World's top figure skaters descend on Vancouver for unpredictable Grand Prix Final
Men's skater Keegan Messing will be lone Canadian representative at event
This is it — the moment I have been waiting for, while simultaneously not having been able to predict.
The list of skaters competing in the ISU Grand Prix Final in Vancouver this week includes as many surprises in who made it as to who didn't.
Surprise No. 1: Yuzuru Hanyu, the two-time Olympic champion qualified for the final by winning both of his Grand Prix events in the same season for the first time in his career. Unfortunately, sustaining an injury in practice to an already vulnerable right ankle caused the fan and Pj favourite to take a pass on Vancouver.
However, the first alternate on the men's entry list is Canadian champion heir apparent Keegan Messing. Messing opened his Grand Prix season with a bang by winning a silver medal at Skate Canada and then faltering somewhat with a fifth-place finish at the Rostelecom Cup in Russia.
Watch Messing's silver-medal winning skate:
Messing's superb jumps and spins will keep him in the mix in this competition, but overtaking event favourites Nathan Chen and Shoma Uno won't be easy. On balance, I think Chen and Uno are perfect rivals and on any given day, it can go either way. I am going with Chen on this occasion for no other reason than I am obsessed with his short program, which connects for me on all levels: from choreography, to technical elements, to his joy in skating.
Japan, Russia battle in women's final
Surprise No. 2: Japanese teenager Rika Kihira seemingly came out of nowhere to win both her Grand Prix events in her debut season. Also surprising in the most delightful way is this 16 year old's ability to hit a triple Axel in competition and in combination.
Surprise No. 3: There are only Japanese and Russian women competing in the Final with three apiece. In fact, the three-entry alternate list contains one more Japanese and two more Russian women, demonstrating the dominance of these two countries in this discipline. From a sentimental point of view, 2015 world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva gets my nod after a solid return to competition on the Grand Prix circuit after a number of disappointing seasons.
The real woman to beat is Olympic champion Alina Zagitova. Zagitova started the season several centimetres taller, which can often sideline a skater for some time while they adjust their technique. Not so for Zagitova, who won both her Grand Prix to qualify in the top spot for the final.
Surprise No. 4: Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, the French world bronze medallists are the top pair team headed to the final. James and Cipres continue to evolve in their pair skating and are relying on their own strengths to take the top spot on any podium, and not another team's mistakes. They won both their Grand Prix events as well as a pre-season competition.
Americans primed for ice dance throne
The other heavy-hitting pair team headed to Vancouver are James and Cipres' biggest rivals from Russia and current world silver medallists Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov. Tarasova and Morozov exhibit what I like to call a "classical esthetic" and line that I find mesmerizing. This traditional look with a modern twist, coupled with great technical elements and a strong connection captures my attention every time.
Surprise No. 5: Olympic silver medallists and three-time world ice dance champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron will not be in Vancouver. Not being able to compete at their first of two compulsory Grand Prix events because of a back injury for Cizeron meant they would not be eligible to compete this weekend.
Reigning world silver medallists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are poised to take their first Grand Prix Final title, not to mention first Grand Prix final medal. In another first, Hubbell and Donohue qualify for the final on the strength of two Grand Prix gold medals this season — they only claimed a Grand Prix gold one other time and that was in 2015. Hubbell and Donohue are another team who leave nothing to chance. The hard work they put in in the off-seasons is immediately apparent in the improvement that we see starting with their first appearance in the new season year over year.
Pj's gold-medal picks
Men: Nathan Chen (USA)
Women: Alina Zagitova (RUS)
Pair: Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (FRA)
Dance: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (USA)