It isn’t easy being a ladies champion. The demands are great: beauty, athleticism, flexibility, femininity and a pre-pubescent body accompanied by a competitive mettle with the ability to melt steel. The ladies have largely spent the years following the Olympics shifting, tumbling and grasping for salience. With the Olympics now approaching, the competition has come alive as the contenders are emerging. While there is far from a clear-cut favorite, the absence of a true leader is making this often snooze-worthy discipline something worthy of debate.
The ingredients to winning were once simple and finite: seven triples, two lutzes, a beautiful dress, graceful spiral and an expressive program choreographed by an underachieving Canadian.
The post Vancouver skating establishment has been left largely confused by the ladies’ discipline as the technical requirements have largely evaporated. When Yu-Na Kim ruled the world, a competitive short program included a Triple Lutz+Triple Toe, Triple Flip and Double Axel. Three years later, the ladies routinely struggle to muster a Triple Toe+Triple Toe, Triple Loop and Double Axel. As Tarasova’s Mink put it best, “It is no secret that the Finnish ladies and their full arsenal of doubles have even begun entering the medal ranks of the ISU Grand Prix.”
With Sochi looming just fourteen months away, it is time to examine the contenders of this lacking generation:
If there is a standout favorite of the last nine months, it is none other than America’s own ladies champion. Never has a lady craved or celebrated surmounting a giant pile of meodiocrity quite like our girl, but our tempestuous ladies champion has been with us for the long haul and she is ours’ to enjoy and blame. We first met her as a tomboyish two-footing jumper who snubbed Caroline Zhang on the medal rostrum at the 2009 Junior World Championships after years of toiling in the shadows. Our instincts were flagged when we learned that she had a habit of yelling at coaches despite her best efforts of channeling Amanda Bynes’ ‘Ask Ashley’ protagonist on her video blogs. The worse she skated, the happier she got. We knew she was made of total win when she smiled upon the demise of Sasha Cohen at the 2010 National Championships and refused a trip to Junior Worlds feeling it was beneath her. After numerous coaching changes and botched short programs, we were most excited to receive confirmation of her craziness when she sported a mask to advertise her illness as the reason for underachievement at a National Championships so bizarre that Alissa Czisny earned a second crown. Yes, the American ladies champion is one of a kind.
Wagner’s on-ice ability has improved, but her biggest strength is her consistency. While she was more of a jumper as a junior, Ashley Wagner is someone who is very balanced in terms of her skating ability. Up until recently, every aspect of her skating hovered around the B/B+ level. Nothing was truly special, but the weaknesses weren’t great either. The psyche of our diva is most impressive. Before, there was a swagger to Ashley’s attack that masked insecurity when it came time to land her jumps. Over time, Wagner became known as the two-foot queen. Her clunky free leg marred just about every jumping pass. While many athletes struggle with living up to expectations following unexpected success, Ashley’s confidence has grown with every win. Lately, her jumps are getting bigger, more confident and landed with better edges. Her Triple Flip and Triple Loop are her greatest strength. Her biggest weaknesses are a Flutz and the lack of a clean triple-triple or double axel+triple toe. Should she be able to do either without a two foot landing, she will remain in contention through Sochi.
A year ago, I considered Ashley’s pedestrian Swan Lake to be one of the true eye-rolls of the skating season. Talks of the almost girl’s artistry have largely been replaced by inane commentators focusing on the remarkable surname of the reigning American junior champion. There remains an overall truck driver quality about Ashley’s skating. The crossovers are still pumping and the skating is largely on two feet, but the added confidence and increase in speed have the judges looking the other way. Her components have jumped more than five points since the World Championships. She is now within a point of the marks Kostner earned for her World victory, which is alarming, noteworthy and ultimately, utter bullshit. There is no way Wagner matches the edge quality or skating skills of the reigning World Champion, but her ‘90s-inspired free skate does reveal more of an authentic performance than the clunky footed tomboy parading around as a poseurish ballerina. There has been a steady improvement, but don’t kid yourself that Ashley’s grasp on the gold will be eternal. The best of the rest is getting it done, but change is always just around the corner.
“An Ashley Wagner victory would be like a Romanian team winning gold during the Belu era: we celebrate their consistency while deploring their lack of creativity.”-Tarasova’s Mink
Carolina Kostner has been absent from the Grand Prix this season due to injury and a lack of certainty regarding her participation in the sport, but she is aiming to compete at the Italian National Championships before the month’s end and is threatening to appear at Zagreb. We may never have thought we would miss the up-and-down career of a skater with a history of visible tampons and curious wet spots, but we do. After years of darting across the ice and performing triples that skimmed across the surface without any height, Kostner slowed down and mastered her jumps, her skating and her artistry over the last two seasons. Now that she isn’t mopping up the ice, we are able to recognize that Kostner is the only skater whom Lori Nichol bothers to expend any effort for when collecting her yearly choreographic fee.
If Wagner is receiving 8s for components, it is about time that Kostner is awarded 9s. Her skating skills, transitions and choreography exceed abilities of the other skaters, always delivering the unexpected. Her patterns are interesting, even for the most ardent of skating aficionados. Where others do three turns and Mohawks, Kostner moves from element to element with rockers, counters and brackets just because. To quantify Kostner’s skating ability compared to her competitors at Worlds, one must become comfortable with ladies champions who can be excused for a lack of jump contents due to steps, spins, components and gorgeous landings. With the return of Kim looming, Kostner will need to add in a Triple Flip+Triple Toe that was reserved for the practice ice last season. With her speed under control, the content should be there and keep her in the mix.
Kostner’s World Championship victory was accomplished with three level 4 spins, a level 4 step sequence, and five clean triples. She will need a sixth and a triple flip+triple toe in the short to remain on top and possibly a seventh if the judges somehow deem Ashley Wagner on her level.
The most curious aspect of Kostner’s return may be her choice of music: Bolero. If ever there was a piece of music not to choose, it is Bolero. There is no way to ever recreate the magic of Torvill and Dean, especially under the International Judging System. Many have tried and many have failed. The music is largely cursed, with even Kwan unable to escape the wrath the Uncle Dick and the legion of North American ice dancers who narrated the sport with a thinly veiled desire to be ravaged by Christopher Dean. Ironically, an injured, aging Kwan was pushed off the podium by Kostner when skating to Bolero the year before an Olympic Games. History may very well repeat itself.
If ever there was a dramatic, depressing downfall in the sport, it is Mao Asada skating in the aftermath of Yu-Na Kim’s decisive Olympic victory. When Mao first announced her decision to take from the Satos, I warned my bitchy friends that a level of sucking that only Fumie and Chika Suguri can exhibit was likely around the corner. Nobuo’s own daughter escaped to Canada in order to win a World Title before only ever returning to her home country for commentating or other economic opportunities.
While Mao was knowning for flutzing and underrotating a few triples at her peak, the Satos managed to undermine Mao’s confidence and competitive moxie by reworking her jump technique over the last two seasons. While her actual technique doesn’t look all that different, her ability to execute and rotate the jumps has all but disappeared.
Maochan’s Swan Lake long program may be her absolute best long program, but it is hindered by an inability to deliver the technical goods. Though she escaped the Grand Prix with two gold medals this season, the world took notice of her wanting technical execution during the NHK Trophy. If ever there was someone who needed to embrace the black mark of Tarasova on a daily basis and ignite the spark back into her life and her skating, it is Mao. Perhaps Mao’s spirit was sapped by the illness and ultimate death of her mother last season. With little time to mourn, Mao’s skating has never seemed to recover.
While many applaud Mao’s light-hearted short program, it is worth nothing that it is almost the exact same program Lori Nichol gave to Mirai Nagasu five seasons ago, down to the hands-on-the-knee gestures during the footwork sequence. Though Mao had no reason to pay attention to American Nationals during that time, those of us who did are able to witness yet another crime committed by Canada’s own PCS expert.
Though perilous finishes may be near, Mao’s programs this year have breathed life back into her skating for those who watch her. Her back split during her footwork sequence and powerful ending to her free skate would earn her nines for interpretation and choreography if she were willing to give us eye contact and dramatic facial expressions. Her spins and level 4-footwork are there; it is time for her jumps to return. It is remarkable how long she has remained with her coach by Japanese standards, especially given the level of on-ice deterioration.
Akiko Suzuki is suddenly the top Japanese skater, especially if you ask our friends at British Eurosport. The performance of Akiko’s life earned even more attention thanks to poor judging by a panel that awarded even Mao’s popped jumps with plus ones and twos.
While Akiko’s choreography and style is not yet at the level of Asada’s, her personality engages on the ice and her success is captivating after a career of struggle and inconsistency. Her speed and confidence have never been better. The only true weaknesses of her program at the NHK Trophy were two edge calls and an underrotated Triple Loop. In the words of Oprah, Akiko is currently ‘being her best self.’ Expect a win at Japanese Nationals if the judging is remotely accurate or the performances consistent with what we’ve seen this year. Given a history of surprises at the event, that may be asking quite a lot.
We have long heard that the Russian ladies would dominate the Sochi Olympics. Experience may have taught us never to trust junior ladies to materialize into viable seniors, but the sheer number of budding jumpers made us all pause. Thus far, the Russian ladies have had mixed results now that Tuktamysheva and Sotnikova have emerged as true senior competitors.
Sotnikova exhibited numerous growing pains last year as she attempted to adjust to a developing frame. While Russia has a tradition of beautiful lutz jumps, Sotnikova and Leonova are notable flutzes despite their reputations as being more technically minded than artistic. Their descent into the house of Russian trash is also noted. While I never cared for Sotnikova’s spin position, many find her beautiful. There is little explanation or excuse for the egregiously tacky Burlesque long program performed by the 2011 Junior World Champion. It is simply an eyesore without jumps to legitimize it. Luckily, Sotnikova’s flip has disappeared in the short program, yet her coaches continue to have her include it as a solo jump for added torture.
Tuktamysheva is experiencing growing pains of her own. While Sotnikova ascended to Volchkova-like height, Elizaveta’s growth has made Terry Gannon’s grating pronunciation of her name downright offensive and tacky. My beloved coach blows out her cheeks when discussing the latest happenings of last year’s wunderkind.
Due to injury and puberty, Tuktamysheva’s jumpers were M.I.A. during Skate Canada, but she largely has them back. A few weeks with David Wilson raised her components from the level of a 5 to a 6, but he is not a miracle worker. Her dangling free leg is even more noticeable now that Shawn Johnsons’ thighs are skating her programs. Like Leonova, Tuktamysheva’s program disappears between jump elements and much of the choreography consists of shaking her non-existent breasts. Dark Eyes has never depressed us this much. Though Tuktamysheva’s technical content is returning, Mishin’s female eyesore is going to need a Triple Axel if nothing can be done to remedy her offensive style.
Lipnitskaya may not be a senior, but she is exhibiting a growth spurt of her own and has the nagging injuries to go with it. Despite an impressive showing on the Grand Prix, her jumps are not quite as consistent with the added height. Her jumps characteristically have a forward tilt that is a hindrance with extra inches throwing her off. My inner Peggy Fleming is dying for her to take advantage of her flexibility and beautiful natural line by holding out her movements and extending. Unfortunately, her programs this season are largely exhibitions by Gumby on Ice with high leg kicks abound. Dick Button is screaming at his television set for her to kick up her leg and hold it in position to make something of her movement, because her accompanying talent is truly extraordinary.
"Her arms, they have lovely fingers and it's nice presentation, but they never go below the waist. There's never a scooping, a low movement, a full movement. ... There's this presenting 'up' all the time. I wonder if you looked at it in detail, it would add more appreciation, more expression, if it had the full range in movement from the bottom to the top" - the British Eurosport commentators on Gold's LP at Rostelecom Cup
On the North American front, cries for Joannie Rochette to return continue to echo, though Canada now has an emerging talent by the name of Katelyn Osmond. The new darling of Debbi Wilkes and PJ Kwong may lip AND flutz, but she has managed to hold it together in a way her countrywomen rarely have in any jumping discipline.
Christine Gao has emerged as a consistent force with a "tribute to Karen Kwan" short program and a sexless tango for her long. Her jumps are consistent and clean, which should earn her a trip to the World Championships should the USFSA have any desire for a third spot next year.
Mirai Nagasu and Gracie Gold are in contention, but both are known for being anything but consistent. Nagasu looks extremely happy without Frank Carroll and some of the joy has returned to her skating. While Tim Goebel would tell us it is the absence of Frank, the lack of a three to four hour daily commute may have something to do with it.
Gold is the latest sister of Shawn Johnson, Katy Taylor and Kimmie Meissner. The unrefined talent is capable of missing Nationals one year and winning the next. Anything is possible in Gracie world.
With the Grand Prix Final mere days away, the sport’s attention will largely be elsewhere, as Yu-Na Kim is returning to (hopefully) erase the suck. Though it wouldn’t take Kim at her full strength to win, there is hope that the reigning Olympic Champion will skate with a modicum of the fervor and inspiration that was missing from her skating and the ladies discipline as a whole following her blowout victory in Vancouver.