Article and photo by Melanie Heaney
This week, the Canadian skating community will descend on Ottawa for the second time in four years. The Canadian Tire National Figure Skating Championships return to the nation’s capital as part of a year-long celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday. The event was held in Ottawa three years ago, in 2014, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Figure Skating Championships. This time, though, Canadians will be held at TD Place, the old Civic Centre which hosted many a skating event in the 90’s, as well as the 2006 Canadian Championships. Since its last major skating event, the arena has been refurbished as part of the large Lansdowne Park development that also includes the city’s football stadium.
The senior dance event will be smaller than usual, and as a result, the podium finishers are quite predictable, as a large gap exists between the top three and the rest of the field. Canadian dance has taken quite the hit this season—the majority of the senior-level competitors from last year are not returning to the event this year, due to a variety of retirements, splits, and injuries. Longtime national team and 2014 Olympic team members Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam just announced their retirement from competition a few weeks ago. Élisabeth Paradis & François-Xavier Ouellette, the 2016 Canadian bronze medalists, split at the beginning of the season. Alexa Linden & Addison Voldeng, who could have challenged for a national team spot, suffered an injury [to Voldeng] in December. They were hoping to attend the Winter Universiade this season. Mackenzie Bent & Dmitre Razgulajevs competed internationally as new seniors this season, but they have also ended their partnership. As a result, the senior ice dance roster only has nine teams on it.
The return of 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir continues to be the story of the year. If possible, the veterans have been looking better than ever, and they are hungry to retake the Canadian title in the city where they last won it. Furthermore, the arena is the same one where they competed in their first senior-level Canadian Championships, at which they won bronze. If they triumph this week, the title will be their seventh. Last month, Virtue & Moir set a new Canadian and world record score at the Grand Prix Final. If they skate clean, expect a new Canadian record, as national events trend towards even higher scores than international ones.
A battle appears to be shaping up for second place between two-time and reigning champions Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje and three-time silver medalists Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier. Weaver & Poje made a big change during the off-season, adding Nikolai Morozov to their coaching team. Their Morozov-choreographed programs needed a bit of extra time, and they withdrew from their early fall international, making their first Grand Prix event their season debut. As a result, they seemed a little rough and while they were in better form for their second event, the two-time Grand Prix Final champions ended up finishing as alternates in the GPF standings and missing out on the event. They have had extra time to continue polishing their season’s work and sound optimistic about giving their best performances in Ottawa.
However, Gilles & Poirier intend to mount a serious challenge to the established pecking order. In past years, the feeling has been that Gilles & Poirier wanted to start closing the gap between Weaver & Poje, but this year, it seems like they are aiming to overtake them. Gilles & Poirier briefly held the Canadian record score this year when they set a new one at Skate Canada Challenge in December. Granted, the scores at Challenge are generally inflated, but the duo looked incredibly sharp and ready to make to a move.
While any other team is unlikely to challenge for a medal, there are still two additional spots on the national team to consider. Carolane Soucisse & Shane Firus, second at Challenge with a strong score of 167.78, are the frontrunners to win a place on the team in their first season together. They train under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, alongside Virtue & Moir.
The two teams from British Columbia, both of whom scored in the 140’s at Challenge, are likely to battle for the fifth and final national team spot. Sales & Wamsteeker are in their first year on the senior level; they were fourth last year on the junior level. They struggled in their first senior-level international assignment, but fared much better at Challenge, where they won the bronze medal.
Their teammates and training partners, Sarah Arnold & Thomas Williams, finished just behind them in fourth and have been steadily gaining ground in their debut season. Williams skipped last season and Arnold took six years off before trying a comeback. Understandably, the two have taken some time to gel as a team, but they continue to make progress and could sneak into the top five. Both skaters have Grand Prix experience, and Williams was a junior champion and senior Canadian bronze medalist with his former partner, Nicole Orford.
At the junior level, there should not be any surprise regarding the champions—Marjorie Lajoie & Zachary Lagha are clearly at the top of the field. The 2016 Canadian junior silver medalists picked up two fourth-place finishes on the Junior Grand Prix, and then set a new Canadian junior record at Challenge en route to these championships. With almost 20 points on their closest competitors at Challenge, they likely even have a cushion, should they make a major error. Of course, Lajoie & Lagha will be aiming for two solid performances as they head toward the World Junior Championships.
The race for silver and bronze could be quite exciting, as well as the competition for the second and final spot to the World Junior Championships. The second through fifth-place teams at Challenge were within five points of each other, and especially given the unpredictably of the short dance levels, anything could happen this week. Three of those teams scored over 130, and it will likely take a 130+ point effort to make the podium at Canadians.
Although they struggled a bit in summer competitions and were not sent to the Junior Grand Prix this year, veterans Valérie Taillefer & Jason Chan came back with a strong silver-medal-winning performance at Challenge, earning a score of 134.22. They have plenty of experience, having finished sixth and seventh in the past two years on the junior level at Canadians. Stepping up into the top five, or even the podium, would be a great accomplishment for them. Perhaps Ottawa is a lucky city for them—three years ago, they won the novice title in Ottawa in a close race.
At Challenge, a pair of Vancouver-based training partners finished third and fourth, just under three points apart. Ashlynne Stairs & Lee Royer came out ahead of Danielle Wu & Nik Mirzakhani to take the bronze. Both teams are in their second year on the junior level, and both competed on the JGP circuit this year. Stairs & Royer had two assignments, finishing seventh in France and fifth in Slovenia. Last year, they were 12th in Canada, but made big improvements to the technical side this year while presenting a more mature look on the ice.
Wu & Mirzakhani picked up a seventh-place finish in their first JGP assignment. While they ended up behind Stairs & Royer three times this season, they started the year a nose ahead of them, finishing one rank ahead at the Lake Placid International. Wu & Mirzakhani were eighth in Canada last year. Their free dance, set to Chaplin movie music, is sure to charm the audience this week.
Alicia Fabbri & Claudio Pietrantonio are a bit of a wild card this week. Their short dance buried them in the penultimate group at Challenge, where they finished fifth, but earlier in the season, they turned in a fantastic 55+ point short dance on the JGP circuit. If they can hit their levels in the short this week, they will certainly be medal contenders. Fabbri & Pietrantonio, last year’s Canadian novice silver medalists, are versatile performers, stepping easily from a smooth, modern blues/hip-hop blend in the short dance to a contemporary lyrical free dance.
Last year’s pre-novice Canadian champions, Natalie D’Alessandro & Bruce Waddell, are expected to lead the novice field this week. The duo has transitioned easily to the next level after setting a Canadian pre-novice record last season. They are steady competitors; they seem to fare well no matter which pattern dance is chosen, and their free dance has been charming all season long. They have a perfect record so far this season, and a Canadian title would be the perfect cap to such a year.
Surprise silver medalists at Challenge, Vancouver-based Nina Mizuki & Veniamins Volskis finished just three points behind D’Alessandro & Waddell and won the free dance, despite skating in the penultimate group. Since they are a brand new team and both are new to dance, it is understandable that pattern dances are the weak link for these two, but they really struggled with the Blues at Challenge. Since the pattern dances for Canadians are the Westminster Waltz and the Quickstep, perhaps they will fare better. Blues problems aside, it was quite impressive for a team that has not competed against any of the top ten teams before to surge into second place. Volskis does have experience on this stage, though—he finished 11th in novice men at the 2015 Canadian Championships.
Katarina Kasatkin & Corey Circelli, training partners of D’Alessandro & Waddell, have a great chance to medal in their second season at the novice level. Last year, their charming balletic free dance saw them leap into the top five in their debut season; this year, they hope to sizzle their way even higher with a Latin free dance.
If Jade McCue & Gabriel Clemente can skate their James Bond-themed free dance a bit more confidently, they could be in the mix for medals. Their choreography was quite good at Challenge, but they did not seem comfortable and made a couple of mistakes that saw them slip to fourth place. Twelfth at last year’s Canadian Championships, they have improved quite a bit this year as they have grown, both physically and in maturity of their presentation.
The growth of ice dance in Alberta has been fun to watch over the past few years. Novice teams Jessica-Lee Behiel & Jackson Behiel and Janine Rho & Vali Baimoukhametov could figure into the top five, and perhaps even the medals. Their pattern dances are quite strong—Rho & Baimoukhametov soared over the entire field at Challenge in the Westminster Waltz—and if they can skate their free dances with a bit more speed and flow, they will be right there with the top teams.
Second-year novices Charlotte Lafond-Fournier & Anthony Campanelli should figure into the top five, perhaps higher. They were 11th last year and sixth at Challenge, with the potential to move up if they nail the pattern dances. Their “Swan Lake” free dance is generally well executed and suits them well.
Finally, watch out for Lily Hansen & Nathan Lickers. They struggled at Challenge and only finished 13th, but in November, they won Western Ontario sectionals with a score that topped 78. That puts them right in the mix with the top group if they skate well in Ottawa.
Novices begin the entire competition on Monday morning and wrap up with the free dance on Tuesday. Juniors also skate Monday and Tuesday, but close out the event late each night. Seniors will begin practices on Thursday and compete Friday and Saturday.