by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photo by Robin Ritoss

Six of the world’s top junior teams are ready to hit the ice in Sochi, Russia, for the Junior Grand Prix (JGP) Final. They will become the first international dancers to compete at the 2014 Olympic skating venue. It will be a home event for many here: four of the six entries are Russian and will have the support of the home crowd. Two teams from the U.S. and France hope to play podium spoilers, though. 

Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin of Russia, bronze medalists at both 2010 and 2011’s JGP Final and reigning world junior silver medalists, have made a case for themselves on this year’s JGP circuit as the team to beat. Their victories at JGP Bosphorus Cup in Turkey and JGP Chemnitz were made with this year’s highest junior scores of 147.73 and 147.10. Their margins of victory were also impressive—11 points in Turkey and almost nine at Chemnitz—with the team also taking first in both short and free dances at each event. Even with those dominant results, they have likely worked to improve upon certain vulnerabilities in the months since their last event. At neither outing did the team achieve a level 4 on their blues patterns, and their short dance in Chemnitz also earned only level 3s on the twizzles and no-touch step sequence. While their Bolero free dance in Turkey netted the team a new personal best of 88.41, step sequences were a particular issue in the program at Chemnitz, with both picking up only level 2s. However, all other elements in that program were level 4 with good GOEs, demonstrating the team’s technical prowess. Stepanova & Bukin stand a very good chance at victory in Sochi; their key challenge may simply be to improve upon their own efforts and work towards breaking the personal bests they established last year.

 Americans Alexandra Aldridge & Daniel Eaton are making their second appearance at the JGP Final after finishing fourth at last year’s event. The team earned the second berth to this year’s competition after wins at both JGP Lake Placid and JGP Sencila Bled Cup in Slovenia, where they earned their season’s best total of 138.43. While the team has delivered strong technical marks, holding a 2-6 point edge in the TES over their closest following competitors at both events, their performances at Slovenia were a bit weaker than those at Lake Placid, with Aldridge faltering on the twizzles in the free dance. The short dance is the couple’s weaker event, even as its outing at Slovenia provided the team with a new personal best score of 58.46. Their blues patterns have been inconsistent; though they succeeded in hitting all key points in one sequence at Slovenia, their other three have received levels 1 and 2. The midline no-touch step sequence has also likely seen some work since that event, having been called a level 2 in both outings. Their free dance to a medley from Fiddler on the Roof will be the team’s major asset, and if performed as sharply as it was at Lake Placid, the team will certainly contend for their first JGP Final medal. 

13jgpf-papadakiscizeronGabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron of France (pictured, right) are first-time entrants to the JGP Final; previously the team qualified as third alternates in 2010’s event. They are also two-time gold medalists this season, having earned victories at JGP Courchevel (France) and JGP Linz (Austria), where they earned the season’s third-highest total of 142.08. Austria was a particular highlight for the team, who set new personal bests in both the short and free dances. Their technical marks at both events indicate a few areas in which the team could make up more ground here with an even stronger outing, with their blues patterns at both events ranging from levels 1 to 3 and all non-lift elements in the free dance in Austria receiving level 3s. Notably, however, Papadakis & Cizeron are the only team here to have completed an additional competition since their last JGP event. They won silver at November’s NRW Trophy, where they were able to test some changes made to their programs. That extra mileage may give them an edge; at the very least, the team succeeded there in achieving their first level 4 on the blues and presenting a very technically sound free dance, putting them on the right track for success here.   

Despite entering as one of the more experienced teams, Russia’s Valeria Zenkova & Valerie Sinitsin are also making their first trip to the JGP Final after ranking as second alternates in 2011. The team qualified this year with a silver at JGP Courchevel and subsequent gold at JGP Croatia Cup in Zagreb. As well as defeating national rivals Evgenia Kosigina & Nikolai Moroshkin in Zagreb, Zenkova & Sinitsin also established new personal bests in all categories, including a total of 134.63, an almost nine-point increase over their result at Courchevel. In Zagreb, the team put forward a strong performance of their free dance to selections from Cats, but a slightly more mixed bag in the short dance, where their level 3 twizzles netted a negative GOE and their level 2 and 3 blues patterns revealed some inconsistency after one level 4 at Courchevel. Notwithstanding, they also improved their PCS at the second event, making a particularly impressive gain there of nearly two points in the free dance. If such a trend continues here, technical consistency, then, may be the central factor in what makes or breaks Zenkova & Sinitsin’s results.  

This will be the second JGP Final appearance for Evgenia Kosigina & Nikolai Moroshkin (RUS), who finished sixth at the event in 2010 and were third alternates for last year’s competition. The team won two silver medals on this year’s circuit, at Lake Placid and Zagreb, both times finishing first in the short dance. They also achieved new personal bests in that segment at Lake Placid (59.44) and with their Michael Jackson medley free dance at Zagreb (77.89), as well as a new personal best total of 135.24 at Lake Placid. Making the team unique among competitors here is their achievement in having hit all key points in the short dance in their first event. Unfortunately, that success was not repeated in Zagreb, with timing problems affecting the first sequence in particular. The team has also struggled a bit with both free dance step sequences, with the circular receiving levels 2 and 1, respectively, at its two outings. Where the couple’s particular advantage may lie is in the PCS; in Zagreb, their program components of 27.48 and 41.69 were top among all competitors in both short and free dance, and they also demonstrated an improvement of about 1.5 points from Lake Placid. Though it may not be sufficient to push them to the top ranks, it does indicate one advantage held over some other close competitors here.  

Russians Anna Yanovskaya & Sergey Mozgov won silver in their first trip to the JGP Final in 2011, and have so far continued similar results on this year’s circuit, taking silver in both Austria, where they set their season’s best of 135.02, and Slovenia. Their marks this season have been something of a letdown from the personal bests established last year, though their PCS of 27.10 in the short dance at Slovenia was a new high. That performance was less successful on the technical end, with their second blues pattern earning a level 1 and the first coming dangerously close to the boards. The blues was also problematic in their first competition, with both timing and missed key points lowering their marks considerably, and this will be an element they’ll have sought to train carefully in the last months. Their Arabian-themed free dance at both events was stronger, though one problem area has been their spin, which has achieved only a level 3 on each outing. While their chances of repeating last year’s Final results will be daunting in this year’s field, experience and two sharper performances may help them move up the ladder here for another good finish.

The alternates list features three strong teams that earned medals on the JGP circuit this year. Germany’s Shari Koch & Christian Nüchtern are first alternates; they recently defeated Papadakis & Cizeron at NRW Trophy. A pair of Canadian teams, Madeline Edwards & ZhaoKai Pang and Andréanne Poulin & Marc-André Servant, are the second and third alternates, respectively. 

The junior dance event begins with the short dance on Thursday, December 6, and wraps with the free dance on Friday.