Figure skating front-runners will emerge at opening Grand Prix in Las Vegas

The start of the latest figure skating Grand Prix series marks the true beginning of a new season. The Grand Prix is important in identifying front-runners — those who will dominate the second half of the season, including the world figure skating championships in Montreal in March.

Watch live coverage on beginning Friday at 4 p.m. ET

American skater Nathan Chen enters as the favourite in the men's event at the Grand Prix event in Las Vegas. His latest twist comes off the ice, as he balances skating with school at Yale. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The start of the latest figure skating Grand Prix series marks the true beginning of a new season.

The top six skaters at the end of six events will go on to compete at a final competition in December. The Grand Prix is important in identifying front-runners — those who will dominate the second half of the season, including the world figure skating championships in Montreal in March.

Skate America, the opening event, kicks off on Friday at 4 p.m. ET in Las Vegas with a full slate of top-level competitors. And you can also catch live coverage of every Grand Prix event, excluding Skate Canada, on Tune in on Sundays for CBC Sports' That Figure Skating Show, hosted by retired skaters Dylan Moscovitch and Asher Hill.

The ice dance contest is perhaps the most interesting in Vegas, with two fierce rivals who finished third and fourth at the last world championships. Bronze medallists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue had to fight their way from fourth after the short program, while Russians Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin dropped one spot. Skate America is the perfect event to pick up where they left off.

Although the teams are well matched in terms of skills and presentation, for my money, the Americans are somehow more substantial. Hubbell and Donohue's ability to assume a character — rather than simply performing one — gives them the edge in performance. It's also brought them a pair of medals at worlds.

WATCH | Hubbell, Donohue win gold at 2019 Grand Prix final:

Hubbell and Donohue win ice dance gold at Grand Prix Final

4 years ago
Duration 4:59
The American pair of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue topped the field with a final score of 205.35.

In pairs, everybody will be chasing one team: China's Cheng Peng and Yang Jin. In only their third season together, Peng and Jin are one of the teams to watch heading into the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Peng and Jin finished fourth at worlds.

Choreographer Lori Nichol said their chemistry is only growing.

"Time, experience and effort have developed Peng and Jin's spatial awareness to a point where they now skate with speed and freedom," said Nichol.

At this level, it is those qualities that separate the top teams from the rest.

3-way battle in women's event

The names that jump off the page to me in the women's event could result in a three-way battle for the top spot. Japanese teenager Kaori Sakamoto, 19, demonstrated last season that she has the goods. Sakamoto earned a national title and a top-five finish at worlds.

Wakaba Higuchi, also from Japan, was ranked second in the world in 2018. Last season, plagued by injuries, Higuchi wasn't able to perform to potential, but she's hoping to correct that — starting with Skate America.

The 2015 world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva from Russia wants to regain the 'hold on gold' she once had. Tuktamysheva has the kind of presence that makes you believe she could.

Chen balancing skating, school

As far as the men go, the obvious choice to take the title is three-time American, two-time Skate America and two-time world champion Nathan Chen.

Another skater who should put up a fight include two-time world bronze medallist Boyang Jin of China. Jin's short program was choreographed this season by Nichol, too.

"When Boyang and I worked together in July, he performed with quality, sweeping movement and tenderness," said Nichol. "I hope this season that he finds confidence to perform in competition how he can truly skate."

Canada's Keegan Messing will also hope to leap onto the podium in Las Vegas.

WATCH | Chen skates to gold at worlds:

Nathan Chen claims gold at world figure skating championships

3 years ago
Duration 7:41
Defending champion Nathan Chen produces a spectacular free skate to finish 1st at worlds.

Always looking to stay ahead of the pack, Chen's initial secret weapon was his jumping ability. With the passage of time, it has become clear that Chen can also express music with the best of them. In this season, Chen is as attentive as ever, both on and off the ice as a Yale student.

"I am trying to find that balance between school and skating," said Chen. "My skating focus this year of course is to continue improving and to continue the work that I have been doing. I want to be the best I can be."

At his best, Chen could perform three or four quads in Las Vegas. Not wanting to become complacent, Chen will perform programs as diverse as La Boheme, choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne, for the short, and Rocketman, choreographed by Marie-France Dubreuil, for the free.

Pj's podium picks:

Men: Nathan Chen, U.S.

Women: Kaori Sakamoto, Japan

Pairs: Cheng Peng and Yang Jin, China

Ice dance: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, U.S.


Pj Kwong currently does freelance work for Skate Ontario as the Business Development manager and has consulted for Alpine Canada in media relations. She’s been a veteran stadium announcer for eight Olympic Games, two Paralympic Games, one European Games, and the Arab Games. Most recently she’s done stadium announcing for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, and the 2019 Pan American Games and Parapan American Games. Pj has worked as a freelance writer for CBC Sports since 2006 covering figure skating. Outside of the CBC, Pj has worked in Press Operations for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, Media Relations for the Toronto 2017 Invictus Games.