Let me put my impression of the NHK Trophy this way: you had to pay attention through the whole event. Like a spectacular murder mystery, if you didn't pay attention you missed a key part of the story. What I mean by that is that the competition and the competitors were playing for keeps with no holds barred.
Take the American Brandon Mroz, who duplicated his history-making quad Lutz jump, becoming the first skater to execute it in ISU competition. Mroz's jump went a long way in putting him in third place after the short program, with far more experienced skaters like Italy's Samuel Contesti and Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic falling to seventh and ninth, respectively. At the end of the day, Mroz crumpled in the free skate, falling to last place overall while Contesti moved up to fourth and Verner to fifth.
American national bronze medallist Ross Miner earned his first Grand Prix medal, a bronze, on the strength of a solid free skate. Miner is moving up the ranks but still has a way to go before being a possibility for the final flight at Worlds.
The top two spots were taken by two Japanese rivals: 2010 world champion Daisuke Takahashi and 2011 world silver medallist Takahiko Kozuka. The two men had appeared a little sluggish in their first Grand Prix. It was as if the skaters realized that it was time to get the lead out and skate. Takahashi has, in my opinion, one of the most inventive short programs of the season. He capitalized from this riveting program to capture the lead. Kozuka was his characteristic smooth as silk self on his way to taking second in both the short and free.
Suzuki wins second Grand Prix title
I can't think about Akiko Suzuki without feeling happy for her success in taking the women's title in Japan. The 26-year-old a veteran, and a perpetual bridesmaid, won her only other Grand Prix title in China in 2009. Is she a skater that will go down as a skating legend in the history books? No. Is she a skater who gets full marks for tenacity, hard work and paying her dues? Absolutely. Adding a gold in Sapporo to her silver medal from Skate Canada gives her a spot in the Grand Prix Final in Quebec City in December.
Mao Asada, the darling of Japanese figure skating was the one I was looking forward to seeing. After a splendid 2010 season where she won Olympic silver and her second world title, she returned home to Japan to train and switched coaches - picking the legendary Nobuo Sato. The result was a change in jump technique that contributed to her being left off the list for the Grand Prix Final last season, and off the podium at worlds - she finished sixth. Asada's exquisite lyrical style is back and the jumps seemed to be more on than off in Sapporo. Asada won the free program, which moved her from third after the short to second overall. While not perfect yet, she is still my early pick as the one to watch come worlds in March of 2012.
Americans take ice dance crown
Americans Alex and Maia Shibutani won the ice dance title and earned a spot at the Grand Prix Final. They are delightful to watch with a youthful joie de vivre and great technical precision. Their weakness is their material this season. Although it suits them perfectly, it lacks the maturity, passion and depth of some of the other programs we are seeing.
The silver medalists from Canada, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, also earned a spot in Quebec City, but lost the title by mere .09. Weaver posted this message on her Facebook : "Thank you SO much everyone for the messages! I've read every single one. As for now, no more extended lifts!!!"
Extended lifts? Well, exceeding the time allowed on one of their lifts in their free dance carried with it a one-point deduction, costing the Canadians the title. That's an error they won't be making twice. Look for Weaver and Poje to continue to improve over the season.
The Russian team of Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov have so much potential. They won the short dance. They are beautiful to look at and have great power. They took home the bronze after a shaky free dance to Ave Maria that couldn't have been further away from the fun that these two dynamic skaters can bring to the ice. 'Nuff said.
Russian pair dazzles
Hold on to your hats skating fans, the pairs just keeps getting more interesting.
The Russian team of Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov won their second straight title, clinching a trip to Quebec City. They are my pick for my newly created Eliza Doolittle Award. They have gone from a hit and miss duo, into elegant, composed and sophisticated skaters on the ice. It's quite the transformation and I for one am very impressed, especially considering they took the gold after finishing fifth in the short program.
Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran represent Japan, although they train in Montreal with Richard Gauthier. Earning the silver medal in Sapporo is significant for a couple of reasons: the first is they defeated the three-time and current world champions from Germany, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who took home bronze. The second is Regina's own Mervin Tran said in the press that he would consider applying for Japanese citizenship in order to compete at the Olympics. It's amazing what a little success at the right time will do for a person's confidence.
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