The 1997 Skate America International Competition


From October 22 to 26, 1997, fifty five skaters from twelve countries convened at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan for the first Champions Series event of the 1998 Olympic season. Long before the days of Twitter, YouTube and live internet streams, those not in attendance had to rely on television coverage, newspapers, internet newsgroups and mailing lists to learn how things played out. The event truly marked the start of the competitive figure skating season, for in the nineties few skaters had opportunities to test out their new programs at obscure test events with names like the Fourth Of July Cup or Summer Camp Invitational. It's hard to believe that it's been two decades and that the stories from this event now have earned a place in skating history, but they indeed have. See how good your memory is and join me on a look back at this exciting event from twenty years ago!

THE PAIRS COMPETITION



Eight teams vied for the pairs title in Detroit, two of them former World Champions from Russia. After the short program, Marina Eltsova and Andrei Bushkov and Evgenia Shishkova and Vadim Naumov were 1-2, with all but the Canadian judge placing Eltsova and Bushkov ahead of their Russian teammates. In the free skate, America's top team, Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen, sandwiched themselves between Eltsova and Bushkov and Shishkova and Naumov and managed to claim the silver in their home country. Ina and Dungjen's medal win was remarkable in that Dungjen injured his right thumb prior to their free skate when he caught it in Ina's costume during a lift. He was injected with a painkiller just prior to the performance and stood on the podium with it all wrapped up. Canada's sole entry, Michelle Menzies of Cambridge, Ontario and Jean-Michel Bombardier of Laval, Quebec, placed an impressive fourth.



THE MEN'S COMPETITION

In his nine trips to Skate America, twenty six year old Todd Eldredge had won four, including the previous three. As the defending World Champion, Eldredge was the odds on favourite to repeat as Skate America champion in the very state where he trained. However, he faced some stiff competition. At the time, the gold standard for men was a free skate that included two triple Axels. In practice sessions, two Ukrainians were attempting to elevate that standard. Viacheslav Zagorodniuk was landing quad toe-loops and Evgeni Pliuta was brazenly attempting the quad Lutz. Neither jump manifested itself in either of the young men's competitive performances. Eldredge took an early lead in the short program over a young Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, who wowed the crowd with a triple Axel/triple toe-loop combination and Biellmann spin. Zagorodniuk and Alexander Abt finished third and fourth while Pliuta imploded, finishing eleventh out of the twelve men competing, effectively taking him completely out of the running. Unusually, almost half of the field received deductions for silly errors on the three required spin elements.


Early in the warm-up prior to the final group of the free skate, Eldredge had a freak fall while skating close to the boards, popping his right shoulder out of its socket and lying on the ice for four minutes in agony until he was helped by coach Richard Callaghan and medical staff. In a prepared statement, he explained, "'There was a chunk of ice frozen to the surface and I was just trying to steer away when I hit it. I felt my shoulder go out right away. And then I turned over and I felt it slip right back in.'' Grittily skating through the pain without the benefit of a warm-up, he managed to win first place marks from all nine judges and his fourth consecutive Skate America title with a technically demanding free skate that included two triple Axels. Russian coach Alexei Mishin called him "a hero" and Canadian judge Mary Claire Heintzman gave him his first perfect 6.0 for presentation. Plushenko finished an impressive second, ahead of Abt, Scott Davis and Zagorodniuk. Canada's sole entry, twenty year old Jayson Dénommée of Asbestos, Quebec, dropped from sixth to eighth overall. Canadian Olympic Association criteria required him to place at least sixth at the event to qualify for a spot on the Nagano Olympic team.

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION

Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio and Anna Semenovich and Vladimir Morozov in practice. Leigh Meydrech photos.

Dominating the ice dance competition from start to finish, Americans Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow reclaimed the Skate America title they'd first won in Pittsburgh in 1994. Their only major competition came from Italians Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio, who won their second Champions Series event medal, a silver. Third after the Golden Waltz compulsory dance and Jive OSP, Kateřina Mrázová and Martin Šimeček dropped behind Russia's Anna Semenovich and Vladimir Fedorov, who claimed the bronze despite recycling the same costumes and free dance they'd used the year prior. Canada's sole entry, Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe, finished seventh of the eight teams who competed but made a positive impression with their imaginative free dance to music from "The Last Emperor" soundtrack.


Reviewing the event on the Skatefans Usenet group, legendary nineties internet skating guru Sandra Loosemore remarked, "I can't say I was particularly impressed with Punsalan and Swallow's new programs. [Their free dance] is no different than any of the other Latin-style programs they've been doing for the last N years. Perhaps they were not as technically strong, but I felt that Fusar-Poli and Margaglio actually had better presentation in the jive and a much more entertaining free dance."

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION


Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski in practice. Leigh Meydrech photos.

The women's competition in Detroit was a sportswriter's dream. Tara Lipinski, the defending U.S. and World Champion, was competing head to head with 1996 U.S. and World Champion Michelle Kwan... in an Olympic season. Both women skated well in the short program, with Lipinski attempting a triple Lutz/double loop combination and Kwan a triple Lutz/double toe. The latter came out on top with a refined, mature and packaged performance, earning 5.9's for presentation from all nine judges. If the short program was close, the free skate wasn't.


Kwan debuted her stunning free skate to William Alwyn's "Lyra Angelica" and Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie #3", choreographed by Lori Nichol and landed two triple Lutzes, a triple toe/double toe, triple flip, triple loop, triple Salchow, triple toe-loop and double Axel. Lipinski's free skate to "The Rainbow" by Carl Davis and "Scenes Of Summer" by Lee Holdridge featured some lovely choreography by Sandra Bezic, but fell short technically. Though she landed a triple Lutz and triple loop/triple loop combination, a fall on her opening triple Lutz handed the title to Kwan. After the event, Kwan told reporters, "Even in warmups, I thought, 'This is really going well'. When I got off the ice, Frank [Caroll] told me, `Don't be overconfident.' I knew I had been training really hard, so there is not much more I can do. I couldn't ask for more."

Moving up from sixth to claim the bronze was a young Elena Sokolova of Russia. Canada's sole entry after the withdrawal of Susan Humphreys, twenty three year old Angela Derochie of Ottawa, placed a disappointing ninth in her first international assignment in two years. In the short program, she skated to a piece called "Angela's Ashes", composed especially for her at Peter Dunfield's request by 1972 Olympian Mark Militano.

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