Nice Prepares For a Battle Royale

by Jacquelyn Thayer & IDC Staff


2000-1The lovely city of Nice, on the French Riviera, has played host to the World Figure Skating Championships once before, in 2000. That year, the typically static ice dance event saw back-and-forth movement between rivals, a terrible on-ice accident, and a triumphant home team. While radical changes have been made to the sport in the 12 years since that competition, the inherent drama of the World Championships remains a constant. This year, the ice dance event is expected to feature several close battles in its record field of 38 teams. The entire season has been building to this, and the showdown here will be as spectacular as its environs.

For the reigning world champions, Meryl Davis & Charlie White of the United States, the season has been one of consistency. With minor exceptions, their programs have remained unchanged from their Grand Prix outings, with training adjustments based more on movement and expression, particularly focusing on intensifying the “Latin flavor” of their short dance. The team took gold at their first four events of the season, including the Grand Prix Final, improving upon their scores with each outing. Combined with their unbeaten season in 2010-2011, Davis & White were on a 10 event winning streak.

The Four Continent Championships, however, disrupted that trend. In home-country ice in Colorado Springs, the team earned their lowest free dance score of the season due to level 3s on most elements, and the streak was snapped as training partners and reigning Olympic Champions Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir of Canada took the top step of the podium away from the Americans for the first time since the 2010 World Championships. Davis & White have acknowledged the added incentive of the second-place finish into the World Championships.

“The role of the hunted is something we’ve had to adjust to over the last two years,” Davis said, “but the role of the hunter is something we’re very familiar with.”

White added that “it’s such a close competition between us and Scott & Tessa that it can come down to little things.” Coming off the loss at Four Continents, “I think it’s one more thing to throw into the pot to help us get ready and prepare. … We’re really doing our best to make sure we’re on top of our game and ready to go.”

Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir of Canada entered the season knowing that the 2011 World Championships were not an experience they wished to repeat. While their silver medal and first-place standing in the short dance there were remarkable achievements given their season-long absence from full competition, the lack of preparation and mileage felt “awful,” according to Virtue.

This season, the couple took significant steps to avoid a similar situation. They revamped their training approach to improve recovery for both skaters and to lessen the risk of a recurrence of Virtue’s chronic exertional compartment syndrome, while tackling a full competitive schedule, beginning with an early-season victory at Finlandia Trophy. The success of these measures has seemed to show itself in the team’s strong record thus far, with the only silver coming after a troubled Grand Prix Final outing.

“I think because of the training we’ve been able to get that mileage,” Virtue said. “And I think just finding that unison again, that comes with training the programs and getting out to compete and getting feedback, and we certainly missed that the last few years.”

In Nice, they plan to showcase a more polished form of the versions presented at the Four Continent Championships. Since the Canadian Championships in January, where Virtue & Moir almost lost the short dance to Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, the team has noted a shift in their focus from external results to the competition process itself and their own work as a unit, a mentality that has so far proven successful.

If both Davis & White and Virtue & Moir maximize their levels (as they are capable of doing), the difference between first and second may lie in the program component score. This season that mark has been as close as a .07-differential between the couples, and has not consistently favored one or the other. The only certainty, indeed, is that the showdown is a must-see.

2012Worlds-pechbourFor France’s Nathalie Péchalat & Fabian Bourzat (pictured), these home World Championships were supposed to be an ideal scenario. Last year in Moscow, the duo’s successful season results and third-place position after the short dance seemed to assure their first world medal, until a devastating fall by both skaters on the circular step sequence in the free dance dashed their hopes and left them in fourth overall behind World Championship rookies Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani of the U.S.

This season, the couple seemed likely to make up for last year’s stumble. Throughout this season, the only teams who have beaten Péchalat & Bourzat are Davis & White and Virtue & Moir. Péchalat & Bourzat took the bronze at the Grand Prix Final, finishing two spots ahead of the Shibutanis. The three-time and reigning French national champions earned their second European title in January and seemed on track to fight for a podium finish in Nice. Unfortunately, less than two weeks ago, Péchalat suffered a broken nose in a training accident. She opted against a surgical procedure that would have complicated her recovery process. The team has decided to compete in Nice as planned—with Péchalat likely to don a protective mask—but with the problems that the injury has added, a medal may be more difficult to reach than they previously had hoped. In a case such as this, however, simply competing may be a victory in itself, and they are sure to have the support of an enthusiastic crowd behind them.

With three Grand Prix silver medals and a bronze at the Four Continents Championships, Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje have had the most successful season of their career. The team finished only three points behind bronze medalists Péchalat & Bourzat at the Grand Prix Final, and they succeeded there not only in setting new ISU personal bests, but also in placing ahead of Maia & Alex Shibutani, last year’s World bronze medalists. Weaver & Poje’s push continued with a second-place finish at the Canadian Championships that exceeded last year’s event total by 11 points, and they successfully maintained their ranking ahead of the Shibutanis in the difficult altitude of the Colorado Springs Four Continents Championships. Weaver & Poje could have challenged for the podium here in normal circumstances, but given the accident to Péchalat, their odds at capping the season with one more medal have likely tipped in their favor. Although they are direct rivals to the home team, Weaver & Poje also train with them and are quick to offer compliments and respect for Péchalat & Bourzat. This, combined with a francophone selection for their free dance, could endear Weaver & Poje to the crowd, despite the rivalry.

In 2011, Maia & Alex Shibutani of the United States seized an opportunity at their first senior-level World Championships, impressively taking the bronze medal ahead of a number of more experienced teams. This season, the siblings’ results have been mixed; while NHK Trophy brought them their first Grand Prix victory, and they earned a repeat silver medal and new personal bests at the U.S. Championships, they finished fifth in their first trip to the Grand Prix Final and fourth at a personally-challenging Four Continents Championships where Alex–until the moment they finished their free dance–hid the fact that he was extremely sick. Despite these results, however, the “Shiblings” have continued to demonstrate the technical proficiency which served them so well last year. Key, too, is their fearlessness and a history that shows the big stage will not be an intimidation. Whether or not the Shibutanis can dance onto the podium for a second consecutive year remains to be seen, but never count them out of any competition they enter.

Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev, Russian champions and European silver medalists, enter the event as something of a puzzle. While the duo won gold at Cup of China, setting new personal bests in the free dance and total score, and bronze at Rostelecom Cup, their excursion to the Grand Prix Final resulted in a sixth-place finish. Europeans saw them placing a controversial first after the short dance before finishing four points behind Péchalat & Bourzat in the free to win the silver medal. At last year’s World Championships, Bobrova & Soloviev finished in sixth–Russia’s top placement in dance–a rank that could repeat itself given the Grand Prix Final results. With the number of teams in this competition capable of upward movement, however, Bobrova & Soloviev will have to present their strongest outing of the season in order to remain competitive against the Michigan-trained juggernaut.

Russia’s Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov, silver medalists at their 2012 national championships and winners of bronze medal at the European Championships, stand in the somewhat unusual position of having to skate the preliminary round in Nice. Because only two of Russia’s three couples here are direct entries—the result of having only two teams at last year’s event, even though both finished in the top 15—the couple with the lowest ISU World Ranking is required to qualify. According to the ISU, Ilinykh & Katsalapov rank just below 2012 Russian bronze medalists Ekaterina Riazanova & Ilia Tkachenko. Ilinykh & Katsalapov will almost certainly breeze through the preliminary round, so the team’s more pressing concern is presenting two technically-sound performances in the short and free dances. Their short dance at the European Championships landed them in seventh, courtesy of a level 1 no-touch step sequence and level 2 twizzles. Their third-place free dance in the same event also involved a level 2 diagonal step sequence. In fact, every international performance this season has included at least one level 2 element. If Ilinykh & Katsalapov hope to maintain or improve upon last year’s seventh-place world finish, they will need to maximize those levels.

Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte of Italy finished just off the podium at the 2012 European Championships, finishing an exceptionally close .03 points behind Ilinykh & Katsalapov, while earning a new ISU personal best in the free dance. The team fared better during the Grand Prix series, winning bronze at both Skate Canada International and Trophée Eric Bompard. At last year’s Worlds the couple came back from a difficult season to place eighth. They have the potential to improve upon that ranking this year, and their crowd-pleasing programs are likely to be a hit. Their success, like Ilinykh & Katsalapov’s, will depend upon hitting their levels. While level 2s and some missteps dropped them in the short dance at the European Championships, the technical score for their much sharper free dance was the second-highest in the competition, and the team has ranked no lower than third in that regard for most performances this year.

Russians Riazanova & Tkachenko were the fifth-place team in the closely-contested European Championships this season, finishing just .90 from the podium. They ranked third in the short dance at that event, bouncing back quite well from their season’s rough beginning, when they earned 20 points less and placed fifth behind a brand-new team at Skate Canada International. France’s Péchalat is not the only competitor in the field to have sustained a broken nose this season. Riazanova broke her nose in a training accident in December, sustaining a concussion as well, and had to recover quickly for the Russian Championships, where they finished third. Riazanova & Tkachenko have turned in respectable results in each of their three seasons together, but this will be their first opportunity to make a statement at the World Championships.

Both the U.S. and Canadian teams are rounded out by senior World Championships newcomers who are capable of making solid debuts. One team is in the first year of their partnership and the other is wrapping up their tenth season together. Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue of the United States are coming off a rather troubled outing at Four Continents, even though the event did give them a new personal best in the short dance. The added experience, however, builds on a foundation already established with strong performances at Nebelhorn Trophy, where the couple won gold, and Skate America, where they finished sixth overall, but third in the free dance.

Canadians Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill also competed at Nebelhorn Trophy and Skate America, earning the bronze medal at the former and finishing fifth overall at the latter. While the team finished fourth at the Canadian Championships, the temporary restriction prohibiting bronze medalist Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier from competing internationally provided an excellent opportunity for their training mates, Ralph & Hill, to earn their first trip to the big event.

France’s second entry is Pernelle Carron & Lloyd Jones, who were ranked seventh in Europe this season and won their first Grand Prix medal earlier in the season at Cup of China. They have finished 12th in each of the past two World Championships and would love to sneak into the top ten at home. Like Péchalat & Bourzat, Carron & Jones moved to the United States for training last year—they now work with Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov in Aston, Penn.

Nelli Zhiganshina & Alexander Gazsi of Germany could also challenge for a spot in the top ten. Last year, they were 11th at their first World Championship appearance since 2008 and this year has seen them produce solid results while keeping up with a busy competitive schedule. They have collected three gold medals (German Championships, Ondrej Nepela Memorial, and Golden Spin), a silver medal (Nebelhorn Trophy), two fourth-place Grand Prix finishes, and an eighth-place ranking at the European Championships.

For the second year in a row, the ISU has instituted a qualifying round for all disciplines in order to cut the field and save expenses. Skaters from countries with competitors that placed in the top 15 in Ice Dance in the 2011 Championships are entered directly in the short dance. (It does not matter which skaters competed in 2011; only their country is considered.) Member countries that are unable to fill their quota through Direct entries may enter the remainder of their competitors in the Preliminary (qualifying) Round.

In 2011, Russia had two teams whose placements (6th + 7th = 13) earned them a third team in 2012. Even though Ilinykh & Katsalapov were one of those two teams, they must qualify this year while Riazanova & Tkachenko get the “free pass” to the short dance. In 2010, Takahiko Kozuka of Japan was the second highest of the three Japanese men, yet he had to go through qualifying in 2011. Having to go through qualifying is not necessarily a bad thing, as Kozuka won the silver medal in the men’s event and was the top finisher of the three Japanese entries.

This year, 23 dance teams will be required to go through qualifying. The top 10 teams in qualifying move on to the short dance for a total of 25 couples (15 Direct entries and 10 Preliminary Round entries). Competitors placing in the top 20 in the short dance move on to the free dance.

The preliminary round of 23 teams will feature a few teams of note in addition to Ilinykh & Katsalapov. Great Britain’s Penny Coomes & Nicholas Buckland, who finished sixth at the European Championships, will aim to build on their personal best results from that event. Also hoping for a good finish are Xintong Huang & Xun Zheng, Chinese national champions who placed in the middle of the pack at both Cup of China and Trophée Eric Bompard. Sara Hurtado & Adria Diaz of Spain, who last year did not advance past the short dance, will seek to improve upon their 2011 results with the guidance of new coaches and two-time World silver medalists Marie-France Dubreuil & Patrice Lauzon.

Official practice begins Sunday, with the preliminary round of ice dance set for Monday, March 26. The short dance is scheduled for Wednesday, March 28, and the free dance the following evening.