Skaters still scrambling for Grand Prix Final berths
French event last stop before Vancouver hosts finale
Grenoble, France is the last stop on the ISU Grand Prix of figure skating circuit, and with it comes the final chance for athletes to qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver at the beginning of December.
World champion ice dancers and Olympic silver medallists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France were unable to compete at their first Grand Prix in Japan due to injury. This will be their one and only appearance in a Grand Prix this year. As a result, they won't qualify for the Final because of the required two Grand Prix events needed to qualify.
No matter. What will have me glued to the competition is the departure of sorts from their free dance program. It starts with the choice of contemporary American folk singer Rachel Yamagata's music. I am intrigued and looking forward to seeing a refreshed version of this wonderful team on its way to – presumably – the top step of the podium.
For Canadian ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, their coaches and fans, this event is a bit of a nail-biter. A disastrous sixth place skate in their rhythm dance at Skate Canada set the stage for a remarkable recovery but disappointing bronze medal at that event. Their Vincent program is one of the best free dances I have ever seen. Ever. That alone is worth seeing Gilles and Poirier in competition; whatever the result.
Gilles and Poirier remain Canada's strongest (and last remaining) hope to qualify an entry for the Final. In order to secure their spot, they need to finish no lower than second. A silver medal will trigger a tie-breaker with two other Russian dance teams and they will need a score of 177.47 or better to win the tie. In their sub-par Skate Canada outing, they finished with a score of 187, so if they get to second (and that is the key), clinching their spot shouldn't be a problem.
Chen in good shape
For American Nathan Chen, the road to Vancouver is a little less strenuous. If Chen finishes in fourth or better, he is on his way to the Final. His programs this year speak to his maturity and ongoing evolution as a skater. His full complement of amazing jumps is another reason I am confident he will take gold in France.
I am also really looking forward to seeing French pair champions Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres. Over the last couple of years, James and Cipres have gone from being able to be competitive on the world stage to becoming the ones to beat. I fully expect them to take gold in France.
For the rest of the field and the Russian pair team in particular, who else fills out the podium has enormous significance. The results of the first five Grand Prix events mean that the 2017 world junior silver medallists Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovksii have a chance to make the Final with a silver medal in Grenoble.
Unpredictable. That's the way I would describe the women's event with a mixed bag of results from the skaters to this point. The standout to me is Japan's Rika Kihira, fresh from a win at the NHK Trophy. Her poise and execution in a beautiful free program earned her enough points to be able to climb out of a fifth-place finish in the short program to claim the title in Hiroshima.
A similar thing happened to Olympic silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva, who won the free program at Skate Canada. With a seventh-place finish in the short, it was remarkable that she got to within six points of gold and claimed a bronze medal.
For both women, the truth is that they need to improve on both segments of the competition regardless of result. In terms of the qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, it's all about the results. For Kihira, another gold would be the easiest way to Vancouver. For Medvedeva, a silver with a high score or gold would mean claiming her spot. Neither scenario is a walk in the park.
Pj's gold-medal picks
Men: Nathan Chen (USA)
Women: Evgenia Medvedeva (RUS)
Pair: Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (FRA)
Dance: Gabrielle Papdakis and Guillaume Cizeron (FRA)