Russian Junior Pairs

Following the Pyeongchang Olympics, where the Russians did not medal in the pairs event, just like in Vancouver in 2010 Russia, I’m sure there will be many questions in  about WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO OUR GREAT AND PROUD TRADITION? (much like in the U.S. over the ladies), just like after the Vancouver Olympics. It is, however, not all doom and gloom, in fact, far from it! In Russia there are so many young people involved in pairs compared to other countries. In the junior ranks, Russia dominates. Witness: (1) Russian pairs made up four of the six pairs in the Grand Prix Final this season; (2) Russia just swept the pairs podium at the World Junior Championships this past week with three teams new to the international junior circuit this season; (3) Russia reclaimed the junior gold medal at that competition since being out of that position since 2009! (I hadn’t realized it had been so long.) So, that had to feel good. However since 2009, they have still managed to win 10 junior pair medals at Worlds and have a team on the podium every year. Although this leads me to an interesting question: what happened to all those teams?

junior worlds pairs

This is what makes junior pairs so interesting. So many teams have potential, but who will make it for the long haul? Who will survive to compete, successfully, in senior? Oh my goodness, I find this topic so interesting. There are so many pairs and so many GOOD pairs. What some of these teams are doing is amazing and the junior field in Russia is just so deep. At the same time, though, there is a lot of instability – pairs switching, individuals dropping out and disappearing from the competitive scene, pairs not making it through the ranks of tough competition to compete internationally. It’s not unusual for junior skaters and young ones at that, to have skated with two or three different partners, or more. (You could make some very complicated flow charts based on the data.) Perhaps because skaters are entering pairs at an early age, their seems to be a high drop out rate too, particularly for girls when they hit puberty. So despite the deep junior field, and whatever the reasons for it, there is a quite a small senior field at the moment but perhaps this may change.

There are a few junior teams that have established themselves as possible future contenders but there is a lot of change in juniors, it’s hard to put any store in predictions. Even since last season (2016-17) there has been so much change. Of the twelve teams that competed at last year’s Russian Junior Nationals last year, only five are still competing together, and only four were a Nationals again this year. So while many of the skaters remain the same, there are many new teams and there has been much change for any team to build sustained momentum. In most cases, we are only talking about teams with one, maybe two, junior seasons. Not surprisingly, the teams left over from last season fared rather well in comparison, placing first, fourth, fifth and sixth Junior Nationals. Let’s have a look at them all.

1st – Daria Pavliuchencko and Denis Khodykin

Daria and Denis have had a break out year in this their second season. They won a first and second on the Grand Prix and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final. They went on to place sixth at the Senior Nationals and then win at Junior Nationals. And they have just wrapped up their season with another win, this time at Junior Worlds. I like these guys. Beside the fact that they both seem to have lots of personality  and seem to get along well together, they have strong elements that, I feel, have been becoming more consistent and reliable throughout the season. Their Chicago free program is slightly crazy, with numerous abrupt music cuts but they make it work. I even feel fairly confident about their future. Although she is young and little, but she is quite muscular and seems very strong. She has a lot of spring in her jumps and I suspect that she can grow and still maintain them. (I hope I’m right!) There is something very special about her that I can’t quite put my finger on. She doesn’t seem like a natural performer but she seems to shine anyway. He is special too. I really like that he performs unlike so many male pair skaters, junior or senior! It feels like an equal partnership and they actually look like they communicate with her each and don’t just depend on their coaches. There is also fact that I find his very young puppy dog face quite endearing, while she has an older face which makes me feel that she is his owner, which is also endearing. They definitely need some polish and maturity but he has a couple years left in junior, so I hope they don’t try to rush things but really take their time to build their basics and their partnership.

2nd – Anastasia Mishina and Alexander Galiamov

Well, this is interesting. Last season Anastasia and her then partner, Valdislav Mirzoev, were crushing the competition. They won both their Grand Prix assignments and the Grand Prix Final. They seemed fixed to dominate. And then they split. They didn’t even compete at Junior Nationals! Reports suggest that they didn’t get along terribly well together and that Mirzoev wanted a new and smaller partner. Mishina said it was not possible for her to lose more weight. But rather than him coming out with a new partner in the following season, it’s her. (Maybe the moral is don’t bad mouth your partner? It is also a little telling that she kept the coaches.) She has clearly grown but she and her new partner, Galiamov, look like a good fit. To be fair, Mirzoev wasn’t very tall, so it probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway, but Mishina sounded like she was under a lot of pressure in their partnership, so she is also probably a lot happier now.

This is another partnership I feel pretty confident about. They have some super awkward body language between them (go to 5:47) but things seem to be working out. Together they have a huge twist and throws, her jumps have survived and for them to come out at Senior Nationals and skate well there, at their first major competition, I take as a good sign. They went on to place second at Junior Nationals and third at Junior Worlds – a bit of a whirlwind for their first season, all packed into the second half. I feel like they have big, real, potential. At the moment, he seems to be concentrating very hard during the programs and she is the star, but I expect to see their partnership even out. I think he has a lot to offer and can develop a lot more before he reaches his maximum. She seemed quite upset after placing second in the free program at Junior Worlds, and third overall, in her first season with her partner. Maybe it was because of her mistake on the jump or ending up behind their team mates Kostiukovich/Ialin. Either way, she’s clearly competitive and on top of that, she has something to prove. (Who wouldn’t after being essentially dumped?) They have a couple of years left in junior, so I hope they take at least one more year before she tries to take the world by storm.

3rd – Polina Kostiukovich and Dmitrii Ialin

This team has enjoyed quite a lot of success this year too: first on the Grand Prix, third a Junior Nationals, second at Junior Worlds. I am not hopeful about their future. Please, let me explain. (1) They seem to quite inconsistent. While they won one of their Grand Prix assignments, they placed sixth at another. They have a quad twist (!) but they take some spectacular falls on throws and the jumps aren’t always there. They had three deductions in the free at Junior Worlds. It was not pretty. (2) He is born in 1998, so they probably only have one more year to put it all together before the big time, and their skating is still quite junior (i.e., Jungle animal free program with lots of arm movement.) (3) SHE IS SO SMALL. She has not hit puberty yet and their height difference is not great. This can’t go on forever.

4th – Alexandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii

Boikova/Kozlovskii had a break out year last season. They built momentum throughout the season, placing third at the Grand Prix Final, then winning Junior Nationals, and placing second at Junior Worlds. This season has not been so successful placement-wise. Their skating has gone from reliable to inconsistent but they have taken on the challenge of tackling some pretty tough content this season, with more mature programs and more difficult elements. In particular, they have been attempting side by side triple loops and triple toe – half loop – triple salchows. With the mixed results they have seen this season (third at the GPF, 5th a Senior Nationals, 4th at Junior), it might have been tempting to chuck it but I’m glad they have stuck with it. They did get to see some pay off at Senior Nationals (videos) where they gave their best performances of the season. I think they have really seen this year as preparation for the senior level; that it’s better to try to do the skills and go through those growing pains now, so they can be more competitive in the future; because I don’t think anyone doubts that these two are going on to seniors together. Their potential and quality is evident. They both have great presence on the ice and lovely lines, good elements and speed, and a lot of maturity and polish and performance compared to other junior teams. And just as confirmation of all that, they have even been named first alternate for Russia at the Senior Worlds. (I feel badly for Efimova/Korovin but these guys did place ahead of them at Senior Nationals.) Despite the lack of big results this year, this is still a team to be excited about and a team that has time of their side. They can continue to develop for a couple years and come out onto the senior circuit fully fledged.

5th – Daria Kvartalova and Alexei Sviatchenko

I don’t know a whole lot about these guys. They only competed at in one Grand Prix assignment, placing sixth, but had a decent showing at Junior Nationals, landing fifth. I refer to them as the Muse Moons because in the free they skate to Muse with moons in a night sky on their outfits, just to set the mood, just in case you couldn’t sense it. (I’m giving them a hard time. I quite like the moons.) They’re one of the teams that survived from last season and they seem to be improving somewhat. They aren’t very expressive, really at all, but they have some innovative lifts and good side by side jumps, her in particular, and they aren’t babies, so I don’t think the jumps are going anywhere. Still, they have a lot of improvements to make but who knows? They’ve still got a couple of years to make it happen.

6th – Ksenia Akhanteva and Valerii Kolesov

These guys are the Irish Ninjas! I like these guys. They are a pretty competent team. They don’t have any really stand out elements but everything is there, everything is solid. They have nice expression and seem to enjoy skating with each other which is always a bonus. They happen to be one of the teams that managed to make it from last season to this. The downside for them is that she is super tiny, so puberty is going to happen and that could change things. But unlike some others teams, they have time on their side at the moment. They have several years left in junior and they have time to work and adjust.

7th – Apollonariia Panfilova and Dmitry Rylov

Here is another team I like. I appreciate them a lot when I watch them. Their programs are dynamic; there is a lot of flow and ease in their elements (the throws!); they are willing take on some character and seem to do more than just go through the motions. Okay, maybe not him, but she projects to the audience. They and their team seem to be thinking beyond just the elements and they really had a strong start to the season. They just seemed to arrive on the scene this season, ready to go. They placed first and third in their Grand Prix assignments and qualified for the Grand Prix Final, where they finished in second. But since then other teams have been passing them. They ended up a disappointing seventh at Junior Nationals. What happened? This was a team that I would have expected to see at Junior Worlds based on the first half of the season. I’m rooting for them but her jumps might be against them. I think she has definitely had a growth spurt during the season, just judging by her appearance at the Russian Cup something-or-other in February. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see but this is another team where I think time is on their side. I hope they are patient and I hope it it works out.

8th – Anastasia Poluianova and Dmitry Sopot

This is a new team this season and I haven’t really been impressed. On paper they have the credentials but for me, I don’t see anything really exciting about them. Anastasia previously skated with Maxim Selkin and Dmitry with Ekaterina Borisova. He enjoyed quite a bit of success in that partnership, winning the GPF in the 2015-16 season and then placing third at Junior Worlds. Then things started to go wrong. She had some health issues and her jumps became more unstable, and for whatever reason, at the end of last season they split. Borisova has disappeared from the scene and Poluianova is in. I may be a little bitter because I liked Borisova. I think she had a really appealing presence of the ice; she and Sopot had good chemistry and between them, they made the programs work. Poluianova has she is fairly strong with nice lines and she can jump (although, a little worryingly, she wears a knee brace), and I like her landing positions. However, she always seems faintly worried to me, and she has the worst costumes ever, poor girl, all straps and the worst illusion flesh ever. It’s unfortunate. She is quite a bit taller than Borisova too, so that must be an adjustment but I still don’t feel like things are clicking. It just seems like they were thrown together because they both have their elements and he is taller than her. And then there has been a rush to make it work quickly, with some generic programs, but without any consideration of developing their style or personality. They don’t have any! I want her to relax and him to look at her and everything to seem less workman-like. It’s not the full package yet and Dmitry only has one more year in juniors, so maybe that is where the sense of urgency, of just do something, anything, is coming from. I feel like I am maybe being a bit harsh because technically they are a good team but unfortunately, they don’t stand out and worse, you really don’t get the impression they are enjoying themselves much.

Aside 1: It’s interesting how there seems to be a real urgency to find that right partner and create a solid partnership before a skater reaches seniors. Maybe it’s a case of a dwindling pool of partner options as skaters get older or skaters feel the need to establish themselves as competitors, but I feel like there is this feeling of do or die, now or never. The funny thing is that it doesn’t seem to have a lot of basis in practice. Most of the Russian senior pairs skaters have switched partner multiple times even as a senior skaters. And if we look at the what has been happening in the senior ranks in the past few years, more mature skaters, even those who paired up as seniors, in their second or third partnership, have been doing pretty well.  Look at the past three Olympic Champions: Shen/Zhao, Volosozhar/Trankov, Savchenko/Massot, and World Champions Duhamel/Radford. The exception seems to be Sui/Han and of course they have been partners for a long time. So I guess it takes years either way and of course, the skater has to survive juniors first. But more may survive if they had a longer view of their career.

9th – Nadezhda Labazina and Nikita Rachmanin

These guys are quite cute. I really know nothing about them though. She looks young and he could be anywhere from sixteen to twenty-one. The only information I have managed to glean about them is that they are coached by Pavlova. They have some beautiful elements and some innovative lifts. I do like I like their music which is more on the classy and age appropriate side than some other teams, with some light, tripping classical music for the short program and a Sound of Music medley with some other Broadway music thrown in for the free, in the free. And they are nicely costumed fo for the most part. Someone, at least, seems to be thinking of the packaging. Her face is so serious and focused as they compete, it’s quite cute. But that just tells you that she is working hard and the skating does come across like that, work. I hope they continue to improve and round out their performance. I think they could be more. So mostly I just want to say that they’re sort of cute and I hope they stick around.

10th – Tatiana Lyirova and Maxim Selkin

Here is Poluianova’s former partner with a new partner himself. I think the team has potential, they have a good presence on the ice, but a lot of things have to come together. She is quite a bit smaller than Poluianova, which might have be a factor in the pair switch, but it also probably means a lot of adjustment and so far the throws are really not under control. I’m not sure if I’ve really seen a good landing yet. On the other hand, they have a good twist. She is also fairly expressive, which I always think is a good sign. It’s something that I think can be learned by a skater later on but there is no guarantee that it will be. I quite like her, she’s not afraid to look at those judges. She is, however, wearing Borisova’s old dress. I hope she merits her own dress soon.

11th – Ekaterina Belova and Maxim Bobrov

I have no idea what is going on here!! And it has nothing to do with their skating. She was born in 200; he in 1996. She is in all likelihood not even thirteen and he is twenty. After this season, as of NOW, he can’t skate as a junior, but she can’t skate as a senior. She can’t skate as a senior for another two years. How is this going to work? I guess if the partnership is just seen as a learning partnership, a stop gap until more suitable partners come along, I can maybe understand it, but it seems to have no future at all. And really, there were no other girls, no other junior girls or senior girls, to skate with?? She can skate and when he skates with her it looks like he is carrying air, but there is no guarantee of anything while she is so young. And in light of all this, their Telephones (as I call it) free program is, unfortunately, a little comical and frankly, a weird choice.

12th – Alexandra Koshevaya and Dmitry Bushlanov

I didn’t really intend to cover all twelve pairs but now that I’m here I guess I will. I really  don’t have anything to say about these two but to leave them out entirely seems rude and dismissive. They qualified for Nationals after all. I don’t see much of a future for these two while there is such a deep field but things can only really go up from here, right? And you never know where you may see them in the future. We may find either one in a different partnership in the future. But for the time being, I hope they are having fun. Also, I like her dress in the short quite a lot. And I can’t say that I’ve like a lot of costumes in Russian juniors.

Aside 2: Junior teams are always a bit cute, and there is too that entertainment value for things that are slightly awkward and earnest, with maybe some odd music and costume choices involved too (Telephones!), even if they don’t skate very well.

Other teams: You would think I would be done there but no. There are some other newly formed teams that are just started coming onto the competitive scene late this season that I want to mention

Lina Kudryavtseva and Iliya Spiridonov

Spiridonov skated for the last two seasons with Atakhanova. They had two pretty good seasons, qualifying for the GPF twice, finishing second twice at Junior Nationals, and making one trip to the Worlds, placing fourth last season. But their sophomore year was quite as stellar as their first and they split after last season. Now he is skating with Kudryavtseva. She has been around for a little bit and has pair experience. Spiridonov has one more year in junior, so I’m sure they will be wanting to establish themselves in the coming season. That puts them under some time pressure to bring their skating up to scratch. It’s looking pretty good already but it will be difficult to get any international assignments with such a deep pairs field. They already have some nice lifts, interesting and attractive, and include some nice choreographic touches in their programs. He’s also a pleasant performer. I’m a little puzzled by the switch though. Kudryavtseva seems quite similar to Atakhanova: she’s the same age, with quite a very serious demeanour (maybe even more so), and I think of about the same caliber. The major difference seems to be that she is quite young looking and perhaps a bit smaller, but I think she still has some growing to do. To be honest, it makes me wonder if the switch was all a bit premature. I’m not sure what prompted the split but it will interesting to see how this new partnership fares.

Amina Atakhonova and Nikita Volodin

While it looked like Spiridonov had better prospects after the split (he got to keep the coach, Pavlova, and got a new partner pretty quickly), I’m glad to say that Atakhanova has a new partner as well. I’m glad she is still skating. Volodin, her new partner, used to skate with Ustimkina. (Together they also qualified for the GPF and made a trip to Worlds last year. I don’t know what happened with Ustimkina, she seems to have disappeared. I’m not sure what prompted their split either, although I wonder if her height had something to do with it, being a little bit taller than your average pairs girl and perhaps still growing.) I like this new combination. They look well suited (he is a bit taller than Spiridonov, so growth shouldn’t be a major problem) and have a relaxed body language together. They are very new but they seem to be progressing well. I always find it astounding how Russian pairs can mix and match and new pairs still come out in their first competitions with huge triple twists. Anyway, I think they have a lot of promise and I’m interested to see where this goes.

Aside 3: I wish there was more of a perception of puberty as a natural part of a skater’s evolution rather than this great obstacle that a skater has to try to control and conquer. It’s going to happen! It’s awful to act like something that is completely natural and unavoidable is the end of the world. The more I watch skating the more it seems to me that the skaters who let is happen and take it as a matter of course fare better in the long run then those who try to fight it and stave it off and see it as problem.

Well that’s a lot of skating for now. But so many teams to be excited for, and teams that I think may stick around for awhile too! (Fingers crossed.)

 

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