Young Russian adds needed sparkle to young figure skating season

Chicago Tribune

One-third of the way into the Grand Prix "regular season," here are 10 things I know about the state of competitive figure skating:

1.  The general performance level is as sloppy as ever, yet another piece of evidence that the demands of the sport's not-so-new judging system make it almost impossible for singles and pairs skaters to do one clean program, let alone two.

I find myself zoning out after the first 90 seconds of most free skates because any chance at seeing something memorable already has been lost.

2.  Her artistic skills are minimal -- no surprise for a 14-year-old -- but  Russian Elizaveta Tuktamisheva nevertheless was a delightful revelation as she won Skate Canada.  Of the 20 women's singles skaters at Skate America and Skate Canada, Tuktamisheva is the only one who did not have a single negative overall grade of execution in the short and long programs.  And she was doing triple lutz - triple toe combinations with ease.

The young teen has added some needed spark to a singles scene in need of new talent.   Can she turn into Queen Tu(k)t?

3.  Tuktamisheva isn't even the most highly decorated young Russian.  That would be Adelina Sotnikova, 15, who makes her Grand Prix debut this week at Cup of China.  Sotnikova won the world junior title last year and Russian senior titles at ages 12 and 14.

4.  Patrick Chan is the best men's skater in the world, but judges continue to make a mockery of the sport by giving him ridiculously high component scores when his skating doesn't deserve it.

How do you give Chan 9.5 (of 10) for skating skills after a Skate Canada short program when he botched an opening quad and did a double axel instead of a triple?  One judge did, and four of the other nine scored him 9 or higher.

And how did he get seven scores of 9 or more on skating skills in a free skate when he fell twice?  I know the sport is more than jumping, but those scores are an insult to everyone's intelligence, Chan's included.

5.  This week's Cup of China, with a formidable men's field, should show whether the United States has an active male skater who belongs in the upper echelon of the world elite.  (Translation: a chance at a world medal.) Two-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott is to skate in China, and Abbott needs to show his poor 2011 season was not a sign he is past his peak at age 26.
History-making quad lutzer Brandon Mroz gets his first Grand Prix skate of this season the following week in Japan.  As of now, it still requires a leap of faith to see Mroz as a factor on the international scene.

6.  Mirai Nagasu?  Mirai? Nagasu.  Mirai? Nagasu?  The most talented of all the current U.S. women once again left more questions than answers with badly flawed performances in both programs at Skate Canada.

7.  Alissa Czisny has become unquestionably the standard-bearer for U.S. women's skating.  Czisny won Skate America with a less-than-brilliant free skate, but she now has three wins in her last four Grand Prix events (with a third in the other).

The big remaining question is how well Czisny can handle the pressure of being in that position.

"I'm not going to lie: I prefer being the underdog," Czisny said in a media teleconference before Skate America.

8.  Near the end of last season, I wrote a column addressing the issue of how difficult it would be for Rachael Flatt to be a full-time skater and a full-time student taking demanding courses at Stanford.  Her dismal performance in the free skate last weekend at Skate Canada only underscored the nature of the challenge, especially at a point where her skating career continues to founder.

Flatt's free skate score, 73.99, was eight points below her previous Grand Prix nadir at the 2010 series final (and eight points below the next worst performance at Skate Canada).  She now has finished dead last in her last two Grand Prix events, plus 12th and 9th at the last two world championships.

I have suggested Flatt would do herself a favor by leaving the sport behind after a fine career that includes a U.S. title, an Olympic appearance and three world meet appearances.   Readers reply that it should be her choice, and if she loves the sport, she should continue.

To anyone who saw Flatt's expression at the end of the Skate Canada free skate: do you think she was loving anything about a sport whose international judges haven't really liked her since the 2009 World Championships?

9.   The rare good thing one can say about U.S. pairs is that Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, a new team of two skaters who had each won one of the last two U.S. titles with a different partner, finished fourth in a solid field at Skate America and were barely three points from second place. 
10.  For the first time in my three decades covering the sport, I am compelled to pay a lot of attention to ice dance -- because the top two teams are so compelling.  Reigning world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. and reigning Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada are so skilled, so entertaining and so close in ability that the competition between them from now until the 2014 Olympics should be riveting.

While I still feel judging ice dance involves something like whether one prefers Baryshnikov to Nureyev rather than more definitive criteria, the point is watching these two couples is a win-win proposition, no matter the result.  Best of all, neither couple falls back on histrionics or shlock to sell their programs -- even if I wish the Canadians would scrap the vocal sections of their free dance music, which distracts from more than enhances their brilliant skating.

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