It's finally here. This is the weekend when some skating fans consider that the season truly starts. It's the weekend that everyone has been looking forward to since the moment the assignments were announced in June. Excitement has reached fever pitch.
It's time for Skate America.
This year's Skate America will be hosted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from October 23-25. Twelve ladies, twelve men, eight pairs and eight dance teams will take the ice for the opening event of the Grand Prix season. And it promises to be an absolute cracker!
Reading the entry list for the Skate America men's event is like reading a who's-who of figure skating elite. The field for the men is so talented - and at the same time, full of skaters who are so unpredictable - that trying to pick a podium is completely impossible.
Kazakhstan's Denis Ten is the reigning World bronze medallist and Four Continents Champion, but he reportedly has a groin injury. Shoma Uno is the Japanese wonderkid who stunned everyone by beating the established champions at the Japan Open, but his only other competitive outing this season was spotty. Takahiko Mura is a former Skate America champion, but had a horrific finish to the last season. Jason Brown is the reigning US National Champion, but can he successfully include the quad? Max Aaron is also a recent US National Champion, but will the judges be receptive to his new choreography style? Konstantin Menshov is the old man of the Russian team, but can he string his ambitious three-quad long together and spoil the younglings' party? Adian Pitkeev made a solid debut last season - can this Russian youngster improve on last year's 6th place finish?
It's going to be an absolutely crazy competition, and my bet is that the result won't be certain until the last skater finishes. Who will win? Well, my heart would like to see Max Aaron's insanely hard, difficult work on his component mark be rewarded, but my head says that Denis Ten is a strong competitor and Shoma Uno has momentum and hype surrounding him.
It's been fourteen years since an Australian man has been on the Grand Prix circuit, but that drought is about to break with Brendan Kerry's debut. Kerry will go in as an outsider, but has the technical content to compete with the top men here. If he can string together two mostly clean programs, he could very well pull off a surprise.
Podium: Ten, Aaron, Uno
The ladies' field here is also quite solid, and will include some long-awaited returns, debuts and intriguing match-ups.
Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia is my pick as the favourite for this one, being the reigning World bronze medallist and National champion. Her team-mate here, Julia Lipnitskaya, had a torrid last season that saw her slip from national darling to not even making the European team, so there will be plenty of eyes on her. Japan's Satoko Miyahara is the reigning World silver medallist, but her jumps remain suspect and whether she can continue that form will be the big question.
Elizabet Tursynbaeva will make her long-awaited Senior Grand Prix debut at this event, with the 15 year old displaying promising form during the early season. And the Americans have muscled up strongly for this event, with National silver medallist Gracie Gold, National bronze medallist Karen Chen and promising debutant Mariah Bell all in attendance. Gold particularly will be expected to put in a good showing.
Podium: Medvedeva, Gold, Tursynbaeva
The pairs field may be smaller than the singles', but it's no less exciting, with quality from all over the world to compete.
There's no going past Chinese power pair Wenjing Sui and Cong Han for me; the reigning World silver medallists always promise a good performance and will be looking to make that step up this season. Their teammates Xuehan Wang and Lei Wang will also be keen to get off to a good start. Hot on their heels, however, will be Russian National Champions Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov. The European silver medallists missed Worlds as a questionable strategic decision, and will be out to prove that their strategy was right, while teammates Kristina Astakhova and Alexei Rogonov will be hoping to build on a positive early season.
Reigning US National Champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim are also likely to be in the mix here, in what is shaping up to be a battle amongst the US pairs for supremacy. National bronze medallists Tarah Kayne and Daniel O'Shea have started the season well and will not want to give their counterparts too much of a head start. Unfortunately, Gretchan Donlan and Nathan Bartholomay have had to withdraw, with Donlan falling ill with a virus. The bright side of this is that Jessica Pfund and Joshua Santillan have been handed their Grand Prix debut.
Podium: Sui/Han, Stolbova/Klimov, Scimeca/Knierim
The smaller field - like Pairs, Dance has only eight entrants - means a more intense competition absolutely packed with quality.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the US are the early favourites for this event, though the reigning World silver medallists haven't had it all their own way this season, making a last-minute change to their short dance to better meet the waltz rhythm requirement. Their compatriots Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker have also started the season promisingly, as have Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus. Canadian couple Piper Gilles and Paul Poirer will be out to spoil the party, hoping to build on last season's solid results.
Controversial Russian couple Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov will be hoping to improve their overall standing here, but compatriots Anna Yanovskaya and Sergey Mozgov are more likely to finish higher.
Podium: Chock/Bates, Gilles/Poirer, Hawayek/Baker
All times are AEDT - that's daylight savings time.
Short Program (Brendan Kerry) - Saturday October 24 - 1:25pm - 3:00pm
Long Program - Sunday October 25 - 1:05pm - 3:00pm
Short Program - Saturday October 24 - 9:00am - 10:33am
Long Program - Sunday October 25 - 7:00am - 8:51am
Short Program - Saturday October 24 - 7:30am - 8:37am
Long Program - Sunday October 25 - 5:20am - 6:40am
Short Dance - Saturday October 24 - 12:00pm - 1:06pm
Free Dance - Sunday October 25 - 11:30am - 12:45pm