by Melanie Heaney | Photo by Robin Ritoss
The 2018-19 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series kicks off this week. In this post-Olympic year, many teams have retired or decided to sit out the series or year, paving the way for new leaders to establish themselves. While three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron are expected to continue to dominate their events, plenty of other medals are available throughout the series, and we may see younger teams rise to their first podium finishes.
The Grand Prix Series will stop in six countries, as usual, but for the first time since 2004, a new country will host. China returned all of its international events this year, and Finland stepped in and will host its first Grand Prix event. The Grand Prix in Helsinki will be the third event this year. After the six events in the United States, Canada, Finland, Japan, Russia, and France, the Final will be held in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
Papadakis & Cizeron will headline and are expected to win NHK Trophy and the Internationaux de France, in weeks four and six of the Series. They debuted their rhythm dance at the French Masters de Patinage, but did not allow it to be broadcast on the live stream, so both of their dances are still shrouded in secrecy.
Americans Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue have a tough schedule, headlining the first two events, Skate America and Skate Canada International. In both events, they get to be the “home team;” as the top-ranked American team, they are expected to win Skate America this week, and as the top-ranked team from the Montréal International Skating School, they are also expected to win Skate Canada. At Skate Canada, they could face fierce competition from Canadians Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier and Russians Victoria Sinitsina & Nikita Katsalapov, both of whom have looked well prepared with standout programs so far this year. Gilles & Poirier and Sinitsina & Katsalapov will meet again the final week of the series on neutral ground, at Internationaux de France, when it is likely that a spot in the Final will be on the line.
The two remaining events, Grand Prix of Finland and Rostelecom Cup, respectively, are a little less straightforward. In Finland, Americans Madison Chock & Evan Bates are the most experienced team and would certainly be expected to lead the field, but the team withdrew from the event on October 16 and have not been replaced at this time. Finland features Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin of Russia in their first Grand Prix, competing close to home. Chock & Bates are still listed for their second Grand Prix, so the teams will face off two weeks later at Rostelecom Cup. After a surgery earlier this year and a late start to their new training environment in Montréal, Chock & Bates are the season’s biggest question mark and Stepanova & Bukin could be favored at home in Russia.
Outside of the top teams, new contenders will be looking to make their mark during the series. This weekend at Skate America, a team will win its first Grand Prix medal. Russians Tiffani Zagorski & Jonathan Guerreiro, depending on injury recovery, may be the favorite for bronze, or perhaps it could be young Americans Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter.
Italians Charlène Guignard & Marco Fabbri will finally have the chance to compete as Italy’s top team, and based on how they looked last month at Lombardia Trophy, they are not planning to squander this opportunity. They are scheduled for Skate America and Grand Prix of Finland.
Zagorski & Guerreiro could contend for the podium at NHK Trophy along with Team USA’s Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker, who won their first and only Grand Prix medal at this event in 2014. Fellow Americans Rachel Parsons & Michael Parsons have won three silver medals this season and could also be a factor.
Two of last year’s top junior teams, Anastasia Skoptcova & Kirill Aleshin of Russia and Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko of the United States, will make their senior Grand Prix debuts. Skoptcova & Aleshin are scheduled for Canada and Japan, while Carreira & Ponomarenko are on the Finland and Russia rosters.
Without too many surprises or sudden withdrawals, it is once again possible that two silver medals, or 26 points, may be the cutoff to qualify for the Final in Vancouver.