The last major stop of the season before the World Championships in Boston has been run and won, with some upsets, some surprises, and some predictable results. The Four Continents Championship was held in Taipei, Taiwan, from February 18-21, and involved skaters from both the major skating countries like the US, Canada, and Japan, as well as skaters from smaller countries, like Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and Malaysia.
Being the final Championship event prior to Worlds, everyone was out for a good finish, since ranking points determine the all-important starting order for that event. Jet lag and a nasty stomach bug that seemed to be making the rounds seemed to play havoc with some teams, while others fell victim to simply being tired, and a broken Zamboni blade had even the best skaters suddenly unsure on their feet...
For many viewers, the men’s event was to come down to the never-ending battle between jumps and artistry, with the final duel between China’s young phenom Boyang Jin and Canadian maestro Patrick Chan. Japanese favourite Shoma Uno was also in the mix, but faded to fourth overall.
Chan started out roughly, with a short program that had several errors, including big stumbles on the big jumps and a change foot camel spin that only received a level one. Languishing down in fifth after that segment, he seemed unworried, and as it turned out, with good reason. The free skate that he laid down was nothing short of enthralling, and he wove his technical strengths together with his silky-smooth skating skills to break the 200-point barrier and take victory by little over a point.
If Chan was enthralling, then Jin was nothing short of spectacular. He opened his short program with an unbelievable quadruple Lutz-triple toe, earning nearly twenty points on that one pass alone, and followed it up with an excellent triple Axel and a great quadruple toe. And it wasn’t all jumps, either; his spins and steps all received level fours, and he took the lead by six points. His free skate was equally spectacular, the first in history at ISU Championship level to have four quadruple jumps. Even more unbelievably, two were in the second half of the program! But a couple of dropped levels in his spins were enough, and with Chan’s elegance on full display, he finished second overall.
Jin’s compatriot Han Yan had been having a torrid season, struggling with both his jumps and choreography that seemed to embarrass him on the ice. But here, he seemed to flick a switch in his brain, and laid down his two best performances of the season. His short program was extremely polished, but a no-value change foot sit spin hurt him and dropped him to third. His free skate, however, was sublime, and he was a convincing bronze medallist, and a very popular one.
Japan’s Shoma Uno had been expected to do well here, particularly after the withdrawal of Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, and after the short program was sitting in second place, in spite of a botched jump. But he struggled heavily in the free skate, dropping to fifth in that segment and fourth overall, and that will be a confidence blow he does not need ahead of Worlds
Andrew Dodds started the competition spectacularly, delighting the crowd by laying down a new personal best in the short program. His trademark triple Lutz was as soft as ever, and he managed to hold onto his triple flip-triple toe combination to smash out a new high score. Unfortunately, his free skate was not at the same standard; though he continued to throw out triple jumps and fought hard, four progressively more painful-looking falls sent him plunging down the scoreboard. Nevertheless, his incredible improvement this season means that he is definitely one to watch for next season.
Brendan Kerry will be wanting to very quickly forget this event, after minor disasters in both programs saw him finish painfully low in the standings. His short program saw him receive a downgrade call on his quad toe attempt, while a fall on the triple Lutz meant no combination and no score that would be good. His free skate put up a good fight, but he fell on both triple Axel attempts and tripled both quad attempts, preventing him rising further up the standings. However, his free skate also contained many positives, including a brand-new triple Lutz-half loop-triple Salchow combination and several changes to the base choreography of the program that should go down well at Worlds.
At the start of the season, everybody thought that the returning Mao Asada would be the leading Japanese lady, given her extensive experience at the highest level and impressive prior results. However, while Asada struggled, Satoko Miyahara was quietly going about building her form, culminating in a victory here at Four Continents. Though her jumps are under-sized and were flirting with under-rotation in both programs, she landed them well, and her elegant style carried off the rest of the program, making her the undisputed winner.
Mirai Nagasu would have thought her season was over after finishing fourth at US Nationals, but was handed a reprieve after bronze medallist Ashley Wagner opted to remain home and prepare for Worlds. With the pressure off, Nagasu turned in her best performances of the season, finishing third in the short program and second in the free skate to take the silver medal overall, benefiting from some lenient technical calling and mistakes from other ladies. Nevertheless, it is an excellent way to end her season, and the ranking point boost should have her in good stead for next season.
Rika Hongo was another beneficiary of a compatriot choosing to focus on Worlds, also fourth at Japanese Nationals and elevated to the Four Continents team after Asada withdrew. Like Nagasu, she made the most of it, scooping the bronze medal. Her short program was marred only by an under-rotation on her triple flip-triple toe combination, which she also fell on in the free skate. Though her free skate was not the best, she performed the Riverdance music brilliantly, and mistakes by other ladies meant she held on to third.
Katie Pasfield acquitted herself quite well in her first Championship event, skating with a lot of energy and verve and delighting the crowd with her enthusiasm. Though her scores were not personal bests, the experience will have been a good learning experience for her and she will be able to go to Junior Worlds with boosted confidence.
Brooklee Han started the event extremely well with a gorgeous short program. Her clean jumps and beautiful spins – some of the best of the event - made her the leading Australian lady after the short program. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well in the free skate, with two falls, one of which caused her to miss the ending of her program. Sadly this will be the end of Brooklee’s season, but I am sure we will see her back fired up and ready to go next season.
Kailani Craine had a fantastic event and turned many heads with her performances here. Her short program was marred with a very uncharacteristic mistake on the combination, where she landed awkwardly on the first jump and was only able to add a single toe on the end, something that is not allowed at the Senior level. Her free skate, however, was nothing short of spectacular, the ninth-highest score for that segment, and a score that would have placed her sixth at Europeans. With every jump clean and even an improvement on her solo triple Lutz to an unclear edge rather than a wrong edge, she secured her place on the Worlds team and will be sure to make a splash there.
The pairs competition was thrown wide open after the short program, when Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, the reigning World and Canadian Champions, were forced to withdraw due to Duhamel struggling with illness. This opened the door for Chinese veterans Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, who turned out two fantastic programs to take their first Four Continents title. Their short program was excellent, picking up level fours on four elements and missing only the step sequence which was level three, but the highlight was unquestionably their free skate, including a magnificent quadruple twist and a wonderful throw quadruple Salchow.
US silver medallists Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim regained some momentum and got their season back on track, overcoming their Nationals disappointment to finish second here. Their short program was marred only by a stumble on the side-by-side triple Salchow and throw triple flip, and they managed to slot in just behind Duhamel and Radford. Their free skate was wonderfully on point, including a great quadruple twist and seven level four elements to bring up them to second overall.
It was a banner event for the Chinese pairs, with the continuously-improving Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin scooping the bronze medal here. They struggled a little in the short program, with a stumble on the side-by-side triple toe, and then a fall for Yu right at the end of the program, which not only earned them a fall deduction but a time violation, but recovered well in the free skate. There was a fall on their double Axel-double Axel sequence, but the rest of their elements were well-executed, giving them their first Championship medal.
US National Champions Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea were among the many victims of the sickness that seemed to sweep the competition during the week, and struggled heavily to finish fourth.
When Maia and Alex Shibutani beat out Madison Chock and Evan Bates at US Nationals, I observed at the time that this could shift the momentum of ice dance internationally. My prediction came to fruition at Four Continents, where the Shibutanis were in such hot form that they not only once again beat their National rivals, but also Canadian couple Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, the Grand Prix Final Champions.
With Worlds just a few weeks away now, such a victory will give the Shibutanis a reputation boost just in time. Conversely, such a defeat for Weaver and Poje will have been a hard blow, one that they will have to work hard to bounce back from.
The marker was laid down early in the short dance with the Shibutanis being the only couple in the top five to hit all six keypoints in the Ravensberger Waltz pattern, couple with all level-four elements. Weaver and Poje missed one keypoint and dropped a level on their first round of the pattern, and only managed a level three for their partial step sequence, putting them on the back foot straightaway. Third US team Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue also dropped a keypoint and level in their pattern, but Chock and Bates had the most uncharacteristic performance of all, missing two keypoints (dropping their patterns to level three), dropping to a level three on their partial step sequence and then dropping to a level two on their twizzles.
The Shibutanis were equally superb in the free dance, earning six level four elements, missing only the circular step sequence, which was a level three. Their only major error was that they held one of their lifts for too long, attracting a deduction. Chock and Bates came back strongly in the free dance, earning five level four elements to lift them up to second overall. Hubbell and Donohue also earned six level four elements, but their overall quality was just a little less, and an extended lift dropped them to third in the free dance and fourth overall, while Weaver and Poje had a rough performance, earning only two level four elements, two level threes, two level twos and even a level one lift, dropping them to fourth in the free dance and third overall.
Unlike in the other disciplines, going from Junior to Senior in ice dance isn't a simple matter of tacking on thirty extra seconds and an extra element on the free skate. The compulsory dance patterns in the short dance are completely different between Junior and Senior, as are the permitted elements in the free dance. So with that in mind, Matilda Friend and William Badaoui were facing a daunting and ambitious challenge.
It was one they carried off well, dancing with charm and poise, holding themselves together and joyfully showing the world the potential they have as a team to watch in the future. Sure, they may not have scored highly here, but they certainly earned plenty of respect by taking on the challenge fearlessly and sportingly, and they did a fine job of representing our country.
Highlights of the Four Continents Championship including performances by Team Australia will be aired on SBS on Saturday, February 28, at 2pm.
SBS also had some exciting news during the Championship - LIVE COVERAGE FROM WORLDS! More info coming soon!