In the blink of an eye, we’re already one-third of the way through the Grand Prix series (assuming all of the remaining events still happen; COVID could change things at any time) and quite a lot has happened in just two events. So let’s take a look back at what happened, what we’ve learned, and what it could all mean going forward.
Disclaimer: scores can’t necessarily be compared directly across events because of different judging panels etc., but I’m going to do it anyway! Just keep in mind that in situations where scores are close, it’s likely a toss-up who would have won in a head-to-head.
Ice is slippery and figure skating is hard. It can be easy to forget that when we’re used to watching athletes pull off incredible stunts, but if you need a reminder of how difficult the sport is, look no further than the Skate America and Skate Canada men’s events.
Across 45 programs, only THREE were clean with no falls, pops, jump calls, or negative GOE (Jimmy Ma in the Skate America short program; Nathan Chen and Makar Ignatov in the Skate Canada short program). In the Skate Canada free skate alone, there were a total of nine falls with a full two-thirds of the field having one fall or more. There were the same number of popped jumps as men competing over the two weekends.
Yes, it’s early in the season, and yes, COVID has messed up training for everyone, but we aren’t seeing anywhere near the same level of sloppiness in other disciplines. The important takeaways are: 1) the men need to step it up, and 2) anything can happen, and this will be the most unpredictable discipline all season long.
Top Scores (so far)
|Nathan Chen (SCI)||106.72||200.46||307.18|
|Vincent Zhou (SKAM)||97.43||198.13||295.56|
|Shoma Uno (SKAM)||89.07||181.61||270.68|
|Jason Brown (SCI)||94.00||165.55||259.55|
|Evgeni Semenenko (SCI)||87.71||168.30||256.01|
|Shun Sato (SKAM)||80.52||166.53||247.05|
|Makar Ignatov (SCI)||89.79||154.38||244.17|
|Keegan Messing (SCI)||93.28||145.06||238.34|
America: Bend, Don’t Break
Not so much a lesson, but a good reminder that Nathan Chen is not invincible. Dominant? Yes, absolutely. But anyone can have a bad day, and hopefully it will be for the best that Chen got a bad day out of the way early and had the opportunity to bounce back just a week later. He’s still the likely favorite going into Beijing, but we’ve seen that there are skaters out there who can challenge for the title.
Vincent Zhou has definitely shaken off the demons (or injuries) that plagued him at Worlds and has looked very solid all season long, culminating in his first Skate America title. USFS may be starting to think that they have two medal contenders on their hands, and if Zhou can continue skating well and clean up his underrotation issues, they may be right.
And rounding out the team, Jason Brown proved that he can still be competitive without quads. He took a silver medal at Skate Canada despite a botched quad Salchow attempt and a fall on the triple Axel in his free (and greatly helped by poor skates from his competitors) and is certainly a contender for a top-10 Olympic finish.
Canada: Messing plus 1
Although Skate Canada was far from Keegan Messing’s best competition, he still showed that he’s head and shoulders above his compatriots. If being the man to earn Canada’s two spots isn’t enough to send him to the Olympics, his recent results should be.
For the second spot, the main competitors are Nam Ngyuen and Roman Sadovsky, who competed at Skate America and Skate Canada respectively. They earned almost identical scores, but while Ngyuen had some scruffy skates in Las Vegas, they were nowhere near as poor as Sadovsky’s in Vancouver. If Sadovsky can skate clean, his scoring potential is way higher, and his chances already bolstered by earning that second spot at Nebelhorn. I’d say this decision is still up in the air with Sadovsky the current favorite, but he needs to show consistency and Ngyuen needs to pull out something special if either hope to sway the federation.
Russia: Who Knows?
Russia’s team will be decided at literally the last minute and until then, it’s anyone’s game. Evgeni Semenenko won a bronze medal at Skate Canada and may just be the fabled Russian man with some consistency who until now has only existed in fairy tales. That and his Worlds performance likely puts him in good stead, but his rise has been meteoric, and the federation is fickle, so I wouldn’t go putting any bets down. Makar Ignatov was able to put some decent skates together with Alexander Samarin falling short, but come back in a week and the reverse could be true.
Japan: Trading Places
We didn’t necessarily learn anything new about Shoma from Skate America–his jumps are still huge and terrifying, his free skate is empty this time of year, and he’s still one of the top men in the world–but he doesn’t have anything to worry about either. A solid start to the season with a silver medal, his favorite color.
Putting himself back in contention for an Olympic spot was Shun Sato, who fell off massively after winning the Junior Grand Prix Final in 2019. He was back in decent form at Skate America, finishing fourth despite an apparent shoulder injury sustained in practice.
Sato moves up in the rankings at the expense of Keiji Tanaka, who had a pretty awful weekend at Skate Canada, finishing dead last in the free skate and tenth overall. Tanaka was always a long shot for the team this Olympic cycle with so many youngsters coming through the ranks, but this competition may have been the final nail in the coffin.
Upping the Game
Ultra-C elements have arrived in force in the women’s discipline, with 7/12 women at Skate Canada attempting a triple Axel in practice and multiple names joining the list of those to successfully land the jump in competition. Though not yet an absolute necessity to compete at the top level, the triple Axel could be the real difference-maker for a number of skaters this Olympic cycle.
Top Scores (so far)
|Kamila Valieva (SCI)||84.19||180.89||265.08|
|Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (SCI)||81.24||151.64||232.88|
|Alexandra Trusova (SKAM)||77.69||154.68||232.37|
|Daria Usacheva (SKAM)||76.71||140.60||217.31|
|Young You (SKAM)||70.73||146.24||216.97|
|Kaori Sakamoto (SKAM)||71.16||144.77||215.93|
|Alena Kostornaia (SCI)||75.58||138.96||214.54|
|Mai Mihara (SCI)||67.89||142.12||210.01|
|Alysa Liu (SCI)||73.63||132.90||206.53|
Russia Sweeps Up
Through two events, it seems that a Russian sweep of the Olympic podium is all but inevitable. But which three women will make the Olympic team is anyone’s guess.
The most obvious selection right now is Kamila Valieva, who won Skate Canada by over 30 points, putting up a free skate score that would have rivaled Nathan Chen in the men’s event.
Perhaps a surprising contender, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva has also had some strong results, helped along by an increase in PCS and GOE that judging panels haven’t necessarily granted in the past. Tuktamysheva is the only real threat to an all-Tutberidze Olympic team and it seems she has a decent shot at the moment.
Alexandra Trusova is likely the top pick for the third spot right now, picking up a gold medal at Skate America despite a foot injury and only performing one quad. Her score there would have placed her third at Skate Canada, half a point behind Tuktamysheva, so it’s clear the quads are somewhat of a must if she hopes to contend for an Olympic medal.
Of the other Russian women we’ve seen on the Grand Prix so far, Alena Kostornaia is in much lower standing than her dominant 2019 season. Although the triple Axel is back, her full performance ability isn’t quite there, and while she won bronze at Skate Canada, she was well adrift of Tuktamysheva and would have also finished behind training mate Daria Usacheva at Skate America, as well as Korea’s Young You and Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto. Usacheva received the kind of generous marks that Kostornaia saw two years ago to take the silver medal in her senior Grand Prix debut. Both have lower odds of making the team, but don’t count either of them out yet.
Japan: Mai Mihara has entered the chat
Speaking of countries with ridiculous depth of talent, Japan also has a multitude of women vying for national ranking. Kaori Sakamoto and Wakaba Higuchi both put out great performances, Higuchi landing a triple Axel in international competition for the first time, but neither were able to snatch a medal at their respective events.
Someone who did get close to the podium was Mai Mihara. Returning to international competition after a two-year absence due to illness, Mihara skated two clean programs to finish fourth at Skate Canada, her sixth time finishing fourth at a Grand Prix. Mihara replaced Rika Kihira at this event after the reigning Japanese champion withdrew due to injury. Kihira is an unknown this season, having just moved to Canada to train under Brian Orser and having yet to appear in competition since a disappointing seventh place at Worlds.
And yet, Japan continues to put out even more talented skaters, with Mana Kawabe pulling out a triple Axel at Skate Canada, so there could be new entries to the list in just a few weeks time.
America: Outlook Hazy
The team picture for the US is also far from clear, with at least five senior women in contention for three spots. Alysa Liu has had the strongest Grand Prix performance so far, finishing fifth at Skate Canada and successfully landing a triple Axel in the short program (though it was called underrotated). She may not be the spoiler to the Russian dominance that USFS had hoped for, but Liu is currently the most consistent of the US women and has seemingly the most room for improvement.
Amber Glenn also had a good showing at Skate America, finally breaking the 200-point mark in total score despite not putting the triple Axel in either program. On the other hand, Karen Chen had a disappointing free skate and finished tenth at Skate Canada, a far cry from her fourth-place performance at Worlds.
But with Bradie Tennell withdrawing from both of her Grand Prix assignments due to injury and Mariah Bell yet to compete her new programs this season, there’s still many pieces yet to fall into place.
Around the World
Apart from Poland’s Ekaterina Kurakova, the only other countries we’ve seen entries from so far are South Korea and Canada, who are in very different situations. South Korea has a whole stable of tremendously talented skaters, including Skate America bronze medalist Young You, while Canada’s women were at real risk of finishing bottom three in their home Grand Prix. Madeline Schizas shows a certain amount of promise and seems the clear pick for Canada’s single Olympic spot, but skater development has clearly faltered after losing top talents Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabby Daleman.
Tight at the Top
Through two events, the clear favorites for the #1 spot are Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and the Chinese team of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han. The teams were in a league of their own at their respective events, particularly Sui and Han during a messy Skate Canada free skate.
Top Scores (so far)
|Sui / Han (SCI)||78.94||145.11||224.05|
|Tarasova / Morozov (SKAM)||80.36||142.14||222.50|
|Miura / Kihara (SKAM)||72.63||135.57||208.20|
|Boikova / Kozlovskii (SKAM)||75.43||130.10||205.53|
|Kneirim / Frazier (SKAM)||66.37||136.60||202.97|
|Calalang / Johnson (SKAM)||68.87||128.55||197.42|
|Pavliuchenko / Khodykin (SCI)||69.46||123.62||193.08|
|Cain-Gribble / LeDuc (SCI)||61.68||128.22||189.90|
Japan: A New Challenger Has Appeared
Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara rocketed up the standings with a tenth-place finish at Worlds, kept the energy going by winning Autumn Classic International, and with a silver medal at Skate America, have made it clear that they are not messing around. In addition to strong technical elements, the team skates with a joy that is so refreshing in the pairs field and which makes them impossible to root against. They’ve set their sights on a top-five finish at the Olympics and seem well on their way to achieving that.
Boikova and Kozlovskii were perhaps surprised to find themselves upset for the Skate America silver medal, but with some crucial mistakes and two fairly uninspired programs, the result was certainly justified. Though there is still a score gap between them and the young team of Pavliuchenko and Khodykin, the latter team bring an arsenal of exciting acrobatics that, while risky, hold an audience’s interest and could make them a real threat if everything is clean. And the symbolism of Boikova/Kozlovskii’s Swan Lake short program against Pavliuchenko/Khodykin’s Black Swan free skate makes for a very tempting face-off.
America: Duel for Second
For the US #2 team (assuming Knierim and Frazier keep the top spot locked down), Cain-Gribble and LeDuc medaled at Skate Canada with a clean free skate, but Calalang and Johnson scored almost exactly the same in a free with multiple mistakes. The decision will come down to momentum and performance as Nationals, so for now this race is too close to call.
Canada: Trouble at Home
Among the teams having a rough time at Skate Canada were the two main Canadian teams. James and Radford still haven’t gelled as a team and made a number of mistakes in the free, but overall managed to beat reigning pairs champs Moore-Towers and Marinaro, who had an absolute nightmare of a free skate with two invalidated lifts. James/Radford also won PCS (barely) in both segments, which Moore-Towers/Marinaro will not be happy about. Canada has two Olympic spots, so both of these teams can go, but the fight for top dog is surely getting messy.
Who’s on First?
Through the first two Grands Prix, we have yet to see either of the presumptive gold medal contenders of France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron or Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov. There’s still plenty of interesting stories, but keep in mind that we’re missing some heavy hitters at this point in the series.
Top Scores (so far)
|Gilles / Poirier (SCI)||85.65||125.32||210.97|
|Hubbell / Donohue (SKAM)||83.58||125.96||209.54|
|Chock / Bates (SKAM)||82.55||125.68||208.23|
|Guignard / Fabbri (SCI)||78.82||121.23||200.05|
|Smart / Diaz (SCI)||76.97||115.96||192.93|
|Fournier-Beaudry / Sorensen (SKAM)||75.33||114.80||190.13|
|Green / Parsons (SCI)||72.40||114.11||186.51|
|Davis / Smolkin (SCI)||70.66||109.91||180.57|
Three for Three
In the absence of the world champions, we did see the three main contenders for the bronze medal in Beijing and my-oh-my are they close. All three teams of Gilles/Poirier, Hubbell/Donohue, and Chock/Bates scored 125 and change in the free dance, with less than three points separating their total scores. This race is likely to go down to the wire with even the slightest mistakes having massive consequences, so keep your eyes on this battle throughout the season.
One team having a breakout season at just the right time are the Spaniards Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz, who won the crowd at Skate America and then took their first Grand Prix medal at Skate Canada. Their “Proud Mary” program is the most elegant solution to the strange problem of this year’s rhythm dance requirements and their “Mask of Zorro” free dance is both a huge crowd pleaser and a great vehicle for them. They’ll be fighting Hurtado and Khaliavin for Spain’s sole Olympic spot and are off to a great start.
Another breakout performance, this one from the USA’s Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, will have put the perennial American #3 team of Hawayak and Baker on notice. They have yet to compete this season, but Green/Parson’s fourth place Skate Canada finish is a big improvement from seventh at Skate America two years ago, and if the American judge’s marks are anything to go by, the federation is behind them as the next generation once the current frontrunners leave the scene.
And in Russia, nepotism will clearly take you far, as senior debutantes Diana Davis and Gleb Smolkin took fifth place, ahead of both Lajoie/Lagha and Fear/Gibson. Established #3 team Zagorski and Guerreiro withdrew from Skate America for medical reasons (he had COVID-19 over the summer and she was hospitalized earlier this month with an unspecified illness), leaving a gap that judges seem happy to fill with the daughter of Eteri Tutberidze. There are many Russian teams still to compete, but with this kind of momentum, Davis and Smolkin are headed straight to the Olympics.
A whole lot has happened in two weeks, and there’s four more weeks of equally packed competition still to come. With plenty of match-ups, more top contenders, and a plethora of compelling stories, you won’t want to miss a single event.
Here are the remaining events–I recommend the “So You Want to Watch FS” calendar to keep up with event timings and more.