Thoughts on the Challenger Series Thus Far

Now that the flurry of competition opening of the Challenger Series is over and before the opening of the Grand Prix, I think it’s time to do a survey of what we’ve seen and how the season is shaping up. There is so much to say but I just get to it each week, so I’m going to do a bit of a round up now of my initial impressions.

Who means business –

Skaters who have come out prepared and with focus, determination and energy from the start. 

MenKolyada has certainly made his case with two wins and a commanding presence on the ice – he is certainly making his case after his disappointing Olympics. Messing did really well for himself by winning his Challenger. I think he’s a great addition to the top tier with his spins and showmanship. Cha is building his case, showing he is the full package. I feel like this is the real start of his Senior career. Hanyu is doing Hanyu and apparently he isn’t done with taking over the world. He really doesn’t have anything to prove but he still seems to see new horizons that are motivating him to push himself.

Women – The women’s field just seems so packed with talent. If Zagitova was a bit of a question mark at the end of last season, she’s putting those doubts to rest. She’s clearly still a competitor and wants to prove she’s not a one-hit wonder. (I just wish someone would give her programs to really show off her lovely skills, and that she would ditch those awful Carmen gloves. She and I really disagree over gloves.) Tuktamysheva is doing her post-Olympic routine of picking herself up and dusting off the triple axel – if anything says “I mean business,” it’s a triple axel. Kihara has brought her triple axel into play for her Senior debut too and is looking the part. Tennell has improved her arsenal and is looking cool, calm and collected, which is probably going to mean consistent too. Tursynbaeva is a bit of a surprise (what really surprised me were the programs; I did not think from the look of them that they were choreographed by Daniil Gleikhengauz) but she’s done well for herself in two competitions, even winning the free skate at Finlandia. Hendrickx has been on an upward trajectory since last season. I wasn’t sure how far it would take her but she has decided she hasn’t reached her limit yet.

DanceWeaver/Poje have come out with solid material and convincing performances; the same can be said for Gilles/Poirier who will be the top Canadian team of the Grand Prix and look like they can capitalize on that; Stepanova/Bukin apparently used the Olympic disappointment to finally get down to business and really produce some work that says, “I believe I am a top team.” There is nothing cringey or re-hashed, which is new for them. (I feel like their free dance gets a little repetitive musically after a while but maybe they could make a fix.) They could finally be what Russian ice dance has been looking for…

Pairs – There are probably a lot of pairs who mean business but I don’t think there are many who have demonstrated it really convincingly at this point in time. James/Cipres, however, are the exception. Although they weren’t perfect they showed there is no doubt in their minds that they are a top team and that they are determined to be there. Boikova/Kozlovskii have also been pretty impressive, medaling and even winning a free skate. Efimova/Korovin maybe aren’t at the top level yet but they also mean serious business!

Who deserves a pat on the back –

Skaters that seem to be on the right track. Good job!

Men – Aliev I think has shown that he is Russian man number two. I just wish his jumping was a bit more decisive, and overall, I have been impressed with the Canadian men. With Chan gone I guess I wasn’t expecting much but there are some possible contenders coming up. They just need some polish and consistency. Even one out of two is fine.

WomenMai Mihara is skating well and I find her so enjoyable, so easy to watch. With Japanese ladies a bit in flux this could be a good season for her (i.e., a season to get out of Japan!) The same is true for Sakamoto. She didn’t have the best first competition, but she has shown twice now that her free program is a strong vehicle for her. I’m excited to see Mallet back for the Canadian ladies – she has a lot of nice qualities and this is certainly a season where she can go further. I’ve been impressed by the Finnish ladies too. There is some healthy rivalry going on and they both look like they want it. I think I have to say a word for Konstantinova as well. She hasn’t been fabulous but I would put her ahead of several other Russian ladies (sitting fourth about now sounds right) and she clearly wants it. She’s not satisfied with mediocre performances.

Dance – Two young teams have impressed me with an improvement in maturity, presence and confidence: Lauriault/Le Gac and Sales/Wamsteeker. I think the Spanish ice dance rivalry is also pushing those two teams to higher levels. Both Smart/Diaz and Hurtado/Khaliavin are looking pretty good. They seem to be pretty evenly matched so far this season.

Pairs – I think both Moore-Tower/Marinaro and Della Monica/Guarise are poised to have good seasons. They seem confident and strong. And Barquero/Maestu finally have got a Grand Prix! Thank you Finland! I think their performances so far this season have shown good potential.

Who needs to make some changes –

I my humble opinion…

Men – I’m not terribly invested in the men’s competition, so I haven’t been incredibly annoyed or turned off by programs, music or costume choices. They can do whatever they want for the moment. I will get back to them later.

Women – I really want Marin Honda to change her free skate dress. It just seems a bit too busy; it detracts from her skating. I would also like her to skate cleanly but one thing at a time. Tsurskaya, like Zagitova, just really needs to address her glove situation.

Dance – I can’t think of any programs that I’ve really hated… Although, there is a whole mess of ombre-ness that I don’t feel very partial to. I would rather see teams skate a strong, distinct style than skate to a romantic, lyrical schmozzle of music. Not many teams can pull that off effectively. You need to have great, crisp skills and great chemistry.

Pairs – I think Moore-Towers/Marinaro are doing good work but I also think they should change their short program entirely. I think Tarasova/Morozov really need to change how they practice and/or work on their mental game – preparing for competition, coping with mistakes and so on. They need to change something so they can skate cleanly. I sort of delight in Pavliuchenko/Khodykin‘s bizarrely chaotic free program and I don’t think judges are really going to hold it against such a young team but I also want Daria to really feel comfortable and to be able to project and be her charming self and I certainly don’t think the program is really doing them any favours. So, maybe a change? Even if they just cut down on the music edits! It would help!

Who I am wondering about – 

What is going on?

Men –  What is going on with Samohin? I think we’ve all been wondering this for awhile. Unfortunately, Vincent Zhou also falls into this category. I never know what to expect.

Women – I thought Wakaba Higuchi would be riding a high and competing at the top this season but things did not look good at ACI. Hopefully she is ready for her Grand Prix, mentally and physically, when it comes. This season is a real opportunity for Daleman with Osmond out but I think she needs to get herself under control. Both of these girls have medaled at Worlds and could compete at the top but both seem like they are on a wild, unpredictable trajectory at the moment.

Note: With Daleman’s announcement today of taking time out for mental health, I just want to say, good decision.

Dance – A couple seasons ago I thought Nazarova/Nikitin were poised to move up but lately they seem to be regressing AND making weird costume choices. They’ve moved to Bourzat now. Maybe they can turn things around? The start of the season has not been promising. I feel them same a bit about Kaliszek/Spodyriev. Their downfall seems to be over-ambition. I think they need to tone some of their content down so they can get through a program without disastrous consequences.

Pairs – I feel like asking “What is going on?” about a lot of the American pairs. This is a year when things are in flux and there are opportunities but you need to state your case strongly to make a move. Do they understand this? Maybe they understand it far too well? Maybe that’s the problem? Scimeca/Knierim are vulnerable while they are making changes but Kayne/O’Shea aren’t looking like they’ve got everything together; neither do Stellato/Bartholomay. I’m hopeful for Denny/Frazier but we aren’t there yet. They only ones who seem on top of their game are Cain/Leduc but I want to see them compete against deeper fields. I

Who I’m enjoying – 

I like you’re skating and your programs!

Men – Well, I always enjoy Shoma Uno and I am happy about my Lazukin discovery. We get to see him at Rostelecom!

Women – I have seen a lot of skating that I really like the look of: Medvedeva (the new style programs – yay!), Bell, Lim, Honda… and of course the Tiny Queen. A nice surprise for me was Courtney Hicks and I love Loena Hendrickx’s short program. I can’t help it.

Dance – Some of those middle-tier teams have had my favourite programs so far: Fear/Gibson, Turkkila/Versluis, Komatsubara/Koleto and Soucisse/Firus. I’m pretty sold on Weaver/Poje and Hubbell/Donohue (although I don’t love the free) and I’m really into Giller/Poirier. I think they are maybe my favourites.

Pairs – I’m really pulling for my Russian babies Efimova/Korovin and I love their short program for them. I am also totally behind Ziegler/Kiefer.

Who We Haven’t Seen Yet – 

But Should on the Grand Prix!

Men – I mostly don’t count the Japan Open, so I haven’t seen Nathan Chen (I’m saving judgement until the Grand Prix). Otherwise, I really don’t know.

Women – I don’t think I will count the Russian test skates either, since it’s not really a competition and they were awhile ago now. That means we haven’t really seen Radionova, Panenkova or Sotskova (again, the Japan Open isn’t really real). We also haven’t seen Choi, Schott, Kostner, Chen, Gold or Lecavelier. That leaves us a lot to look forward too. I’m not sure if injury situations are going to keep some skaters from competing but I guess we’ll see.

Note: Choi is out. I’m sad. (Eunsoo Lim really deserves a second Grand Prix now. Justice for Korea!)

Dance – I think a lot of the no-shows are because of injury and recovery but we are waiting to see Zagorski/Guerriero, Chock/Bates and Hawayek/Baker. There are some newish teams that will be making their Grand Prix debut: Reed/Ambrulevicius, Morozov/Bagin, Galayavieva/Thauron and Skoptcova/Aleshin. And we haven’t seen Papadakis/Cizeron because they won’t let us. I don’t know how I feel about that choice. (Actually, I do. Don’t be divas. It makes me want to see you less, not more.)

Pairs – We have seen most of the pairs on the Grand Prix thus far. We are just waiting for Hocke/Blommaert and Ryom/Kim. I look forward to both. I’m going to say Peng/Jin too because the Asian Open was so long ago, it doesn’t really count. I feel like they could be a whole new team at this point. I am also really hopefully that with the dearth of Chinese pairs Wang/Wang will get thrown into the mix. They are skating, we know they are. Let them skate for you!7

So to wrap up –

Skate America is coming soon! Here is who will be competing – 

Men – Nam Nguyen, Kevin Reynolds, Michal Brezina, Romain Ponsart, Morisi Kvitelashvili, Alexei Bychenko, Matteo Rizzo, Julian Zhi Jie Yee, Sergei Voronov, Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou, Jimmy Ma.

Women – Loena Hendrickx, Alaine Chartrand, Laurine Lecavelier, Marin Honda, Satoko Miyahara, Kaori Sakamoto, Elena Radionova, Sofia Samodurova, Polina Tsuskaya, Starr Andrews, Bradie Tennell, Megan Wessenberg.

Dance – Muller/Dieck, Fear/Gibson, Tweedale/Buckland, Guignard/Fabbri, Kaliszek/Spodyriev, Zagorski/Guerreiro, Nazarova/Nikitin, Hubbell/Donohue, McNamara/Carpenter, Manta/Johnson.

Pairs – Walsh/Michaud, Hase/Seegert, Hocke/Blommaert, Efimova/Korovin, Tarasova/Morozov, Cain/Leduc, Digerness/Neudecker, Scimeca/Knierim.

I see a lot of names who will probably wanting to skate better than they did at their season opener. That will be interesting. In the men, this is clearly for Nathan and Vincent to take. In the women, I’m envisioning a Japanese sweep, just with the quality there, but I think Bradie will be on the podium. Polina could maybe be a spoiler if she can get through her programs. In dance, I see Hubbell/Donohue being way out ahead but Guignard/Fabbri and Zagorski/Guerreiro making up the podium (if they are back to their former level). In pairs, this is for Tarasova/Morozov to win but Scimeca/Knierim will be expecting to medal. I’m hoping for my babies in third! Cain/Leduc could get in there but I could see Hocke/Blommaert being a surprise.

 

 

 

 

 

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