World’s Best Juniors Turn Up the Heat in Minsk

by Melanie Hoyt


12wjc-logoThis week, 32 junior ice dance teams will descend upon Minsk, Belarus, to compete in the 2012 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. Fortunately, the temperatures have stopped descending in Minsk. The deadly cold spell the plagued the country earlier this month has snapped, and the temperatures outside should not be much worse than the temperatures at ice level. The competition will certainly heat things up inside the rink, where the rest of the world’s best junior teams try to fend off a Russian podium sweep. A sweep has only happened once before, by the Soviet Union in 1988.


For the second year in a row, the competition is divided into two segments. Countries are awarded direct entries to the short dance based on results from last year’s event, and 14 teams—many of which are top contenders—have until Wednesday to get settled in Belarus. For the remaining 18 teams, though, competition will begin on Monday with the preliminary round free dance. The top 11 finishers in that event will advance to the short dance. Between the short dance and the free dance, the field will be reduced from 25 to 20 teams.


The three Russian teams that threaten to repeat their podium sweep from the Junior Grand Prix Final are all direct entries to the short dance. They are led by Victoria Sinitsina & Ruslan Zhiganshin, the strongest team on the international junior circuit this season. Sinitsina & Zhiganshin easily won both of their Junior Grand Prix assignments, setting an ISU season’s best score of 151.10 in Innsbruck, Austria. They won the JGP Final by a margin of almost 11 points, and they took the Russian junior title at the beginning of February. It seems that only a disaster will prevent them from perfecting their season and adding a World Junior title to their list of accolades.


Russia’s second and third entries, Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin and Anna Yanovskaya & Sergey Mozgov, are more closely matched. Stepanova & Bukin have the advantage of time; they are closing in on six years together. They also won both of their JGP assignments in the fall, but took home a second consecutive bronze medal from the JGP Final, finishing behind Yanovskaya & Mozgov. The rankings were flipped at the Russian Junior Championships, when Stepanova & Bukin won the silver medal, closing the gap between them and Sinitsina & Zhiganshin to within three points. Stepanova & Bukin’s ISU season’s best score is 149.98, and if their countrymen falter, they may be ready to step in.


Yanovskaya & Mozgov have made quite a statement in their first season together. After a surprise bronze medal at their first JGP assignment, they went on to win gold at the final JGP event in Tallinn, qualifying them for the Final, where they took the silver medal. In January, Yanovskaya & Mozgov became ice dancing’s first Youth Olympic champions, setting a new season’s best of 146.96 points. At the Russian Junior Championships, they fell to fourth place in a controversial decision, but the Russian Federation chose to send them to the World Junior Championships based on the strength of their season.


The United States, Canada, France, Ukraine, and Estonia are among the countries that also have direct entries to the short dance. Many of these teams are expected to challenge the Russians for medals and fight for the rankings that determine the allotment of the next season’s assignments.


A pair of domestic rivals will lead Team USA in the dance event. Alexandra Aldridge & Daniel Eaton won a silver and a bronze medal on the JGP this year and qualified for the JGP Final, where they finished fourth. They went on to win the U.S. junior national title in January, ahead of silver medalists Lauri Bonacorsi & Travis Mager, who will be joining them in Minsk. Bonacorsi & Mager also won silver and bronze medals on the JGP circuit, but missed qualifying for the Final on a tiebreaker. Bonacorsi & Mager, in their last year of junior eligibility, are on track to improve upon their 11th-place ranking from this event last year. Rachel Parsons & Michael Parsons, the 2012 U.S. junior pewter medalists, will also compete in Minsk, but in their first year of junior competition, this is expected to be a developmental experience to end a strong season that included a fourth-place finish at the Youth Olympic Games.


12wjc-poulinservantNicole Orford & Thomas Williams are the top Canadian entry in Minsk. They have had a challenging year, since last year’s national junior title meant that they had to compete on the senior level at home, but they chose to take advantage of their last year of junior eligibility internationally. After a victory at the JGP event in Australia, they faltered at the event in Austria and missed qualifying for the JGP Final. While training their senior programs for the Canadian Championships, they put in long hours to keep their junior programs in shape, in hopes of proving that they are among the world’s top juniors this week in Minsk. Andréanne Poulin & Marc-André Servant (pictured, right) will join them on Team Canada, earning their spot by winning the Canadian junior title among a talented field of contenders. Poulin & Servant had a difficult autumn, but were back in top form in January.


Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron of France have a pair of fourth-place JGP finishes to their credit this season, but underperformed at those events. They finally hit their stride in January, winning the International Trophy of Lyon with a score of 133.06. Papadakis & Cizeron are expected to improve upon last year’s World Junior finish of 12th place. Joining them as part of the French team will be Elektra Hetman & Benjamin Allain, who missed the JGP due to injury but came back with back-to-back silver medals at the International Trophy of Lyon and the Bavarian Open.


Ukraine’s Maria Nosulia & Evgeni Kholoniuk qualified for the JGP Final this season by winning gold and bronze medals on the JGP circuit, which marked a huge jump in the rankings from last season. At the Final, though, they struggled in their programs and finished sixth, about 15 points from their season’s best score. It will be interesting to see if they can regain their momentum from the autumn in Minsk.


Irina Shtork & Taavi Rand of Estonia have plenty of experience. This will be their fifth trip to the World Junior Championships; they were 22nd in 2007 and 2008, 28th in 2010, and they jumped up to 10th place last year. They won a silver medal on the JGP this season, at home in Tallinn, and like Orford & Williams, they have tackled the challenge of skating at both the junior and senior levels.


A few teams competing in the preliminary round will have a chance to make their mark with the judges right off the bat. Germany’s Shari Koch & Christian Nüchtern are hoping to continue their strong season that began with two fourth-place JGP placements. Karolina Prochazkova & Michal Ceska of the Czech Republic, also with a fourth-place result from the JGP, should make it through the preliminary round with flying colors, as long as they have their skates this time. Last year, they were unable to compete in this event because their skates were delayed in transit.


The preliminary round is scheduled for Monday, February 27. The dance event will continue with the short dance Wednesday, and the free dance is scheduled for Friday evening.