moscow’s Ice Palace Megasport, two less than expected a few months ago. On March 12, Italy’s Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali announced their retirement from competitive skating on their website, while siblings Sinead & John Kerr of Great Britain announced their retirement on April 4. Faiella & Scali leave the competitive arena as the reigning world bronze medalists, while the Kerrs also ended their competitive career on a high note, winning bronze at the 2011 European Championships. Faiella & Scali likely made the decision to skip Worlds even before the earthquake in Japan, but the Kerrs had hoped that a delayed Worlds would give Sinead enough time to recover from a shoulder injury that has plagued her all season. Unfortunately for them and for their fans, even with the extra month, they are unable to compete. With both teams out, the roster loses some of its most experienced competitors.

With ice dancing no longer a sport that can easily predicted, the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships may be one of the biggest mysteries we’ve seen. No position on the podium is “a given” and the final standings could be any number of combinations.

Whatever the outcome of the competition in Moscow, undoubtedly everyone’s thoughts will be with those in Japan.