This week sees the Challenger Series move on to Slovakia, with the Ondrej Nepela Trophy held in Bratislava. Now in its 23rd year, the Ondrej Nepela Trophy is named for 1972 Olympic Champion Ondrej Nepela, himself from Slovakia (or Czechoslovakia as it was then known). Nepela was a five time European Champion and a three-time World Champion, and had begun a career as a coach before his untimely death at the age of just 38.
Team Australia will be represented here in just the Men and Pairs events, with Paris Stephens and Matthew Dodds in Pairs, and Andrew Dodds in Men's, lining up for their third event in three weeks, a monumental effort. They will be joined by Jordan Dodds in the Men's event, for his second competition in three weeks, completing an extraordinarily ambitious start to the season.
(And yes, their skates made it to Bratislava with them this week.)
None of the Australian ladies will joining them, with Brooklee Han returning to her training base after two consecutive competitions and Kailani Craine competing at the Junior Grand Prix event in Spain (she will remain age-eligible for the Junior Grand Prix for two more years).
The overwhelming favourite in the men's event will be reigning US National Champion Jason Brown. Brown was fourth at Worlds earlier this year, even without a quadruple jump, and set the skating world on fire last Friday when one of his coaches posted a video of a very beautiful, very clean quadruple toe loop from a practice session. Granted, a practice session is different to competition, but if he can insert the quad into his programs with a minimum of interruption, he is in line for a spectacular season.
His main rivals here will be the young Russians Aidan Pitkeev and Mikhail Kolyada, both of whom will be keen to lay down an early benchmark over their countrymen. This will be Kolyada's first event since this time last year, when a broken ankle saw him ruled out for the season. Keegan Messing will also be looking for a good result in his first international outing since switching from the US to Canada.
The ladies' field here is very open, largely comprised of skaters from the smaller European federations seeking to make their minimum TES marks. Reigning World Junior Champion Evgenia Medvedeva is my pick as the early favourite here, with the young Russian making her Senior debut. Canadian Gabriella Daleman will be in the medal hunt, while the USA's Mariah Bell will certainly be in the mix, looking to make up for what was considered a disappointing showing in Salt Lake City.
The Russians do seem, at present, to have an almost endless depth of ladies, and though Medvedeva has momentum, it was also not so long ago that Anna Pogorilaya took home the bronze medal at the European Championships, while Maria Artemieva has a great deal of competitive experience to back her up. The teams change so fast that last season's success is no guarantee of this season, however, and the ranks within the Russian team will change many times before the final Worlds team is selected.
It is a Russian pair who are my pick for the title in the Pairs event, but the question of which one remains. Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov were the Russian National Champions and European silver medallists last season, but a curious and poorly-explained decision to skip the World Championships will not have worked in their favour. Meanwhile, Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov were second at Russian Nationals and third at Europeans, which they backed up with a solid sixth at Worlds.
Lubov Iliushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch of Canada are very likely to be on the podium, with some very promising results last season in their first year together and their partnership now stablised in their second year. Gretchen Donlan and Nathan Bartholomay from the US will also be looking to climb the ranks of the US pairs this year and could place strongly.
The ice dance battle will be fought primarily between the North American countries, with US couple Maia and Alex Shibutani going head to head against Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier from Canada. Both couples were second at their respective National championships last season, and in the post Davis/White and Virtue/Moir eras will be keen to establish themselves as top dog.
Also in the mix is the British couple of Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland. After a fantastic Olympic season where they broke into the top ten at both Worlds and the Olympics, and finished third at Europeans, their 2014-2015 season was plagued with health problems. After Buckland came down with gastroenteritis during the European championships, forcing their withdrawal, Coomes was taken seriously ill in March, necessitating her hospitalisation for a few days. Now back to full health, they will be keen to make up for lost time.
Team Australia Event Times:
Please note times are for whole event only - draws have not yet taken place. All times given are AEST. Where necessary, adjustment has been made for the switch to AEDT.
Also included below are the event times for the Junior Grand Prix in Spain, at which both Kailani Craine and Darian Kaptich will be competing.
Live stream for the Ondrej Nepela Trophy will be here.
Live stream for the Junior Grand Prix will be here.
Thursday 1st October
JGP Spain - Ladies' SP (Kailani): 22:15 - 03:00 (Friday)
Friday 2nd October
Ondrej Nepela - Men's SP (Andrew and Jordan): 00:45 - 03:50
JGP Spain - Men's SP (Darian): 03:30 - 07:20
Ondrej Nepela - Pairs SP (Paris and Matthew): 04:00 - 05:45
Ondrej Nepela - Pairs FS: 20:30 - 22:40
Saturday 3rd October
JGP Spain - Ladies' FS: 01:50 - 07:00
JGP Spain - Men's FS: 23:20 - 03:40 (Sunday)
Sunday 4th October
Ondrej Nepela - Men's FS: 03:15 - 06:45