Vera Bazarova/Yuri Larionov (Russia)
Bazarova and Larionov demonstrated considerable potential in their first season competing on the international circuit, winning the silver medal at the 2007 World Junior Championships, and placing 7th on the senior level at the Russian nationals that same year. The team improved the following season, winning the Junior Grand Prix of Great Britain and winning the bronze medal at their first senior international event, Skate America. The team went on to take the Junior Grand Prix Final title that season, but the result was short-lived and the consequences to come were not so. Larionov was suspended after the competition for a doping violation, thus putting the team out of international competition ever since. His suspension was initially supposed to terminate in January of next year, but was moved back to July 17th, 2009, allowing the team to return to competition for this year's Rostelecom Cup. Bazarova and Larianov recently performed at a small competition in Perm, performing two strong programs. While shabby in places artistically, the team demonstrated an especially creditable technical base, completing elements such as throw triple flips, throw triple twists, and exemplary lifts. The team did mark a 57.14 in their short program and a 113.36 in their long program at that event, scores which, while likely inflated, would be very competitive for a medal at this competition. With Russia having three berths available for the 2010 Olympics and 2010 World Championships, the first two spots essentially belong to Yuko Kavaguti/Alexander Smirnov and Maria Mukhortova/Alexei Trankov. However, the selection of the third spot will be a far more difficult process, and Bazarova and Larionov will face one of their top rivals for that Olympic ticket at this competition, the team of Anastasia Martiusheva and Alexei Rogonov. Considering Bazarova and Larionov's recent showing in Russia and their past success as juniors, this team should be in good stead to at least challenge for that third spot come Russian nationals, and will be granted an even stronger advantage if they are to perform well here.
Yuko Kavaguti/Alexander Smirnov (Russia)
As Scott Hamilton remarked at this year's worlds, the thought of someone "defecting to Russia" would have been inconceivable as little as two decades ago. However, times have changed, and Yuko Kavaguti is certainly grateful that they have, as she is enjoying her greatest success thus far of her career doing pairs representing Russia with Alexander Smirnov. Kavaguti placed no higher than 13th at a World Championships with her first two partners, but is now the current world bronze medalist with Smirnov. Likewise, Kavaguti is Smirnov's third partner of his career, and he has been having his greatest success of his career with her. Training under the tutelage of legendary Russian coach Tamara Moskvina, Kavaguti and Smirnov are not as passionate and musical as some, but demonstrate an impressive amount of athleticism, speed, and extension. The team's technical assets are broad, with Kavaguti armed with limitless flexibility and Smirnov capable of lifting his partner like a ragdoll. However, the emotional impact of their presentation does not come across nearly as strong as that of Shen/Zhao or Savchenko/Szolkowy. Kavaguti and Smirnov are the only currently competing team to consistently attempt a quadruple salchow throw, an element which they missed at the 2009 worlds. Despite missing the element, the team won their first world championship medal, even ahead of former world champions Pang/Tong, who Kavaguti and Smirnov will be competing against here. Kavaguti and Smirnov are looking to convey contrasting themes in their programs, with their short program set to "The Swan" and their long program choreographed to "The Blue Danube."
Keauna McLaughlin/Rockne Brubaker (USA)
An exceptionally talented team, McLaughlin and Brubaker were lauded as future Olympic medalists when they were victorious at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, winning the senior title on their first try. The team's consistency has waned since them, and the Americans came away from the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships expecting far greater than their 11th place finish, a placement attained with one of the poorest free skates the team has performed since competing on the senior level. McLaughlin and Brubaker subsequently packed their bags and headed from Colorado Springs to Aliso Viejo, California, where they are now training under the adroit eyes of John Nicks, best known for his coaching of Sasha Cohen and former world champion pair Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. The move to Nicks is a wise one on the part of McLaughlin and Brubaker, as Nicks has immense experience to aid him with dissecting the team's weaknesses, which have been related primarily to inconsistency (particularly with side-by-side jumps). The team has especially commendable speed, but often sacrifices their ability to breathe and create emotion between one another when they are always doing their elements quickly, as was the case with sections of their "West Side Story" long program from last season. Despite the fact that the current two-time national champions were bested by young upstarts Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett in Los Angeles, McLaughlin and Brubaker have mostly been the top U.S. pair team since their first senior national title in 2008, and stand a great chance at claiming one of the two spots allotted for the U.S. pairs at this coming Olympics. With Kavaguti/Smirnov and Pang/Tong battling it out for gold, and the inexperience of the other two Russian pairs, McLaughlin and Brubaker will be satisfied leaving Moscow with a bronze medal in hand.
Qing Pang/Jian Tong (China)
At their optimum, Pang and Tong nix together excellent throws and twist lifts with exemplary musicality, but in spite of this, the team has not medaled at a world championship for the past two years. Pang and Tong have produced a couple of impressive upsets in their careers thus far, including their victory at the 2006 World Championships, where they beat the favored Olympic silver medalist team of Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang. More recently, Pang and Tong defeated both the Zhangs and Savchenko/Szolkowy for the gold medal at the 2008 Grand Prix Final, but both teams got the last laugh at this year's World Championships, where Savchenko/Szolkowy and the Zhangs went 1-2 and Pang and Tong, held back by a flat long program, finished over five points shy of the medal stand. It appears as though Pang and Tong are battling six other teams (Dube and Davidson, Kavaguti and Smirnov, Mukhortova and Trankov, Savchenko and Szolkowy, Shen and Zhao, and the Zhangs) for those three spots on the podium. Pang and Tong are by all means capable of medaling - their scores at GPF and Four Continents would have placed them 2nd at this year's Worlds, but they must reach their peak condition at the Olympics and not prior to. As far as this event is concerned, Kavaguti and Smirnov appear to have the slight upper hand on Pang and Tong. The former has a home field advantage, and is coming off from having just beaten Pang and Tong at worlds. The 2006 world champions have not been victorious at their first Grand Prix of the event of the season since 2003 Skate America.
Gold: Yuko Kavaguti/Alexander Smirnov (Russia)
Silver: Qing Pang/Jian Tong (China)
Bronze: Keauna McLaughlin/Rockne Brubaker (USA)
4th: Vera Bazarova/Yuri Larionov (Russia)
Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (Italy)
The 2nd-ranked Italian team recently placed 10th at the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles, duplicating their finish from the 2008 World Championships. Cappellini and Lanotte, now in their fourth season together, broke the top five at this year's European Championships and finished 4th at this competition last year. Cappellini and Lanotte don't have much of an opportunity to break into the medals stand at future World Championships/Olympic Games, and certainly won't be doing so with the top ranked Italian team, Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali, still competing. Cappellini and Lanotte actually have very strong interpretation of the music and expression, and had a very strong "Love Story" free dance last season. Unfortunately, their extension and speed don't compare to those of the top teams, and their lack of difficulty and originality within their elements are weaknesses to hold them back also. However, with world champion teams Domnina/Shabalin and Dolobel/Shoenfelder out of the Grand Prix, and their withdrawing from the events (Domnina/Shabalin-COR; Dolobel/Schoenfelder-SA) of which this team is competing at, Cappellini and Lacotte have feasible opportunities to medal both at this event and at Skate America. The team is favored for a silver medal here, having finished two places ahead Canadians Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier, at the 2009 World Championships. Crone and Poirier are expected to be Cappellini and Lanotte's top rivals for silver at this event, with Meryl Davis and Charlie White nearly assured to win the competition.
Vanessa Crone/Paul Poirier (Canada)
As is the case with Cappellini and Lanotte in Italy, Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier are the second ranked team in Canada, achieving the silver medal at this year's Canadian nationals in just their second year competing on the senior level. The Canadians were second at the 2008 World Junior Championships, and made their debut at the senior World Championships this year, finishing a respectable 12th. Their placement and Virtue and Moir's bronze medal did not, however, meet the criteria for Canada to have berths for three dance teams in Vancouver. Crone and Poirier are likely to attain the second spot on the Olympic team, considering that they beat the bronze medalists from last year's Canadian nationals by over five points. Crone and Poirier are a technically proficient team with commendable lifts, and the Canadians did receive six out of a possible eight level fours for their free dance elements at worlds. Unfortunately, the team's speed, artistry, and creativity need to increase sizably if they are to eventually equal the success earned by their countrymen, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Crone and Poirier are only 18 and 17, respectively, so there is still much time available for growth to be made. Beating Cappellini and Lanotte at this event for the silver medal would be an excellent result for the Canadians, but Crone and Poirier should consider a bronze medal satisfactory enough.
Meryl Davis/Charlie White (USA)
The current U.S. champions have come to prove that U.S. ice dancing is not merely a showcase of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, as Davis and White rapidly improve to what they hope will culminate in a world championship or Olympic gold medal. The team, coached by Igor Shpilband and Marina Zueva, has competed at the last three World Championships, controversially missing the bronze medal in Los Angeles by just .04. That result means bad news bears for their 2010 Olympic medal prospects, as Tanith and Ben's experience gave them an advantage over Davis and White in the judging at last year's worlds, and Virtue and Moir now have the bonus of competing at home for this season's premier event. Davis and White recently made their debut of their new free dance to "Phantom of the Opera" in a U.S. summer competition. The program was rough around the edges, but showed considerable improvement by the time the Nebelhorn Trophy came by, where Davis and White were competing against a weak field and thus easily won the competition. The team has particularly dynamic expression and speed, but a particular weakness on Meryl's part is her lack of extension, with her leg line and foot form being inferior to that of Tanith Belbin and Emily Samuelson. Davis and White have no issue racking up exemplary TES scores; in fact, they received the highest TES score in their free dance at 2009 worlds. Davis and White's PCS marks were what prevented them from medaling, likely more due to reputation than of their actual skating at that given competition. Davis and White received a noticeably larger ovation following their free dance in Los Angeles than that of Belbin and Agosto, but the judges did not respond in kind. It may remain that way until Belbin and Agosto retire for Davis and White to become the top U.S. ice dance team, and will need to be so in order to medal at a future world championship or Olympic Games.
Ekaterina Rubleva/Ivan Shefer (Russia)
The current Russian silver medalists are perhaps better known for Rubleva's wardrobe malfunction during the compulsory dance at the 2009 Europeans then they are for their actual skating, but nevertheless, this team stands a very good chance of snatching the third spot on the Russian Olympic team for ice dance. This is especially true, considering their strong 5th place finish at the recent Trophée Eric Bompard competition, where Rubleva and Shefer bested current U.S. bronze medalists Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre and fellow compatriots Kristina Gorshkova and Vitali Butikov. Rubleva and Shefer have competed at one World Championships thus far in their careers, in 2008, where they placed 15th. Rubleva and Shefer have a tall task at hand of trying to become the top Russian team before they retire, even if Domnina and Shabalin hang their skates up after 2010. Rubleva and Shefer are an elegant team, but have a long way to go to match the current strength of current Russian and European champions, Jana Khoklova and Sergei Novitski. Rubleva and Shefer don't exactly have years ahead of them to improve either, as they are 24 and 26 years of age, respectively. Rubleva and Shefer's premier priority for this season is obviously to claim that last spot on the Olympic team, and the process of attaining that begins here. Beating the two other Russian ice dance teams competing will put Rubleva and Shefer's Olympic chances in even superior stead.
Gold: Meryl Davis/Charlie White (USA)
Silver: Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (Italy)
Bronze: Vanessa Crone/Paul Poirier (Canada)
4th: Ekaterina Rubleva/Ivan Shefer (Russia)
Next post: COR Preview-Men
That is all.