by Katerina Tetzloff & Melanie Hoyt | Photo by Robin Ritoss

Last weekend, one of the most important competitions of the year was held in the small resort town of Oberstdorf, Germany, from September 26 to 28. Nebelhorn Trophy is traditionally one of the first competitions of the senior international season, but this year, it took on special significance as the last-chance Olympic qualifier.

Some of the countries that sent teams to Nebelhorn had already earned Olympic spots at the 2013 World Championships, but for the rest of the teams, it was a close race for the five final spots for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. The countries that earned these last, envied Olympic spots were Turkey, China, Australia, Japan, and Spain. In addition to having a spot, a minimum technical element score of 18 in the short dance and 28 in the free dance is required. All of the teams that earned Olympic spots reached these benchmarks, which are lower than the scores needed to skate at the World Championships.

13Neb-DSD-3216-HD-RRAmericans Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue (pictured) took home the gold medal from Oberstdorf. Though Donohue had a small problem with his twizzle in the short dance, the rest of their program was clean and entertaining, putting them into second place after the first phase of competition. Skating a dramatic and expressive free dance to “Nocturne” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Hubbell & Donohue leaped to the top, scoring 90.58 in the free dance. Their total score was 147.11, nearly five points above the rest of the field.

Representing Russia, Ksenia Monko & Kirill Khaliavin skated an extremely fast and upbeat Finnstep to a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy song. They were one of only two teams who earned a level three on both of the compulsory dance sequences. With a third-place finish after the short dance, Monko & Khaliavin skated a creative and entertaining free dance to selections from Rene Aubry and Gaetano Donizetti. Despite a one-point deduction for an extended lift, they finished in second with a score of 142.14.

Canada’s Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam took the lead after the short dance. Their George Gershwin, classical-themed program earned them a score of 59.06, giving them a 2.5-point lead. Unfortunately, they were not able to keep this lead due to a bobble on the twizzle sequence in the free dance. Since Paul’s mistake was early on the first twizzle, they earned no credit for this element. This made a huge dent in their score and bumped them down two places.  Nevertheless, they ended on the podium in third with a combined score of 141.99, an improvement from last year’s fifth-place finish at this event.

The real drama took place in the standings below the podium, as teams fought hard for the chance to go to the Olympic Games.

Xintong Huang & Xun Zheng of China took the first spot to Sochi. They were just over eight points from the podium, earning 133.90 points after a fifth-place short dance and a fourth-place free dance. Huang & Zheng looked especially strong in the short dance, given that they had been out of international competition for almost a year. Xiaoyang Yu & Chen Wang, Huang & Zheng’s longtime domestic rivals, have reportedly split, so Huang & Zheng likely won the Sochi spot for themselves.

Places five through seven were extremely close, but all three of these teams qualified for Sochi.

Alisa Agafonova & Alper Ucar won the second spot for Turkey with their fifth-place finish. They scored 127.53 and were fourth in the short dance and seventh in the free dance. Timing errors kept Agafonova & Ucar from getting out of the short dance at the 2013 World Championships, but their compulsory portion was particularly well-done at Nebelhorn; they earned level 3 for both sequences of the Finnstep. Agafonova is Ukrainian by birth, and is seeking Turkish citizenship. If she is unable to go to Sochi, Turkey has homegrown younger team, Cagla Demirsal & Berk Akalin, that could be sent.

Aussies Danielle O’Brien & Gregory Merriman have experienced two major disappointments in their skating career. First, they missed a chance to qualify for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games when Merriman fell ill during Nebelhorn. Next, they barely missed meeting the technical minimum to qualify for the World Championships last season. All of that disappointment melted away when they earned an Olympic berth with their sixth-place, 127.20-point finish at Nebelhorn. They are only the second Australian dance team to ever qualify for the Olympic Games. Australia had plenty to celebrate last week; their men’s and ladies entrants also qualified.

Cathy Reed & Chris Reed overcame an incredible situation to qualify a spot for Japan. Chris Reed tore his meniscus in August and had been training on this serious injury for weeks, without telling his sister. It was a risky move, but it paid off. They finished seventh with a score of 126.97.

Another series of tiny margins separated the next group of teams. Less than two points separated eighth place from 13th. Unfortunately, only the top team from this group earned the chance to compete in Sochi.

Sara Hurtado & Adria Diaz of Spain were that team, emerging from the pack with a total of 119.76 points. Oddly enough, their dances were ranked 10th and 11th, but overall, they finished eighth. They are the first dance team to ever represent Spain internationally and, therefore, the first Spanish dance team to qualify as Olympians. A problem with one of their lifts slapped them with a two-point illegal element deduction, but they managed to hang on and score a spot.

Federica Testa & Lukas Csolley of Slovakia earned the first alternate spot, scoring 118.93. Poland’s Justyna Plutowska & Peter Gerber nearly nabbed that fifth spot, rallying with an eighth-place free dance after a 14th-place short dance, but ended up less than a point shy of the Spaniards, with 118.86.  Angelina Telegina & Otar Japaridze, representing Georgia, scored 118.66 to finish 11th.

With at least one citizenship issue that has not yet been resolved, it is possible that the alternate list will come into play. However, that news is likely several months away. For now, Nebelhorn Trophy has shown that a myriad of talented teams are ready to have their best seasons yet.