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Figure Skating World Championships: Notes from Gothenburg

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I just realized I wrote but never posted about the last three events; here goes:

Friday was the overall most rewarding day of the World Championships. It began with the Men's SP, 46 contenders over about seven hours. The earlier group, starting in the morning, consisted of the unseeded, unranked, or lowest-ranked skaters, while the afternoon groups (four in all) were divided between the 13th-23rd ranked skaters (first two groups) and the 1st-12th seeds (second two groups), with the starting order of each supergroup selected randomly. The general expectation is that a handful of skaters from the morning make the 24-skater cut-off for the free skate.

Among the men who ultimately didn't qualify, there were a number of notable performances, many by junior skaters, a sign that there is increasingly more talent in countries that have not been strong, at least lately, even as the technical standards rise. The non-qualifiers who impressed me most were 16-year-old Javier Fernandez of Spain, who skates as if moving to music is the point, but needs a little more polish and stronger technical content, and 19-year-old Kutay Eryoldas of Turkey, who interprets the subtleties in the music. Sean Carlow of Australia, who saved his mother from drowning the year before last in a boating accident on a trip to celebrate the Australian skaters in which a coach and a judge died, came back well. He doesn't have the technical content or reputation, but his has style and power, and he had one of the best flying sit spins of the competition. Mikko Minkkinen most likely would have qualified had he not fallen on the 3Lutz. His short program was to a jazz version of the theme from the TV show "Roseanne," and he was a strong stylist, skating authoritatively, with great spin positions and the soft blades that are a hallmark of the Finnish women. It was a shame we didn't get to see his free skate.

The last skater to qualify for the free skate was 15-year-old Abzal Rakimgaliev from Kazakstan. He's a little dynamo, co-coached by former European Championship medallist Olga Markova, with solid jumps, albeit a juniorish style, but with a lot of potential. The strongest competitors in the early groups by far were Igor Macypura, who was a junior skater in the US before switching to Slovakia as a senior, and Anton Kovalevski, from ukraine, who was right behind him, both Ukrainian-born. Macypura had a rough outing at Europeans this year, but recovered nicely to finally equal his placement (21st) of last year. He's a tall skater with good knee bend, fine line, authority, and good flow. Kovalevski had dynamic spins and an athletic Flamenco program; he rocked the program.

Kristoffer Berntsson, the finest Swedish skater, who is from Gothenburg and whose photo was on posters at nearly every bus shelter -- the others had photos of Viktoria Hegelsson, an unheralded junior skater -- and who was featured in countless articles leading up to the championships, had the unfortunate draw to skate first in the afternoon. No pressure. (NOT). The building exploded when he was announced in the warm-up, and every move cheered on. The din continued as he took starting position. He certainly felt the pressure, looking tight, but he landed all of his elements, and was in solid top 10 position going into the free skate. Young Adrian Schultheiss, who is from the region, skated last in the first afternoon group. He reminds me of a cat, albeit a tall one, and he slinked silently into solid position in these senior championships, after having placed only 18th at Junior Worlds this year. The two lower-ranked Japanese skaters -- top-ranked Daisuke Takahashi was last year's silver medallist and was considered the co-contender for the title this year -- Yasuharu Nanri and Takahito Kazuka -- both have great flow skating to two very different kinds of music: rock for Kozuka and classical ("Moonlight Sonata") for Nanri.

After an injury-ridden year, in which he couldn't perform the lutz or flip, Sergei Voronov landed a quad toe/double toe combination, but, sadly, doubled the loop, which means he missed a required element (triple jump from steps). Although he was 4th at Europeans, with the Canadian, Japanese, and US men added to the mix for Worlds, there was tremendous pressure for him to regain two spots for Russia -- if there is a single competitor, that skater/team must place 3rd-10th for two spots, or 1st-2nd for three spots for the following year -- and he skated very well to Rachmaninov's second Piano Concerto. A fringe benefit when Voronov competes is the presence of his coach, 1994 Olympic gold medallist Alexei Urmanov, who seems to have a portrait in a closet somewhere, because he doesn't look much older than he did when he competed over a decade ago.

I still don't understand Yannick Ponsero's scores. He's a short, muscular, plush skater, with phenomenal positions in his spins, moving clearly and cleanly from one position to another, and nice posture and flexibility in his back, and dead on centering regardless of the number and changes of position. His jumps weren't perfect, but he wasn't unique in that, and I preferred his flowing performance to "Otonal" to to the later one by Stephane Lambiel, who has the reputation of being an artist on ice and having the best spins. Ponsero skated with tension, while Lambiel's skating was loose and sloppy, in my opinion. I've heard a lot about Jeremy Abbott of the US. He has a lot of talent, and the ability to generate and maintain great speed using minimal cross-overs. I found his PCS too low for his tremendous edges and very fine interpretation to Carlos Santana's "Treat."

Stephen Carriere from the US opened the pentultimate group with a fine Worlds debut to "Stairway to Heaven," albeit with a few nerves. Sergei Davydov followed with a good, if generic program to "Shindler's List." Then the fireworks began: Tomas Verner upped the ante with a masterpiece of CoP choreography to two pieces by Django Reinhardt, in which he riffed with his blades and body. It was one of the most extraordinary live performances I've ever seen, a tall and powerful skater changing speed and position on a dime, responding as one with the music and with the energy of an exhibition skate. He got very strong marks, but as far as I'm concerned, any choreography or interpretation score below an 8.5 (of 10) was robbery. What made it even more great is that there might be only one other skater alive, Jeffrey Buttle, who has the stylistic capability and artistic sensibility to skate this program with any semblance of the depth and versatility that Verner showed: Weir, Joubert, Takahashi, Lambiel, Lysacek (not competing here), and going back, Plushenko, and Yagudin, were locked into specific styles, however different their styles were/are from each other (although Takahashi might be less locked in than the others). Verner set the bar for the rest of the competitors with this skate.

Alban Preaubert had to drop out with injury, and Stephane Lambiel skated next. He was not on all week; in an interview with his coach during pre-competition practices, his coach said that he wasn't able to feel his edges on the ice, and had to have his skates re-sharpened twice before they were tolerable, and his warm-ups for both the short program and free skate bore this out. He was not landing like he felt the ice. There was also a dullness to his efforts in Gothenburg, although the crowd was as loud and encouraging as if he were at his best, and the judges placed him higher in component scores than Verner. Weir closed the pentultimate group with a masterful skate to "Yunona and Avos," all edges, flow, and line. No one in Men's skating has his flow-out or classic jump technique, although Patrick Chan at his best is very, very close and has other strengths. Weir led the short program by less than a point, with the final group still to come.

The final group built on the momentum of the preceeding group. Jeffrey Buttle landed all of his jumps perfectly -- his 3Flip/3Toe combination is a thing of beauty -- and with a sublte and sophisticated program to Astor Piazzolla's "Addios Ninos" took the lead. The intricacies of his blade work and transitions, making every element more difficult than when approached by simple stroking, are evident in every program he's skated for at least the last six years (even before the introduction of the new judging system), growing and intensifying every year. Inexplicably, his component scores were 6th in the segment. Ironically, he had the highest technical scores, even though several other skaters landed quad toes. (None of the handful of skaters who performed quads in the Short Program completed their other jumps without serious flaws.)

Takahashi took the challenge with his techno "Swan Lake," one of Nikolai Morozov's most inspired pieces of choreography. Takahashi is a very dramatic, full-bodied skater, and he was brilliant in the techno-inspired moves in the program. He was in third place after the skate, by a quarter of a point. Brian Joubert, who was expected to vie for Takahashi for the title, landed a 4Toe/3Toe combination and a 3Axel, but fell on the steps into the 3Lutz, nonetheless earning the third-highest technical score and higher component scores than Verner. His energy was superb, but that doesn't really change the weakness of the choreography, although that has improved since his work with coach (and former World competitor) Simond. Patrick Chan, the young Canadian champion, had an unfortunate draw skating after three house-rocking programs. He's not a skater who "breaks out" and gets the crowd roaring: his gifts are impeccable technique and edges and full-bodied skating. His program to two selections by Tan Dun from the "Banquet" soundtrack, choreographed by Lori Nichol, was mature and subtle. In interviews, Chan is a very humble, unassuming 17-year-old, still a boy. On the ice, he skates like a man: lifted from the waist, authoritative in him movements, every movement counterbalanced, the best of skating, in my opinion, and the first man since John Curry that I think is a true classical-style dancer on ice. Ballet's loss is skating's gain. His component scores were laughable given the quality of his skating.

While not to the technical level of the skaters at the beginning of the grouop, Takahiko Kozuka, skating to The Ventures, and Kevin Van der Perren, skating to "Xotica" both had comparable energy. Each of the last nine competitors with the exception of Lambiel brought their A-game to the table, and even when they had technical mistakes -- for example, Joubert upped the energy even more after his fall -- they drove themselves to their interpretive limits. It was the best single run of skating I've ever seen live. It's magical when it happens at a live event, and it's fairly rare.

The Free Dance followed in the evening. Many of the teams that can do respectable CD's and very good OD's falter with the challenges of the Free Dance, a longer (4-minute) program with more required elements. The first group started off slowly until the last couple, Barbora Silna and Dmitri Matsjuk of Austria, one of the highlights of the competition. They skated to several excerpts from "Saturday Night Fever." (Yes, he wore a white suit and black shirt.) This wasn't an exercise: the entire program flowed, even during the turns in the circular footwork in which they skated so closely. Almost unheard of in ice dance choreography, they had three major elements -- two lifts and a spin -- on the slow music, to "How Deep Is Your Love." Scores, schmores: they rocked.

The second group was most notable for the roller-derby like warm-up, although I very much enjoyed Allie Hann-McCurdy/Michael Coreno's program to "Rhapsody in Blue," which was light and airy. She's very charming. Many people in my group can't take him seriously because he looks like Gene Wilder, but, sadly, skating is that superficial. (And if anyone has ever heard Terry Gross's interview with Gene Wilder for "Fresh Air," -- what a mensch -- it wouldn't be any harder to root for him as a leading man than Fred Astaire, who also was not a looker in the classic sense.)

As skaters go from junior to senior, they generally try to do a dramatic program to show their maturity, and almost without exception, it ends up looking generic. (Many of the intermediate teams never leave this phase.) It was Bobrova/Soloviev's turn. I love them, and the international judges have spoken: B/S have surpassed Rubleva/Shefer, after the Russian Federation left B/S off the team until European Champions Domnina/Shabalin had to withdraw with injury.

During the warm-up, a friend and I were discussing that "According to the World of Skating": the only thing that Handel ever wrote was "Sarabande" from "Suite No. 4," the only things that Beethoven ever wrote were "Moonlight Sonata" and "Beethoven's Last Night," the only things that Bach ever wrote were "Air" and "Toccata and Fugue," and, as she put it, Mozart never wrote anything. While there was some fine skating in this group, we got two "Sarabandes," "Air" and "Toccata and Fugue," "Moonlight Sonata," and "Beethoven's Last Night." We also got Sarah Brightman and Andrea Boccelli singing "Time to Say Goodbye." Yikes.

The next group had great skating, but also a theme: the woman was mad (Pechalat), inhuman (Kerr), or died (Davis' Eleanor Rigby, Cappellini's Violetta). Thanks to Nikolai Morozov the Zaretskis escaped the curse, skating to Armstrong ("Let My People Go") and Prima ("Sing, Sing, Sing"). The Kerrs skated to selections by "Enigma," as matching robots. They clearly had the crowd in their corner, and their skating skills are becoming a lot more refined after working with two-time Olympic champion Evgeny Platov. Siblings always have it rougher; they can't do the romantic work, and it will be interesting to see where Platov takes them over the next few years.

Cappellini/Lanotte are both lovely skaters, but in their "La Traviata" free dance, which had some awful cuts, they looked a bit juniorish putting on the diva. They'll grow into it, and they were barely beaten by the Zaretskis, whose program was a bit generic despite the great music, but they were outclassed by the other teams in this group, and looked like kids in comparison to all of them.

Davis/White were technically wonderful in the "Eleanor Rigby" free dance, but the dance itself is lacking in depth, like much of the choreography that comes out of the Shpilband/Zoueva camp. (They are also third priority for their coaches, the favorite of neither.) They skated very, very well, and Meryl Davis' expression was particularly wonderful throughout the entire competition. They took a lot of flack after bursting on the senior scene last year, placing 7th, passing several teams their senior, some of whom had sub-par performances. (I noted the most animosity from Kerr fans I spoke to.) I think they will shine particularly in the next Olympic cycle. The class of this group was Pechalat/Bourzat. He has such extraordinary posture and presence and fully extended line. The unusual program was odd and strangely, eerily affecting. Their coach, Muriel Zazoui, is extraordinary in the way that she finds and encourages choreography that is so different for each of her teams. There is no cookie-cutter in the Zazoui stable, and I did read that she had a hand in Silna/Matsjuk's "Saturday Night Fever" program.

With Domina/Shabalin out with an injury, conventional wisdom made the title Delobel/Schoenfelder's to lose and Khoklova/Novitski's to win. Faiella/Scali, whom I find inferior in just about every way to Pechalat/Bourzat, had a very fine performance in generic choreography to Barbara Streisand's songs for "Yentl." They have very fine flow, but I don't find them particularly compelling movers. The other four were the ones fighting for the medals.

Khokhova/Novitski led off with "A Night on Bald Mountain" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Whereas in the OD, I thought their footwork expressed the nuances of speed in the music, in the Free Dance, I thought both of their footwork passes bogged down, and that the transition from the spin to the lift at the end of the program was labored. I was so looking forward to this performance, but I was disappointed. The program has to be skated with more freedom for it to be effective, the way it was at European Championships. Delobel/Schoenfelder followed with "The Piano," in which they incorporate sign language to further the love story. They are not an uber-dramatic couple, which is why I love them so: they don't need to be over the top to convey the emotional undercurrents of the dance and the complicated relationships between the characters. [Full disclosure: they are the only team since Uzova/Zhulin who have made my all-time favorites list.] They skated the program with great flow and an emotional depth and maturity that I think is unmatched. They did not win the Free Dance -- Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir did with their very fast "Umbrellas of Cherbourgh" program -- but they were worthy champions. Virtue/Moir are wonderful skaters -- in coach and skating royalty interviews, Scott Moir is routinely mentioned for his talent -- and their goal this year was to gain the speed that was lacking. They succeeded, but they lost the nuance of last year's "Valse Triste" along the way.

Belbin/Agosto were skating for pride, and their Chopin freeskate is the best I've seen from them; it was more fluid and nuanced than any of their other programs, with far better music editing. If they can continue in this direction, I believe they'll be contenders next year, although I think they are limited by Belbin's range of expression. Still, they are young for ice dance (23/26), and plan to make a run for the 2010 Olympic title before they retire.

The final event, Saturday afternoon, was the Men's Free Skate. It was a great let-down after the Short Program. Adrian Schultheiss skated very, very well for his level; he's still a little slow, but he ended his program with flair, and he did not let his nerves show. Berntsson, however, faltered badly in a free skate that's been giving him trouble all year. (This very flawed performance earned him a season's best score.) It was only an unexpected meltdown later that saved two spots for Sweden next year, as it looked like Berntsson/Schultheiss would place 14/15, one two many for two spots. Still, it was a disco program, and the crowd was fully engaged from beginning to end, never becoming subdued when the errors came. What enormous pressure for the hometown and home country favorite.

Sergei Voronov stepped up and hit a home run, landing all of his elements to secure Russia two spots for next year. It was a great performance under pressure. He's not particularly polished yet, but that could come. A number of skaters had season's bests: Davydov's skate wasn't particularly exciting, but he exceeded his season's best by over 7 points, and Van der Perren, who dropped his awful "Lawrence of Arabia" program from earlier this year and went back to last year's program, nailed it, including a triple/triple/triple combination, which netted him more than 18 points. Never a stylist, his jumps were spot on, and he scored over 9 points over his season's best. Patrick Chan took the time between Canadian Nationals and Worlds to change his program to add a 3A combo attempt, on which he fell, and he later lost points because he did a fourth, illegal combination. Still, he made top 10 for his first Worlds, and skated very, very well to complex choreography. Kozuka and Carriere skated respectably, and Carriere also made top ten, although he had some help from his fellow competitors.

There was a title that nobody seemed to want. There must have been a rumor that it was diseased. Verner, who was so great Friday, had a meltdown of epic proportions, popping jump after jump. (For comparison's sake, he had the lowest technical score -- 43.15 -- of any competitor; the next closest being 22nd-place Jamal Othman's 50.85, and only eight of 24 Ladies competitors had lower technical scores, with one fewer jump allowed.) Weir followed. He was successful in a limited, but effective, sort of way: he was tight and slow, and he left many points on the table, doing below the maximum. Takahashi followed and had an up-and-down performance, ultimately losing the bronze medal to Weir because he, too, added a fourth, illegal combination for which he received no credit. Lambiel could barely land a clean jump, and he was enervated, except for a few spins. Even his footwork wasn't very sharp. Someone must have told Joubert that the title wasn't diseased, because he came out fighting. He landed jump after jump with great energy, until a final, weak 2Axel/1Toe combination. However, he, too, left out the maximum content, landing one quad and a 3Axel, but getting negative grade of execution on both the 3Flip and 3Flip/3Toe, because his take-off is from the wrong edge. The crowd went wild, and, knowing how the others had skated and discounting Buttle, who was the last skater, he dropped to his knees and kissed the ice. Didn't he see David Pelletier make the same mistake in Salt Lake City?

Jeffrey Buttle, skating to the "Ararat" soundtrack, gave the best performance I've ever seen from him, and I've seen a good many. The only negative technical marks (2 out of 168) were for his second 3Lutz. He had complex transitions into each element, upping the difficulty considerably, and he was the only competitor to land a 3A and a 3A combination (3A/2T/2Lo), although there were a few other attempts. It was a masterful, nuanced program, and he won the World Championship by winning both the Short Program and the Long Program. In the interview afterwards, he thanked his sister, Meaghan, with whom he started as an ice dancer, for the edges he gained in the discipline. Sadly, Joubert vented to the French press about skaters who do "simple and clean" (i.e, without quads, racking up points on complex spins and footwork), and questioned Buttle's title, which he won, ironically, without winning the component scores in either program, but by winning the technical scores convincingly. He beat Joubert by 15 points over two programs.

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