by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photo by Robin Ritoss

This week, Milan, Italy, will host its first World Junior Figure Skating Championships, welcoming 35 young teams, from those hoping to make their first international splash to those aiming for a top finish. The stakes here are also in play at the national level; while Russia and the U.S. seem poised to maintain three spots for next year’s event, Canada may also be in position to try for three with its up-and-coming couples. France also seems poised to pick up its best result in recent years, with an excellent chance at a medal.

Preliminary rounds were eliminated this year, which has made entry to this year’s ISU championships more challenging than in past years. The ISU has introduced a required minimum technical score, in this case, 17.00 for the short dance and 27.00 for the free. However, this year’s field actually includes one more team than did last year’s, with only one fewer country represented, indicating that the minimums at this level have been within reason.

step-bukin-jgpf122012 World Junior silver medalists Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin (pictured)(RUS) are far and away the favorites heading into this year’s event. The team swept their Junior Grand Prix events, including the final, winning by a more than 10-point margin at that competition and also earning the highest season total for a junior dance team with their score of 149.57. That mark is also the 13th best score overall this season, among any junior or senior team. Their flamenco free dance has been especially well-received, with their PCS in that segment distancing them considerably from their competitors. However, the team has not competed since the JGP, having received a bye through this month’s Russian Junior Nationals due to a sinus infection for Bukin. While they are likely to return strong here, their comparative lack of recent competitive mileage may be the couple’s one weakness versus the rest of the field. Bukin also brings to the team a championship ice dance heritage – he’s the son of Andrei Bukin, four-time World Champion and 1988 Olympic champion with Natalia Bestemianova. 

France’s Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron finished fifth at last year’s Junior Worlds, but have made a major splash on the scene this season, winning both JGP Courchevel and JGP Linz and taking second at the JGP Final. The team has also fared well at smaller events, capturing silver in the junior division at October’s NRW Ice Dance Trophy and junior gold at the International Trophy of Lyon. They have established new ISU personal bests in all categories this season, including the season’s second-best junior free dance score for their program to selections from Pink Floyd. The team’s overall best is also nearly 4 points better than that of the next-placed teams this season, and given their long experience on the international scene – having first competed at Junior Worlds in 2010—they should be in good position to make a very strong podium push here.

Two-time U.S. junior national champions Alexandra Aldridge & Daniel Eaton captured bronze at last year’s junior worlds as well as at this year’s JGP Final. The team has seen their most successful season overall to date, capturing gold at both JGP Lake Placid and JGP Sencila Bled Cup, as well as setting international personal bests in both the short dance and free dance. But while their Fiddler on the Roof free has been successful for them, with its score of 83.59 at the JGP Final the third-highest among junior couples, the short dance has presented more challenges to them technically. At the U.S. Championships, however, the two were able to achieve level 4s on all elements except for a level 3 on the no-touch step sequence, by far their strongest technical outing yet. If they can build on that success here, they stand in good stead to repeat, if not exceed, last year’s achievement.

Gold medalists at Russian Junior Nationals, Valeria Zenkova & Valerie Sinitsin are finally making their debut at Junior Worlds, after five years of competition on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. They have had a solid season that began with silver at JGP Courchevel and gold at JGP Croatia Cup, a competition where they also earned new personal bests in all categories including a total of 134.63. Though the team finished only fifth at the JGP Final, they had the fourth-best TES for both their short and their Cats free dance, and securing those levels may give them a boost here. As is the case for a few other teams at this event, this will also be their last hurrah on the junior scene. With Sinitsin turning 21 in March, the team will be aging out of the junior ranks and preparing to enter a very competitive Russian senior field. Finishing well here will be an important step towards establishing a good impression for next year.

Newly-minted Canadian junior champions Madeline Edwards & ZhaoKai Pang had an excellent fall, achieving bronze at both JGP Courchevel and JGP Bosphorus Cup in only their second year competing on the Junior Grand Prix. Although their PCS has so far been ranked behind that of the more established teams here, their very good technical marks have kept them in the game, and at their second event, they succeeded in setting new personal bests, including a total of 135.01. Their free dance to selections from The Artist has been a particular boon, placing second in the segment at Bosphorus Cup and pulling them up from a fourth-place position after the short dance. Given their youth, the experience here should set them up well to make a greater push internationally next season.

Russian junior national silver medalists Evgenia Kosigina & Nikolai Moroshkin placed sixth at the JGP Final after taking double silver at JGP Lake Placid and JGP Croatia Cup. They will be making their second career trip to Junior Worlds, having placed sixth at the event in 2011. The team, who this year worked part-time with Igor Shpilband, have put up their best numbers this season, including a total of 135.24. At both JGP events, they finished first in the short dance, so their Michael Jackson medley free dance may be their weaker point. Although their PCS is solid, the levels on their step sequences have been low and indicate the biggest room for improvement. If they can put up two strong technical performances here, however, they should be in the mix for a top five finish.

Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker, who teamed up only last June, earned silver at U.S. Nationals after a fifth-place finish at JGP Bosphorus Cup and silver at JGP Chemnitz. While their results already demonstrate a trajectory of quick success, their total of 138.43 at Chemnitz is particularly noteworthy— it is the third-highest international total among all junior teams. Of course, scores cannot be compared across competitions, and though their ISU season’s best is 0.18 points ahead of the top total from Detroit Skating Club training mates Aldridge & Eaton, Aldridge & Eaton bested them by 10 points at the U.S. Championships. However, marks that strong, as well as a consistent pattern of top four PCS at each of their events, do suggest that international panels think well of Hawayek & Baker. Their goal here will be to lay the groundwork for an even better 2013-14 season, and they should certainly be able to do so with two more solid performances. 

Germany’s Shari Koch & Christian Nüchtern, who placed ninth at 2012 Junior Worlds, were another to complete a strong JGP series, finishing fourth at JGP Linz and winning silver at JGP Bosphorus Cup, where they also set new personal bests. Significantly, the team also had a somewhat surprise victory over Papadakis & Cizeron at their home event, NRW Ice Dance Trophy. With the team in their fifth season of international competition, they’ve also seen their greatest success, and will aim here to conclude their junior career on a high note. 

In their second year competing internationally, Mackenzie Bent & Garrett Mackeen picked up some very good results with a bronze at JGP Linz—where they established personal bests in all categories—and a fourth-place finish at JGP Croatia Cup. The team’s silver medal at the Canadian Figure Skating Championships netted them their first trip to Junior Worlds, where they should be in position to build on their success with a potential top 10 finish. Both Canadian teams should finish in the top ten if they skate well; it will be exciting to see if their placements can total 13 or less, which would allow Canada to send three teams to next year’s World Junior Championships.   

U.S. bronze medalists Lorraine McNamara, 14, & Quinn Carpenter, 17, are among the youngest competitors here. Despite their youth, however, they have put up very good interanational results to date, with a sixth-place finish behind a few top teams at JGP Courchevel and fourth in an even stronger field at JGP Bosphorus Cup. Their goal is simply to have have two good performances, and this competition should be a major building block for next season.

Junior Worlds marks the last chance for Uzbekistan’s Anna Nagornyuk & Viktor Kovalenko to obtain the required short dance TES minimum of 29.00 for senior Worlds. The team did well enough on the Junior Grand Prix, including a fourth-place finish and a new personal best total and short dance score at JGP Sencila Bled Cup. While their TES at the latter event came close to the requirement at 27.00, their tenth-place result at Four Continents earlier this month only netted them 22.14. The minimum, however, has proven quite challenging to obtain, as has been demonstrated by the number of up-and-coming teams who will be missing this year’s cut-off, and Nagornyuk & Kovalenko have a much better chance at earning those points with the blues pattern than with the Yankee Polka.  

As a last note of interest, a third team who competed at the Canadian Figure Skating Championships will also be appearing here. Nicole Kuzmich & Jordan Hockley, who placed 14th in Canada last month, will now be representing Slovenia. The team, who trains at the Scarboro Figure Skating Club alongside Bent & MacKeen, made their international debut at the Bavarian Open, where they finished 15th and met the necessary TES minimums to qualify for this competition.

The competition opens with the short dance on Wednesday, February 27, while the free dance is slated for Friday, March 1.