Mao Asada (Japan)
The Olympic season has finally arrived for the 19-year-old Japanese superstar, who will aim to live up to the expectations of a proud nation hoping that the 2008 world champion will dethrone her top rival, Yu-Na Kim, for the 2010 Olympic gold medal. Asada was formerly under the tutelage of Rafael Artunian, who led her to the 2007 world silver medal and two Japanese national championships. However, after Asada's 2007 nationals win, the Japanese Skating Federation pulled her from Artunian and sent her to the Four Continents and World Championships without a permanent coach. Nevertheless, she went on to win both competitions. The JSF later paired Asada with legendary Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova, who has taken Asada away from the more lyrical style of her youth to a much more dramatic presentation, something many fans have voiced their disapproval over. Asada's time with Tarasova has been hot and cold thus far, with high points that include her win (defeating Yu-Na Kim in her come country) at the 2008 Grand Prix Final, and becoming the second lady to break 200 points at the 2009 World Team Trophy. However, Asada was left off the podium in Los Angeles, despite not skating poorly, and received her lowest long program score since 2006 at the recent Japan Open.
Asada's attempts to land two triple axels in her long program are admirable, but the great risk involved often proves to be much more of a detriment than a reward. She is bound to pop, under rotate, or fall on one of them (exceptions being 2005 Japanese Nationals and 2008 Grand Prix Final), and more often than not, the mistake comes on the second attempt. It was also perplexing when, at the Japan Open, Asada missed her inconsistent triple salchow, trying that jump in favor of her consistently secure triple loop. Practice videos of Asada's jumps aired just prior to the Japan Open showed her to be in fine condition, but her jumps at the Japan Open were labored and were vacant of their usual spring. However, her artistry in her "Bells of Moscow" long program showed a marked improvement from last year's long to "Masquerade Waltz." Asada performed poorly at this event last year, which was her first event of the 2008/2009 season, and cannot afford to do the same this season with a sinificantly deeper field competing. However, it is worth noting that Asada's second competition of the season has historically been significantly stronger than her first.
Elene Gedevanishvili (Georgia)
The Georgian firecracker is wildly talented and wildly inconsistent, having finished 10th at this year's worlds, just after failing to qualify for the free skate at the 2009 Europeans. Gedevanishvili has competed at an Olympics once before, in 2006, where she shockingly qualified to the final group for the free skate and ended up placing 10th. Currently training under 1982 world champion Elaine Zayak in New Jersey, Gedevanishvili is a spunky skater with a solid triple lutz and triple toe+triple toe combination. The 19-year-old Tbilisi native has already competed once since last year's worlds, at the 2009 Moran Memorial, where she finished ahead of Ashley Wagner in the free skate, but behind behind her in the short program and overall. Gedevanishvili has a solid combination of athleticism, flexibility, and personality, but will need to gain consistency and refine her posture and transitions between elements if she is to stick around and skate onto the podium at a future World Championships or Olympic Games. Gedevanishvili's performances in Los Angeles appeared to significantly increase her confidence level, and a strong placement in Paris (preferably in the top five) would allow the judges to have more faith in Gedevanishvili's potentially strong but divergent skating.
Alexe Gilles (USA)
Gilles is one of the tallest ladies figure skaters to have ever made it to the competitive ranks domestically and internationally, standing at 5'7''. This added height allows Gilles to have jumps that are nothing short of breathtaking when landed, particularly her triple lutz, but it also impedes her consistency. Gilles competed at the Colorado Championships this summer, where she defeated two-time U.S. silver medalist Rachael Flatt in the short, but fell behind her in the long program and overall. The bronze medalist from last year's Junior Grand Prix Final and 9th place finisher from the 2009 U.S. Championships, Gilles has the opportunity for this to be somewhat of a breakthrough season, but only somewhat, because it's unlikely she will make the Olympic team. She was granted her first senior Grand Prix assignment, being this competition, in the spring and was eventually added to the Skate America roster when Michelle Kwan announced her decision not to return to competitive skating. A solid finish here will be a tall order for Gilles, as she is competing against seven creditable skaters and five especially formidable ladies (Asada, Kim, Kostner, Nakano, and Zhang). Regardless of placement, this competition will be of tremendous service to Gilles's development, and it will give her an idea of how she stacks up with some of the top female figure skaters in the world.
Yu-Na Kim (South Korea)
The pride of South Korea will take to the ice for the first time since her victory at the 2009 World Championships, where she won her first world title by an astounding 16.42 points, breaking the then existing world record by over eight marks. Kim has been one of the few skaters to have avoided summer competitions, and comes to Paris to debut her new short program to themes from "James Bond" and her long program to Gershwin's "Piano Concerto in F." Orser lauded Kim's new programs in an Icenetwork article back in July; however, Kim critiqued them in a more staid manner in a recent interview, commenting "Though I am under the apprehension that both programs of this season are less gorgeous than those of last season, I will prepare them well and do my best as I have done before."
Although Kim is perhaps not as talented a skater technically speaking as Asada, she is able to work the code of points in her favor more so than her top rival. An example of this is that receives nearly unanimous level fours for her non-jump elements, even while some of her spin and spiral postitions don't achieve the prettiest shapes. The code of points also aids her in the fact that she can switch her problematic triple loop with an easier, quality double axel, which doesn't end up costing her much at all. Kim's speed, detailed choreography, and committed expression enabled her to receive the highest program component marks of every phase of every competition she competed in last season. Kim should continue to bank on those high program component marks, but it is unlikely that one will see Kim score jaw-droppingly high artistic marks, like the 68.40 PCS score she received for her long program at 2009 worlds, especially if she is not to skate a clean short program and have a commanding lead after that phase.
One concept Kim must continue to be mindful about to ensure herself success in Vancouver is to train well, but not overtrain and risk serious injury. Kim's back was a huge source of pain for her prior to the 2007 and 2008 World Championships, both competitions of which she was capable of winning, but did not. Kim peaked herself at exactly the right time last season, but it could be difficult to achieve that masterful pacing again, considering all of the pressure from the people of South Korea and Kim's constant drive to push to envelope further (notice how she claimed that she now aims for 215 points instead of just 200 in the article linked earlier in this commentary). Kim is generally strong, albeit unspectacular, at her first event. While this is precisely how she should desire to perform early in the season, such a performance is not always indicative of the culmination of her year, as was the case with her 2007/2008 season.
Kiira Korpi (Finland)
Korpi missed the Grand Prix portion of the season last year due to injury, but recovered in time to defeat Laura Lepisto at the 2009 Finnish Championships to win her first Finnish senior national title. However, because the criteria for selecting the world team was largely based on the results of the 2009 European Championships, Korpi was not chosen to compete in Los Angeles because of her 5th place finish at that event - the lowest placement of the three Finnish women (Korpi, Lepisto, Susanna Poykio) competing there. Korpi has already gotten her feet wet this season, competing at the Nebelhorn Trophy and Finlandia Trophy, where she placed 2nd and 3rd, respectively. It seems likely that Laura Lepisto will secure one of the two berths available for the Finnish women intending to compete at the 2010 Olympic Games, which means that Korpi will need to fend off current European bronze medalist Susanna Poykio for the second spot. This should prove to be an interesting battle, as both skaters are very comparable in their overall consistency and potential. Poykio may have had the upper hand when it came to last year's Europeans, where Korpi (in the video shown above) took a devastating fall into the boards in her long program, but Poykio didn't exactly show the world that she was of the best use to the Finnish team in Los Angeles with 13th place finish, a placement even lower than Carolina Kostner and her epic long program meltdown. Korpi's competitions in the early part of the season are great opportunities for building confidence, but shouldn't have much impact on whether she is named to the Olympic team or not. Peaking as close to the Olympics as possible will be of the utmost importance for Korpi to return to a second Olympic Games, and to improve on her 16th place finish from 2006.
Carolina Kostner (Italy)
As dream of a city Los Angeles was for Yu-Na Kim, it was a living nightmare for Carolina Kostner. Entering the long program in 5th place, Kostner appeared rattled by Kim's thunderous ovation, as the 22-year-old Italian went on to skate her worst long program in memory, one which contained zero clean triple jumps. The performance dropped Kostner to 12th, understandably prompting her to make a coaching change from Michael Huth to Frank Carroll, who is currently coaching Evan Lysacek and Mirai Nagasu also. Kostner could be the ultimate Olympic dark horse if she is somehow able to gain consistency, confidence, and competitive fire by Vancouver.
Kostner skates with blinding speed, has creditable height on her triples, and is armed with a strong sense of musicality, which, coupled with strong poltical favor from Italian ISU head Ottavio Cinquanta, make it foolish for one to count her out of the medal picture in Vancouver. A recent training video from an Italian television network shows Kostner to have made several changes to her skating in the short time she has had with Frank Carroll, including having more fluid entrances to her flip and loop, and adding the triple toe as a solo jump. She did not show a triple flip+triple toe combination, and given her recent troubles with that combination (having only one out 10 successful triple+triple combination attempts last season), Kostner may be going back to an easier triple flip+double toe combination and putting the triple toe in place of her double axel solo jump in the long program.
Kostner has been wise to let both of her programs be of a more classical genre this season, as classical programs, such as her 2007 Canon short program, aptly suit her artistry. Kostner will debut her short program to Tchaikovsky's "Chopin Nocturne and Violin Concerto" and her long program to Bach's "Air on a G String" and Vivaldi's "Cello Concerto" in Paris. If recent history is any indication, Kostner will not be in strong form here, as her opening performances during several previous seasons have been of particular sloppiness. Little is known of whether Kostner will be able to come back from her Los Angeles catastrophe and skate of quality worthy of making the Olympic podium, but one will be able to start finding out after this weekend. Kostner has many opportunities in her favor to make the Olympic podium; all she has to do is trust herself and take them.
Yukari Nakano (Japan)
Nakano is generally strong early in the season, but was not so at the recent Japan Open, scoring below 100 points with a technically and choreographically fireless long program to "The Firebird." Her debut of her new long program was of particular disappointment to many of Nakano's fans, as she has enhanced her style over the past several seasons, and showed an especially mature presentation in her long program to the ballet score of "Giselle" last season. Nakano has had an impressive career, but one that has had many unerasable disappointments, which include her falling short of an Olympic team that she probably should have been on in 2006 (instead of Miki Ando who finished 15th in Turino), and missing a world championship medal in 2008 in a controversial result. Most recently, Nakano led the field after the short program at the Japanese nationals in December 2008, but ended up skating one of her weakest long programs in memory, dropping to 5th place and being left off of the world championship team.
Nakano has several lovely aspects to her skating, all of which are marred by her greatest trademark and weakness, her leg wrap. Skaters typically cross their legs tightly in the air for a jump, but for whatever peculiar reason, Nakano developed a technique where her left leg crosses over her right thigh, thus creating a distracting line and providing an impediment to the rotation speed of her jumps. She is immune from using that technique on her salchow jump and also on her triple axel, a jump she has not landed cleanly in well over a year.
As far as placements are concerned for this competition, it is worth noting that Nakano improved very quickly at the beginning of last season, when she performed poorly at a minor competition in Japan before going on to skate strongly and place second at Skate America. Nakano was also strong at her opening Grand Prix event in 2007, Skate Canada, and thus could be in for a good competition here despite her poor outing in Japan just weeks ago.
Caroline Zhang (USA)
Zhang will be returning to competition after a raucous off-season, which included two coaching changes (one to Charlene Wong and one back to her original coach, Mingzhu Li), a torn meniscus, and a third place finish (behind Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu) at the Golden West competition last month. Zhang had a bittersweet 2008/2009 season, missing the world championship team while going on to prove in nearly every way possible, whether it be Alissa Czisny's short program meltdown in Los Angeles, Zhang's fourth place finish against a deep field at the Four Continents Championships, or Zhang attaining the top technical score in her free skate at the World Team Trophy, that she deserved to compete in Los Angeles.
Zhang has certain aspects to her skating that are absolutely spellbinding, and other aspects that earn her a plethora of scornful remarks from observers. Zhang can bend her body limitlessly, but skates slower than Carolina Kostner does in slow motion and has an extremely awkward technique on her flip and lutzes, where she twists her hips and kicks her leg up to the ceiling, a technique dubbed the "mule kick" by critics. The main issue with Zhang is that she has been said to have an extremely difficult time breaking out of her confort zone, which is certainly an evident reality when considering the lack of improvement in many aspects of her skating over the past few seasons in terms of speed, transitions, the mule kick, and presentation. Zhang is notorious for flutzing, but was credited with a clean lutz at the Golden West competition. However, she received an "!" call for her flip at that competition, which was also a call she received at this year's U.S. nationals.
Zhang was far from her optimum at her first competition last season, Skate Canada, which seemed to play a factor in how she was scored at nationals relative to Alissa Czisny, who outscored Zhang in the long program despite only landing three triples to Zhang's six. Zhang seems to be marked more favorably internationally than she is domestically, an oddity which she would like to reverse for the time being to earn an Olympic berth. As nationals results are frequently based off of Grand Prix results when it comes to someone being favored on the second mark, two quality performances are necessary for Zhang in Paris.
Gold: Yu-Na Kim (South Korea)
Silver: Mao Asada (Japan)
Bronze: Yukari Nakano (Japan)
4th: Carolina Kostner (Italy)
5th: Caroline Zhang (USA)
6th: Elene Gedevanishvili (Georgia)
That is all.