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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