Monday, March 27, 2006


All over the Worlds

Lambiel "brings it" to defend his title
I’m glad I taped most of the World Championships of Figure Skating because ESPN’s commercial breaks were grueling. Busy bee that I am, I recorded everything up to yesterday’s finals, and watched the whole ten hours of coverage in about three hours before switching over to go live for the ladies around 4:30 Pacific Time.

It's always rewarding to watch an entire event in one day like that, designing a condensed, skating-only version of the coverage for oneself with the aid of the fast-forward controls. Apparently, a lot of Canadians felt the same way: Ticket sales were disappointing; a lack of local PR has been blamed, but figure skating event attendance numbers have been going down across the board. I’d be more likely to blame a general decline in discretionary income rather than a lack of interest, because the sport has never been more hotly contended or exciting to watch.

The level of commentary, without Dick Button around, was slightly pedestrian, but perfectly acceptable, and certainly less nit-picky. I especially loved it when Kurt Browning, upon seeing Stephane Lambiel land his opening quad-triple combo in the men’s free skate, almost grunted, “Bring it!” with an edgy zeal not usually apparent in his generally jocular delivery. I liked Wylie and Browning together in the box, but the sight of them in power suits sitting all macho-style was jarring. Their legs were set so far apart, it looked like their zippers would pop, and those stupid, big, bright ties made them look like Republican lobbyists rather than commentators for a sport universally known for its flamboyance. I wish the TV establishment would at least let them go business casual!

Commentary aside, the men’s competition was certainly the most contentious, with Lambiel’s stellar interpretation scores edging out Joubert’s higher technical total. I’m surprised, actually, that Joubert earned the high scores he did on the second set because he skates so mechanically, and his arms are just too short! I also despise his vinyl-accented “Matrix” outfit even more than I loathe Lambiel’s psychedelic zebra, which has actually started to grow on me. While I may have jumped the gun saying the men had overtaken the women in skating prowess in my last post, I am certain that everyone will agree that the top men now far outshine the top ladies in sequin power. In fact, the top ladies have become extremely tasteful, obviously following the lead of Michelle Kwan’s elegant string of dignified Vera Wang creations.

But despite Joubert’s annoying outfit and fist-pumping jockiness, I enjoyed seeing him finally skate clean for the first time in two seasons. I don’t think all that much of Lucinda Ruh’s spinning genius has rubbed off on him, though his spins are better than they were–and he still manages to look like a total jock even in the most outlandishly balletic positions. It’s an extremely rare quality, actually. When competitor Thomas Verner of Czechoslowakia was skating, Wylie and Browning–for some reason–started talking about the fact that he and Joubert were the two men who routinely got all the attention from the ladies backstage; I thought that was hilarious, because it’s not difficult to see why–they’re the only two recognizably straight contestants in the entire field.

Successful defending World Champion Stephane Lambiel has his own kind of sex appeal, but to me he’s like an asexual sprite on the ice, a total nature spirit, streaking and twirling with the kind of abandon I associate with pagan rituals. Especially at this Worlds, his Pan horns were out, and he had a delicious look of almost ecstatic revelry while he skated, deftly controlling a lush flow of joyous energy through some of the most precise and demanding upper body moves and footwork in the entire meet. His jumps were absolutely gonzo, covering height and distance I usually associate with X-game antics. I particularly loved the look on his face (“Sell it, Louise!”) when he stumbled out of his triple loop, obviously grateful that he was still on his feet at all. I was surprised, too: Aside from getting about six feet into the air after a three-turn take off at top speed, he covered something like fifteen or twenty feet of ice on that ill-fated triple loop. Joubert’s jumps may have been more controlled, but Lambiel skated like a rock star, and it must have made those judges swoon.

Ditto for new World Ice Dance Champions Denkova and Staviyski of Bulgaria, who look like refugees from a 1980s chick-rock band, and skate kind of like Stevie Nicks performs on stage. They may be blond (ahem) and regally chiseled, but you can feel the dark-eyed gypsies in their souls when they skate. Sometimes they undulate together in tender loneliness, like the Aurora Borealis, and sometimes they flicker across the ice like a pair of will-o-the-wisps. My favorite team, sentimental heavies Dubreuil and Lauzon, were more suave, smooth, strong and classic, with shades of the passionate majesty of Torvill and Dean. The judges liked ‘em a lot, too, clearly ranking them higher than anybody else in the free skate; but Denkova and Staviyski had such high technical scores in the original dance–Latin-themed this year–that they managed to carry the event even after finishing third in the free dance. They’re the first Bulgarians ever to win an ISU event, and I’d bet they’re going to be more famous than any Bulgarian rock star ever was, too. (You can’t name any, can you?)

I was completely surprised to find that the dance competition moved me far more than did the pairs event. In fact, the pairs left me so cold, I had to put on an extra pair of socks. Winners Pang and Tong, to be fair, do have a bit of a spark in them, but I don’t feel their technique is quite there yet, as “they” like to say. The exact opposite is true of the American Champions, Inoue and Baldwin, who had by far the highest technical scores in the free skate, yet garnered presentation scores that were almost six full points lower than those of the gold medalists. Some say the Russians were cheated out of the gold, since they skated clean, while both Chinese teams fell, but they earned their bronze by being painfully slow and absolutely expressionless, despite their perfect form. Silver medalists Zhang and Zhang are great athletes, but they still need years of work on their line, footwork and basic level of emotional connection.

To see some truly great pairs skating, one has to migrate to the world of artistic roller skating these days, where lifts, in particular, are far more spectacular, challenging and quickly rotated than in ice skating. Alas, the wonderful world of artistic roller skating cannot be viewed on television by anyone but the Italians (and other satellite-savvy EU inhabitants), who really do treat their world champion roller figure skaters like rock stars. But that’ll soon change if I can have anything to do about it!

What won’t change, it seems, is the reign of the teen terror on the ladies’ front, with Kimmie Meissner really kicking her competition in the teeth with those stunningly high and well-earned technical scores, and veteran Fumie Suguri delivering a beautiful, passionate program while popping a jump or two to give up the gold. Former favorite Sasha Cohen squeaked through with a bronze on presentation and interpretation merit alone. In fact, she earned the highest second set of scores by far, even though she landed very few solid jumps. And that’s how she beat out Elena Sokolova and Sarah Meier, who both delivered nearly clean free skates that would have earned them medals had they shown any sort of depth or connection to their skating whatsoever. Those two women can do clean, high, perfect triple jumps for days, but as long as they’re not presenting a program to the judges that’s a synergistic whole, they might as well be skating in the second group. They’re both tremendous skaters–especially Meier, who has great line, footwork and spins as well as killer jumps–but each looked as if she had holed up in a well-defended redoubt inside her head, from which she operated the machinery by remote control.

And now I put down my own remote control. It will lay mostly dormant for the spring and summer, as I watch very little television aside from figure skating events. I certainly don’t care enough about anything else enough to go to the trouble of taping it when I can’t watch the broadcast. And unless artistic roller skating gets its championships on the airwaves pronto, I won't have anything vital to watch until next season. Meanwhile, stay tuned for my own artistic roller skating adventure (I'm just about to purchase a killer pair of skates), and some roller figure skating stories and reporting as I come across them.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


As the Worlds spin

Lucinda Ruh atwirl
Now that the World Championships are underway, I curse the rigamarole of the international airwaves and politics of broadcast scheduling for the delay we lowly television viewers are made to endure; and I look forward to what I will see. Funnily, after many years of being a jump connoisseur above all else, I am dreamy with anticipation to see the spins this year.

When I was a skater, I was a natural jumper and a terrible spinner, so I focused more on the former and never really mastered the latter. As a spectator, I first became obsessed with spins when I saw Denise Bielmann perform her future namesake for the first time in international competition. I remember thinking that she looked just like my toy gyroscope while it was spinning: a perfect blend of physics and beauty.

It was a long time before another spinner moved me as much as Bielmann did, and it turned out to be another Swiss skater: Lucinda Ruh, who brings tears to my eyes when she spins. I certainly wish I could see more of her, but she rarely performs in shows that are televised. Lucinda Ruh is such an astounding spinner that judges rewarded her with enormous points in the artistic half of the scoring back in the 6.0 days, even though she never landed many great triples and always had problems with her jumps in competition. I've never heard it discussed by those who have reported on the change in the figure skating scoring system, but the new system contains far more ways to reward outstanding spins than did the old one, and I believe this is due, in large part, to Lucinda Ruh.

Following in the Swiss spinning tradition, Stephane Lambiel twirled onto the scene a few years ago with a collection of moves and positions not before seen in the men's competition, and obviously inspired by Ruh, with her artist's eye for shape and architect's exactness of form. For a year or two, he ruled--at least in my estimation--as the top amateur spinner in the world.

And then the scoring rules changed, and everybody else realized that their spins would start counting for much more of their total scores, and got to work. During the recent Olympics, I was surprised to see that Lambiel was not only no better a spinner than the other men, but was actually outperformed, outpositioned and outcentered by the likes of Weir, Lysacek and Pluschenko. Aha, I thought, the Swiss have lost their edge--how exciting! In fact, I became so engrossed by the excellent spinning in the Olympic men's competition that I actually got bored when they had to make a round on the rink and pop off a jump. Okay, not quite, but I was amazed by the improvement in overall spinning quality and difficulty.

I was also amazed to see that the men had actually surpassed the ladies in spinning prowess. Watch closely during the Worlds, and you may see what I mean. Then again, you may disagree. You may think NO man could ever match Sasha Cohen's elegant positions and precise centering. But then you may see SHAWN SAWYER skate for Canada during the men's event, and perhaps you'll agree with me that he is quickly becoming the best spinner in the entire field, and the only one who even closely approximates Lucinda Ruh's famed velocity. What's so exciting is that Sawyer is really just a tad ahead of the rest of the pack. If you haven't yet become a spinning fan, take a good close look at how they whirl at the Worlds--and then see if you can figure out the level and points for each one without letting your head spin.

The World Championships will be broadcast on ESPN March 23-26. See the schedule here.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


To point or to flex

Midori Ito: follow me!
Ever since Midori Ito burst upon the international skating scene with her high wrap and incredible jumping powers over twenty years ago, I noticed something different about the way many Japanese skaters land their jumps. Watch them during the world championships–instead of stretching their free leg and pointing the foot upon landing a jump, they will land with the free leg low, the free foot flexed so that the inside edge of the boot is parallel to the ice. When I first saw Midori do it, I yelled at the television, “She doesn’t point her foot when she lands!” Slowly, watching more and more Japanese skaters do this, I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve often wondered if it was a matter of technique, a matter of style, or both. Sometimes, it consumes my imagination, and I try to think of feasible explanations for this choice. Could it simply be a matter of quirky Japanese aesthetics, or is it something less subtle?

Now, not all of the Japanese skaters do it, but Shizuka Arakawa, Yukari Nakano and Yuka Sato display the classic flexed foot landing style to a tee. They have all been coached by Nobuo and Kumiko Sato (Yuka’s folks), so perhaps the style comes from that powerful Japanese skating family. Midori Ito, however, was, as far as I know, not coached by the Satos (like almost every other Japanese champion has been), so off I go looking for another explanation.

Mao Asada, if I’m remembering correctly from watching her in the Grand Prix finals, employs a more stretched-and-pointed landing style, so for a while I considered the fact that the flexed-foot style was a way of adjusting the classic technique to look better on women who had legs that were short in comparison to their bodies. (Living in Japan in 1990-91, I learned that the Japanese have a derisive phrase for this body type: “daikon legs.”) Then I noticed that Fumie Suguri uses the flexed-foot style, and she’s about as willowy and long-legged as they come, so that theory became history.

The most likely explanation, I think, is that this landing style was a quirk of Midori Ito’s, and that Ito is SUCH an icon for EVERY Japanese skater that her idiosyncracy quickly spread through the figure skating world like a virus until it became common practice.

Still, I wonder. If anyone out there with inside knowledge of the Japanese figure skating world can shed any light on this subject for me, I would greatly appreciate it. Meanwhile, I will continue to waywardly gather further statistics on this minor, but compelling, phenomenon as I watch the Japanese team attempt to sweep the World Championships next week.

Monday, March 13, 2006


She won't

Irina, skates off
Irina Slutskaya has now confirmed that she will not be competing in the upcoming World Championships in Calgary, which means that Sasha Cohen, as the clear star of a very strong US team, has virtually no competition if she skates her best. But how likely is that? I believe Fumie Suguri is her biggest threat, though Suguri is not known for her consistency either. The other top ladies, such as Yukari Nakano,Yoshie Onda, Kimmie Meissner, Carolina Kostner, and Joannie Rochette, just don't have the polish that Cohen and Suguri do, though Rochette and Nakano could challenge the top two for the gold.

In other events, Belbin and Agosto should twizzle away with the gold in dance, and the Chinese should dominate the pairs competition. I'm not religious, or even superstitious, but I've found myself doing what amounts to praying for an absence of the kind of falls we saw in both of these events in the recent Olympics.

The hottest contest by far should be in the men's event, with Lysacek, Buttle, Weir and Lambiel battling it out for the top spot while Oda, Joubert, Takahashi, Sandhu and Savoie nip at their heels. It's Lysacek all the way for me--his passion on the ice during his Olympic free skate converted me, though I still want to see soulful Matt Savoie on the podium.

The World Championships of figure skating will take place March 20-26. See the TV schedule here. More previews as the competition draws near...

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Will she or won't she?

Is Irina hungry for more gold?
First, ABC reported that the entire Russian roster of Olympic medalists was pulling out of the World Championships (but without a direct quote from Slutskaya), and then I read that Irina Slutskaya had changed tack, and was going to perform in Calgary after all. Still, she hasn't officially entered the event. I heard somewhere that she disdainfully threw her Olympic bronze medal into a locker backstage after the podium ceremony. That's certainly hideous sportsmanship, but I can also relate to her vast disappointment. I would think that someone like Slutskaya, who was already the comeback kid when she took the world title last year, just won't be able to help herself. I bet she'll be out there breathing down Sasha Cohen's neck, and making damned sure she lands that triple loop this time!

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Watch Kim skate!

Hey, we may not be able to see the Junior Worlds on television, but you can watch a good deal of newly-crowned 2006 Junior World Champion Yu-na Kim's performance in a news feature on this Korean media site. Simply go to the link and press the button under her picture to start the video. Her triumph is a big thing already: Almost all my Korean ESL students tonight had heard about Kim's win, even though none of them know anything about figure skating. I'm sure she'll be selling everything from sports drinks to shampoo during Korean soap operas in no time!


Kim lays it down

Yu-na: the new law of the ice
They said it couldn't be done. Who is they? Oh, I don't know, but there must have been lots of people who were saying that Yu-na Kim could never hold up in the long program after her surprise win over Mao Asada in the short program at the 2006 Junior World Championships. I even thought that myself, even though I've yet to see the girl skate. Today, she pulled off a big upset by resoundingly beating Mao Asada in the free skate to take the title of Junior World Champion away from the Japanese sensation. And when I say "resoundingly," I mean that she beat her by more than twenty-four points, scoring so high that she would have taken fourth had she scored the same at the recent Olympics, between Slutskaya and Suguri, with her new personal best of 177.54. Not only is she the first Korean woman to win a figure skating world championship, but she's the first Korean to win an ISU event, ever, as I learned in this handy ISU press release, where you can read the whole, technical story of the event. I also learned that the term used for doing jumps is "laying down," as in "performing to the Papa Can You Hear Me soundtrack [sic; and ick], the 15-year-old laid down a triple flip-triple toe combination...." I like that term; it lends a nice gonzo quality to the commentary that's actually perfectly appropriate for the true spirit of the sport. I'm sure there will be a lot of extremely gonzo parties in Korea and wherever Koreans gather in the next day or so if the Korean media is as wily as I think it will be about selling this historic victory to the general public. I'm definitely going to tell my Korean ESL students about it tonight, and ask them to watch for coverage in the Korean news. Which they won't do. But I would if I could--it's always a hoot for this armchair sociologist to see how different countries' media treat their star figure skaters.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Korea breaks the ice

Yu-na Kim was second at the 2005 Junior Worlds
In the shadow of Japan in almost every way, Korea seems to have an inferiority complex when it comes to its cousin across the sea--my Korean ESL students express it in a thousand twisted little ways every day, with a blend of hostility and what I've come to think of as a "trademark" sardonic sense of humor. None of them will know who Yu-na Kim is because most are the kind of apathetic mainstream dog-paddlers who only know their country's (and America's) MEGAstars, but the 15-year-old figure skater just made an important first stab at becoming Korea's next cultural hero by beating reigning Junior world champion Mao Asada in the short program at the 2006 Junior World Championships in Slovenia. With another Kim in the top ten (no relation), Korea is already well on its way to challenging Japan's new skating "dynasty," and start one of its own. Of course, the U.S. and its constantly impressive stable of sleek, spunky skaters (The American girls are more like racehorses than princesses, don't you think?) is never far behind, and could surge ahead again at any time, with Christine Zukowski and Alisa Czisny solidly holding third and fourth as they head into Thursday's free skate. Will Mao go for that history-making quad flip? Or maybe a loop? Kim's jumping abilities aren't as freakish as Asada's, but her other scores, all consistently higher than Mao's, describe a level of skating I can't wait to see when she finally hits TV. What havoc will be wreaked when these new-line teen terrors are set loose on the senior circuit ice!

Monday, March 06, 2006


And now, Mao

Mao performs the royal wave
Japanese figure skating prodigy Mao Asada is currently aiming for an error-free performance at the Junior World Championships in Slovenia this week, where the 15-year-old is defending her title--today she blew away the competition in the qualifying round. Already part of figure skating history for being the first (ahem) woman to land two triple axels in competition, Mao is currently mulling the possibility of doing a quad in her free program this year--even though Miki Ando has already made her mark on figure skating history by being the first woman to land a quad (a salchow) in competition last year. Mao, who has been having consistency problems with the quad salchow, and reportedly has faulty technique on her quad toe loop (cheating a half-turn on her take-off to make it a triple "toe-axel"), is working on a quadruple flip, lutz and loop; and if she perfects and lands any of those in the near future, she'll be the first person ever, man or woman, to land said jump(s) in competition, period. With Asada ready to rip through the ranks of the international senior level next year, ladies figure skating is about to take a turn toward the extreme. And because Mao has a fluid, graceful line and a feeling for music that rivals any more seasoned skater's, she'll truly be a force to contend with rather than a flash-in-the-pan jumping bean. I find it absolutely criminal of the ISU and US Figure Skating that the Junior World Championships are not broadcast on television--though perhaps there's some clause about that to protect young skaters from premature media scrutiny; could the sport be that humane? One hopes so.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Golden Girl of the East

Pastry chain Donut Plant NYC's cute 'n' tasty
homage to Japan's current national hero
New submission to Webster's Dictionary:

Shizukamania: noun; non-transitive; The odd blend of serious homage-paying traditions, marketing savvy, ironic ostentation, and quirky refinement that amounted to a post-modern beatification of Shizuka Arakawa upon her winning of a gold medal for figure skating in the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, 2006--the only medal of the games for Japan. Also known as Arakawamania.

Let the ceremonial sanctification begin:

Shizukamania is sweeping the nation. Not only is the gold medalist being beseiged by reporters, and sure to be hawking everything from pantyhose to sports drinks on Japanese television within a few months, but she has also prompted a trend that is both serious and funny in a subtle Japanese fashion: golden donuts--sprinkled with real gold dust, no less! I'm digging to find out how much people are forking out for these delicacies. I'm sure not a small few of them end up at the feet of statues in Buddhist shrines or in gravesite offering plates. Also popular is a golden CD of the music from Turandot used in Arakawa's long program. I give six months for this stuff to start appearing on e-bay.

Next trends to watch for:

A rash of gold hoop earrings on the lobes of fashionable Japanese schoolgirls and office ladies, which will lead to gold accessories of all kinds, and on to golden suits and skirts inspired by figure skating design--sounds scary, I know, but the Japanese mainstream fashion world is laden with laudatory trends.

When I lived in Kyoto, Japan in 1990-91, everyone was in love with the English language; i.e. they were shocked into awe by it for being so powerful. Because of this, there was a big trend for English phrases and aphorisms on things like stationary, school supplies and t-shirts. I left the country wearing a long-sleeved lavender t-shirt that read "FASHION TRAUMA OF BOURGEOISIE MILK BOY"; one of my favorite letter sets contained notepaper with a picture of a blissful beagle next to a shiny motorcycle on each sheet, and the caption: "Cool breeze smooth my muzzle." Now, I wish I had those things for e-bay! Since the Japanese have gotten more proficient in the English language, their fashion and consumer copy has become more and more correct and sophisticated. There's nothing like the "Japanglish" of the country's initial infatuation with the power of English.

Japan's infatuation with Shizuka Arakawa runs far deeper, into the realm of mystic racial honor and ancient traditions of acclaim for national heroes. But its expression is just as twisted and unexpectedly refined. Only the Japanese would think of sprinkling donuts with gold dust. I hate donuts, but I'd love to get my hand on a gold-medal-glazed before they go out of style!

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Friday, February 24, 2006


Time to Skate Into the Ice

Now that the curse of the teen terror has been broken...

Sophisticated Arakawa's flawless Ina Bauer
Sandra Bezic made a great comment last night during the Torino Olympics ladies free skate that has since helped me more subtly distinguish the great skaters from the exceptionally good ones. I knew there was a quality I was seeing in the top handful of ladies that I wasn’t seeing in the just-as-proficient, though younger, second tier, but I couldn’t name it. Sandra nailed it. I think she was talking about either Joannie Rochette or Fumie Suguri when she said, “See how she skates INTO the ice? That’s what separates her from those less experienced skaters who merely skate on top of the ice. All the TOP ladies skate INTO the ice.” That was it! I always find it bemusing how some feelings can’t be completely felt until the correct words to describe them are found.

The idea of “skating into the ice” seized my imagination, and I started to actually see it happening on the TV screen, to feel the extra mastery of gravity that was involved in that kind of deep skating. Truly, this is something that can only be developed through experience. Joannie Rochette was the youngest of those who had complete command of the ice while skating, at 20, and Shizuka Arakawa, 24, skated deepest of all; not only because of her size (along with Carolina Kostner, she’s the tallest in the sport at 5'6"), but because of her extreme rapport with both the skating surface and the audience–the kind of rapport that painters finally find after years and years of covering canvases. Last night we saw a seasoned, polished, and even slightly burnished performer wield her long-developing art with mature mastery.

Arakawa was the first actual “lady” to have won Olympic gold since Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992. This means that Arakawa’s list of added-value options that all champions come with is already impressive. Not only did she single-handedly save the entire Japanese population from having to commit harakiri by winning the country’s only Torino medal, but, along with Cohen, Slutskaya and Suguri as her backup crew (also legal adults), she broke the Olympic spell of the teen terror.

In 1994, teen terror Oksana Baiul (then 16) fluttered her way past far-more-accomplished, but charisma-anemic, Nancy Kerrigan (23), and I thought it was a travesty. The year of the Lipinski (15) came next, and I don’t even remember who skated against her because my mind is fixated on that triple-salchow-triple-loop-triple-loop combination she did. Then Sarah Hughes (16) skated away with the gold while far more experienced skaters stumbled. Now, we’re talking about three really good skaters here, but aside from Lipinski’s record-holding jumping passes, nothing about any of them was really “great” yet. Of course, teen terrors pulling Olympic-winning performances out of their perky little behinds creates great drama and inspiration, but it’s hardly good for the sport. Not one of them continued to skate in the amateur world, assuring that they would never become the great skaters they had probably always dreamed of becoming. The mythic import of winning an Olympic gold medal in one of the event’s premier sports is weighty; too much so for a teenager to bear, apparently.

Baiul, certainly, as the first and most volatile, is also the most tragic of the teen terror trio. Everyone who watched her fall deeper and deeper into the folds of fame until her light was all but extinguished probably joins me in cringing when they think about it. I haven’t heard from her much since the epic car crash of 199? and the sad, unsuccessful comeback after rehab, but apparently she has skated a few shows here and there.

I love Tara Lipinski because she’s such an unabashedly ruthless little media hound, but she’s also such a lost little bunny. There’s a deeply knowing look on the surface of her eyes that barely covers a fearsome void. She feels detached, somehow, even when she pops off those still-impressive triples in exhibitions or shows–a pepetually smiling doll who is mutely crying to be a real person.

I get the same empty feeling from Sarah Hughes every time I see her on camera. She seems sad. They all do. I’m sure I’m exaggerating. But there’s something there. There’s something about being put on a pedestal too early, achieving any kind of apical reward as a precocious teenager, that makes further development seem impossible and, possibly, presumptuous. They all seem like soulful, kind young women, but they’re stunted, somehow. It’s as if they all got just a little nipped in the bud by their gold medals.

Gedevanishvili finds room to grow
Now, the game has been set aright again. Thanks to Shizuka et al., we won’t have to lose another super-charged teenager before her unique talent has a chance to blossom. By the next Olympics–which is being held on the west coast, in Vancouver, which means I’ll see it televised LIVE, YAY!–we should be seeing a wider range of unique figure skating lifeforms in full bloom. Kimmie Meissner now has time to refine her line and make contact with her emotions; Emily Hughes has time to channel her immense enthusiasm ever more subtly through her natural talents; Carolina Kostner can get over her fear of flying (and falling); Georgian newcomer Elene Gedevanishvili can grow into her jumps and learn how to contact the audience. And they all have a chance to come to terms with the new, less obedient, adult bodies to which they’re about to be introduced.

Sarah Hughes had already met hers when she pulled off the greatest performance of her life in Salt Lake City after a so-so season. This year, it was evident that Miki Ando had suddenly become a skating hormone bomb, and I wonder if she’ll skate through it or give it up. She looked uninspired, dissatisfied and completely disenchanted on the ice. I hope she doesn’t get in trouble at home–she’s SO close to landing that quad salchow.

It’s hard to imagine the stature and accolades Arakawa will command when she gets home. She basically just earned the symbolic key to the whole country of Japan in perpetuity, which is sure to include a deafening and often challenging level of fame. She doesn’t strike me as the ice show type, but I doubt she’ll continue beyond this year’s world championships as an amateur. She seems a stable personality, so she’s not likely to get eaten alive by the ravenous Japanese celebrity machine. Her elegant teammate Fumie Suguri, already a star in her own right, is slightly older at 25, and sure to retire soon as well.

We already know Slutskaya, the old lady of the event at 27, is going to retire, and as for Cohen, I get the feeling she’d rather be a movie star–or maybe I’m just being catty. I’m on the fence as to whether Sasha will still be around in four years, and from the look in her eyes–that kind-of-angry, kind-of-vague look that I catch all the time–it seems that she’s undecided as well.

But no one will have to worry about any of that until after this year’s world championships, which provide a ready-made stage for an Olympic rematch. I’d like to see Suguri on the podium this time, but frankly, I love the top three as well. Then again, the equation will already be different due to the fact that 15-year-old Mao Asada, who couldn’t compete in the Olympics because she was too young–even though she had qualified–will be there challenging everyone with her killer triple axel.

Then there’s the wild card–every sport has one, and in ladies figure skating it’s Joannie Rochette. Bezic and Button were going on and on about the exceptional quality of her skating during the ladies free skate last night, and I was right there with them, moved to emit hums of amazement simply over her edges and extension. I think Joannie Rochette is the strongest all-around skater in the field, but she has yet to prove herself consistent in international competition. Bezic hinted at the fact that she lacked self-confidence, and I have a feeling Rochette will stick around and let that grow for a few more years. Not only does the reigning Canadian champion skate just as deeply as any of her more mature rivals, but, as the always astute, sometimes poetic, Sandra Bezic pointed out, she skates without making a sound. Strong, silent, beautiful, AND able to kick your ass–the perfect stealth competitor. She could turn Vancouver into an inside job in 2010, and, if she can pull it together quickly enough, could be a major threat in Calgary when the world championships begin there next month.

Meanwhile, there are a bunch of twelve-year-olds out there who will be vying in the junior arena over the next few years to become the next Olympic teen terror–watch out, she could be someone you know!

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Thursday, February 23, 2006


The Sun Also Rises

Shizuka Arakawa kicks up her heel(s)
Don't you just HATE knowing the results before seeing the event?! Unless the Olympics (or any other competition) is held on the west coast, or in Hawaii, this will always be the case for me, I suppose, until it's possible to watch live streaming video for a small fee on your own computer screen; possibly by the next Olympics(?) . From early incoming reports on the ladies free skate, it sounds exactly like the last Olympics, when Sarah Hughes was the only one to skate clean; and when you've only got one clean long program and the rest of the top skaters are falling, who do you think is going to get the gold? Cheers to Arakawa for being the ONLY athlete to win a medal for Japan in these Olympics so far, and for making it a gold one, and for being a woman on top of that. The Japanese public will get off on the fact that this brilliant comback was accomplished in the premier event of the Olympics, and the Japanese press will make sure to make sure they do. Arakawa's instant and everlasting fame across Japan has been secured by such a monumental face-saving feat, and I'm sure the perks she receives as a by-product will be well worth her years of grueling training and dues-paying. Sad to know already that there's only one clean skate to watch tonight, but at least there IS one. And apparently the "typically reserved Arakawa" (as we're reminded all the time by the press) actually smiles at the end!

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006


That's why the ladies rule

Meissner at home in mid-air
With the ladies short program, we're finally being treated to some real competition on the ice. When the top seven skaters all skate clean routines, you know you're watching a truly world class event. Each of the top four--mature, international competitors Cohen, Slutskaya, Arakawa and Suguri--owned the ice, making it her own magical kingdom while she skated. But this year's teen terrors are not far behind: Only Kimmie Meissner of the US and Elene Gedevanishvili of Georgia--the youngest competitors in the event at 16 each, landed triple-triple combinations in the short program, assuring them the final two spots in the top group for the free skate. With a little more polish, speed and confidence, the two of them will likely be nipping at the heels of the top ladies by next year. I know some people think they both got robbed somehow, but despite their impressive jumps, they didn't grab the ice (and the audience) by the jugular like the top four ladies did--that's something that takes time and experience to develop.

Then there's Emily Hughes, still a project very much in development, who came in late under extreme scrutiny and skated a passionate, delightful program, earning a solid seventh. But perhaps the most charming moment of the evening came at the beginning of the event with Tugba Karademir, the first skater ever to represent Turkey in international competition. Her goal was to make it into the top 24 so that she could skate her short program Thursday night, which she did, with a clean, if technically lacking, program, and room to spare.

Closer to the top--in fact, all the way down to 11th, where homegirl Carolina Kostner ended up after a nasty fall on her jump combo--the field of competition is so deep that it's impossible to tell who might bob to the surface victorious from the stormy waters of the free skate. Slutskaya rocks the house with her raucous energy, but no one can touch Cohen's spirals, spins or consistent, overall excellence of skating. If the girl skates clean, she's got the gold--if not, she'll have to fight just to stay on the podium. Whatever happens, the ladies figure skating event will have more than proven its worth as the Winter Olympics premier event, and will probably spawn a whole new school of incipient teen terrors to keep the sport on its beautifully pointed toes.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Yay for jumpsuits

I just wanted to say how much I LOVE Irina Slutskaya's short program outfit. I already know the results, but I'll be watching them skate after work. Off to conjugate verbs!...


Twizzle me this!

Fusar Poli & Margaglio--
personal drama over; fashion tragedy continues
No more falls in the ice dance free skate last night, but no real spark, either. Dick and Sandra were going on and on about it: lots of clean, complicated, practically super-human footwork going on, but the skaters are so intent on their technical elements that they don't really interpret the music. Then there's the music they're supposed to be interpreting: Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera, The Prince of Egypt?! Che formaggio! The costumes didn't get any better, either, most of them managing to be both boring and vulgar at the same time--quite a feat! Hey, the Americans are charming, and I'm glad they ended the US ice dancing medal drought, but even at their best, today's ice dancers are not incredibly inspiring. The most moving moment came when Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio finally broke the nasty stalemate between themselves (caused by their fall in the original dance) at the end of their near-flawless long program--though their costumes were so hideous and effluent that they actually detracted from the fine skating they did. And the ice dance dunce caps of the day go to Israeli team Chait and Sakhnovski, for skating to "Bolero," which was all but trademarked by Torvill and Dean back in '84. As Dick said, "They can't help but suffer by comparison." But hey, they sure can twizzle!

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Monday, February 20, 2006


Cha Cha Go Boom Boom

Dubreuil & Lauzon led the boom boom blitz
I'd heard a lot about all the spills that took place on Olympic ice during the original ice dance competition Sunday night before watching my recording today (yes, I do have a social life), but nothing prepared me for the sad spectacle of seasoned skaters falling on moves I remember doing with my sister in the front yard when we were kids--grab an ankle and arm, and spin your partner 'round! We're not talking quadruple toe loops here or anything. I think this is the evidence we need to finally put ice dancing to rest as a serious competition sport. They can twizzle till they sizzle a hole in the ice, but the whole ice dancing scene, as I've said before, peaked with Torvill and Dean, then stagnated in a mire of increasingly difficult moves and astoundingly bad taste. Even without the falls, the original dance competition would have been a questionable way to spend valuable viewing time. The choice of the Latin theme, to begin with, promises plenty of cheesy cha cha moves and gives the already super-trampy ice queens even more of an excuse to show as much skin as possible. All that tackiness I can deal with if the skating's up to par, but it just isn't. It looks manic and sketchy at its best (sometimes I think all ice dancers must be crackheads), and the falls last night made it pure travesty. I'll be watching the dance free skate tonight more out of ironic amusement than pure interest. And I guess there's some kind of cockeyed value in that.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


The Goddess is in the house

La bella Silvia Fontana, five time Italian champion and 10th-place finisher at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake, may have been eclipsed by Carolina Kostner on the international skating scene, but for me she'll always be the quintessential Italian skating star. The first time I saw her skate was about ten years ago--she did a perfect short program, positively emitting a glow of passion, which made tears immediately spring to my eyes. Since then, I've only caught her a few times here and there because she rarely makes it to the final group or gets invited to the Grand Prix events, but every time I have seen her skate, she's put a smile on my face that was slow to fade. Her jumps are strong and solid when they're there, her edges are crystal clear, and she uses her body in a perfect blend of athleticism and artistry. Then there's this: She distills the popular notion of the exuberant Italian spirit in her routines, and she's delectably gorgeous in an unmistakably Italian manner: Think Claudia Cardinale on ice.

Having been active in various ice shows around the globe in the last few years, she has now returned to the competitive scene to skate the Olympics in her home country--specifically to do that; she says she wouldn't have gone through the harrowing paces of getting back into world class shape if the Olympics were not being held in Italy. Coach Robin Wagner, who helped Sarah Hughes to Olympic gold four years ago, led the skater to a second place Italian national finish behind Kostner, and now she's in Torino getting ready for the ladies competition, with her husband, US skater John Zimmerman, and a legion of Italian fans, cheering her on. I'll be hoping to see another clean routine from Fontana in the short program Tuesday night--it sure would be nice to see her finally make that final group, especially on Italian ice!

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Saturday, February 18, 2006


But what would it be without the glitz?

From the article: Maybe "Stephane
Lambiel is actually crying about
his tragic fashion sense." (Meow!)
Here's a great AP story about the costuming mayhem that seems to get more and more out of control every year in the world of ice figure skating. I can barely stand to watch ice dancing (sorry, fans) because it reminds me SO much of watching ballroom dancing, which is akin to watching extremely overbred dogs trotting around in the Westminster Kennel show. Now, some of those dogs are beautiful, and boy, do they have LINE, but, I mean, really, are they dogs, or are they some kind of narrowly specialized mutant breed?

Now, ice dancing can be fun if you can manage to keep your eyes only on the skaters' feet. The intricate steps they do are exhilarating in close-up, and when you pay attention to the feet, you can easily see the disparity in edge and proximity between the favorites and the challengers. But from the feet up, they all look the same: basically, like Las Vegas showgirls--both the women and the men, and both in affect and aspect. As far as anything artistic goes, the sport tapered off and finally died after Torvill and Dean left the stage, and the costumes followed the choreography taste level straight down the tubes. Even the costumes for the Gold Skate Classic, a roller skating showmanship competition that used to be held in Bakersfield,CA, were better than the repulsively tasteless concoctions one is forced to see in the ice dancing competition these days.

I didn't watch the compulsory dance last night, but here's my favorite line from the article I've already linked to: "...there are no words to adequately describe how hideous Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio's black, gold and neon orange costumes were." They've always been the biggest fashion offenders, along with my poster boy for the day, Stephane Lambiel, and it looks like this year, they'll take those palettes, rhinestones and fluttering tatters straight over the top. I'm bound to watch the rest of the competition because I love the sport, but you can bet I'll be gnashing my teeth over some of the outfits--and trying to keep my eyes on their feet.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006


Lysacek on fire: What, not hot enough?

I've never considered Evan Lysacek one of my favorite skaters, but tonight, he blew everyone away... and ended up with only the third highest score in the free skate, earning him fourth overall--he was robbed, robbed, I tell you, ripped off like the prom queen's dress after the dance! Okay, I can forgive the judges for putting Plushenko ahead of Lysacek in the free skate. Yeah, he did more STUFF. That all important quad, god damn the thing! Like Totmianina and Marinin in their gold medal pairs performance, Plushenko was perfect, but almost unbearably uninspiring. Sandra Bezic called him "tight," which I'll translate as "skates like he's got a stick up his ass." A chill ran up my spine tonight as I watched Plushenko skate, and I realized it was because he might as well have been a cyborg.

Lysacek, on the other hand, was on fire, full of passion, and oozing charisma--and his technical prowess was at its strongest. He gave another performance that moved me to tears, like Totmianina and Marinin's short program. In his final straightline footwork run, it was as if he were going to take off and soar through the stadium roof when he reached end of the rink, and part of him probably did. The cameras spotted him in the stands after Jeffrey Buttle's beautiful, but mistake-laced, skate, and he looked confident that he had captured the bronze. The look on his face a few seconds later, while the person next to him urged him not to emote since the cameras were still on him, was the perfect illustration of the word "crestfallen." I felt the same.

Buttle's unwarranted scores confirmed the sneaking suspicion that started to invade my consciousness after the short program skate, in which Buttle got scored higher than my fave Matt Savoie despite far inferior skating: I believe that deep down inside, judges can't help simply judging in favor of their emotional favorites through a sort of subconscious, old-school ordinal placement system. Somehow, these atavistic, unprofessional urges continue to push their way through the dense science and technology of an increasingly byzantine system, in which I no longer have any faith.

There's NO WAY that Buttle should have scored second behind Plushenko in the free skate; simply no way--I don't care how gorgeous his line or complicated his choreography was, or how much the judges love him, which Dick Button (who was having an off day) kept harping on. Lysacek, for CERTAIN, should have been scored higher than Buttle. As I said, he got robbed. Period. Lambiel, too, should have been scored higher than Buttle, but he wasn't. I mean, really, could Buttle have received THAT many points for attempting a quad toe loop and falling? Does he get extra credit for that eerily professional child-star smile?

Okay, now I'm simply venting. How rude of me. Let's just say that I hope Lysacek rips them all a new asshole and takes the gold at the World Championships. Is that wishful thinking? Okay, so what if it is? And while I'm at it, I'll put Lambiel second and Savoie third (or the other way around--that would be fine with me, too) at the Worlds. That would suit me fine. Evgeny WHO?

To close, a big shout out to Johnny Weir for not accepting the "gay medal" in lieu of the Olympic one (after a skate that NOBODY should be ashamed of). Don't let them back you into a pigeon hole, Johnny! Fly, be free!

And an even bigger shout out to Shawn Sawyer of Canada, who had an incredible skate tonight, and showed off the greatest flexibility and spinning talent in the entire men's field, eclipsing even Lambiel's centrifugal force, which was a little off center tonight. Sawyer's final standing catch-foot spin was far more extremely extended than even Sasha Cohen's at its finest, and the entire announcing booth population audibly guffawed over it. If I could sponsor a figure skating "moment" like AT&T or Kodak does at the SuperBowl or wherever, Sawyer's final spin would have been it for tonight. Alas, he was another sacrifice to the judges' whims, scoring nowhere near as high as those who skated comparably (such as Takahashi, Joubert and Savoie), and ending up 12th. After tonight, I've decided to stop caring what the judges think--which is probably good advice for most aspects of my life.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Can't do without Dick (Button, that is)

Cute as a Button in 1960
I think I've heard Dick Button's voice more than any other media personality's except that guy who does all the movie trailer voiceovers. Luckily, he's usually saying something thoughtful and cogent, and when he's not, he's letting loose with his own brand of always-entertaining cattiness. Like saying Lambiel's costume in the men's short program last night looked "like a distant cousin of my dining room curtains." Sometimes, he combines the two to spectacular effect, like when he said that Brian Joubert looked like a soccer player trying to tap dance, adding that he "has all the moves, but he's not fleet, he's not liiiththe." It may have been harsh and even bitchy, but it was all true. I like that kind of harshness. It keeps things honest. And as Dick Button has grown older (he's 76 now--Go Dick!), he seems to have become increasingly comfortable with telling it like it is, no matter how it sounds. I love him for that.

Not everyone does, I've realized while reading through blog posts about the Olympics. For most people's taste, he's way TOO harsh. They prefer Scott Hamilton's cheerleading to Button's admittedly "colorful," (shall we say?) analyses. (Happily, some balanced people like both.) That makes sense. Not many people seem to want to be challenged in any way when it comes to watching figure skaters. They want to idolize them, not hear about all the dozens of tiny mistakes they're making per minute. But Dick doesn't pander to the average TV viewer. Dick was known as a "skater's skater" back in the days of his world domination of the sport, and now he is most certainly a skater's commentator. I think he's too subtle for most people, who don't seem to want to understand the finer points of a sport like figure skating--being so artistic and all--the same way they would want to know about the plays in a football game or the mechanics of track and field events.

Skating is perhaps the hardest to pin down of all sports--as my comrade Philip has pointed out, they have to do these incredibly demanding, dangerous stunts while pretending that they're ballerinas. Now that I think of it, though, even ballerinas have to pretend that they're ballerinas. What's great about Dick is that he doesn't pretend about anything. He looks at what's going on from all angles and announces from a holistic viewpoint, commenting on each facet of the sport as it sparkles forth. He'll take a near perfect skater to task for the slightest thing, then decide to point out the incredible edges and artistry of a competitor who falls on all his jumps, as he did last night with Sandhu. He's a sort of storyteller, and a split-second reality sculptor, shaping what we see on the rink as soon as it passes before our eyes with brilliant, if sometimes rude, comments both profound and profane. To me, he's the Chaucer of sports commentators: First, he's the grand-daddy of the art the way Chaucer was of his; then there's the way he manages to make us feel the deep humanity of it all while meticulously pointing out every little wart along the way.

Thank the skating gods that he now, after years of being saddled with the beautiful and elegant, but not particularly sharp, Peggy Fleming, has a worthy sparring partner in Sandra Bezic. I think she says some high-handed things sometimes, and once in a while comes out with a whopper of a white person faux pas, but her commentary is incisive and lively. So what if she says some stupid things off the cuff. Everyone does. If they don't, they should. I just think the two of them are good together.

All four commentators last night--Dick, Sandra, Scott Hamilton and Paul Wiley--made a fabulous mix. They were like a particularly piquant small royal court in exile from some forgotten country where figure skating is the state religion, holding forth on their particular area of wisdom: Sandra and Dick were the queen and the king (with a little bit o'the ol' jester in him), sometimes bickering lowly but more often analyzing and agreeing in grand, imperious tones; Scott Hamilton was their prince, well into middle age but still retaining the brash and sometimes embarrassing enthusiasm of youth, mostly ignored by the royal couple; and Paul Wiley was the court astronomer, running in at every turn with new information about the scoring system as if he were reporting the positions of the stars with reference to the heavens' role in the progress of the kingdom.... Okay, that metaphor was way over the top, but thanks for indulging me. In short, they were great, even though they didn't look all that cozy together in the few shots we saw of "the booth." Think about it this way: great actors have never needed to like each other to give great performances together.

To my joy, the Olympics in general have been great. Someone in the production end has a keen, clean eye and a sharp ear. The presentation and commentary has been crisp and unfettered by too much heavy shop talk while still maintaining a technical flavor, and even the fluff pieces have been dry and cheeky. The few that have been overtly emotional, like the mini-doc about Totmianina's and Marinin's near-career-ending 2004 crash, have gone straight for the jugular of the story rather than the heartstrings. In fact, it's the only thing I've watched on TV for ages except for Project Runway, which I'll be able to catch tonight since there's no figure skating on NBC! I'm predicting that they'll can Kara today. I thought Santino was on shaky ground for a while, but it seems as though he's had his ego pummeled to dust thoroughly enough to be able to reign in the arrogance from now on. We shall see...

For now, as both Heidi Klum and Katarina Witt might say, Aufwiederseh'n!

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Russian sweep, anyone?

Sophisticated Savoie gets gypped again
Okay, so my expectations of Lambiel were not borne out, and Plushenko has proven that he's the undeniable top dog in the men's figure skating field. With a HUGE ten point lead after the short program, he is virtually unbeatable. Weir was swooningly graceful as usual, and with the audacious fluff piece that preceded his skate, he's assuredly now on his way to becoming a pop icon as well as a skating star, not to mention an inspiration to every queeny little gay boy around the globe. How much easier would growing up gay have been for me and my generation if there had been kick-ass, in-your-face role models like Weir on the international airwaves in those days? My roommate dubbed him "Rufus Wainwright on Ice," and I see that at least one other figure skating fan in the blogosphere had the same idea. There's no denying he's a flamboyant, often pretentious, primadonna, but the man can skate like butter, so, as Weir himself said, his critics can "eat it."

Meanwhile, my favorite skater in the field, Matt Savoie, got burned again for some reason (I thought he definitely should have taken the silver over Lysacek at the Nationals), ending up eighth in the short, deservedly behind Plushenko, Weir, Lambiel and Takahashi, but also behind Joubert, Buttle, and Sandhu, none of whom skated to Savoie's level. Yes, he under-rotated and stepped out of a triple lutz, but the other three mentioned just above all performed with both more numerous and more egregious mistakes--especially Sandhu and Buttle; I mean, really, is there some Canadian conspiracy going on behind the scenes? During the entire event, Paul Wiley did a great job as commentator by continually parsing the new scoring system as each skater performed, which only served to confirm my suspicions that Savoie was being--in some perhaps mysterious and untraceable way--unfairly judged on his technical elements.

On the artistic/aesthetic side of the event, Sandra Bezic did us all a favor by publicly expressing an opinion many viewers must have been holding for a very long time: "The costumes in figure skating can get pretty over the top," she said, "so it's nice to see Matt Savoie in something so understated and sophisticated, reflecting who he is." YES! It's such a relief to see someone so calm, poetic, and gentle on the ice, but I guess the judges prefer the high-strung, flailing dramatics of Sandhu and the cutesy-pie cheese that Buttle serves up to the kind of steady, mature, elegant skating that Savoie does. I'm still rooting for him even though he's pretty much out of medal contention, but with this year's almost unbearably inconsistent field (especially in the long program), anything can happen in the free skate Thursday night. Anything, that is, except the toppling of Plushenko from the gold medal berth. He's gone way beyond "throwing down the gauntlet," as they love to say in figure skating commentary, to pulling up the drawbridge. The rest are stuck on the other side of the moat from the gilded palace, and have to battle it out for the silver--should be a juicy little showdown!

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Monday, February 13, 2006


The Agony of Victory

Zhang: pick yourself up, dust yourself off, win the silver!
In the Olympic pairs free skate tonight, favorites and short program leaders Totmianina and Marinin were clearly the best despite a rather cautious skate--that is, they were nearly perfect, but they weren't on fire, and Sandra Bezic, who is turning out to be the best figure skating announcer ever next to Dick Button (more on them in a later post), was quick to point it out without detracting from their otherwise brilliant routine. But no spark.

Incendiary status went to the Chinese (does anyone else find it interesting that their figure skating power is rising along with the country's economy?), who burned up the ice to capture the silver and the bronze. Shen and Zhao, the vets and former gold medal favorites, skated through Zhao's recent Achilles tendon injury to a well-earned third place, while Zhang and Zhang (not related) provided what is sure to go down as one of the most eloquent expressions of "the Olympic spirit" at these games. After taking a nasty spill on the first-ever competition attempt at a throw quad salchow, which looked like it probably did some real damage to the female Zhang's knees and groin, the team had to stop skating; their music was cut, and it looked as if she might be too injured to continue, but after a couple of minutes, they took to the ice again, picked up where they'd left off, and skated a courageous and well-executed program to hold onto their second place short program finish. Talk about a warrior princess!

The competition included another not-as-bad, but still harrowing, spill: Rena Inouye's smash up on her and Baldwin's throw triple axel, which they had completed with style to burn (a historic first) in the short program. They ended up seventh, which is as high as any American has placed in an international field in four years. Great for them, but somehow the Americans have never mustered the polish and grace of the Russians, and now the Chinese. In fact, one of the most passionate and graceful programs was skated by the Chinese team Pang and Tong, whose performance was also completely medal worthy, and might have earned them the bronze if not for the huge sentimental thrust behind the bravery and persistence of Zhao and Zhang.

We should be hearing about Zhang's injury in the days to come, and to heighten the sense of real physical drama and danger in the sport, the only narrative portion of the broadcast tonight focused on gold medal winners Totmianina's and Marinin's near-deadly fall of two years ago, which kept Marinin in doubt about his ability to continue skating for many months. We shall overcome. That's what the Olympics is all about.

It was a day of brutal crashes on the slopes as well as the ice, apparently, and one can only hope for a day of smoother landings tomorrow as the men's figure skating competition heats up, especially with all those quads they'll be attempting. It's the battle of the super sylphs as Weir (no quads) meets Plushenko (quad king) in what's sure to be a dramatic showdown, though I think Lambiel's gonna take it. Can't wait to see him spin! I'd love to hear any other predictions out there, for either men's or ladies--for example, does anyone agree with me that Meissner looks ready to medal?

I'd also like to hear from any readers out there about what they think of the new scoring system. I like it, but I like change of any sort. The only thing I hate about it is that it pushes skaters to do spins with changes of edges right in the middle just for more points, which slows down the spin and makes it less aesthetically pleasing. "Anything for point these days" is the common cry against the new system. Sandra and Dick had an interesting discussion about it during the competition, with Dick taking that very stance, noting how it can take away from the time a team can put into perfecting their artistry; but Bezic bounced right back in her usual firm and expert manner--the woman has high standards, and that's good!--saying that a truly great team can master the point system and still skate like perfectly polished, inspired artists--and that's the game now, anyway, so why not grab it by the short hairs? I agree, and I certainly appreciate the fact that spins, footwork, edges and other moves are given far more point value now, along with the way that every single element is given its own complex scoring rubric--it may be more complicated, but I think it also makes the judges really consider what they're seeing. And I'm getting the hang of knowing what a "good score" looks like; I mean, c'mon, we humans are nothing if not adaptable--today's plethora of heroic comebacks demonstrated that truism with gritty zeal (or zealous grit, if you prefer).

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Sunday, February 12, 2006


Being Michelle Kwan

She even has a Barbie in her image!
Being Michelle Kwan must be a very tough job indeed, especially today, when she made the decision to withdraw from the Olympics due to what I'll call a "renewed" groin injury. Since I'd slept so much yesterday afternoon, I was up till all hours, and was rewarded by getting to see Kwan's withdrawal press conference live, at 2:30am PST. The journalists were trying to stir up even more drama by questioning whether Kwan's injury was indeed a new one, or simply an old one returning, and if the difference would have swayed the IOC for or against Emily Hughes taking Kwan's place. But Ueberroth et al. made it clear without saying so directly that Kwan was one of the sport's few premier skaters, and that figure skating was the premier event of the Olympics, so there was no negativity whatsoever to replacing Kwan with another American skater, and wouldn't have been no matter what the cause for Kwan's withdrawal might have been. If only journalists were as incisive with their questioning at those presidential press conferences.

For her part, Kwan was the spirit of elegance and reserve while still showing enough emotion to make the peanut gallery happy. She was dressed in black, and her face was set in a grave mask of mourning. While graciously answering questions, she kept her words to a minimum, and there was meaning and feeling behind every syllable she uttered. When asked about that "elusive" Olympic gold, she teared up, but said she was happy with her career as it was. What else was she going to say--I'll always regret it? Of course she won't. She's won more World Championships than anyone but Dick Button and Sonja Henie, and has dominated the sport for a decade. I remember what a joy it was to see her show up on the scene at 12 or 13, and what a wonderful honor it's been to watch her develop into a true artist. The fact that she's never won Olympic Gold is a mere technicality. She'll continue to go down in history as one of the very best ever. For now, though, she's headed home to L.A. to recover, and I think having truly made the right decision will help her healing process immensely.

Now Emily Hughes steps in, and I think she certainly has a shot, at least to make the top group. Out of all the American ladies, I think Kimmie Meisner is the one who might snatch a medal, probably bronze. I'm seeing Irina Slutskaya with the gold if she skates her best, and Shizuka Arakawa with the silver--she's a true warrior princess; the other two Japanese women are too high strung in competition, as is Cohen, though she could skate clean and take the whole thing: with Cohen it's always a crap shoot, though she has the best spirals in the business, hands down! The ladies competition doesn't start till February 21, so there's plenty of time for more drama if this hasn't already been enough for you. As for me, I just want to see them skate, and skate beautifully. Get the full schedule here if you haven't already.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


2006 Olympics: First Great Skate

Totmianina & Marinin in Torino
I was sleeping off a Mexican food hangover all afternoon, and barely woke up in time to see the pairs short program on the Olympics. I'm going to have to start recording since I teach until 9:30 four nights a week, which means I'll be able to fast forward through all the other stuff straight to the figure skating, but I'm glad to say that the programming this year is excellent, with big-enough chunks of everything to really get acquainted with it, not too much editorial schmalz, and mercifully short commercial breaks.

The skating was lackluster, I thought, for the most part, except for Inoue and Baldwin's amazing throw triple axel, which made history and got them far fewer points than it should have. By the time the last two pairs glided around, I thought the team holding first (Zhang and Zhang, one of three top Chinese teams) had been rather sloppy, and that the judging was a little off. As this skating blogger points out, pairs judging is often a matter of who made the least mistakes rather than who had the most perfect and moving program.

And then there are the top Russians, Totmianina and Marinin, who, as Sandra Bezic made unequivocal by stating the obvious, are "in a class by themselves," and who are now leading the pairs competition by a huge 3.92 points. And they deserved it. In fact, I think they should be even further ahead, pointwise. Their performance was one of those rare uninterruptedly seamless ones that very simply moved me to tears through its power, grace and pure exquisiteness. That's a clumsy word and I never, ever call anything exquisite when I really mean fabulous, delightful or merely great. But exquisite is exactly what I mean here. There was a fineness in their skating that spoke to the sport's quintessence, and touched something very deep inside of me.

The Russians are set to make a figure skating sweep this year, with Slutskaya in the women's competition, Plushenko in the men's, and Navka & Kostamarov in dance. God, how I wish I had TIVO!

Sunday, December 11, 2005


The New Wonder Twins

I love to be captivated by a skater. Michelle Kwan has managed to do it for me several times, and various others have hit the mark with outstanding routines. Lucinda Ruh always captivates me, though it's difficult to see her perform unless you fly to Switzerland to see Art on Ice. Stephane Lambiel captivates me, as do Weir and Savoie when they're skating well--and judging from what I saw on the Marshall's Figure Skating Challenge today--pure fan-baiting cheese--they're both skating very well this year.

As for the ladies, well, dear old Michelle can't continue to carry the captivation mantle all by herself after all these years, now can she? I saw her make her season debut today (after recovering from hip injuries) on the Marshall's Challenge, where she managed to break my heart as usual with the pure spirit she poured through her performance, but made me quail at the thought of all the work she has to do to get her technical elements back up to snuff. Sasha Cohen--well, she just doesn't do it for me: too narrow and high strung for my taste. Cizny, too: same complaint. I'm not big on delicate, beautiful ballerina types, even though both of those ladies are certainly in the running for Olympic and world championship glory this season.

But I'm talking captivation here, not appreciation. When I think about skaters who have really captivated me, besides the goddesses Ruh and Kwan, I think of Midori Ito. I don't know why, really, because she could be such a clod, but there was something about her unbounded energy and positive attitude that made her thrillingly appealing to me. No Japanese skater has really managed to captivate me like that since, though I marveled at Yuka Sato's quiet, light mastery and still love watching Arakawa take her own somber control of the ice when she's having an "on" day.

This weekend was a boon, then, because it brought me (via television) two large helpings of captivation, in the form of the two young Japanese firecrackers who stole the show and the gold at the NHK Trophy--the last of the Grand Prix preliminary events--last weekend in Osaka (When, oh when, will we skating fans get live broadcasts like all the football and baseball aficionados do?). Nobunari Oda and Yukari Nakano are the new wonder twins of the sport as far as I'm concerned, and they're my favorites for the Olympics. Why? First of all, they both display a wonderful blend of Ito's power-chutzpah and Sato's subtle control that feels almost scientifically derived. In addition, they're both incredibly powerful jumpers (Nakano's in the exclusive female triple axel club) and consummate spinners, and though they're still young (Oda's 18 and Nakano's 20), they're already amongst the most polished and sophisticated when it comes to artistic expression as well. In other words, they're both shining examples of "the whole package."

But it's not really any of the above that captivates me--the international figure skating world is brimming with "whole packages." That's what it's all about. No, it takes more than pogo-stick jumping ability or like-a-top spinning prowess, or even ultra-elegant footwork, to move this demanding fan. Irina Slutskaya is current most famous avatar of what I'm talking about, and that is an ability to channel pure joy through one's skating. That's what I felt today watching Oda and Nakano, even though I only got to see their short programs (tomorrow night's the free skate, and I have to work; and my VCR's recording apparatus is broken--time for Tivo, right?). It wasn't just that they jumped and spun and interpreted the music like pros, but that they also did it with a kind of energy that made watching them pure pleasure.

Of course, I am partial to their technical abilities, too. Oda, though he may not have solid quadruples yet, executes some of the airiest, most graceful triples ever, and spins right up there with Weir, if not Lambiel. He has the most enchanting openness when expressing himself to his music, and a truly compelling way of mixing abandon with control, as seen in a relaxed air position that leads to a solid, deep-edged landing, or in a meticulous three-turn series performed with a lithe and limber free leg. Over the next few weeks, he'll be battling it out with teammates Takahashi and Honda for the one available Olympic spot available to a Japanese man--the showdown should be one of the most heated in sports this year. Too bad we can't get the Japanese Nationals broadcast here--or can we? Anybody know if that's possible? I'm rooting for Oda to capture the spot; after all, he's a direct descendant of a famous samurai--now that's some heavy warrior karma. It seems he's got a poet's heart, too--a good combo; gotta love the title of his personal website: Smile Wind.

Nakano may be an even better technical skater than Oda, with jumps that have a sort of luxurious solidity about them, a pleasant heft that one can feel even a week later, via satellite. Today on the NHK Trophy short programs on ESPN, I think it was Paul Wiley who was going off about "that wrap" that she has, "that high wrap" (yeah, the same one Midori Ito had), complaining that it wasn't aesthetically pleasing. I disagree entirely with that judgment. I find the high wrap exciting, powerful--it displays centrifugal force in motion more expressively than does a low wrap; it gives a sense of another dimension to the jump; a slight air of wildness--and in short, if it doesn't interfere with technique, I believe it's a matter of style. I think Nakano's high wrap is integral to her "whole package," and it makes her skating all the more exciting. It's different. It's underdog. It's the ice skating equivalent of punk, because it flies in the face of proper skating technique and etiquette. And if you can get away with landing a triple axel with a high wrap, you know you're jumping high.

I remember when I was a kid in artistic roller skating, I had a high wrap that my coach was constantly trying to get me to lower, but I kept it willfully because all the most out-there, exciting skaters who I secretly worshipped had high, wild wraps; most notably one Robbie Coleman of Memphis, Tennessee--her wrap was practically around her waist, and watching her skate was like catching a glimpse of some wild figure skating animal doing its instinctive thing in its natural habitat.

Nakano, luckily, is also an experienced dealer in grace and high style. She can smoothly shift moods and characters, and she also wore a Slutskaya-inspired one-piece jumpsuit for her short program at the NHK Trophy meet--a bit of fashion iconoclasm that I adore. On top of that, her spins are nearly as powerful as her jumps, and since the new scoring system has gone into place, that will count for a lot as she mixes it up with a truly awesome field of Japanese ladies in the quest for the three Olympic berths available to them.

At this pivotal point in the season, I say go forth and conquer to my newest discoveries, the joyful jumpers of Japan. And I hate to even broach the topic, but I don't know if I can really take watching our dear Michelle struggle and slave to make it to another Olympics... Still, I wish her all godspeed as she goes for her tenth world title. I just think the teen terrors are finally going to get the best of her, don't you?

Wonder Twin powers activate!--form of ballistic figure skating world domination apparatuses!

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