Sunday, December 9, 2012
Grand Prix Final: In The Words of Peggy Fleming...
In the beautiful words of Peggy Fleming, skating is a revealing look into the soul of the artist and the competitor. This year's Grand Prix Final is another check point in the season and on the journey to Sochi, but we are also able to begin to see the programs take shape and the skaters' personalities shine through via musical expression and response to adversity.
Perhaps no one has gone through as much as Mao Asada in the last few years. A devastating loss at the Olympics, several shaky seasons, the redoing of her jump technique, and the loss of her beloved mother have weighed down the skater on and off the ice. Asada was reportedly ready to withdraw from the competition due to a back injury, before her coach spurred her on. Ironically, though Mao is regarded as one of the most talented all-around skaters ever, she appears to lack confidence in herself. By contrast, Ashley Wagner has always appeared to display a competitive arrogance that outshines her true level of ability. This year, Mao's programs are much lighter, which has seemed to bring some joy back to her skating. When she skates well, there are glimpses of the young Mao we first fell in love with. When Mao skated to heavier music and competed programs with popped triple axels, it looked like it broke her soul and ours as well. The judges appear to be displaying a nostalgic appreciation as well, given their willingness to overlook a suspect Triple Flip in the short program and give her first place. After a controversial win two weeks ago, this performance was what Mao needed to continue raising her confidence. Though she and her coaches need to continue to address her rotational issues, she is on the right track. Her level of skating skill reigned supreme compared to her competitors and perhaps even compared to Kim, whose jumps wowed the World, but programs left skating critics cool.
If there is one personality we always enjoy watching, it is that of Ashley Wagner. To hear Wagner discussed in skating circles is always amusing. 'Capital B," "oh yes, one virtuous girl," and "charmingly difficult" were only a few descriptions I heard older women use this morning when discussing the American Champion. For many, Wagner's swagger has appeared to be a put on, yet there is finally some substance to her often-prickly persona. Cliches abound that it is not how you fall, it is how you get up. Blah blah, pass a tissue. This weekend, Ashley Wagner's streak of clean programs ended with a curious fall on a Triple Salchow that appeared to shock even her. It simply looked like a mistake after months of being perfectly composed and together. She rushed. Perhaps some of the focus left. Though she hit her next few jumps, a complete error ensued on her double axel, resulting in a fall that will delight her rivals and harshest critics for weeks to come. It was a fall that will likely define her career. After falling and the title surely having slipped away, Ashley regained her composure and proved to be the fighter she is often characterized for, by nailing a Triple Flip like only the 'new' Ashley can do. It was a jaw dropper. Though she finished fourth in the free skate, many will remember her comeback from the fall as a reason to believe in her for the rest of the season. A down competition or performance was bound to happen. Though she withdrew from the exhibition due to being beat up by the fall, the last minute of her program looks capable of spurring her on through the end of the season. Technically, she will need to add a double axel+triple toe of triple-triple in order to contend with the top ladies for gold or silver. Ashley has a habit of landing a tad stiff in the knee and straight up and down compared to someone like Tuktamysheva who can finesse a triple-triple with the bend of the knee. Ashley's consistency has done her favors thus far and the buzz around her skating should not diminish due to two falls in her long.
One buzz that likely will be diminished is Akiko Suzuki's after a wonderful performance at the NHK Trophy. Unlike Ashley, Akiko is regarded as a more delicate soul. Had she fallen on a double axel like Wagner, it would not cause gasps or snarky remarks in the same fashion. Akiko is lovely, but she has a career full of ups and downs. A botched spin in the short likely caused her the win, but I cannot get over the sexuality of her costume. There are some people I don't need to get a sexual vibe from, and Akiko Suzuki is one of them. Her long program just lacked the life of the NHK Trophy performance and the jumps suffered. Perhaps she is merely coming down a bit after such a high. Luckily, she gets another chance to redeem herself in a matter of weeks at her National Championships.
Another skater displaying great grit was Elizaveta Tuktamysheva. Perhaps she is the Anti Korpi. Whereas Kiira is lovely, delicate, feminine and displays a mastery of skating skills, Liza skates like a man on a mission to reel off jumps and throw around her limbs a bit for flair. It is all very Mishin and masculine. Her jumping is simply out of this World. Though Liza is dealing with the beast of puberty, she is coming through it and her body appears to be settling. The one good thing about Kim's return is that the judges will likely refrain from throwing up higher components for the Russian just because she can land a few lutzes. Slutskaya's second mark always jumped from event to event due to her buzzed 'improvement' until she was commanding Kwanlike scores for vacant programs to Carmen and Don Quixote. The return of Kim could very well keep the Tuktamysheva buzz at bay, Though she can land jumps, she cannot pull off Scheherezade.
Unfortunately for Christina Gao, a lack of preparation time may have killed a bit of her buzz. Though she appeared unprepared and out of contention the entire competition, it may very well be a blessing in disguise. It is likely time to revisit Gao's strategy of going for a Triple Toe+Triple Toe in the short. Though it can be a good thing to do the triple-tiple, it is a huge risk should a skater triple-double or be unable to reel off a second jump in the combination. Unless you have the skating skills of Kostner or Korpi to fall back on, the risk is far too great. Had Gao done a Triple Flip+Double Toe or Triple Lutz+Double Toe, it would still keep her in the mix should she miss her other triple. Having a Flip and Lutz in the short has its advantages, especially if one needs to think of their feet and still stay in the mix. A mistake on a Triple Toe+Triple Toe is a disastrous with only a Triple Loop to fall back on.
Though skating is about art, it is also about points. And these skaters and their coaches will surely be revisiting the protocols to devise a strategy for the second half of the season. Stay tuned.