by Melanie Heaney | Photos by Daphne Backman & Robin Ritoss

This week at Nebelhorn Trophy, ice dance teams will battle for five remaining qualification spots to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Nebelhorn Trophy, held annually in Oberstdorf, Germany, often draws a mix of top-ranked and less experienced teams, but as the last-chance Olympic qualifier, the vibe will feel different this year.

As the roster for the entire competition is larger than usual across all four disciplines, most countries were allowed only a single entry in each discipline. The host nation, Germany, was allowed to send more than one dance team, but would have had to designate a single team for the qualification race. Presumably to avoid a situation in which the non-designated team finishes above the designated team, Germany entered only one team in the event. Only two countries that have already qualified for the Olympic Games in ice dance, the United States and Canada, are sending teams to compete in Oberstdorf, so the main focus of the event will be on Olympic qualification.

Penny Coomes & Nicholas Buckland (GBR)

One of the most anticipated performances in the dance event will be that of Great Britain’s Penny Coomes & Nicholas Buckland. This will be their first competition since Coomes shattered her knee over a year ago and on top of that, they need to qualify a spot for their country if they want a chance to attend a third Olympic Games. As long as they skate reasonably, qualifying should not be a problem for Coomes & Buckland, as they are the only team that has ever finished in the top ten at the World Championships, medaled on the Grand Prix circuit, and topped 160 points internationally (their personal best is 173.17).

Another team to watch in Oberstdorf will be Yura Min & Alexander Gamelin of South Korea. Two years ago, it looked like South Korea would have a three-team race for their national ice dance title this year, but Min & Gamelin are the only team of the three that remain this season. Fortunately, Gamelin was awarded South Korean citizenship last month. As the host nation for the Olympic Games, South Korea is allowed to add an entry in the individual events (not the team event), but only if the additional athlete quota of ten extra athletes is not used on entrants for the team event. Since it will be a few months before the team qualification is done and it is known how many additional athletes from the quota will be assigned to teams, Min & Gamelin will surely feel more comfortable if they secure their own spot this weekend. They finished fourth at Ondrej Nepela Trophy last week, scoring 141.78 and defeating several teams that are also on the Nebelhorn roster, so as long as they compete well, they are looking good to qualify.

Only two teams that skated the free dance at the World Championships last season missed earning an Olympic berth in Helsinki. One team was Min & Gamelin and the other was Kavita Lorenz & Joti Polizoakis of Germany. They are returning to the site of the first big splash that they made as a team—they finished fourth with a third-place free dance at 2015 Nebelhorn—to chase an Olympic berth in the most important skate of their young, volatile partnership. Lorenz & Polizoakis actually split for a few months in spring 2016, but reteamed and fought their way back to the World Championships last season. If they are able to secure a spot for Germany, they will have another fight this season, as the race to become the top German team should be even closer this year.

Japan’s Kana Muramoto & Chris Reed have already skated well this season, beginning with a solid short dance at Dance Chicago and continuing with a bronze medal effort two weekends ago at the U.S. International Classic in Sat Lake City. It was the 60-point short dance that was most encouraging, considering that Muramoto & Reed missed the cut for the free dance at the World Championships last season. They did have a pair of level two elements in the short at the U.S. Classic, though, so they will need to focus on clean edges and turns as they compete this week. Japan will surely qualify for the team event in Pyeongchang, but they do not, as of yet, have pairs or dance qualified for the individual events. Should Muramoto & Reed miss qualification this week, they will likely get tapped to skate in the team event in Pyeongchang.

Kana Muramoto & Chris Reed (JPN)

While the aforementioned four teams have established themselves as frontrunners for the remaining spots, the rest of the competition is quite difficult to predict. While only five spots are officially awarded at Nebelhorn, it is likely that the first alternates will get the nod to book their flights quite soon, as Denmark is unable to fill their spot with athletes with Danish citizenship.

Cortney Mansour & Michal Ceska had a year of upward momentum in 2016, beginning with a 13th-place finish at the 2016 European Championships and ending with setting a new personal best of 148.50 at Golden Spin last December, but injury struck and the team was forced to withdraw from the ISU championships in 2017. They finished only seventh last week at Ondrej Nepela Trophy and were about 15 points off their personal best, but it was their first competition in about nine months. If they can correct a few small mistakes and hit higher levels this week, they could be in the mix.

Finland’s Cecilia Törn & Jussiville Partanen unfortunately missed skating the free dance in front of a home crowd at the 2017 World Championships and finished only 24th, but they were 18th in 2016 in Boston. If they can regain the form they had in that season, when they also set their ISU personal best score of 142.90, they certainly have a shot this week. Törn & Partanen were out early this year, debuting in Lake Placid in late July, where they were only 11th. They looked to be in better shape a few weeks ago at Lombardia Trophy, finishing fifth.

Armenia’s Tina Garabedian & Simon Proulx-Senecal were only 25th last season the World Championships, but they looked to be in their best shape yet when they began their season in Lake Placid. A tough fall on their lift in the short dance took forced them to withdraw from the competition, but they were back with a respectable sixth-place showing at the recent U.S. Classic in Salt Lake City.

Anastasia Galyeta & Avidan Brown, representing Azerbaijan, also looked better than ever in Lake Placid. A recent coaching change to Igor Shpilband has brought more precision and athleticism to their skating. While they were only tenth in Lake Placid, they have had more than a month and a half to take in their feedback and focus on improvement for this event.

Latvia’s Olga Jakushina & Andrey Nevskiy have a sky-high personal best of 150.81, set at 2016 Warsaw Cup, where they topped the 60-point threshold in the short dance. However, they were unable to match that effort at the World Championships last year, where they finished 29th, nine places away from making the cut for the free dance. They were tenth last week at Nepela.

Viktoria Kavaliova & Yurii Bieliaiev of Belarus have to be considered as well, if only due to their experience. Like Törn & Partanen, they set their personal best of 148.08 back in fall 2015, and it was at a home event. They have competed at the World Championships five times, although they have never qualified for the free dance, and they are one of only a few teams on the roster that have competed on the Grand Prix circuit. The competitive highlight is a 16th-place finish at the 2016 European Championships.

Two true wild cards that were absent from the 2017 World Championships are facing their first and only chance to qualify for Pyeongchang are Anna Yanovskaya & Adam Lukacs of Hungary and Lucie Mysliveckova & Lukas Csolley of Slovakia.

Yanovskaya & Lukacs only have international event behind them as partners, last season’s Bavarian Open, where they did not fare well. Yanovskaya was the 2015 world junior champion with Sergey Mozgov, then competing for Russia. Lukacs showed quite a bit of promise with former partner Carolina Moscheni. They have only been together since late last year, but spent time this summer working with Shpilband and could look quite different this season.

Mysliveckova & Csolley were also a new team last year and picked up a couple of international medals last fall—gold at Volvo Open Cup and bronze at Warsaw Cup—before going on to place 16th at the 2017 European Championships. They had to withdraw from the World Championships, though. While new together, both partners have been in the position of facing Olympic qualification at Nebelhorn before. Mysliveckova qualified for the 2010 Olympic Games (skating for the Czech Republic) at 2009 Nebelhorn Trophy, but broke her elbow before the Games and was unable to go. She came out of a two-year retirement to skate with Csolley. Csolley and former partner, Federica Testa, competed at 2013 Nebelhorn Trophy and found themselves in the heartbreaking position of being first alternates to the 2014 Olympic Games. They were left hanging for a few months, but all countries used their spots and they were not tapped to compete in Sochi. Now, Mysliveckova & Csolley have a chance to qualify together, but they will need to skate better than they did a few weeks ago at Lombardia Trophy, where a 129.06 point effort left them in seventh place.

Karina Manta & Joe Johnson (USA)

While technically competing for an Olympic berth, the brand-new team of Allison Reed & Saulius Ambrulevicius would most likely not be able to use their spot, even if they qualify. They represent Lithuania, and given the steps that Isabella Tobias had to take to earn citizenship four years ago, it is not expected that Reed could acquire a Lithuanian passport in time for the Games. They are on track to compete well here, though, having just finished sixth at Ondrej Nepela Trophy last week.

The Canadian and American entries will also not figure into the Olympic race as those countries have already qualified, but both teams should figure into the top ten if they skate well.

Karina Manta & Joseph Johnson of the United States earned this assignment after a fifth-place showing at the Lake Placid Ice Dance International. Their ISU personal best of 137.76 was set last year in Salt Lake City, but having topped 145 in Lake Placid, they are an upward trajectory and could break into the top five here.

Canada’s Haley Sales & Nikolas Wamsteeker did well in the short dance in Lake Placid, but they will be looking to improve upon their free dance this week. Their ISU personal best of 122.87 was set on the junior circuit in 2015, but they are certainly capable of quite a bit more and will be looking to earn a higher mark this week.

The short dance will begin the competition at Nebelhorn on Thursday morning and the free dance is set for Saturday morning.