by Melanie Hoyt

The Junior Grand Prix is already in its fourth week, and skaters around the world have been competing in domestic events and proving themselves during test skates for their federation officials for several months already. Something about Nebelhorn Trophy, though, the first major senior international competition, just feels like the start of the skating season.

At this year’s Nebelhorn Trophy, held in the picturesque setting of Oberstdorf, Germany, 14 teams from 11 countries will vie for the first senior medals of the season. A few unexpected withdrawals have left the roster looking thinner than originally expected, but plenty of teams ready to make the next step in their competitive careers will offer an exciting event. This year, the season takes on extra significance, as it is an opportunity for competitors to earn the minimum score of 111.15 that is required for participation in the Grand Prix.

One of the most anticipated performances at Nebelhorn is the international debut of new team Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue. The American team generated some buzz at their initial events, Skate Detroit and the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, and earned one of the host pick assignments to Skate America. They will have to reach the minimum score this weekend to keep that assignment, but considering that their combined total in Lake Placid was 126.35, they should not have a problem. Despite having a young partnership of only six months, the team generates a lot of chemistry in both dances, but look for them to really make a statement with the edgy choreography in their free dance based around “I Put a Spell On You.”

Joining Hubbell & Donohue from Team USA are their Detroit Skating Club training mates, Anastasia Olson & Jordan Cowan. This year is Olson & Cowan’s first on the senior level, and in Lake Placid, they proved that they are ready for the transition with improved presentation, connection, and maturity. Their “James Bond” free dance will certainly be a crowd-pleaser this year. The 2011 U.S. pewter medalists on the junior level have limited international experience, so Nebelhorn marks an excellent opportunity for them to make a splash overseas.

After a breakthrough season last year, the home team, Nelli Zhiganshina & Alexander Gazsi, has a terrific opportunity to stand on the podium. Without any Grand Prix assignments last year, Zhiganshina & Gazsi competed in five senior B events, accumulating two gold medals, a silver, a bronze, and a fourth-place at the 2010 Nebelhorn Trophy. When they finally made it back to the 2011 World Championships, three years after their previous appearance, they placed a solid 11th. Due to several withdrawals, Zhiganshina & Gazsi are the only German team skating this week.

Kharis Ralph & Asher HillCanada is sending the fourth- and fifth-place teams from the 2011 Canadian Championships, Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill (pictured, right) and Tarrah Harvey & Keith Gagnon. Ralph & Hill were quite successful as juniors, including a fourth-place finish at the 2010 Junior Grand Prix Final. Last year, they enjoyed a solid initial season on the senior circuit, which included a sixth-place ranking at Trophée Eric Bompard. They have competed each of their dances this season in summer events, and with plenty of time to work through feedback, they should be able to continue improving this week in Oberstdorf. Ralph & Hill are assigned to Skate America and could earn a second Grand Prix, since they are starting to rise toward the top of the alternates list.

Harvey & Gagnon chose to tackle an aggressive summer competition schedule, including competing in both dances at Lake Placid and Minto Summer Skate during the same weekend, before skating again at their home event, BC Summer Skate, a couple of weeks later. At Minto, they defeated Ralph & Hill in the free dance. They improved steadily during the competitions and earned Canada’s host pick assignment at Skate Canada. This will be their Grand Prix debut, as long as they meet the minimum score this week. Harvey & Gagnon are making their second consecutive trip to Nebelhorn Trophy. They finished ninth last year and are on track to improve upon that ranking this year.

Cathy Reed & Chris Reed, siblings skating for Japan, are among the most experienced teams in Oberstdorf this week. Last year, they picked up a pair of seventh-place finishes on the Grand Prix and were ranked 13th at the World Championships. With two Grand Prix assignments again this year (NHK Trophy and Rostelecom Cup), they are starting this season early with their first-ever appearance at Nebelhorn.

Isabella Tobias & Deividas Stagniunas, representing Lithuania, also hope to improve their Nebelhorn ranking after an 11th-place finish last year at their debut. Now in their second year together, the team is coming off a season with solid outings, including a 14th-place finish at the 2011 World Championships. They are scheduled to make their Grand Prix debut as a team this year at Rostelecom Cup.

The short dance competition is scheduled for Thursday at 2 p.m. and the free dance will close the event on Saturday, also at 2 p.m.