The upcoming Four Continents Championships in Osaka, Japan, are a final chance to see many of the skaters who will be competing at the world championships next month in London, Ont.
For some of the skaters, it is a final chance to impress not only the judges and fans but federations still yet to decide who will take the final spots on their teams for worlds.
Canada is one such country.
Six-time national champion Patrick Chan and two-time national silver medallist Kevin Reynolds have already been selected for the world team. Canada has qualified three men to compete and it appears as if the federation is looking to see which remaining skater will demonstrate his worthiness in competition at Osaka.
The battle would appear to be between Andrei Rogozine, the 2011 world junior champion and current national bronze medallist, and the charismatic Elladj Balde, a perennial crowd favourite. Less than two points separated them at nationals (they finished third and fourth, respectively), making it a very close rivalry.
It is do-or-die time for Balde, who has the chance in Osaka to try for enough qualification points to compete at worlds and possibly earn himself that third and final spot on the Canadian squad.
On balance, the strongest men's competitors at Four Continents are coming from Japan, with the battle for the title between Daisuke Takahashi and Yuzuru Hanyu.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Four Continents will be just another step on the ladder to figure-skating domination for Hanyu. It's true that Takahashi has the goods that come with experience. But for me, Hanyu has the edge technically. It's the technical edge and Hanyu's emerging on-ice personality that makes him a huge threat to the other men, not only in this event but at the worlds as well.
Perfection will prevail
As far as excitement is concerned, the event to watch is ice dance. What's not to love in the Battle of Ice Dance Titans? This event pits Canada's own two-time and reigning world and Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir against former world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White from the United States.
Both have competed five times in this event, each winning it twice. I have said all season long that both teams have sensational short dances. But for me, Virtue and Moir's Carmen is the stronger of the two free dances by a country mile. There is no question that, gorgeous program or not, the team that skates its program to perfection will be the one that prevails. All things being equal, I give Virtue and Moir the nod over Davis and White.
Osmond in Osaka
For the first time in a long while, Canada is sending a contender for the women's title to Four Continents. We already know that Kaetlyn Osmond has been able to consistently deliver on her potential, winning not only the national title but the Nebelhorn Trophy and Skate Canada International as well. At stake for Osmond is another competitive outing under her belt before heading to her first worlds.
The women to watch out for include two-time world and Four Continents champion Mao Asada and her Japanese teammate, reigning world bronze medallist Akiko Suzuki. But the one I want to see is American upstart Gracie Gold, the reigning world junior silver medallist who recently won silver at the U.S. nationals on the strength of a winning free performance that catapulted her from ninth after the short program to second overall. The question is whether Gold can compete consistently against much more seasoned competitors.
Canadian trio in pairs
On balance, this year's pairs event is the weakest of the four at Four Continents. If you think I am saying that it isn't worth watching, you couldn't be further from the truth. I think the battle for the podium rests with the three Canadian teams. Both Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers have medalled at this event. Also competing are Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, who fell short in their attempt to reclaim the Canadian title by a margin of 2.11 points behind two-time national champions Duhamel and Radford.
As much as anything, Duhamel and Radford and Moore-Towers and Moscovitch are looking at Four Continents as another opportunity to compete under pressure before worlds. Both teams could easily come out on top in Osaka.
Worth a watch
For curiosity's sake, I am interested in seeing how the new team of Cheng Peng and Hao Zhang has progressed since they were last seen in the Grand Prix series. I don't think this will be their year. But with Zhang's career success at the Olympics and worlds with former partner Dan Zhang, they could be on the horizon as a pair to watch in the future.
I am also interested to see if recently acquiring the U.S. national pairs title will give Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir a boost of confidence and propel them on to the podium.
Men: Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan
Ice Dance: Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, Canada
Women: Kaetlyn Osmond, Canada
Pairs: Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford, Canada
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