The Grand Prix season kicked off over the weekend with Skate America, held this year for the first time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from October 24-25. 12 men, 12 ladies, 8 pairs and 8 dance teams fought it out for the right to be crowned Skate America champion and to get their season off to the best possible start.
To say that a lot of people were not predicting America’s Max Aaron to win Skate America would probably be something of an understatement. A lot of pundits did not even have him on the podium.
But Aaron did just that, laying down two near-perfect, commanding performances to claim his first-ever win at a Grand Prix event. His short program to Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma was nearly flawless, while his long program to the Black Swan soundtrack was breathtaking in its intensity. His jumps, always his best feature, were completely on song, and the improvement in his spins and footwork was marked. The judges responded well: Aaron’s scores here were new personal bests for total short program score, total long program score, long program program components, and total event score.
Shoma Uno of Japan showed why there was so much hype surrounding his Grand Prix debut, coming within a whisker of spoiling Aaron’s party and winning the free skate. His short program was marred by a fall and other minor errors, which dropped him back, but his free skate was nothing short of spectacular, including a quad toe-double toe combination in the second half. The seventeen-year-old ended up only a point behind Aaron, and his silver medal is a promising start to his Senior career.
The reigning US National champion, Jason Brown, was third with two shaky performances that nevertheless scored well with the judges. He attempted the quadruple toe in the long program and has progressed with it, with noticeably less hesitation prior to the jump and it only being marked under-rotated. Though reactions to his Great Gatsby short are mixed – some call it “hokey” or “cheesy” – there can be no doubt that his Piano “Scent of Love” long program is absolutely exquisite. Brown traditionally starts his seasons slowly, but will be competing again at a Challenger event this weekend before having several weeks until his second assignment at NHK Trophy.
It was an absolute disaster of an event reigning Olympic bronze medallist Denis Ten. The Kazakhstani skater came into the event injured and the injury appeared to get worse, culminating in a painful-to-watch, error-ridden free skate that saw him finish second-last.
Brendan Kerry was heavily predicted to finish last at this event, given that his previous personal best score was the lowest of any of the competitors there. Some more ambitious pundits predicted that he might finish eleventh in his Grand Prix debut.
Brendan clearly had other ideas, however. He was indeed eleventh after the short program, hurt by a missed combination and a botched spin, he stormed through the 200-point barrier with a good long program. Though not perfect, it was enough for him to overtake several bigger “names”, and he finished eighth, a promising start.
For the second year running it was a Russian lady who won this competition, with a sterling performance from reigning World Junior Champion Evgenia Medvedeva. Medvedeva delivered a magnificent, 70-point short program that collected all level 4s on her spins and steps, despite sporting a heavily-taped arm after a bad fall in practice. Her free skate was a little less on song, with a fall on the double Axel and lower levels for some of her spins. She placed second, but her score was high enough to hold on for the gold medal.
The USA’s Gracie Gold was second, and will be rueing a costly error in her short program. Gold doubled a planned triple flip, and at the Senior level, the solo jump must be a triple. The resultant zero score for that jump pass hurt, and in spite of an excellent long program, she was unable to claw back the deficit to Medvedeva. Her new Firebird long program was generally well-received by the judges and the fans, and it is a solid start to her season.
The reigning World silver medallist Satoko Miyahara was third. The Japanese skater started her short program strongly with a triple Lutz-triple toe, but her triple flip was marked under-rotated with an unclear edge, and the size and height of her jumps did not compare favourably with Gold and Medvedeva. Miyahara suffered the same problems with her flip in the long program, and though her performance was strong, the deficit in the technical mark saw her unable to make an impact on the skaters ahead of her.
Highly-favoured Chinese pair Wenjig Sui and Cong Han were the winners in a slightly unpredictable pairs event. Sui and Han started off with a slightly shaky short program which included a pair spin that garnered no points, but the rest of their elements were solid enough to keep them in second. They then proceeded to seal the victory with a strong free skate including a magnificent quad twist, and even a fall on the side-by-side triple Salchow was not enough to throw them off, continuing the tradition of strong Chinese pairs.
American pair Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim were second, but will be regretting an opportunity missed after they led the short program. All bar one element in the short received level 4s, and it was enough to open a slender lead. Their free skate started strongly with an excellent quad twist, but unfortunately unravelled from there as all of their side-by-side triples went awry with falls. They were fourth in the free skate and managed to hold on to silver.
Canadian pair Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau were the delightful surprise packet of the event, announcing their arrival on the Senior pairs scene with a bronze medal here. The reigning World Junior silver medallists were fourth after a solid short program, before hopping up to third place with another solid performance in the free skate. They may not have had the most technically ambitious programs, but they were able to execute them well, which kept them well in the hunt.
A special shout-out also needs to go to American pair Jessica Pfund and Joshua Santillan. This very new pair were only told on the Tuesday of the week of the event that they would be competing as substitutes for Donlan and Bartholomay, and they rose to the occasion magnificently. They recorded new personal bests in both segments of the event and acquired the Worlds technical minimims. The opportunity came and they certainly grabbed it with both sets of hands!
There was no surprise when it came to the dance winners, with reigning World silver medallists Madison Chock and Evan Bates taking out the gold. The Americans led both segments of the competition and were never headed, even with the additional complication of a change in short dance. Chock and Bates had been concerned that the required Ravensberger Waltz rhythm had not been clear enough in their original short dance, and made a last-minute change.
Russian couple Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov were second, showing a great deal of improvement from the previous season and acquiring the Worlds technical minimums, which will undoubtedly provide them with a boost at Russian Nationals. While they did have a few level drops across both short and free dances, their execution was generally very good, with positive grades of execution on every element.
The Canadian team of Piper Gilles and Paul Poirer were third, starting their season with a steady pair of performances. They will be concerned about their short dance, where they earned more "no" than "yes" for the keypoints of their Ravensberger Waltz pattern, but should be encouraged by their consistently high levels, though they did drop a step sequence in the free dance to a level two. They are clearly working hard in their quest to challenge for the Canadian number one spot.
The Grand Prix Series will continue with Skate Canada in Letherbridge this weekend. Meanwhile, the Challenger Series also continues with the Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria from tomorrow. The season is now in full swing, so sit back and enjoy the ride!