Sunday, 24 January 2016

The 2016 Canadian Championships: The Good, The Bad And The #NoSheBetterDont


In my ten years performing as a drag queen, I did the odd show. Well, maybe the odd hundred. One of the bigger events was called Coronation weekend. Performers from across Canada and as far south as California and Las Vegas would descend on the weekend for a three day extravaganza of shows. There were hundreds of performances in a three day span - some spectacular, some forgettable - and by the end you were so exhausted you couldn't even think. The 2016 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships were a completely different but similar beast. I have been at the Scotiabank Centre watching and covering skating for six to twelve hours a day since Monday and let me tell you, although it has been physically exhausting the energy from the performances I have seen on the ice this week would put absolutely any drag queen to shame. Glitz, glamour, surprises and spectacular skating were in no short supply in what was arguably the most exciting Nationals this country has seen in many years. Before the blog returns to its regularly scheduled programming of sifting through the sport's fascinating history, join me in a journey to the present as I explore the good, bad and #NoSheBetterDont of the senior competitions here in Halifax, Nova Scotia this week:


THE WOMEN'S EVENT: The buzz in the Scotiabank Centre yesterday was that the women's final was the most exciting of all time at the Canadian Championships. As someone who studies figure skating history, I can tell you that you're pretty much right on the money. 



In the short program, Kaetlyn Osmond of the Ice Palace Figure Skating Club was resplendent, landing a beautiful triple flip/double toe, triple Lutz and double Axel in her short program to Cyndi Lauper's cover of "Unchained Melody" to take the lead with a score of 70.63. Alaine Chartrand followed closely behind, borrowing from the Jeremy Abbott songbook with an excellent performance of her "Pina" short program and a score of 68.81. Gabby Daleman, who started off strongly with a triple/toe combination, fell on her triple Lutz and found herself in third place with a score of 133.55. Based on her practices and the absolute sense of ease with which Kaetlyn skated her short program, it seemed to many that a third National title would be a distinct possibility. That's not how it all played out. 



First of the three gold medal contenders to skate was Newmarket's Gabby Daleman. Skating to "María de Buenos Aires Suite: Tema de Maria, Yo soy Maria" by Ástor Piazzolla, the defending Canadian Champion started with a triple Lutz/double toe/double loop combo and proceeded to skate lights out - reeling off triple after triple in her spirited performance and earning the first standing ovation of the day on Saturday. Four of Daleman's jumping passes (a second triple Lutz, a triple loop, a triple Salchow/double toe combination and a double Axel) all earned her extra credit for being in the second half of the program and her score of 133.55 actually ended up being the highest free skate score of the competition. The vibe in the rink was electric as Alaine Chartrand took to the ice. Who could top that, right? Chartrand did. 



Skating to "Gone With The Wind", the powerhouse from Prescott had the skate of her life and once again the crowd was on its feet losing it. Chartrand actually received credit for five jumping passes late in the program to Daleman's four, but an underrotation call on her opening triple Lutz/triple toe combination and an edge call on her next jump kept her behind Daleman in the free skate by 0.37! Her short program score gave her the edge and it was Chartrand in first, Daleman in second when Kaetlyn Osmond took to the ice. 



When she stepped out of her opening triple flip, it seemed a forgone conclusion that wouldn't only go downhill from there but that's not what happened. Osmond fought hard, landing her next three jumping passes (a double Axel/triple toe, triple Lutz and triple Salchow) but a doubled flip, a step out and a popped double in the third part of her double Axel combination at the end of the program assured her fate. In the end, it was Chartrand first, Daleman second and Osmond third and based on the atmosphere in the rink, if it would have gone any other way yesterday, the crowd would have gone bananas and not in a good way. I haven't watched the women's event at the U.S. Championships (yet) but based on what everyone was saying about the short program and what I saw in person here in Halifax, I think there will be a few Americans who have taken pleasure in mocking Canadian women's skaters who will enjoying a delicious meal of crow. These women were positively spectacular and all three medallists deserve all the credit they've been getting this week and then some.  


WHAT'S A SKATING COMPETITION WITHOUT AN UGLY CRY?: Lack of sleep makes tends to make me a tad overemotional but the tears that welled up the corner of my eyes in the first minute of Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje's free dance to "This Bitter Earth/On The Nature Of Daylight" by Dinah Washington and "Run" by Ludovico Einaudi had nothing to do with that. These two are the real deal and the vehicles they have chosen this season are on a completely different playing field than most of their international competitors. Although Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were just outstanding this week in claiming silver with unique and edgy material, Kaitlyn and Andrew outdid themselves and the standing ovations that followed both of their programs made their win with a score of 191.73 (11.91 points higher than their closest competitors) almost secondary. They're crafting high art out there and finally, with the judges resigning themselves to do the right thing at the Nationals down in the States and giving the Shibutani's the nod, the road to a World title appears to be free of one less roadblock. They were just so, so special.



PATRICK CHAN'S COMEBACK: Speaking of eating crow, there were an awful lot of naysayers when it came to Patrick Chan's comeback, weren't there? I'll be the first to admit that Chan seemed perhaps a little more confident than I would be if I were in his shoes. He finished off the podium at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, his practices here in Halifax were not all smooth sailing but in both the short program and free skate here he was nothing short of spectacular. He made quad/triples look like a walk in the park; he oozed confidence, control and attack. Chan is one of those skaters who you have to see live to really appreciate just how good he is and was he ever on top of his game here! The best part? All of that Chanflation at Nationals that folks relish harping on about... you couldn't say that here. He earned 103.58 in his short program, 192.09 in the free for a total of 295.67 and the marks (PCS included) were truly reflective of the performances he delivered both days. Yes, he's going to face a ton of competition going up against Yuzu and friends at Worlds, but his efforts here yet again reminded us all of just what he is capable of when he's on.  


IT TAKES TWO: After the excitement in the women's and ice dance competitions, I don't think I was ready for another nail biter but the pairs event was just that. Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford may have had bobbles in both of their programs, but they fought so, so hard and their win with a score of 221.75 was well deserved. With five consecutive Canadian titles now, they join the likes of Dafoe and Bowden, Underhill and Martini and Brasseur and Eisler in the history books. The throw quad was there, the throw triple Lutz was there but beyond the big ticket items, there's really such an improvement in the PCS side of their skating this season that correlates exactly with their music choices and program layout decisions. Yes, there may be Russians but there always Russians... I don't doubt for a second these two have what it takes to repeat as World Champions.


Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau delivered two flawless performances and sold the heck out of their free skate to "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" (alas, not the Annie Lennox version) for second place with a score of 211.40. Their standing ovation was well deserved and I thought the scores could have been a smidgen closer. If you think about how quickly this team's rise in the ranks from juniors has been, it makes them all the more exciting. They couldn't have done anything better.


And Lubov and Dylan? Wow! They brought it in both performances too and they really offer something different style wise juxtaposed with their competitors. That lift with the one-foot feature in the free skate right in front of the judges is always a show stopper and 204.22 is a great score especially when you look back and realize they were in the 160 range at last year's World Championships in Shanghai, China.


AN UNEXPECTED STANDING O: Bronze medallists in the ice dance competition Élisabeth Paradis and François-Xavier Ouellette represented the CPA Loretteville and CPA Lames D'argent de Laval wonderfully with two very solid performances here in Halifax. Their free dance set to Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and a composition by Karl-Hugo Van de Kerckhove was mesmerising and a credit to their coach and choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil. Their unexpected edge on Paul and Islam in the free dance on the strength of their TES score and levels on their lifts and the standing ovation they received was so well earned. I really thought they kind of got gypped a little last year and it was nice to see their hard work and performance quality appreciated by the domestic judges here. About time.


KEVIN REYNOLDS' COMEBACK: Not taking a thing away from Liam Firus' silver medal win - - which was totally deserved and quite fabulous actually - it was so nice to see Kevin Reynolds back on the podium with his 2014 Sochi teammates. He was kind of under the radar this week but his short program to "Tank" by The Seatbelts proved that the twenty five year old student of Joanne McLeod is back and in fantastic form, quad/triples and all. Just to be clear here... if you're wondering if his result was a fluke, you may want to guess again. He was one of the most consistent jumpers in both practices and warm-up's here in Halifax and with scores just shy of Firus (who also landed a quad) his skate problems appear to be a thing of the past.

MARIE-FRANCE IN THE KISS AND CRY: Whether it was drooling over Fabian Bourzat or rolling eyes at the fact they had TV cameras shoved in Brian Orser's face during Nam Nguyen's entire free skate, the audience was as distinctly aware of what was happening off the ice as much as what was happening on it. Marie-France dancing along with her many student's programs this week at the boards is seriously like the most adorable thing ever. In my interview with her last year, she told me, "Music has a lot of influence on my mood and I listen to a wide variety through out the day. Hip hop in the morning to pump me up as I drive to the rink, classical music or jazz when I drive back home to relax and disconnect from coaching and hard rock when I clean the house!" Can a Best Of Marie-France Dancing In The Kiss And Cry dance/fitness DVD please be a thing that happens? Because I would so buy the hell out of that.



THE BEST OF THE REST: I'm kind of a big fan of positivity, in case you haven't guessed. If I don't like someone's skating, for the most part I don't harp on it or mention it at all because really, who needs to listen to someone bitch about skaters and drag them through the mud? That's not how most of us roll here in Canada and thank God for that. One of the things I did want to do when blogging about this event was recognize the great things many of the skaters who aren't on the podium accomplished this week. In the women's event, there was Véronik Mallet, who showed such an improvement from last year even if she did drop a spot in light of Kaetlyn's comeback. Her free skate featured a triple flip and double Axel/triple toe combo and such a nice lightness to her presentation. Roxanne Rheault, Michelle Long and Larkyn Austman all had some great moments in their programs as well. Vanessa Grenier and Maxime Deschamps might have finished fifth but gosh, did she ever sell that free skate. The lifts were fantastic! The new partnership of Nicole Orford and Asher Hill is one of my favourite new pairings and their short dance to "My Heart Cries" by Etta James and Harvey Fuqua and "It's Not For Me To Say" by Johnny Mathis was actually one of my top five favourites in the entire dance event. There's so much to like about their skating and Carol Lane sure knows how to highlight their strengths. A free dance that really stood out in terms of attention to detail and performance quality were Timothy Lum and Brianna Delmaestro's intricate Bollywood program to "Silsila Ye Chahat Ka" by Shreya Ghoshal, "Dev's Last Journey" by Raqhav Chatterjee, Supra Adhikari and Rashmi Sharma, "Balak Balak" by Udit Narayan, Vinod Rathod and Shreya Ghoshal and "Dola Re Dola" by Kavita Krishnamurthy and Shreya Ghoshal. Did they ever sell that! Another one of Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe's teams, Alexa Linden and Addison Voldeng, performed a similarly detail oriented, theatrical program to "Alice In Wonderland" that I just loved. The legacy of Wing and Lowe's unique style is alive and well in their work with so many ice dancers coming up through the ranks and a welcome addition as so many other teams have opted for safer program choices. Among the men, Bennet Toman who trains in Richmond Hill with Robert O'Toole had such a great free skate! Although I have to admit that "Who Wants To Live Forever?" is becoming the new "Carmen" in terms of overused skating music, his program was chock full of difficult content and transitions and I thought he got a little lowballed. He's definitely a skater on an upward trajectory. Keegan Messing's short program (choreographed by Douglas Webster) was delightful and he really worked the crowd in the free skate, as did Nicolas Nadeau with his "Mary Poppins" program. In a sea of serious programs, it was wonderful to see these guys just going for it and in turn, having the crowd behind them.





LEGENDS OF THE FALL: Can we talk for a minute about how terrifying Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro's fall in the short program on the triple twist was? It was beyond frightening in person and last night, PJ Kwong said to me, "you NEED to watch it again on tape" so I did and honestly, the second time I was like just "giiiiiiirl"... And you know what? WHAT a sin. Kirsten and Michael's practices have been spectacular this week, they look so well trained and the programs this season are such a better fit for them. It was honestly just one of those freak things. Come on. We all know they can do a triple twist. That said, from the 'bad' to the 'fabulous', when they landed the twist at the start of their "Romeo And Juliet" free skate, you could just hear the crowd letting out a sigh and relief and despite a fall on the side by side Salchows, their free skate was gutsy and sensational. Mad respect to these two for coming back and skating the free skate and doing it so, so well. That cannot have been easy.



SAY MY NAM, SAY MY NAM: It just wouldn't be a figure skating blog written by a former drag queen without a Destiny's Child reference, now would it? I spoke with Nam Nguyen last week leading up to this competition and got the distinct vibe he was phased by Patrick Chan's return and the skating this week unfortunately reflected that. I think going back to "Sinnerman" in the short program was an intelligent decision but unfortunately, when you miss your quad and everyone else isn't, you end up a bit buried in the standings. A score of 76.04 to Chan's 103.58 in the short all but ruined his chances of unseating the Olympic Silver Medallist and his free skate set to Bach did have some good moments but the mistakes weren't enough to take him any higher than fourth, just higher than Nadeau in fact. What worked for Nam Nguyen last season wasn't just the jumps, it was the programs and taking the safe route with a classical free skate just didn't pay off enough in the second mark for him to be competitive. Defending a national title is hard for anyone - it has been since the freaking 1920's for heaven sakes - so hopefully he'll come back stronger than ever. He's under twenty and has two quads. I'm sure he will land on his feet just fine. 



DOWN A SPOT: When someone moves up a spot, someone else moves down. That's how figure skating competitions work. It was disappointing to see Olympians Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam lose ground and drop off the podium considering the improvement they have made technically this season. The move to Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon really strikes me as a wise one but after such a gorgeous short dance to "The Mouse Waltz" and "The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin" by John Lanchbery, the free dance set to Barbra Streisand seemed to leave both the judges and audience a little colder than the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" program that earned their training mates a standing O. Their free dance last season to "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel was a gem and I think a big part of this loss came down to the program and not the content, levels notwithstanding.


THERE'S FANDOM AND THEN THERE'S FANDOM: Back in 2013, I wrote a blog on the darker side of figure skating fandom. While I highly doubt there were any Annie Wilkes' in the house in Halifax, damned if I know. Canadian figure skating fans (for the most part) are some of the most highly intelligent, knowledgeable, passionate and kind people you could ever meet but I will be real here and say that it never ceases to amaze me how some can take it a bit past healthy fangirling. I'm all for being interested in who's coaching who, which pairs and dance teams are gelling and which aren't and who is doing well in practice and who is consistently bombing. However, I think there's a very fine line between being passionate about Patrick Chan's programs and being passionate about finding out what Patrick Chan had for breakfast and I will admit, I did chat with the odd person this week who had some difficulty in making that distinction. By all means, cheer on your favourites, take an interest in their lives, whatever... But for the love of Annie Lennox and all that is sacred, if you're concerned that you might want to take that obsession down an octave, you probably should.

THE FOOD: Because I live here, for some reason all week people have been complaining about the food to me like I somehow responsible for it. No, I didn't have a hand in baking anyone's cardboard cheese "pizza" or frying up anyone's soggy French fries, but the food that was being offered up at the Scotiabank Centre this week was appalling in terms of both quality and selection. It's kind of a shame it took until Friday night for them to clue in and open more of the kiosks to offset the line-ups of people just wanting a water or a coffee. Considering that when Stars On Ice rolls into town, they have all the bars and food stations open and you never run into this program. To the venue's credit, they got it together by Saturday, but Friday during the day was atrocious. Thank goodness for the fact this was right downtown and there are so many decent restaurants a stone's throw away.

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