Thursday, October 29, 2009

2009 Cup of China-Ladies Preview

Rachael Flatt (USA)

          The two-time U.S. silver medalist is consistent, reliable, and yes, flat. However, with Sasha Cohen's withdrawal from Trophée Eric Bompard and both Mao Asada and Carolina Kostner's respective meltdowns at COR and TEB, Flatt has a very strong opportunity of qualifying to the Grand Prix Final after missing the final last year by two placements. Flatt won her first U.S. silver medal in 2008, skating a clean long program which contained seven triple jumps. Subsequently competing at the World Junior Championships, she repeated the same clean skate and defeated both Mirai Nagasu and Caroline Zhang to win the title. Flatt once again settled for silver at this year's U.S. Championships, missing the gold medal in a very controversial loss to Alissa Czisny. Flatt went onto the 2009 World Championships and finished 5th in her first try. Flatt has competed twice since the conclusion of last season in summer events, including the Colorado Championships and the Golden West competition, beating Alexe Gilles at the former and Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu at the latter. Flatt showed visible improvement in her swing-themed short program with her presentation and speed, but reverted back to her fairly mundane style in the long program, choreographed to Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."

          While Flatt's style is not necessarily bad - she actually does make a fairly strong effort to use facial expression and relate to the music - her lines are impeded by her rather awkwardly proportioned body. Her neck is very short; thus, when her shoulders lift, even just ever so slightly, it creates a very distorted line of both her back and overall upper body. She is not an exceptionally flexible skater, nor a very fast one. However, Rachael Flatt made it to the top five at last year's worlds in spite of these flaws, and her innate ability to compete and remain in the moment when the pressure mounts has been her ace in the hole thus far in her career. She has also been remarkable in avoiding major injury as a figure skater, something that has also been advantageous to Flatt against her fellow adversaries.  Flatt is doubtful to reach the medals stand in Vancouver, but she stands a solid chance of claiming an Olympic berth in Spokane come nationals. One of her closest competitors for one of those spots, Mirai Nagasu, will be competing against Flatt at this competition, and it will be intriguing to see who is ahead at this stage in the game.

Carolina Kostner (Italy)

           For more info on Kostner see the TEB preview post for the ladies. The two-time world medalist has quite a ways to go when it comes to returning to peak form after her sixth place finish just over a week ago in Paris. For Kostner to have any chance at qualifying to the Grand Prix Final, she would need to win this event, a tough task in of itself, and then hope that others meltdown at future Grand Prixs so that she could qualify. While one can argue several different ways regarding why Kostner was overscored at the 2008 worlds, it certainly did help her that she was the bronze medalist from the Grand Prix Final and the current European champion heading into those Championships. Now that the Grand Prix Final is most likely out of the question, winning Europeans will be of the utmost importance for Kostner heading into Vancouver. Kostner should be able to win a European title very easily at her optimum, but she is still capable of losing gold at that event, doing so last year to Laura Lepisto.

          Both of Carolina's programs that she debuted in Paris are hardly her best; they don't appear as well composed or emotionally inspired as several previous programs of hers, including her "Canon" short and "Memories of a Geisha" long from the 2006/2007 season. Her low finish in Paris is, while a setback reputation-wise, by no means an indication that she has glossed herself out of the picture for an Olympic medal. In 2004, Kostner only finished 7th at Cup of Russia and went on to defeat Michelle Kwan for the bronze medal at worlds. Similarly in 2007, Kostner did pull off a bronze medal at Cup of China, but she was competing against a very weak field and skated extremely poorly in the free. She would later go on to win the world silver medal that season. Kostner has already been making several changes to her jumps since moving to Frank Carroll (such as taking a more fluid entrance to her triple flip and not telegraphing), and consistency with these changes naturally take time, as her warm-ups looked excellent in Paris but during her competitive skates her nerves ended up taking center ice. Kostner is never strong at her first event of the season, but does often improve for her second. In this all important Olympic season, she needs that to be the case here.

Mirai Nagasu (USA)

Although a seemingly benevolent, dainty personality, the 2008 U.S. Champion has not been one to hide her emotions or thoughts to the public. Nagasu arrived to her free skate at last year's U.S. Championships in tears, but finished the program without a major error and beamed with pride. Recently, during the U.S. Olympic Media Summit, Nagasu arose concern in the skating community with her comment, "...I'm not very smart and I'm not very pretty and there's nothing else that stands out about me besides my skating." Nagasu was also the only skater to vocal her concern over what Sasha Cohen's comeback would mean for her Olympic chances. Nagasu came out of nowhere to win the gold medal at the U.S. Championships on the junior level in 2007, defeating heavy favorite Caroline Zhang in the process. The following year, she shocked many once again by taking the senior U.S. title, but was age-ineligible to compete at the 2008 World Championships. The following year, a disastrous 8th place showing at the NHK Trophy continued to fire off tensions between Nagasu and her then coach, Charlene Wong, largely because Nagasu was opting out of resting a severe ankle injury. Nagasu toughed it out in her free skate at the U.S. Championships, finishing 5th, and upon concluding her season, she decided it was best to resume her skating under the tutelage of Frank Carroll.

Judging by the recent Golden West competition, Nagasu does not look as strong as Flatt overall, but does have several things going for her. Nagasu has routinely been plagued by under rotated jumps that often stem from a lack of amplitude, but at Golden West her jumps looked visibly higher and stronger. Her Carmen long program also looks to have great potential, and the music arrangement of the program has several of the more unused selections of the score. Nagasu has a fairly steep hill to climb to make the Olympic team, but appears to have started off on the right off toward getting to the top of the hill, something that cannot be said for many of the athletes vying for tickets to Vancouver.

Joannie Rochette (Canada) 

Although some past Olympic and world champions have peaked at 15 or 16, Joannie Rochette has taken the slow and steady route to peaking at the ripe old age of 23, having just won a world silver medal. Rochette earned her first world championship medal on her eighth try and comes toward this season with what will likely be her last opportunity to win an Olympic medal. While debuting her new long program to "Samson and Delilah" at the recent Japan Open, Rochette looked fit, confident, and polished. Rochette landed all seven triples and scored a 126.39, the highest free skate for her in an international competition to date. Rochette certainly needs to be mindful of not peaking too early; however, one shouldn't be too concerned because she did perform expertly at last year's Skate Canada and, with one exception (Grand Prix Final), maintained that level of solidity throughout the season's entirety.

With Mao Asada and Carolina Kostner struggling and Sasha Cohen's "comeback" in question, Rochette has found herself with more than just a realistic aspiration of winning an Olympic medal. At this point, it looks as though Rochette is the only woman capable of even challenging South Korean superstar Yu-Na Kim for the gold, although Kim still is the unwavering frontrunner at this point. Once noted for her inconsistency, Rochette has worked diligently to correct this foible. The current world silver medalist remarked in a recent CTV Olympics article that touring with Stars and Ice in Canada has been beneficial to her psych and that the presence of media attention motivates her to perform at a superior level. Her mindset is obviously working, but will she keep her confidence intact when faced with skating for an Olympic medal in her home country? We shall see.

Fumie Suguri (Japan)

It hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for Suguri since winning her world silver medal in 2006, but she shocked many when she won the silver medal at the 2008/2009 Japanese nationals, defeating Miki Ando, Akiko Suzuki, and Yukari Nakano. Suguri qualified to the 2009 World Championships, her first worlds since 2006, and she also qualified to the Four Continents team, a competition where she placed 6th. Battling a shoulder injury, Suguri had a relatively shaky long program at the World Championships and was unable to muster anything better than an 8th place finish. Suguri stands a decent chance of making the Olympic team, a chance which she hopes to augment by moving to Alexei Mishin, coach of Evgeni Plushenko. Upon changing coaches, Suguri also scrapped both of her scheduled programs for the 2009/2010 season and has replaced them with a short program to "Air on the G String" and "Tocatta and Fugue" by Bach and a long program to Khachaturian's "Spartacus."

Suguri performed poorly at the recent Finlandia Trophy, finishing 7th against a weak field. However, once adjusted to all of her changes, Suguri should be a force to be reckoned with for a spot on the Olympic team. She only finished 8th at her opening event of the 2005/2006 Olympic season, Skate Canada, but stunned all by winning the Japanese nationals, defeating the then reigning Grand Prix Final champion Mao Asada and eventual Olympic champion Shizuka Arakawa. With Miki Ando and Mao Asada near locks for the team (even with Asada's issues, she has far too much recognition and stardom to be left off), Fumie Suguri is in a race for the third ticket with Yukari Nakano and Akiko Suzuki, the latter of whom she will compete against this week. Suguri may not be primed to do well this week if Finlandia Trophy is any indication, but she has proven capable of sneaking up on her rivals when something big is on the line and can certainly do that again with jump doctor Mishin by her side.

Akiko Suzuki (Japan) 

Suzuki had her best season to date last year, winning a silver medal at the NHK Trophy and achieving a 4th place finish at the Japanese nationals. Much like Joannie Rochette, Suzuki has been slower in reaching her peak, and part of this is because of an eating disorder she suffered from in 2003, which kept her out of competition for the 2003/2004 season. Suzuki was inspired by Shizuka Arakawa's 2004 world title and became motivated to give the sport another try. Although success was slow to come after that, she did improve dramatically for last season and made the most out of her year. Suzuki does stand a legitimate chance of making the Olympic team, and were it not for a (perhaps unfairly) downgraded triple salchow in her long program at Japanese nationals, she may have been a part of the 2009 world championship team. Suzuki is set to debut her new programs for the first time internationally in China, which are a short program to Andalucia and a long program to West Side Story. Former world champion ice dancer turned choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne worked with Suzuki on her long program for this season and praised Suzuki's skating ability and work ethic on a Japanese television fluff. Suzuki already has had a good start to her season, winning a regional championship in Japan with a score higher than what she received at last year's Japanese nationals. Suzuki is a solid jumper and an attractive artist; she should do well here if her consistency from last season is any indication. As the Japanese Skating Federation appears to be making much of their Olympic team decisions based on Grand Prix results, Suzuki wants to leave her first major event of the season with a bang.

Predicted Standings
Gold: Joannie Rochette (Canada)
Silver: Rachael Flatt (USA)
Bronze: Akiko Suzuki (Japan)
4th: Carolina Kostner (Italy)
5th: Mirai Nagasu (USA)
6th; Fumie Suguri (Japan)

That is all.

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