Event: Nebelhorn Trophy
Dates: 24-26 September
Location: Oberstdorf, Germany
Category: ISU Challenger Series
Early-season events always have the capacity to throw out a few surprise results and this one proved no exception. It seemed to be business as usual after the short program, with the USA's Max Aaron taking the lead, rewarded with a new personal best of 83 after skating a near-perfect program. But it was ultimately Canada's Elladj Balde who stole the show with an absolutely exquisite free skate. His beautifully restrained flamenco-themed free skate had only one small error when he came down on his triple loop a little short of rotation, but was otherwise flawless. It is the Canadian's first international victory and a very positive step for him after struggling with injury for two seasons, firmly establishing him as a contender for one of the two available places on the Canadian Worlds team.
Aaron had to be content with silver after doubling both attempts at quad Salchows during his Black Swan free skate. The uncharacteristic error cost him around fifteen points (as one of the Salchows would have been a quad-triple combination) and undoubtedly the title. However, the rest of his jumps were solid, and the rest of his skating was polished and well-presented, giving him a solid foundation heading into Skate America.
Russia's Konstantin Menshov put in a three-quad free skate to climb up to the bronze medal, after a minor disaster in the short program saw him place only sixth. Had all three of Menshov's quads been landed on his feet, he may well have taken the silver, but a fall on the second quad toe loop, and then a doubled jump after that, ended that hope. However, as he can only improve from here, his performance could well unnerve some of his younger compatriots.
France's Florent Amodio was fourth after inconsistent performances in both programs, while an accumulation of small errors from Peter Liebers of Germany came back to hurt him. The Czech Republic's Michal Brezina had a promising start, placing third after the short, but had four falls in a disastrous long program that dropped him back to sixth.
It was a difficult week for Andrew Dodds. He, his brother Matthew, and Paris Stephens set out from Salt Lake City on Sunday, the day after their competition concluded there. The plane they were on developed engine trouble and had to turn back, and here their problems really began.
Their connections missed, it was a struggle to get themselves rebooked on a flight first to Chicago and thence to Germany, but the airline mislaid their bags, in which their skates and costumes were packed. As the week progressed and competition got closer and closer, the stress level on Andrew, Paris and Matthew increased as the airline could not - or would not - give them a helpful answer as to the location of their bags. They finally arrived in Oberstdorf on the day before the short program, giving them only one official 30-minute practice in their skates before the competition.
With this in mind, Andrew turned in an excellent short program, with only a fall on the triple flip (thus leaving him with no combination jump) marring his moving performance. Sadly, Andrew "hit the wall" in the long program, and though his performance was inspiring, some of his jumps failed him, and he wasn't able to improve his position. Nevertheless, there were many positives to take away from his programs - including opening both programs with stunning triple Lutzes that garnered positive grade of execution from almost every judge - and if everything goes smoothly between now and next week, he should be in a fine position for Ondrej Nepala.
It was a dream return from injury for Canada's Katelyn Osmond, taking out the gold here with two solid performances. She led after the short program in spite of a fall on her combination jump, but skated a lovely, mistake-free free skate to leave her lead beyond dispute. Her skating appears to have gained in maturity after her long layoff, and though the jumps were not completely solid she has made a strong opening statement.
Russia's Alena Leonova finished with the silver medal here, which will be a big confidence boost ahead of a season that promises an epic battle between the Russian ladies. She was in fourth place after the short program with an error on her combination and an invalid spin after falling out of the entrance, but pulled up to second after a much improved free skate marred only by two falls, with her triple flip proving to be problematic.
Bronze went to USA's Courtney Hicks, who had some initial problems in her short program, falling on her triple Lutz and under-rotating the back end of her combination. Her free skate unfortunately also contained several jump errors, preventing her moving further up the standings, but the components scores she received for her new programs will encourage her moving forward.
Canada's Alaine Chartrand started strongly with a short program that put her into second place, but unfortunately she faded in the long program and too many jump errors saw her slip back into fourth. It was the opposite story for the USA's Mirai Nagasu; after a disastrous short program, in which she attempted a triple Axel that never looked like being called rotated, popped another jump to a single and under-rotated her combination and placed 11th, she put out the second-best free skate on the night to haul herself up to fifth place.
Fortunately, Brooklee Han took a different route to Germany than her teammates, and arrived in Germany with her skates. She was joined here by reigning Australian champion Kailani Craine, in their first match-up since the Four Continents Championship in February.
Brooklee's elegant short program was near flawless and saw her in sixth place going into the free, including a stunning layback spin that the judges showered with positive GOE. Her free skate was equally enchanting. After a slightly rough start with a fall, she regathered her momentum and the Lark well and truly Ascended, resulting in a 7th place finish overall and a new ISU personal best.
Kailani's short program, a bright and energetic flamenco, had tongues wagging from the moment she started. Though the edge call on the Lutz continues to haunt her, like her compatriot her spins were absolutely magnificent, and she slotted into eighth place after the short. Her new Romeo and Juliet free skate was graceful and serene with only a few minor errors, and she retained that eighth place at the end of the competition, also taking home a new personal best.
Both Brooklee and Kailani are looking in excellent shape for this stage of the season and the prospect of their Australian Nationals rematch is looking positively mouth-watering.
To the surprise of, well, no-one, the gold here was taken out by reigning Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. The Russians had not competed in 18 months - during which time they also married - but you wouldn't have known it, with two strong performances, and were never headed as they continued where they left off.
American champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim were down in fourth place after the short program, with a throw jump causing them problems. Their free skate, however, saw no repeat of that error, and they charged back up the standings to take out the silver medal and start their season in a strong position.
French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres had a shaky start to their short program with a bad error on the throw twist, but stabilised the rest of their performance to place third after the short program. There was no repeat of the error on the twist in the free skate, with their superb triple twist garnering positive grade of execution from all the judges, and they retained their third place to take home the bronze medal.
Brand-new German pair Mari Vartmann and Ruben Blommaert had a promising start to the competition, placing second after the short program, but were unfortunately hit by a series of twist and jump errors that saw them slide back to fourth.
Unfortunately, the main talking point as the free skate got underway was not what was happening on the ice but what was happening off it, with British pair Amani Fancy and Christopher Boyadji splitting up in dramatic fashion between the short program and the free skate. The reasons for the split are not accurately known at this time, though it does seem that Fancy arrived for practice on the morning of the free skate alone, with Boyadji nowhere in sight.
With all the stress of the week and only one practice before their short program, it was no surprise that Paris Stephens and Matthew Dodds came out with a performance that was more gritty and tough than bright and chirpy. Their ability to fight through the end might not have been rewarded by the judges, but certainly will bolster their confidence ahead of the next phase of their season.
The free skate was a prime example of pushing through, and there were several positive elements to take away from it, including a much better double twist and a very nice death spiral. Paris and Matthew continue to improve and with a hopefully stress-free week until their next outing in Slovakia, their performances will be ones to watch out for.
American reigning champions and World silver medallists Madison Chock and Evan Bates started their season in utterly emphatic fashion. Their short dance was littered with positive GOE and had only one level 3 element, with the rest level four. Their free dance was equally impressive with even more level 4s and positive GOEs, and they are looking in ominous form ahead of the Grand Prix.
Canadian couple Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam had a solid start to their season here, with only one minor error in the pattern during their short dance and a lift problem to open their free dance. The only dampener on their silver medal will be their unexplained withdrawal from the exhibition, which is required without good explanation.
Third place was a tight battle, ultimately taken out by team USA's Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus. They were in fourth place after the short dance with mistakes during their Ravensberger Waltz pattern, but climbed back up to third with a very clean and well-polished free dance.
The season continues with the third Challenger Series event in Slovakia next week, the Ondrej Nepala, from October 1-3.