Junior Grand Prix Series Update

Junior Grand Prix Series Update

Burchstead, Marcia A

The final weeks of the eight-event Junior Grand Prix Series (JGP) saw some expected results along with stunning performances by rising young talents. The depth of the Japanese ladies’ field continues to astound with convincing victories scored by Mao Asada in Long Beach, Calif., and Nana Takeda in Harbin, China. Last year’s JGP Final and World Junior champion Miki Ando has moved on to the senior division and with (Mao Asada’s sister) Mai Asada not in top form due to an injury their compatriots are filling the void and making their presence felt in the international arena.

The number of entries each country can field is based upon its placements at the 2004 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. In the men’s and ladies’ disciplines the top five nations can send two skaters to each of the eight competitions, while a host member receives three slots. Each country can enter one ice dance couple in all eight events with an additional entry given to the top five and again three couples tor a host member. The exception to this rule is in the pairs discipline, where owing to the lack of depth internationally, all International Skating Union (ISU) member countries can send up to two teams per event and no limit is placed on the host member. The United States and Russia qualified the maximum number of spots in singles and ice dancing.

Prize money is awarded to the top three finishers in each discipline with singles receiving $2,000 U.S. for first place, $1,500 U.S. for second and $1,000 U.S. for third. The prize money awarded in pairs and dance is $3,000 U.S. for first place, $2,250 U.S. for second and $1,500 U.S. for third.

First-place finishers receive 15 points; each skater or couple can earn a maximum of 30 points for the series. At the conclusion of the series the eight top-ranked skaters and couples will advance to the JGP Series Final slated for Dec. 2-5, 2004 in Helsinki, Finland.

Most of the competitions held this season are using the Code of Points (CoP) scoring system, but in a departure from the other major ISU championships, the JGP events are not shielding the identity of the judges or their scores. The random draw of judges which will be in place for senior competitions (such as Worlds, Europeans and Four Continents), is not employed during the JGP series.

Under the 6.0 judging system the free skate and free dance were more heavily weighted than the short program, original dance or compulsory dance. Now skaters can give themselves a comfortable cushion in the early rounds and hang on to win. Figure skating, which in the last few years has lost much of its appeal with audiences, must do some public relations maneuvering to explain to the casual spectator and television executives how someone who did not do well in the free skate is still able to claim the title.

Critics of the old scoring system contend that it was often difficult to move up in the standings aftet the initial phase, yet at several of the JGP competitions the overall winner did not win the free skate or free dance. One example of this occurred in Long Beach. Princeton Kwong placed third in the men’s short program but won the free skate and remained in third overall. Dennis Phan, winner of the short program, came in third in the free yet held onto first place overall.

Another issue that needs to be addressed under CoP is the technical specialists, who assign base values and levels of difficulty for each element in a program. They operate under the ISU’s jurisdiction, yet several coach competing skaters. Sergei Ponomarenko, for example, has been working ice dancing events. Although he did not serve as a technical specialist in Long Beach, he had skaters competing in both the ice dancing (Caitlin Mallory and Brent Holdburg) and men’s disciplines (Princeton Kwong). If the ISU is serious in not wanting to give any appearance of conflict of interest, or impropriety, it needs to determine the propriety of hiring technical specialists who remain active coaches or who may still have ties to their national federations.

A positive development in the JGP Series is the increase in the number of countries who have entered competitors in the four disciplines. This season marks the first time India and Thailand, for example, sent skaters to these events. Several of the JGP competitions, notably the late-September event in Kiev, Ukraine and the early-October event in Chemnitz, Germany, have 35 and 44 entries, respectively, slated to take part. The ladies’ field in particular is growing by leaps and bounds. In Long Beach it took almost five minutes after each skater for scores to be announced, leading to a drawn-out ladies event with 22 competitors.

A highlight of the Skate Long Beach competition was the victoiy by Japanese ladies’ phenom, Mao Asada. Asada, who turned 14 on Sept. 25, was a last-minute replacement for her sister Mai, whose left ankle was injured in training. The Asada sisters are coached by Machiko Yamada, whose famed student Midori Ito was the first woman to land a triple Axel jump in competition.

A wonderfully lyrical short program skated to “Over the Rainbow” gave Asada a lead she refused to relinquish. Her strong presentation skills and technical command of the elements belied her age. Lea Ann Miller choreographed Mao Asada’s programs this season.

In the free skate Asada attempted the triple Axel but was just short of rotation. The technical specialist deemed the jump a flawed double Axel. Asada said that she has been practicing this jump for almost two years, but it is only in the last three months that she has had consistency landing it.

The other Japanese entry, Rumi Suizu, took advantage of a costume rule change that now allows ladies to skate in pants.

The two other medalists from last season’s JGP Final, Lina Johaiisson of Sweden and Viktoria Pavuk of Hungary, have also moved into the senior ranks. Newcomers, including Yu-Na Kim of Korea who won the JGP in Budapest, Hungary, and Meagan Duhamel of Canada, the victor in Courchevel, France, are ably filling the void. Kim won her free skate with an 11-point lead over runner-up Aki Sawada of Japan, who was fifth at the 2004 World Junior Championships. The Korean has been age-ineligible until this season, she but landed six triple jumps (including two Lutzes) and earned high scores from the judges in all of the five categories that comprise Program Components. Duhamel received the highest score in the ladies’ discipline to date with a 152.40. Laura Lepisto representing Finland took the title in Belgrade, Serbia/Montenegro, although her score of 120.71 was the lowest total so far.

A number of U.S. and Canadian ladies remain in the mix for the final spots in the JGP Final, including Kimmie Mcissiier, who has all but assured herself a place with second-place finishes in Courchevel and Long Beach. The runner-up at last season’s World junior championships held her own both technically and stylistically against Asada.

The U.S. ice dancing team of Morgan Matthews and Maxim Zavozin has already secured a place in the JGP Final based on victories in Courchevel and Long Beach. On paper they would appear to be a lock for the overall title after third-place finishes in the JGP final and World junior championships. But, they placed second behind Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in the free dance in Courchevel and botched their last lift during their original dance in Long Beach. They were still able to outpoint another Canadian duo, Siobhan Karam and Joshua McGrath, but these two Canadian couples, who train with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva in Michigan, are talented forces to be reckoned with.

Other dance couples expected to qualify for the JGP Final include Anna Cappellini and Matteo Zanni of Italy who won the JGP event in Budapest; the brother/ sister duo of Alexandra and Roman Zaretski, who represent Israel and Natalia Mikhailova and Arkadi Sergeev of Russia.

Last season Evan Lysacek of the U.S. and Andrei Griazev of Russia dominated the men’s discipline on the international junior circuit, but both have since moved up to the senior level. Canada’s Christopher Mabee, who trains in Rochester, Mich., was the victor in Belgrade, and Phan, out of Indio, Calif., won in Long Beach. Both men boast a host of competitive experience but will be challenged.

The Russian team is fielding several seasoned contenders including Alexander Uspenski and Mikhail Magerovski, who claimed the titles in Budapest and Harbin, respectively. The U.S.’s Jordan Brauninger, with two fifth-place finishes, will most likely not advance to the final. This has to be a disappointing setback for the seasoned competitor, who had a fourth-place result in 2004 at the JGP Final and a bronze medal at the 2004 World Junior Championships.

Nobunari Oda of Japan also qualified for the JGP final last season, but he will face a strong men’s field in Kiev. In Long Beach, Oda skated an entertaining short to music from “Super Mario” of Nintendo game fame, but technical errors left him in fourth place overall.

Phan’s coach, Tammy Gambill, approves of the direction in which CoP is taking the sport. “It’s not just a jumping contest anymore; it rewards the quality of skating, the spins, footwork and in-between skating, with an emphasis on difficult and intricate programs,” she said. “Itemizing each element will result in better skating overall. … We have played around with the program and jump combinations [for Phan] to get the best credit for his programs.” Gambill has also asked several international judges and a technical specialist to observe Phan’s programs and give input.

Canada’s Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison, the defending JGP Final champions, will have to skate cleanly in Helsinki in order to defend their title. In Long Beach they won the pairs title on the basis of a strong short program but finished second in the free skate with several major technical errors that cost them 3 points in deductions. In Harbin, despite winning the free skate, they placed second overall to Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov of Russia after a flawed short program left them in third.

Winning the free skate in Long Beach were Aaryn Smith and Will Chitwood of the U.S. Smith and Chitwood have a good chance of qualifying for the final with 26 points.

The U.S. has fielded its strongest entries in pairs for some time with Mariel Miller and Rockne Brubaker winning Courchevel, Sydney Schmidt and Christopher Pottenger winning the title in Budapest and Julia Vlassov and Drew Meekins edging out Smith and Chitwood for the title in Belgrade. Schmidt and Pottenger and Vlassov and Meekins are making their JGP circuit debut this season; both pairs just moved up from the novice division.

Several skaters have been doing double duty this season competing in two disciplines, including Meagan Duhamel of Canada in ladies’ and pairs and Charlie White from the United States in men’s and ice dancing. Dube competed in ladies’ and pairs in Harbin, coming away with bronze and silver for her efforts.

In addition to the medals and prize money awarded to the top three finishers at Skate Long Beach, the skaters were also presented with a certificate redeemable for a pair of boots and set of blades from Jackson Ultima, one of the sponsors of the competition.

Copyright Ashton International Media, Inc. Dec 2004

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