13neb-reedsby Melanie Hoyt | Photos by Liz Chastney and Daphne Backman

Nebelhorn Trophy is traditionally one of the more exciting international competitions at the beginning of each season, but this year, the annual competition in the small town of Oberstdorf, Germany, will have extra significance. Countries will have one last chance to fight for the five remaining berths to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, awarded by final placement this weekend. It is definitely possible that alternates will end up sending representatives to the Olympics, as citizenship is always an issue for ice dance partnerships.

As usual, countries that already have Olympic spots are allowed to send a team to Nebelhorn, so it will not be the top five finishers that get spots, but rather, the top five countries that did not already qualify for the Olympics at the 2013 World Championships. The countries competing for Olympic berths are Australia, Austria, Belarus, China, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey. Elizaveta Tretiakov & Viktor Kovalenko of Uzbekistan were a late scratch when Kovalenko came down with chicken pox before they were to leave for Germany.

The frontrunners for Olympic qualification appear to be Cathy Reed & Chris Reed (pictured, right), representing Japan. The Reed siblings already have Olympic experience—they finished 17th in 2010. They have placed as high as 13th at the World Championships (in 2010), but have fought injuries and struggled in the past two seasons. After a 20th-place outing at the 2013 World Championships, they rallied to finish last season with a new personal best of 141.75 points at the World Team Trophy. The Reeds had a good first outing for the season at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships (LPIDC), where they finished second in their free dance group. If they can keep their nerves in check and compete at their best, they should be booking tickets for Sochi at the end of the week.

The only other team in the field that qualified for the free dance at the 2013 World Championships is Sara Hurtado & Adrian Diaz. The Spaniards have steadily improved their technique since they began ice dancing in 2007, and they are masters at charming an audience. Their 19th-place finish at the World Championships last season set their new personal best score of 131.28, among the highest in the field. Hurtado & Diaz began their season at LPIDC, but the week after, Diaz suffered a muscle injury that kept them from competing at the Québec Summer Championships near Montréal, where they train. If they are within striking dance after the short dance, generally their nemesis, they have a great shot at earning Spain’s first Olympic ice dance berth. Furthermore, if either Hurtado & Diaz or Sonia Lafuente qualify, Spain has a good shot at qualifying for the team competition.

Estonians Irina Shtork & Taavi Rand are another team that has already been to the Olympics, placing 23rd in 2010 when they were still primarily competing as juniors. Last season, they did well at the European Championships, with their score of 132.90 landing them in 11th place, but did not qualify for the free dance at the World Championships, where they were 25th. This will be their first competition of the season, so they are a bit of a wild card, especially considering the Finnstep’s complexity.

Chinese dancers Xintong Huang & Xun Zheng are another wild card. Like the Reeds, their peak occurred early in this quadrennial, with a 130.29-point effort at the 2011 Four Continents Championships. They also competed at the 2010 Olympics, placing 19th. Last year, they only competed on the Grand Prix Series, picking up a pair of seventh-place finishes, so it has been quite a while since their last major event. If they are at top form, they should be able to qualify a spot for China, but again, their accuracy with the Finnstep could be a major factor.

Two teams that just barely missed meeting the short dance minimum technical score for the 2013 World Championships are back this season seeking retribution. Danielle O’Brien & Gregory Merriman from Australia and Ramona Elsener & Florian Roost of Switzerland become training mates at the Detroit Skating Club (DSC) this summer. Neither team competed at Pavel Roman Memorial last season, which was where many of the European teams earned their technical minimums.

O’Brien & Merriman are at DSC year-round, and they have improved steadily since moving there in 2010. At the Four Continents Championships last season, they scored 123.88 points, a new ISU personal best, and finished eighth. O’Brien & Merriman began this season with Skate DownUnder, Australia’s first ISU senior international event, which they won with a score of 139.47. They entered Nebelhorn in 2009 to try for an Olympic berth, but a sudden illness sent Merriman to the hospital during the competition, and they were unable to compete. If they had been able to get through the competition at Nebelhorn in 2009, they would have ended up at the Olympic Games, regardless of placement. Due to citizenship issues for several teams, only 23 teams competed in Vancouver, one less than the maximum.

Elsener & Roost only temporarily relocated to DSC this summer, hoping to make enough improvements to qualify for their first Olympics. They stayed until last week, when they left to return to Europe, where they usually train in Switzerland. Elsener & Roost scored only 113.29 at the 2013 European Championships, but at Skate DownUnder last month, they finished second to O’Brien & Merriman with 134.64 points. If they can replicate that competition on a larger stage, they could contend for an Olympic berth.

Alisa Agafonova & Alper Ucar, the entrants for Turkey, had an excellent showing last year at the European Championships, where they placed 13th with 127.59 points. Unfortunately, they struggled with their timing and were given a music tempo deduction in the short dance at the World Championships, and they did not qualify for the free dance. If they can deliver a solid Finnstep, they could be a factor here. It is possible that they are not competing for their own Olympic qualification, though, since Agafonova was born in Ukraine.

Other teams that could sneak into the qualification mix are Angelina Telegina & Otar Japaridze (GEO), Allison Reed & Vasili Rogov (ISR), Justyna Plutowska & Peter Gerber (POL), Federica Testa & Lukas Csolley (SVK). Plutowska & Gerber and Reed & Rogov were neck-and-neck a couple of weeks ago at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, where they finished ninth and tenth, respectively. The latest news is that Israel will not be able to fill an Olympic spot if they earn one because Reed will not have Israeli citizenship before the deadline. Reed currently has both U.S. and Georgian citizenships, the latter of which she was given in time to compete in the 2010 Olympics with Japaridze. Japaridze is attempting to qualify for another Olympics with Ukrainian-born Telegina; they recently finished 11th at the U.S. Classic. Testa & Csolley will begin their season in Oberstdorf.

13neb-hubbdonThe teams most likely to fight for medals are not involved in the Olympic berths bloodbath. Americans Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue (pictured, left) begin their fight for one of the United States’ three Olympic spots at Nebelhorn. A win here would help cement them as international contenders, following a season in which they just missed the World team. Two seasons ago, their first as a team, they were 10th at their first World Championships. They are the 2011 Nebelhorn Trophy champions.

Russians Ksenia Monko & Kirill Khaliavin were fourth at Nebelhorn last year, in their first competition after missing the 2011-12 season due to illness. The 2011 World Junior champions lost some momentum, but picked up some speed last season by the Russian National Championships, where they were fourth.

Siobhan Heekin-Canedy & Dmitri Dun of Ukraine will attend their second Nebelhorn Trophy together after finishing sixth last year, and they have a great chance to place higher this year. They placed 14th at the 2013 World Championships, up one place from the previous year. This season, Heekin-Canedy & Dun broadened their coaching base, adding Igor Shpilband and Alexei Gorshkov to their team, which includes Galit Chait and Tyler Myles.

Canadians Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam are in a similar position to Americans Hubbell & Donohue. They are looking for a big start to the season, with hopes of earning one of their country’s Olympic spots in January. Paul & Islam began their season with strong performances at Central Ontario Summer Skate, although they were uncontested in the short dance and only competed against one team in the free dance. Paul & Islam’s 2013 season ended in disappointment with a fourth-place finish at the Canadian Championships, so they will definitely be looking to pick up some momentum this week. They were fifth at this event last year. 

Competition begins Thursday evening with the short dance. The free dance will close the event on Saturday afternoon.