by Geraldine Walbert
(21 January 2012)
Retirements, injuries, and partner splits have decimated the already fragile and thinly populated pairs discipline in U.S. Figure Skating. (There are only 10 entrants in Pairs for Omaha.) Past champions Rena Inoue & John Baldwin retired, Olympian Amanda Evora retired, leaving partner Mark Ladwig looking for a new partner in Lindsay Davis. Caitlin Yankowskas & John Coughlin split and poor Rockne Brubaker, whose past two partners decided to retire, (one partner, Mary Beth Marley, most recently), leaving him still hunting for a partner. Yankowskas partnered with Joshua Reagan but the pair recently suffered an injury and were forced to withdraw from competing in Omaha.
Finally, last season’s national pairs champions Caydee Denney & John Coughlin withdrew due to Coughlin’s recent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, the same injury that befell Alissa Czisny last season.
“Caydee and I are proud to be the U.S. champions, and our hearts want to be in Omaha, but we recognize we have other goals and decided to do the right thing and address the injury now so I can recover and have a full training season for the upcoming 2014 Olympic Games,” Coughlin said of his decision to treat the injury immediately.
‘It was a wear and tear injury,” he explained, “imploding in my hip joint impinging on the hip socket.”
Leading contenders to take the pairs title now fall to Marissa Castelli & Simon Shnapir out of Boston. The pair has been together since 2007. They were the 2009 U.S. and World Junior Pairs bronze medalists and entered the senior ranks the following fall, placing 7th at Trophee Eric Bompard. They were 10th in their first senior Nationals in 2010 and 5th in both the 2011 and 2012 U.S. Nationals.
Recently they moved into a higher level with their skating, winning the Ice Challenge gold medal and a bronze medal at the NHK Trophy. Shnapir credits their success to his improvement in his jump consistency. “And as a team we have improved dramatically in the way we communicate and how we work together.”
Going into Omaha, they are one of the most experienced teams with 7 years of a partnership under their belts. “Longevity is one of the most important keys to success in pair skating,” Shnapir asserted, but neither one are counting their chickens before they are hatched.
“We are just looking to stay consistent and keep the energy alive in our program,” Castelli said. “Our ultimate goal is to win in Omaha with two clean skates.”
Gretchen Donlan & Andrew Speroff are training partners with Castelli & Shnapir in Boston. In only their 2nd year in the partnership, they surprised many with a 4th place finish at last season’s U. S. Nationals, then placed 4th at the Nebelhorn Trophy, 6th at Skate America and won a silver medal at the 2012 Ice Challenge.
Other challengers include Tiffany Vise & Don Baldwin of Scottsdale, AZ, both experienced pairs skaters with other partners. They teamed in 2010 and were 9th at last season’s U.S. Nationals, and placed 6th at Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup in the fall.
Haven Denney (sister of Caydee) & Brandon Frasier, who train in Colorado Springs, won the national Junior pairs title last season in only their 2nd year together, and followed that with a 4th place finish at the World Junior Championships and the Junior Grand Prix.
Only two teams will make up the World Team and although there are several other teams that could surprise this particular season and wind up on the podium, it is unlikely they would finish in the top two spots.
The biggest news to hit the dance scene was the breakup of one of the most successful coaching teams in skating when Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband parted ways. Zoueva was able to keep their top three teams in the Canton, Mich., facility, while Shpilband was left searching for a new home during summer training. Luckily Shpilband found a rink close by to accommodate his incoming foreign students along with Americans Madison Chock & Evan Bates, and the Lithuanian team of Isabella Tobias & Deividas Stagniuas who left Canton with Shpilband.
Ice dance is the only U.S. discipline that will have a full complement of teams (three) to make the World Team. That group will be headed by 4-time national champions, Meryl Davis & Charlie White. Only a disastrous fall/ injury would keep them from winning their 5th national title and would tie them with Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto, Judy Blumberg & Michael Seibert, Naomi Lang & Peter Tchernyshev, Elizabeth Punsalan & Jerod Swallow and Judy Schwomeyer & Jim Sladky.
With one World title under their belts and a stellar 2012 fall season in which they remain undefeated, this team continues to improve, making adjustments throughout the season, seeking perfection. To that end, they have won both the Short Dance and the Free Dance in every competition. White has learned to cut the music on the fly to easily incorporate any new moves or subtle changes.
“Charlie and I are feeling fantastic. We have two programs we are thrilled with, and thoroughly enjoying doing them every day,” said Davis. “We are always evolving our programs, it’s always a process, growing and learning.”
Getting the top levels on the Polka Pattern Dance is especially difficult and they continue to work with Maurizio Margaglio on the finer details. “The Yankee Polka is really fast, the turns are quick,” White explained. Recent changes to their Notre Dame de Paris Free Dance have proved popular with fans and judges alike. Working with dancer/choreographer Alex Wong has enhanced the drama in their overall presentation.
They are looking forward to competing in Omaha. “If anything it’s exciting – a lot of energy – we are using that as a focus,” Charlie said.
Training mates Maia & Alex Shibutani are also hoping for another silver medal and a return trip to the World Championships. Illness and injury bedeviled them at the end of last season causing them to make uncharacteristic errors, which dropped them from their record-breaking podium placement in their first Worlds to 8th place in 2012.
Their first competition this season in Russia presented some problems as well when they were forced to stop in their Free Dance due to a strained left quadriceps. Alex was unable to warm up the spin at the beginning of the program, but going into the NHK Trophy they had a week to rest and were able to win a bronze medal there.
“We have been training well and feeling good heading into next week.” Alex affirmed. “We are looking forward to Nationals as always. Just skating in front of home crowd will be great. The depth at Nationals is really great this year. Our discipline keeps getting stronger. We learned a lot this season and are feeling confident about both of the programs.”
Maia added that they made adjustments to both programs and now feel more confident in the Polka and skate the program more comfortably while still pushing the performance. “This is only our 3rd year as Seniors. We do know it’s a long journey. We both love the sport and dedicated ourselves to what we are doing.”
The third spot on the podium will likely be the most contested as there are three teams in close competition heading into Omaha.
Last season’s national bronze medalists, Madison Hubbell & Zach Donohue placed a very respectable 10th at the World Championships and followed that with a bronze medal at Finlandia Trophy, a 5th place finish at Skate Canada and a 4th placement at Trophee Eric Bompard. They train in Detroit with another top coaching team, Anjelika Krylova & Pasquale Camerlengo. They might have easily repeated their podium slot if not for the dramatic improvement of Chock & Bates.
Both Chock & Bates are World Junior champions, but with other partners. Nevertheless when they teamed up in 2011, they were only the 4th team in pecking order in Canton. When Shpilband left Canton, they made the excellent decision to go with him to become his number one U.S. dance team. They were 5th at Nationals last season and at a too early competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Classic with two new technically difficult programs, they placed a disappointing 4th.
More training time with Shpilband working as both coach and choreographer, they improved in their overall speed and confidence, which led them to win gold at the Nebelhorn Trophy. They went on to place 4th in their only Grand Prix, the Cup of China, setting themselves up to challenge for a potential podium position in Omaha.
Last season’s 4th place finishers at Nationals, Lynn Kriengkrairut & Logan Guiletti-Schmitt, present crowd-pleasing programs with interesting and difficult lifts. This engaging team may finally find themselves on the podium should any of the other potential medalists make any major errors.
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