by Jacquelyn Thayer
As the home of U.S. Figure Skating, Colorado Springs, Colo., is a deservedly popular competition base. This week, it will host the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships for the third time in a seven-year span. When the city last hosted the event in 2007, current Olympic and world champions entered as the runners-up to North America’s then-top couples. Future champions may once again be honing their competitive skills here, amidst a diverse field that encompasses teams from Canada to Kazakhstan.
Prepare for Round Two of the season’s battle between Meryl Davis & Charlie White and Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir. The first match at December’s Grand Prix Final went to Davis & White, but the outcome of the second is no easier to predict. Most recently, each couple added a fourth national title to their records. While Davis & White set new personal bests at the U.S. Championships with two strong skates, Virtue & Moir earned season’s best program component marks at the Canadian Figure Skating Championships for their newly-tweaked programs.
As the distance separating the two teams in the GPF’s free dance was narrow enough for a single GOE correction to give Virtue & Moir an additional 0.5 points and unofficial win in that segment, the short dance may once again serve as the greater deciding factor. Davis & White have improved their levels and technical marks over the course of the season, earning all level 4s at the GPF and only one level 3 on the first Rhumba sequence at the U.S. Championships. Virtue & Moir have yet to achieve an all-level-4 program, and had uncharacteristic but significant errors at both the GPF and the Canadian Championships. A clean and sharp event for both teams would even the playing field and give both teams and idea of where they stand, heading into the World Championships.
The fierce fight for the podium does not end with one and two: newly-minted national silver medalists Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani (USA) and Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje (CAN) will continue their own season-long contest that began during the Grand Prix. At NHK Trophy, the Shibutanis won their first GP title in a narrow .09-point victory over Weaver & Poje. In their second match-up at the Grand Prix Final, however, Weaver & Poje finished fourth, one spot and nearly six points ahead of the fifth-place Shibutanis. In January, the duos put up strong numbers at their respective national championships, demonstrating different approaches to the season’s second half. While Weaver & Poje are continuing to refine their mostly-unchanged programs with each event, the Shibutanis debuted a radically-revised short dance, improving upon some earlier problem areas. The two teams earned nearly identical free dance scores at their events, with Weaver & Poje’s 106.26 just a fraction above the Shibutanis’ 106.23. With both teams on an upward trajectory, the battle will be intense, and it is likely that only one of the two teams can win a medal.
With bronze medalists Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier ineligible to compete internationally, Canada’s third assignments for Four Continents and Worlds would fall to the next runners-up. Given close results and an eye to both past achievement and future development, Skate Canada made the decision to spread the wealth, sending fifth-place finishers Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam (pictured, left) to Colorado Springs. Paul & Islam’s recent international outings have been rocky, with injury impacting their summer training and a practice accident during NHK Trophy resulting in a mid-competition withdrawal and surgery for Paul. Two fine performances at the Canadian Championships, however, including a fourth-place finish in the free dance, showed improvement from those earlier months. This competition gives Paul & Islam a chance to earn a strong season’s best score in preparation for next year’s international assignments, and it will give them their first taste of a senior ISU championship.
For newly-minted U.S. national bronze medalists Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, Four Continents is a preparatory stage. The team earned a trip to Worlds with their recent bronze success, but they have so far only competed in two international events together: Nebelhorn Trophy, at which they won gold, and Skate America. Though this will Hubbell’s second trip to Four Continents—she won bronze with brother and former partner Keiffer in 2010—and it will be Donohue’s first senior ISU championship. At the U.S. Championships, the couple succeeded in improving their season’s best total by over 12 points, from 139.01 to 151.60; a score within that range would serve as a strong statement here.
China had planned to send only its top two dance teams to the event, but with Xintong Huang & Xun Zheng withdrawing due to his illness, only one couple will represent their country. For China’s national silver medalists, Xiaoyang Yu & Chen Wang, this will be only their second international competition of the year, after a sixth-place finish at Cup of China. Yu & Wang achieved career personal bests at this event last year when they earned 125.75 points.
Australia’s champions, Danielle O’Brien & Gregory Merriman, will not have as far to travel this year to get to Colorado Springs. Like Weaver & Poje and Hubbell & Donohue, O’Brien & Merriman train at the Detroit Skating Club, having fully relocated to the United States this year after splitting time between Detroit and the Sydney Figure Skating Club in the 2010-11 season. Four Continents will be the first international competition of the season. Last year, they finished ninth at this event and set ISU personal bests.
Two of the event’s teams competed on the Junior Grand Prix circuit in the fall. Uzbekistan’s Anna Nagornyuk & Viktor Kovalenko saw strong results at Brasov Cup and JGP Tallinn, including a sixth-place finish in the latter event’s field of 21. The duo most recently finished fourth in the junior competition at Istanbul Cup, and will be making their international senior debut in Colorado. Cortney Mansour & Daryn Zhunussov, representing Kazakhstan, also competed at JGP Tallinn, as well as Trofeo W. Lombardi. The team competed as juniors at November’s NRW Trophy, but moved to the senior level for Istanbul Cup in December.
Corenne Bruhns (who competed at last year’s Four Continents with Benjamin Westenberger) and new partner Ryan Van Natten represent Mexico, but train alongside Paul & Islam in Barrie, Ont., Canada. The new team made their debut at Golden Spin of Zagreb in December and more recently competed at the International Trophy of Lyon, where they finished sixth.
Official practices begin Tuesday at 10 a.m. Mountain Standard Time. The short dance is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and the free dance for Sunday afternoon.