by Melanie Heaney | Photo by Robin Ritoss

This week, the Grand Prix and Junior Grand Prix Series will culminate in the Grand Prix Final, held for the first time in Marseille, France. This marks the third year in a row that the event is held in the same geographical area, following two years just over the Spanish border and around the Mediterranean coast in Barcelona. The top six teams from the Series have qualified for the Final. Three teams train together in Montréal, but those three teams represent three different countries. One of those teams is from the United States, which has qualified three teams of its own for this event.

Two weeks after their initial battle in Japan, France’s own Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron will face Canada’s Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir once again. Virtue & Moir won handily at NHK Trophy, to the tune of a nine-point victory, but Papadakis & Cizeron made mistakes there. This week, bolstered by a home crowd, they have a solid chance to even the score.

With their momentum from NHK, Virtue & Moir will be looking for two more excellent performances. Two weeks ago, they proved that Olympic medalists can take a couple years off and return to form. Especially in their technically proficient short dance, their footwork looked better than ever, and they set a new world record of 79.47 in that segment. With a total score of 195.84, the 2010 Olympic champions nailed down the highest score of the Grand Prix Series and qualified first for the Final. If they skate their best this week, Virtue & Moir will be tough to beat; however, the Grand Prix Final has been an Achilles heel for them in the past. It is the only major title that they have not won, having finished second four times.

The exuberant French fan base will, of course, hope that Papadakis & Cizeron are up to the challenge. With a gold and silver medal, they qualified third, but the two-time world champions are almost certainly the co-favorites for the event. Mistakes in the free dance, especially, held them back in Japan, but when they skated cleanly a few weeks ago at Trophée de France, the program was a hit with the judges. It will be interesting to see if they have reworked their midline step sequence in the short dance—an intentional trip in the choreography may have impacted their score in Japan.

For the second year in a row, the United States will field three dance teams at the Final. Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani qualified second after wins at both Skate America and Cup of China. They are averaging eight to ten points behind the two frontrunners’ best scores, but they could be right in the mix in head-to-head competition. The new world silver medalists have looked confident in their outings this season, but their “Evolution” free dance, so far, does not have the magic that they found last season with “Fix You.”

Madison Chock & Evan Bates won two silver medals on the Grand Prix. Although they only qualified fifth, they very nearly beat Virtue & Moir on their home turf at Skate Canada. Going in a new choreographic direction this year, Chock & Bates have a terrific set of programs that highlight intensity and athleticism. In a field where most of the teams are trending towards lyrical or contemporary free dances, they will attempt to make an impression with their “Under Pressure” program. Although Chock & Bates have been slotted behind the Shibutanis for most of 2016, they have a chance to take back the “USA #1” position in Marseille.

Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue are the third entry for Team USA, qualifying sixth. Like Chock & Bates, they also won two silver medals on the circuit, at Skate America and Trophée de France. However, their scores have been a notch lowering, averaging at about 175. Their short dance, built on a chronological theme of American dance music, has been polarizing—fans either love it or hate it, and it seems that the judges do not always know what to make of it. Their free dance is lovely, though, and in both of their GP events, they moved up from third to second in the free.

Russians Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev were third behind the Shibutanis and Hubbell & Donohue at Skate America, but rallied to win the gold at their home event, Rostelecom Cup. There, they defeated Chock & Bates and scored 186.68 points, which puts them right in line for the podium this week, if they can score as high again. That point total, though, earned them personal bests in both segments of the competition, and they, perhaps, got a bit of a boost from skating at home. Bobrova & Soloviev have now qualified for the Final six times—as many as Virtue & Moir—but they have never won a medal.

On the junior level, the countries represented are very similar to the seniors. Three American teams have qualified, along with a French team, and two Russian teams.

Russia’s Alla Loboda & Pavel Drozd qualified first with two victories on the JGP circuit, including at the high-scoring Cup of Mordovia, where they set a new personal best of 161.87. This is Loboda & Drozd’s third consecutive JGP Final; they have won the silver medal twice. They are the reigning world junior bronze medalists.

Rachel Parsons & Michael Parsons of the United States qualified second, just ahead of their training partners Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter. Both teams have been leading the U.S. junior field for a couple of years now, but the Parsonses have a chance to emerge a nose ahead this year on the strength of a couple of programs that they really perform well. McNamara & Carpenter are the reigning world junior champions, but showed a bit of technical weakness on the JGP circuit. They still won both events, but revealed a bit of vulnerability. However, with so much time since the JGP circuit ended, they may easily be back on top of the world this week.

Anqelique Abachkina & Louis Thauron of France won their home event to kick off the JGP series and followed it up with a bronze medal behind the Parsonses and Russia’s Anastasia Shpilevaya & Grigory Smirnov. Abachkina & Thauron are known for being terrific performers, but have struggled with occasional consistency issues on the technical elements.

Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko are the third American junior team represented in Marseille and are also training partners of Abachkina & Thauron under Igor Shpilband in Novi, Michigan. Both teams were alternates for the Final last year, so qualifying this year is a great experience for them to share.

Shpilevaya & Smirnov round out the field on the strength of their two silver medals. This is also their first JGP Final.

The junior short dance will begin the competition on Thursday afternoon, and the free dance is set for Friday afternoon. The senior short dance is scheduled for Friday night and the free dance will be on Saturday afternoon.