Olympic venue draws raves from skaters at Grand Prix Final

No matter how they fare this weekend, the figure skaters competing in the ISU Grand Prix Final in Sochi, Russia, seem impressed by the Olympic venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
A figure skating duo practice Thursday for the upcoming ISU Grand Prix Final in Sochi, Russia. (Yuri Kadobnov/Getty Images)

No matter how they do in the competition, competitors at the Grand Prix Final appear sure to go home pleased with the arena where figure skating will be held at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

The GP Final, whose senior events begin Friday, is an official test event for the Iceberg Arena, a new 12,000-seat rink that's part of the cluster of ice sport venues being built along the Black Sea coast.

The arena also will hold short-track speedskating.

Aside from ice quality, competitors are concerned about an arena's atmosphere because "skaters are infamously superstitious," American competitor Ashley Wagner said after Thursday's practice. "This rink has a good vibe and the ice is good."

"It's more than satisfactory, it's awesome," Christina Gao said. "The lighting is good and it feels spacious, but not intimidating."

Wagner is one of the leading contenders for gold, after qualifying with wins at Skate America and Trophee Bompard. A victory in Sochi would wipe away her image as the "Almost Girl," as she dubbed herself after a run of bronzes and disappointments.

Gao, too, is an "Almost Girl" — she initially didn't make the cut for the Grand Prix Final, winning the silver at Skate America and placing only fourth in Paris — but she was called up after Russian skater Julia Lipnitskaia withdrew, due to a concussion.

Gao has a triple-triple combination in both her planned programs, while Wagner remains unclear on whether to try it.

"It's a day-by-day thing," she said.

Mao Asada of Japan, with two Grand Prix gold this year, is a strong prospect to win the final.

The field also includes Akiko Suzuki of Japan, Kiira Korpi of Finland and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva of Russia, who's not awed by the arena's aura of future Olympic prominence.

"To be honest, I've never thought about it while I was practicing," she said. "It was just an ordinary event for me.

"When you step on the ice, you forget about everything."

World champion Patrick Chan of Canada is aiming for a third straight GP Final victory, facing a formidable quartet of Japanese men in world silver medallist Daisuke Takahashi, world bronze medallist Yuzuru Hanyu, Takahiko Kozuka and Tatsuki Machida.

Javier Fernandez of Spain completes the field.

Chan expressed disappointment that there were no Russians in the men's event, but was excited about the level of competition.

"We're almost at the top of our game," he said. "I feed off of that.

"All six of us are doing quads. I never believed that would happen."

Russians dominate the pairs event, with Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov coming to Sochi with two Grand Prix golds.

Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov, and Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov each won a gold and a silver this year.

Pang Qing and Tong Jian of China, also with a gold and silver, are in the Final, along with Canadian couples Megan Duhamel and Eric Radford and Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch.

The ice dancing segment resembles a rerun of the world championships, with champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada facing silver holders Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States and Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France.

Two Russian couples are in the Final, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, and Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov.

Although skaters were pleased with the arena, International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta was questioned about the arena's upper tier of seats where handrails between every row obstruct the spectators' views of the ice.

Cinquanta said he would pass along complaints about the seats to the Sochi Olympic organizing committee.

Committee officials could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

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