Wednesday, February 18, 2009

2009 World Figure Skating Championships-Ladies Preview

The 2009 World Figure Skating Championships will truly be a world competition, with female skaters from Japan, South Korea, Canada, United States, Finland, and Italy expected to contend for the top ranks at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, beginning on March 27th. The former powers of women's figure skating, the United States and Russia, have since demolished. But where popularity and success of the sport has declined there, in Asia it has done nothing but blossom. Prior to 2005, South Korea and figure skating would never be placed in the same sentence. Four years later, Yu-Na Kim has become one of the most recognizable athletes in Korean history, and with that, figure skating has become a colossally popular sport in that nation. Japan began to seriously follow the sport when Midori Ito emerged as a world champion in 1989, going on to win Olympic silver in 1992. After a drought of talent, the prospects for Japanese figure skating looked benign when several veterans and newcomers started accumulating success around 2002. However, it wasn't until a young, dainty girl by the name of Mao Asada started attempting triple axels at the age of 13, when Japan knew it had found its next ice queen. Heading into these World Championships, the two skaters will continue their electrifying rivalry to determine who is the best ladies figure skater in the world. Kim, expressive and dramatic, and Asada, light and airy, will be the contenders to beat at these World Championships and at the Olympic Games next February.

However, just because ladies skating has been dominated by the "Asian Invasion" doesn't mean that it ends there. Joannie Rochette of Canada will have something to say about a 1-2 finish for Kim and Asada, as she has beat Asada twice this season. Carolina Kostner of Italy split the two skaters at last year's World Championships, but that time it was Kim who had to settle for 3rd while battling a nagging back injury. The story lines fail to just end at who will receive gold, silver, and bronze, however. Three countries will be battling each other to secure a high enough finish (a combined placement of 13 from the two skaters of that country) to get three Olympic berths in 2010. Finland and Canada could realistically do without a third berth, but the United States would love more than anything to snatch it. With there being an immensely deep pool of talented yet inconsistent U.S. ladies skaters, and also adding in the potential comebacks of Sasha Cohen or Michelle Kwan, a third Olympic spot would be most desirable for the U.S. The reasoning is such that because all of the U.S. girls are roughly on the same plane in terms of their medal prospects, it doesn't hurt to send one more girl who may just have a Paul Wylie-esque Olympics.

With all of that said, one can never forget how truly prestigious the World Figure Skating Championships are. Skaters should be thrilled that they have even made it to Worlds, as several world-class skaters will not be able to make such a statement. Notable competitors absent from the world championship include Kiira Korpi, Kimmie Meissner, Mirai Nagasu, Yukari Nakano, Akiko Suzuki, Ashley Wagner, and Caroline Zhang. The cold, harsh reality is such that even if some of these aforementioned names will be in Vancouver, it will come at the expense of another skater who is equally as deserving.

Skaters Featured In Post

Miki Ando (Japan)
Mao Asada (Japan)
Alissa Czisny (USA)
Rachael Flatt (USA)
Yu-Na Kim (South Korea)
Carolina Kostner (Italy)

Laura Lepisto (Finland)
Sarah Meier (Switzerland)
Cynthia Phaneuf (Canada)
Susanna Poykio (Finland)
Joannie Rochette (Canada)
Fumie Suguri (Japan)

Red indicates commentary of skater is featured in part 1 of post
Blue indicates commentary of skater is featured in part 2 of post

Miki Ando (Japan)

Expectations Coming In: Miki Ando has had an unsteady season thus far, finishing 6th out of six skaters at the Grand Prix Final and 3rd at the Japanese Nationals, barely finishing high enough to make the world team. She is a former world champion from 2007, but has seldom skated to that level since.

Pros: At her peak, Miki Ando has the capability to shove past her competitors with remarkable skates. The three best overall competitions of Miki's career: 2006 Skate America, 2007 World Championships, and the 2008 Japanese Nationals, all came when Miki wasn't favored to win. Considered an underdog in L.A., Miki could place highly with triple-triple combinations, an improved long program to the music of Camille Saint-Seans' "Organ Symphony," and a possible quadruple salchow jump. Ando will be one of the most experienced ladies competing in Los Angeles, and over the years has made noticeable improvement in her non-jump elements, notably her spins and footwork. Miki's total average score this season, a 165.85, is the 4th highest among the women competing in L.A. and is higher than that of last year's silver medalist, Carolina Kostner.

Cons: Ando has only been credited with landing one triple-triple combination among five attempts this season. Over a span of four competitions, Ando had a total of 15 jumps downgraded, and her possibly attempting a quadruple salchow in Los Angeles could backfire if the jump gets downgraded and if the element has a faulty landing. Ando was heavily criticized for her lack of artistry during CBC's coverage of the Grand Prix Final, with the normally benevolent Tracy Wilson commenting during her final step sequence, "This is the first time it's feeling to me [in the program] that she's starting to feel the music." While her PCS marks hover in the 55-56 range in the long program, they are not to the level of the 60+ PCS marks that go to the long programs of Mao Asada, Yu-Na Kim, and Joannie Rochette. The validity of Miki's ticket to L.A. has been a hot debate amongst skating fans, as many feel that Akiko Suzuki was under marked at Japanese Nationals and thus should have finished ahead of Ando's sub par performance.

Outlook: Ando's decision to include the quad should come on the basis of how her other elements, specifically jumps, are looking. Ando's scoring sheets have been littered with "<"s, although Miki is a skater who only needs to rotate her jumps ever so slightly more to get full credit, as opposed to a true chronic under rotater like Mirai Nagasu. If she still feels that she is at risk for receiving downgrades and lower levels (she received two level 2s during her free at GPF), than Ando might as well try the quad, as she would have nothing to lose to try such a daunting skill (other than injury). While much is up in the air regarding Ando's potential placement, there is one thing that is for certain. Miki does her best when she is the underdog. Making the world team as the third-ranked Japanese skater, and doing so by only .11 of a point, makes her exactly that.

Mao Asada (Japan)

Expectations Coming In: Asada is the reigning world champion, winning the title after suffering a horrific fall on a triple axel attempt and going on to skate brilliantly throughout the rest of the program. She has had an up-and-down season, winning the Grand Prix Final but only placing 3rd at the Four Continents Championships. With her recent loss in Vancouver, she will not be the favorite to win in Los Angeles.

Pros: The only woman at the World Championships who will even attempt a triple axel, Mao takes it a step further, attempting two in her long program. She landed both triple axels cleanly at the Grand Prix Final, going on to defeat Yu-Na Kim in her home country. Asada is known to be an exceptionally complete skater, with tremendous jumps, spins, footwork, and artistry. Asada is capable of landing triple-triple combinations in both programs, and no longer receives a deduction for flutzing. Asada also looks toward high GOEs for her jump combinations, where she often adds a Tano-style arm to her double jumps.

Cons: Asada performed poorly (by her standards) at the recent Four Continents Championships, and was rumored to be suffering a knee injury. Asada has not been credited with one triple-triple combination since last year's worlds, and out of seven triple axel attempts this season only four were ratified. Turning away from the technical standpoint of Asada's skating, her long program to the music of Aram Khachaturian's "Masquerade" has been criticized as bleak and desolate. Unfortunately, the program highlights Asada's weakness in not being able to relate to the audience as much as Yu-Na Kim, and her PCS marks were lower than Kim at the Grand Prix Final in both programs. In terms of averages this season, Asada's total score is 180.947, a full 7.86 points behind Kim's total average and only .975 ahead of Rochette's.

Outlook: If past history means anything, Asada will look improved from her Four Continents showing. Earlier this season, Asada improved dramatically between her season opener at Trophee Eric Bombard to the NHK Trophy, which was only two weeks later. Mao has performed very well at the last two world championships, and just to show those who wish to write her off, Asada still scored a very respectable 109.47 at this season's Trophee Eric Bombard, after what was undoubtedly one of the weakest skates in her career. However, Kim's victory in Vancouver does mean that Asada will have an uphill battle to defend her title. In that sense, a little reverse psychology could save the day. Midori Ito was overwhelmed by the monstrosity of pressure from the Japanese media at the 1992 Olympics, and she was entering the games as the 1989 World Champion and having finished off the podium at the 1991 Worlds. Considering how insufferable it could be for a two-time and reigning world champion heading into the Olympics, it may actually be a blessing in disguise if Asada is not crowned champion of the world in 2009.

Alissa Czisny (USA)

Expectations Going In: Czisny has showcased creditable improvement this year, with that rise meeting with a U.S. National title in January. However, her win in Cleveland was considered extremely debatable, mainly due to her substantially higher PCS marks in the long program. Going on to Four Continents Championships, two relatively shaky skates put her in 9th place overall, and will need to do much better to help assure the United States of three Olympic spots.

Pros: Take away the jumps, and Czisny is one of the finest skaters in the world. Armed with legs that extend to tomorrow and a quiet, serene elegance, Alissa has worked with Brian Boitano and his former coach, Linda Leaver, to improve her jumping technique and her ability to focus in competition. Alissa's inordinate spins, posture, and musicality have made it clear that if nothing else, the judges do still reward her with decent marks even if she skates less than lovely. This is evidenced by the fact that despite a flawed long program at the Four Continents Championships, she scored higher PCS marks than Cynthia Phaneuf, Caroline Zhang, Rachael Flatt, and Akiko Suzuki in that portion of the competition.

Cons: Many are fearful that Alissa's past inconsistencies will continue in California, where arguably the biggest test of her career will be placed. Czisny does not have a triple salchow in her jumping repertoire, and occasionally receives an "!" edge penalty on her triple flip. Czisny only has a 54% hit record of her triple jumps this season ( statistic doesn't include the summer B-competitions that she attended), and this is only with Alissa attempting five triples in the long program, when most of the other top ladies are doing six or seven. Czisny's clean short at the U.S. Nationals was the first time she had done a faultless short in a major competition since 2005 Skate Canada. Czisny's total score at the Four Continents Championships was her international seasons best score, where she still finished a disappointing 9th.

Outlook: Many think that the ship has already sailed regarding the United States' hope for three ladies spots in Vancouver next year, and the reason why is because Caroline Zhang wasn't on board. Czisny's worth as national champion, in addition to her spot on the world team, weakened when Zhang outscored Czisny by 11.41 points at 4CCs, putting Zhang's seasons best at 5th while putting Czisny's at 14th. Despite all of her past troubles and the controversy, Czisny will be going to Los Angeles to compete at her 2nd world championship, and if she does precisely what she didn't do in Tokyo at her first world championship (where she finished in 15th place) she should do just fine. First off, a clean short is a must. If nothing else, a clean short should get her into the final group for the free skate, which would help boost her PCS marks in the long. As far as the long program is concerned, Czisny has hinted that she will upgrade the content of her long program. The safest and most intelligent way to do this would probably be to replace one of her double axels with a triple loop. The loop has been her steadiest jump this season, and considering that even her double axels aren't particularly solid, she would have little to lose by making such a change. While Czisny's potential placement is still very much unclear, the judges have reiterated their appreciation for her elegant line and will reward her if she is to skate well.

Rachael Flatt (USA)

Expectations Going In: Flatt has lost the two U.S. titles by meager margins, but looking at the overall results this season she is going to worlds as the top American. Rachael is generally known to peak when it is most important, and she is a very strong jumper. However, her artistry, spins and speed take her out of immediate medal contention.

Pros: Flatt has triple-triple combinations planned in both programs, and has done seven clean triples in her long program more than once. Her choice to revert back to last year's long program to Mathieu's "Romantic Rhapsody" looks to be a good one in terms of boosting that critical second mark. Flatt peaked late in the season last year, arguably delivering the best skates of her career to win the world junior title ahead of Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu. With many of her rivals known to fall apart in one way or another when the pressure is on, Flatt's consistency could dodge challenges from her fellow competitors to ensure a strong placement, as is her intelligent working of the code of points.

Cons: Flatt is heavily reliant on the triple jumps to get her a competitive score, but unfortunately Rachael has only managed one successful triple-triple combination this entire season. Flatt doesn't lengthen through her spine as she skates, thus creating the image of pore posture. Among other things, Flatt has been widely criticized for her generic programs, lack of speed, and unpolished positions in her spins and spirals. At the recent Four Continents Championships, Flatt's PCS marks in the long reflected these aforementioned areas that are in need of improvement, only scoring 51.04, the 9th highest PCS total of the free skate. Rachael has also received several "!" and even "e" wrong-edge deductions for her lutz.

Overall: Flatt's overall finish in Los Angeles could have quite a bit to do with how skaters like Ando, Lepisto, Phaneuf, and Suguri perform. Unfortunately, Rachel's scoring potential is not of top caliber because she lacks an overall signature to her skating, and she is not exempt to downgrades and wrong-edge deductions. While a medal may not be forthcoming, a high placement around 5th-7th could be there for her if she skates at her apex in California, and if other competitors open the door Rachael will be sure to walk through. Flatt is in many ways the polar opposite of Czisny, as Rachael is consistent yet unpolished whereas the reverse is true for Alissa. The two are capable of placing a combined 13th to get three Olympic spots, and Flatt will look to make as little mistakes as possible to take the pressure off of Alissa to complete the task at hand.

Yu-Na Kim (South Korea)

Expectations Going In: Kim was a favorite to win the last two world championships, but a back injury impeded her abilities, thus forcing her to settle for bronze in both cases. An astoundingly popular athlete in her home country, Kim hopes that the third time will be the charm in Los Angeles. Despite a loss at home during the Grand Prix Final, her victory at the Four Continents Championships against a deep field cements her status as favorite at worlds.

Pros: Blessed with immaculate security on her jumps, improved spins and spirals and a true sense of musicality in her programs, the two-time Grand Prix Final Champion has the highest total average score this season, a 188.805. While Asada may have the advantage in quantity, Kim will make that up with the quality of her elements, with +1 and +2 GOEs frequently flocking to her triple-triple combinations, triple lutzes, and double axels. Her PCS marks in the long program have not been below 60 for the entirety of this season, and she is less prone to getting downgrades and wrong-edge deductions than many of her other top competitors. Kim holds the two highest scores in the short program (72.24 and 71.95) and the highest free skate mark (133.70) in the history of the current judging system.

Cons: Despite winning the 2009 Four Continents title with room to spare, Kim did have notable mistakes in the long program, falling and under rotating her triple loop and also under rotating her triple lutz. The triple loop has been Kim's chief weakness throughout her career, and has not landed the jump in competition since November 2007. Kim's back has been a source of injury for her, and despite being a strong favorite for the title the last two years, she was injured and suffered errors in the long (2007) and the short (2008), that prevented her from winning. Yu-Na is not the most technically polished skater out there, which is evident in many of her spin and spiral positions.

Outlook: The first task that is in order for Kim to win her first world title is to say farewell to the triple loop. Practise reports indicate that Kim can do the jump, and she has landed it twice in competition, but it has become an enormous psychological obstacle for her. Luckily, switching a double axel should save the day, as she has done at many past championships. Her double axel in place of the triple loop in the long at this season's Grand Prix Final received a +1.80 GOE, thus receiving a total of 5.30 points for the element. The most Kim has ever received for a triple loop is 5.50 points, so realistically the risk isn't worth the reward. Where Kim will look to blast through her competition is in the short program, where a score of 70 is possible. However, leading after the short is also a double-edged sword, as proven with her faulty long programs after being in the lead at the 2007 Worlds and 2008 Grand Prix Final. A few minor errors aside, Kim looks healthy and fit this season and Brian Orser will look to peak her at just the right time so that the 2009 world title will be hers for the taking.

Carolina Kostner (Italy)

Expectations Going In: Kostner has two world medals, a bronze from 2005 and a silver from 2008. Kostner is expected to be sturdy medal threat in L.A., although the top spot on the podium will continue to be elusive for the Italian. Kostner has not had the best season, as evidenced by her losing the European title to Laura Lepisto. Thus, a world medal of any color will be considered an accomplishment.

Pros: With speed that puts Apollo Anton Ohno to shame, Kostner is a fine jumper and is known for her excpetional spiral and step sequences. Kostner frequently scores above 110 points in the free because she is usually immune to under rotating jumps, and receiving wrong-edge penalties on either her lutz or flip. Having graduated from being a newcomer, Kostner is now an experienced veteran and will be entering her 7th world championship in March. Having not had such an excellent season, she won't have as much pressure as skaters like Asada, Kim, and Rochette. Kostner took advantage of a poor short program from Joannie Rochette at the Grand Prix Final to win the bronze medal, despite Carolina having a fairly rough long program herself.

Cons: Kostner has poor technique on her double axel jump, and often breaks flow and telegraphs the entrances to many of her jumping passes. Carolina is not known to be the best spinner, and on that note, she recently lost the European title on the basis that she wasn't given any credit for a combination spin in the long program (she apparently did too many revolutions to count the spin as a sit spin combination, and instead it was counted as an extra combination spin). Kostner has struggled with skating cleanly at the world championships, let alone in both programs. Many consider her silver medal from last year's worlds to be a ludicrous result, and it is rumored that the ISU took a lot of criticism for the result as well.

Outlook: If it is to be assumed that Kim and Asada are to finish 1-2 (which is by no means a guarantee), Joannie Rochette should prove to be Kostner's toughest rival for the bronze medal. Per the results of the season, Rochette looks to have a distinct advantage over Kostner, as Rochette has a 179.973 seasons average as opposed to Kostner's 164.228. Kostner will come into L.A. as somewhat of an outside medal threat, but she should continue to be the only European lady capable of medaling at the world championship, something that could help her out politically. Nerves have impeded her progress on the world stage, which is a real shame. Her 2007 worlds short program showed to everyone that in the event where she is to relax and just skate, the result is sublime.

Part 2 to come shortly.

That is all.


Anonymous said...

an amazing analysis!

Дамира said...

Please, please go on. I mean it: it is probably the best commentary of figure skating sport I've ever read - and I would love to go on reading it in 2010 too!

Rachel said...

Really enjoyed reading this analysis, spot on as always. Can't wait to read part 2!

Donna said...

Outstanding writing with substance! I wish you wrote for International Figure Skating magazine. How refreshing to read in depth skating analysis instead of more of the same old fluff! Please continue what you are doing - skating fans are hungering for this caliber of sports journalism.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis is so deep and thought out. You have so much information, and you're fair to all the skaters regarding their strengths and weaknesses. I always look forward to your posts.

helen said...

Just some thoughts on Asada. Asada has downgraded her various jumps such as triple-triple combination, lutz, triple-excel due to underrotation. I think she need to work on her set-up position for jumps and prelotation. Her other moves are elegant but whenever she lifts up her legs for flip jump...I just forget elegance, although I like her this season's gala.