Innsbruck, Austria hosts the fifth event on JGP series

by Melanie Hoyt

Ice dance was first contested as a part of the Winter Olympic Games 35 years ago in Innsbruck, Austria. This week, 18 junior-level dance teams from 15 countries will have the opportunity to compete in Innsbruck as a part of the fifth event of this year’s Junior Grand Prix series.

With the series now half over, the top teams have all competed at least once, and potential entries for the Final are beginning to shape up. With only six spots in the Final this year, competition is more fierce than ever, and Austria is a tough field, with the gold medalists from the first three events going head-to-head-to-head.

Of those medalists, Victoria Sinitsina & Ruslan Zhiganshin of Russia posted the highest score; their total of 140.31 in Poland, a new ISU personal best, is six points higher than any other number seen this season. The team showed an impressive spark in their first event that kept them a couple of notches above the rest of the field. Of particular importance are their program components scores in Poland. While scores, of course, cannot be compared directly across events, the 7s that they earned indicate a certain level of favor that they have with international judges. They may be unbeatable here, unless they make costly mistakes. Zhiganshin’s older sister, Nelli, who competes for Germany, won a silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy last weekend. If Sinitsina & Zhiganshin have excellent odds to make this three medals in as many weekends for the Zhiganshin siblings.

Nicole Orford & Thomas Williams, the Canadian gold medalists from the second event in Australia, would love to take their skating to the next level and challenge the Russians. They were thrilled to stand on top of their first international podium three weeks ago, and they did so with an outstanding effort in the free dance. Their short dance had a few opportunities for a better score, so if they can start stronger this time around, they have a shot at bettering their score of 127.21 and standing on the podium once again.

Ukraine’s Maria Nosulia & Evgen Kholoniuk were the surprise gold medalists at this season’s first JGP event in Latvia. The team had solid results last season, but few expected the 19th-place team from the 2011 World Junior Championships to rise above the entire field. The challenge for them now is to build on the momentum that they have, without succumbing to the pressure. Their score in Latvia, 124.84, is less than three points behind the mark that Orford & Williams set in Australia.

If the podium in Innsbruck is made up of all three of these teams, the gold and silver medalists will make the Final, and it is probable that the bronze medalists will also qualify, although they will have to wait and see who wins the last two events.

Ready to play spoiler, though, are Americans Alexandra Aldridge & Daniel Eaton. The energetic, young team won a bronze medal in Latvia, which means that they would likely need a gold medal to qualify for the Final, which is a tall order in this field. However, the talented and well-trained duo could certainly stand on the podium, upsetting the numerical favorites and shaking up the standings. Regardless of how they finish, they are sure to entertain the audience in Innsbruck.

Karolina Prochazkova & Michal Ceska of the Czech Republic do not have the quest for the Final looming ahead, but they are a solid team that can hope for another top five finish. This season, they have already placed fourth in Latvia with a score of 116.81. They have opportunities to improve in Austria on their footwork, since that was generally not a strong element for them in Latvia.

11jgpaustria-edwards-pangCanada’s second entry is Madeline Edwards & ZhaoKai Pang (pictured, left), who train with Orford & Williams in Burnaby, B.C. Edwards & Pang are part of Canada’s exciting crop of young talent; in fact, they have led the pack for three years — never lost a competition at the sectional or national level — despite having excellent teams nipping at their heels. They were the Canadian juvenile champions in 2009, the pre-novice champions in 2010, and the novice champions last season. They struggled uncharacteristically at Minto Summer Skate, but came back with a victory at BC Summer Skate (and a 70-point free dance) to earn this assignment. Edwards & Pang may be new to international competition, but they have proven that they can compete under pressure and could also end up in the top five here.

The second entry from Russia is Sofia Evdokimova & Egor Bazin. The depth in Russia’s dance program means that teams often make huge strides during the off-season. Sofia Evdokimova & Egor Bazin were only 11th at the 2011 Russian Junior Championships, but have done well in test skates to be awarded this assignment.

For the first time, Mexico is entering a dance team in the JGP series. Pilar Maekawa Moreno and Leonardo Maekawa Moreno live and train in Victoria, B.C, Canada. They have competed at Canadian domestic competitions up until this season and enjoyed the best skate of their careers at 2011 Skate Canada Junior Nationals, where they finished fifth at the novice level. Now as juniors, the siblings will represent the country of their birth in their international debut.

The Innsbruck event begins with official practices on Wednesday, and then the dancers will compete in the short dance on Friday morning and the free dance on Saturday afternoon.