The 2015 World Championships: The Good, The Bad And The #NoSheBetterDont

In the post U.S. and Canadian NationalsEuropean Championships and Four Continents Championships blogs, I introduced a new format for event recaps: The Good, The Bad And The #NoSheBetterDont. To repeat my reasoning behind the brevity, this autumn I spent hours upon hours recapping all six ISU Grand Prix competitions and the Grand Prix Final in detail. Here's the thing. Agonizing over Suzie Salchow's take-off edge on her flip and the level of her spin combination really isn't my bag any more than jamming my hand in a car door is. I wanted to enjoy the competitions for the rest of the season rather than extrapolate the results to death but still wanted to represent all the major competitions with content on the blog as well... which brings us to the final competition recap of the season. I'd say the last event recap but that would be a lie. I'll have a full review from the opening night of the 25th Anniversary of Canada's Stars On Ice tour in here in Halifax coming for you in May! This year's World Figure Skating Championships were a roller coaster of highs, lows and everything in between so I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and dive into the highlights of the Shanghai, China competition:

A FIRST FOR CHINA: The unprecedented boom in popularity of figure skating in the last decade is undoubtedly due to the success of Japanese, Korean and Chinese athletes in international competition. With packed arenas and passionate fans from Sendai to Seoul, it's easy to forget that all of his is a relatively new phenomenon. The 2015 World Figure Skating Championships actually marks the first time that China has EVER hosted the World Championships! The country joined the ISU in 1956 but it wasn't until the eighties when Canadian and American coaches helped develop the country's figure skating program and skaters started appearing in world competition. Yes, we've seen World Champions come out of the country (Lu Chen, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao and Qing Pang and Jian Tong) but the fact remains that few major international competitions have been held in the country that houses the Great Wall. Only once since the event's creation in 1999 have the Four Continents Championships been held in China (back in 2003) and the country has never hosted the World Junior Championships. When Germany lost its Grand Prix spot to China in 2003, the Cup Of China became one of six static Grand Prix events to be held annually in the country. However, the first international competition of note to be held in China was actually a competition held as part of the inaugural Junior Grand Prix circuit back in 1998. Held in Beijing from October 21 to 25, 1998, the Junior Grand Prix China event was the seventh stop on that year's series and proved to be an excellent opportunity for young Chinese skaters to shine at home. In the men's event, the Chinese men (Zhengxin Guo, Song Gao and Yu Wang) actually swept the podium and Xiaodan and Hao Zhang won the pairs event beating pairs from Russia, Canada and the U.S. Young Huan Wang earned the bronze medal in the ladies event and Chinese ice dancers even produced a strong showing. The teams of Rui Wang and Wei Zhang and Lian Qi and Hao Goa finished fourth and fifth, respectively. Chinese skaters made a strong argument from the very start that they could rub elbows with the world's best on home soil and come out victorious. Even some of the skating world's future major players would also participate in that 1998 competition. Future World Champions Qian Pang and Jian Tong, Stéphane Lambiel and Jeffrey Buttle all competed in that event, as did future World Medallist Massimo Scali and U.S. Medallist Matt Savoie. Given the fact that this was the first World Championships to be held in China after a relatively short history of holding international competitions in the country, from a historical context the medal wins of Chinese pairs Wenjing Sui and Cong Han and Qing Pang and Jian Tong in their home country at this event was all the more impressive. The performances themselves were nothing to sneeze at either. In the words of Dick Button, "first rate, first rate."

O CANADA: Based on the fact that Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford were undefeated all season, I think it's a safe bet to say that entering this competition they were the absolute favourites. Anyone with half a brain in their head knew that this was their competition to win or lose. They didn't phone it in though. They went out there and delivered programs of purpose and passion and skated like the World Champions they now are. Despite a bobble on the side-by-side spins and a hand down on a throw quad Salchow that was so big I thought it was going to go right out the rink, these were two performances that we will remember YEARS from now. Class acts all the way and just electric to watch! Their story is unconventional and full of perseverance, determination and anyone who skated lights out like they have all season not only deserves a gold medal but also a hell of a lot of respect. Did I tear up a little? Yeah I did.

GET INTO THE GROOVE: Fresh off her tumble down the stairs at the Brit Awards, Madonna (err... actually a damn good lookalike) was back in business in the kiss and cry with Georgian skater Elene Gedevanishvili, who ironically took a tumble of her own in her short program set to "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" from "Yentl". The lookalike might have actually been Elene's mother Maka, but my dark sense of humor can't help but wonder if the "pop goddess" might have relished in taking in a major international event where more people were falling than SHE was. Ashley, Gracie, Polina too. Elene Gedevanishvili, we love you. Vogue.

AGE IS JUST A NUMBER SWEETIE: If you read the figure skating message boards and social media, you know that there are more than a handful of skating "fans" who are more than happy to take it upon themselves to suggest skaters be sent out to pasture once 'they reach a certain age'. You know, to make room for the younger ones. I've personally never heard of a more illogical argument in my life. If you love skating, skate until your ninety five. Compete until you are ninety five. I've long argued this point and have got a few eye rolls along the way but you know what? Why should anyone give up something they love doing to appease an armchair critic? This year's World Championships sent a firm message that a skater's competitive career does NOT have to end in their early twenties. No less than FORTY of the competitors in Shanghai were twenty five years of age or older: Evan Bates, Chafik Besseghier, Alexei Bychenko, Anna Cappellini, Nicole Della Monica, Meagan Duhamel, Marco Fabbri, Elene Gedevanishvili, Matteo Guarise, Charlène Guignard, Ondřej Hotárek, Mitch Islam, Vanessa James, Yuko Kavaguti, Kiira Korpi, Takahiko Kozuka, Chris Knierim, Juri Kurakin, Luca Lanotte, Peter Liebers, Valentina Marchei, Dylan Moscovitch, Qing Pang, Andrew Poje, Eric Radford, Cathy Reed, Chris Reed, Adam Rippon, Alexei Rogonov, Barbora Silná, Alexander Smirnov, Nikolaj Sørensen, Jeremy Ten, Jian Tong, Alper Uçar, Aaron Van Claeve, Mari-Doris Vartmann, Sergei Voronov, Kaitlyn Weaver and Hao Zhang, Reading through that list of names, I guarantee you that you're going to find way more than one or two you love watching and would love to see compete at next year's Worlds, right? Seems to me it was sixty year old Annie Lennox who stole the show at the Grammy's. I thought so.

REWRITING THE UNWRITTEN SCRIPT: Although Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte were the defending World Champions heading into this competition, they finished third at the only Grand Prix event they ultimately attended this fall behind France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and Americans Maia and Alex Shibutani. They didn't compete at the Grand Prix Final and settled for silver, again behind the quickly dominant French team. With France's top entry, Weaver and Poje and Chock and Bates being all the rage this season with international judges, the Italians seemed all but written off the podium before they even skated. Usually when that happens to a team, the skating suffers as a result of that pressure. Then the unexpected happened for this team in the short dance. They skated like World Champions. Sure, they might have not have won but in their Paso Doble the Italians skated like someone had lit a fire under them. They moved seamlessly, going from twizzles to their midline step sequence to their final element, the level four rotational lift, with control, power and a certain determination. The mere fact that the judges gave them the nod over the French, Russian and American teams who had bettered them earlier in the season in the short dance showed to me that their purposeful Paso didn't go unnoticed.

BRIAN'S BOYS: When I interviewed 1987 World Champion and two time Olympic Silver Medallist Brian Orser, he told me that his "favourite skaters of all time are Robin Cousins, Stephane Lambiel, Janet Lynn and Kurt Browning. BUT... today my favourite skaters are Yuzuru Hanyu, Javier Fernandez and Nam Nguyen." I don't think that Orser's impressive stable of elite men could have asked for any better showing at this event. Javier Fernandez, in winning Spain's first World title EVER, was resplendent. I didn't personally feel the judges got it right in the short program when they placed Hanyu over a flawless Fernandez, but I have to give them credit where it's due for making the right decision in the free skate, even if neither man was textbook perfect.

Equally as impressive in my opinion as the gold and silver medallists was Orser's third top male student Canadian Champion Nam Nguyen. I called it earlier this season that Nguyen would be right up there with them at the Worlds but faith in the talented sixteen year old seemed to wane a little after he placed eleventh at the Four Continents Championships. Finishing fourth in the free skate ahead of U.S. Champion Jason Brown and Russian Champion Maxim Kovtun with a score of 242.59, Nguyen moved up to an impressive fifth. Three skaters in the top five at Worlds? Orser isn't just doing something right... he's the coach to beat!

HISTORY FOR TUKTAMYSHEVA: Set to the strains of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" made famous in skating circles by Olympic Gold Medallists Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Russia's Elizaveta Tuktamysheva made history in her short program by becoming the first woman in history to perform a four triple short program featuring a clean triple axel. She's been upping her technical game at every turn and her work with famed Russian coach Alexei Mishin unquestionably paid off in her gutsy gamble to include the jump in the short in the first place. The only woman to attempt the triple axel in this event, she became only the fifth ladies skater to perform a triple axel at the World Championships, the first being of course 1989 World Champion Midori Ito of Japan. What does a triple axel look like in terms of a points advantage? Tuktamysheva lead after the short in Shanghai with a TES score of 44.09 to Elena Radionova, who did a triple lutz/triple toe, triple loop and double axel. The base value for the triple axel is 8.50 versus 3.63 for the double axel. Her positive GOE of 1.57 on the jump more than helped seal the deal... and that axel for the record was a BEAUTY! Her free skate wasn't perfect but it was absolutely deserving of the win in comparison to her competitors, I do have to say that I thought her PCS score of 65.99 was a little generous considering the movement in the program was more founded in flair than fine tuning. It was absolutely entertaining though and one has to remember that like Duhamel and Radford in the pairs event, this competition was hers to win or lose and she fought through that free skate just like they did to EARN the title. Not bad for a skater who was tenth at Russian Nationals last season, now is it? Her win was even more historically significant considering it was the first time a Russian ladies skater stood atop the world podium since Irina Slutskaya won in Moscow in 2005.

EXQUISITE CRAFTING: Norway's Anne Line Gjersem's short program to Celine Dion's "Fly", a piece of music first skated to by Olympic Silver Medallist Liz Manley and then popularized by Olympic Bronze Medallist Joannie Rochette, was just so gorgeous that I thought it warranted mention. I'd interviewed her twin sister and biggest competitor Camilla back in September who told me of competing against her twin "Skating is a huge part of our lives. We also have our rivalries but in a good way. We have always pushed each other and it's been healthy for our development and progress." Anne Line may have ultimately ended the competition in seventeenth place, but this beautiful program was a hook, line and sinker to me in terms of hitting home the point that lyrical music has been introduced to ISU competition for a REASON.

AMURICA!: The U.S. figure skating team has plenty to be proud of. Their only medal was Chock and Bates' silver in the ice dance event - which I'll offer my opinion on later in the blog - but the team's overall showing was outstanding. In the men's event, Jason Brown delivered two outstanding performances to finish fourth overall and give the competition a much needed dose of big girl artistry. I couldn't have been more impressed with his performances! Adam Rippon, who dazzled at the U.S. Championships to earn his first ticket to Worlds since since 2012, also put out two fine skates to finish in eighth place overall. All three American ice dance teams placed in the top ten and pair Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim finished an impressive seventh in the pairs event. All of this said, you want to know who really impressed me?

The American ladies. Both Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner had more than one error in their short programs but were kept in contention on the strength of their second marks. I didn't quite know what to expect from the U.S. ladies in the free skate but boy, did they not disappoint. Of the three, Wagner certainly delivered the more mature, engaging performance but Gold and Edmunds both looked focused and confident. They delivered technically superb programs with clean triple lutz/triple toe combinations that earned positive GOE's. Gold and Wagner actually finished 2-3 in the free skate ahead of the silver and bronze medallists from Japan and Russia, which nails home the point that the international judges DO in fact appreciate the quality and fight in their skating. The depth in U.S. ladies figure skating may be considerable but these two talented skaters absolutely still in their prime and the cream of the crop.

IMPRESSIVE WORLDS DEBUTS ALL AROUND: From American men's skater Joshua Farris rebounding in the free skate to Canadians Alaine Chartrand, Seguin and Bilodeau and Ilyushechkina and Moscovitch to ladies skater Valentina Marchei who made the smooth transition to pairs skating with Ondřej Hotarek this season and so many more, the newbies at this year's made a very strong statement as well. No national bias I swear, but I thought the Canadian pairs a particular impression. Ilyushechkina and Moscovitch's lifts had me swooning. Alaine Chartrand's solid short program that included a double axel, triple lutz/triple toe combination (although the toe was called underrotated) and an easy looking triple loop couldn't have been a better birthday present for her. While experience pays off, sometimes sheer determination and skill speaks for itself too.

AND THE BEST MUSIC AWARD GOES TO...: Canada's Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau! From their short program that opened with the imagination capturing Appenzell yodel ""s'Rothe-Zäuerli" from the soundtrack of "The Grand Budapest Hotel" to their free skate set to a captivating arrangement of Peter Gabriel's music including "In Your Eyes" (which Canadian ice dancers Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam also used beautifully this season), this young and promising team not only made an impressive top ten debut at Worlds but did it with music and programs that commanded attention. 

SLEEP DEPRIVATION: If you want to write about figure skating, you've got to watch a hell of a lot of it. Usually not a big deal, but when the competition is being held halfway around the world the not so slight time difference can be killer. A late night followed by an early morning followed by a nine hour shift followed by a five AM morning shift led way to three failed nap attempts, a 3 AM ladies free skate, a restless night of tossing and turning, the men's free skate and another failed nap attempt on Saturday. Figure skating, you may have officially messed up my internal clock but it's OK... I still love you.
THEY'RE COMING TO GET YOU, BARBARA FUSAR-POLI: Well, not so much anymore. The 2015 World Figure Skating Championships marked the end of a brilliant career for the always quirky and entertaining six time German Champions Nella Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi. My favourite program of theirs was of course their unique zombie themed free dance from two seasons ago. Although this team really wasn't able to generate that same level of excitement with their programs last season, they stepped things back up a notch THIS season and I was really looking forward to what was to be their swan song in Shanghai. By all accounts, their practices were going swimmingly but suspected food poisoning left Gazsi ill. They sadly withdrew before the short dance. I'm hoping this anti-climax won't really be the last we see of this envelope pushing duo, even if the performing we see them do in the future is as professionals.

KIIRA KORPI'S SHORT PROGRAM: If the three time European Medallist was giving her best interpretation of "A Day In The Life", that day was definitely a Monday! With a performance that made Lu Chen's 1997 "Take Five" short program look a hell of a lot less bad, Korpi crumbled in Shanghai and finished thirty first of thirty five competitors, failing to qualify for the free skate. She missed all three of her jumping passes, falling on the triple flip thus having no combination to speak of, popping her triple loop into a single and stepping out of that too and waxeling her axel into a failed single. Her TES score of 16.26 was the lowest of the night in the ladies short program. I honestly felt so bad for this girl. She just CANNOT seem to catch a break! In an interview on the Finnish Federation's site, Korpi said "I'm in shock. I wasn't able to skate under pressure after the first mistake I made. I've been feeling mentally tired this season." She also explained that her ankle still doesn't allow her to practice the triple lutz or any triple/triple combinations. One can only hope for better days for this lovely skater. I don't think they can get much worse than this one!

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: My heart went out to Canadian Champion Gabby Daleman and Jeremy Ten, who both struggled with jumping passes in their free skates in Shanghai. The in-between's of their skating are both clearly a cut above many of their competitors and it was nice to see the PCS scores reflect that. Ten's "Hallelujah" free skate might have had the second lowest TES score of the event with -4.00 in deductions for failed jumping passes but his PCS score was still higher than seven of his competitors. The same can be said for Daleman, who ultimately finished twenty first with a free skate PCS score of 44.27 which was higher than six of her competitors. Even if the jumps didn't go their way, that didn't stop either skater from staying committed to delivering their programs with the same intensity and dedication to choreography. I really think that's a sign of dignity and class. Missed opportunities maybe... but failures they were not.

A NO GO FOR COOMES AND BUCKLAND: First Nick, then Penny... British Champions Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland's bad luck started (or should I say continued) when they announced the week prior to the World Championships that they wouldn't be able to compete due to Penny's illness. After being forced to withdraw from illness at the European Championships as well due to Nick falling ill, this couldn't have been a more disappointing end to their season. It's a damn shame. I quite like this team and thought their Muse free dance this season showed some great potential when I saw them perform it at the Rostelecom Cup. Drink lots of green tea and come back and wow us next season... please!

A PETER GRIFFIN "COME AAAAAAAAAN!" MOMENT: If I was going to point out one skater who I thought got royally screwed and lost in the numbers game in Shanghai, it would be France's Maé-Bérénice Méité in the short program. Her highest finish at Worlds was eleventh back in 2013 but this is a skater with an impressive track record internationally including a top ten result at last year's Olympics but the judges have seemingly been paying her less and less attention as the years pass by at the big events. In her short program, she finished twelfth with a score of 57.08 despite landing a triple toe/triple toe, triple flip and double axel and was placed behind a Russian skater who fell so hard on her triple loop it looked like she hit her head on the ice and Americans Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, who (to be fair) both made more than one error. I'm not suggesting that Méité's performance was top five material, but what I am suggesting is that she skated well on the day in question and others didn't. One only has to look to something as simple as Hanyu beating Fernandez in the men's short program to know that a couple of points fairly distributed to skaters can make all the difference. Méité could have used a little more love from the judges in Shanghai for putting a really fine effort out there. I was happy to see her make the top ten with a free skate that showed a lot of fight.

LEGENDS OF THE FALLS: This just wasn't Anna Pogorilaya's competition, which only adds fuel to my personal fire that the Russian Federation should have sent World Silver Medallist Alena Leonova to compete in Shanghai. They didn't, but that doesn't mean I'm going to shut up about it. Poor Anna not only had that epic fall in her short program (which I mentioned when talking about Méité) but followed that bruiser up with epic falls on her second triple lutz attempt and the triple toe-loop on the back end of her double axel combination. Based on her positioning on take off and in the air, there were another two other jumps in that free skate she was damn lucky to have landed on her feet on. These weren't just falls. They were FALLS! Just looking at her lutz technique and the lean, I think it's time to change the technique before girl seriously injures herself because that was just plain scary to watch. 

BAD DEPENDING ON WHERE YOU LIVE: 2015 marked the first time since 2008 than no Russian pair stood on the podium at the World Championships, when of course Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, Dan and Hao Zhang and Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison were the medallists. The Russian men and ice dance teams were also not able to crack the Cinquanta code to the podium this year. This was all quite interesting to me considering that Russia was victorious in the team event in Sochi and has long been historically known for the depth of their talent pool. I think the country's showing in the ladies event however more than made up for it, don't you?

THE MUSIC OF THE.... NIIIIIIIIIIGHT: Olympic Gold Medallists Brian Boitano and Robin Cousins both gave haunting interpretations of Andrew Lloyd Webber's haunting song "Music Of The Night" during their careers as competitive professional skaters, so good in fact that anyone who knew enough to know to leave well enough alone probably never would have picked up the "Phantom Of The Opera" soundtrack and said "do you know what would be a good idea for a program this season? Phantom?" No, just no. The Phantom's emerged fast and furious all week in Shanghai. Two of the three Japanese men's competitors (Yuzuru Hanyu and Takahito Mura) used Webber's score for their free skate as did teammate Kanako Murakami in the ladies event. Think it stopped there? Not even close sweetie. The Philippines' Michael Christian Martinez and America's Gracie Gold were also among the Phantasmic family. There would have even been representation in the pairs and ice dance events had the Austrian pair or Polish and South Korean ice dancers qualified for their respective finals. This warhorse was the clear 2015 program of choice and much as podcaster extraordinaire Allison Manley kindly pleads skaters to "never skate to Carmen", this Canadian blogger is Phantomed out. Going through music for 2016? Don't even think about it sweetie. Slowwwwly, gennnnntly, put that CD your pocket... if you don't, I'll stick my finger in a sockkkkkket!  

BRONZE FOR RADIONOVA: I'm sorry, but the skating skills of this precocious jumper are not of a senior standard and her free skate at Worlds was like watching a commercial illustrating everything I detest about what the IJS system stands for and demands. She finally showed signs of humanity here and unravelled on some of her jumping passes to finish sixth in the free skate with a score of 121.96 in that portion of the event but the strength of her short program score was somehow enough to keep her on the podium. The fact that her PCS score of 61.95 was still the fourth highest of the night was a joke to me as the foundational skating skills, musical interpretation and expression of other skaters that are even in her age bracket like Edmunds and Miyahara were on a different level entirely. Can this girl jump? Yes. However, like Japan's Rika Hongo, some care needs to be paid to completely redeveloping her posture, edges and understanding of movement to music before I'm going to be able to take her seriously. Hongo has been improving in this area as the season has gone on. Radionova sadly in my opinion has not. I want this skater to prove me wrong next season. I really do!

THE TWIZZLE AND LIFT COMPETITION: When IJS was introduced, great care was given by "the powers at be" developing the system to be incredibly specific when refining the technical criteria of ice dancing. Like in the singles and pairs event where jumps, spins, throws and lifts take center stage and are assigned levels and GOE's, the same thing obviously goes on in ice dancing. Great pains have been made to quantify the unquantifiable and as a result ice dancing has become more about the twizzles, lifts and various step sequences that about the whole package. And of course, the secret to success is somehow managing to find a way to check of the boxes and get those levels while still demonstrating musicality, good edges, speed, posture, balance, chemistry, choreography and creativity. That's the idea on paper. In winning every event they've entered all season, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje have clearly demonstrated that whole package with exquisite programs performed with finesse and flair. In Shanghai, they got nitpicked at every corner. After finishing second in the short dance with the performance of the night, they came out and performed their gorgeous free dance to "The Four Seasons" as well as they have all season, They were rewarded with the third highest PCS score with marks for skating skills, transitions/linking footwork/movement and composition/choreography lower than both the Americans and Gabriella Papakadis and Guillaume Cizeron that won. 

Don't get me wrong here. I think the French team is pretty fantastic and their free dance was an absolute pleasure to watch. They've improved by leaps and bounds this season, but even with that said a meteoric jump from thirteenth the previous year to first isn't a reason to say "Look? Now skaters aren't judged solely on their reputation and they can make these big moves! Isn't that wonderful?" Give me a break. I can hear the crickets as well as you can. It's still ice dance and it's still unheard of. Comparing the 2014 free dance PCS scores from Worlds to the 2015 scores, you'd think they'd improved so exponentially that they were juggling bicycles on stilts during a twizzle section expertly timed to a 2/4 beat.

Add to the PCS scores level three's on the circular and diagonal in hold step sequences and a -1.00 deduction for an extended lift and poof! It's all explainable, right? Wrong. 

To add insult to injury, the silver went to the Americans. You know how it is. If you're from Canada and cheering for Canadians and not a huge fan of the skating of the top Americans, you're going to hear about it. If you're like me you might even have a chuckle at the decades old double standard. It's all a trope. The fact of the matter is I have watched Chock and Bates' free dance set to "An American In Paris" start to finish a handful of times this season and right from the first time I saw them skate it at Skate America, it didn't work for me. They're without question a talented team with good lifts, speed and edges but the choreography by Igor Shpilband is unimaginative, contrived shtick. You know how Disney makes these straight to video films and they're probably on The Land Before Time 25 now? I just feel like this team is capable of so much more than the same generic cliché free dances we have seen from them the last three seasons. This team has every reason to be pleased with the execution of their free dance and result in Shanghai with the exception of those twizzles which they got off very easy on. However, I thought the program lacked creativity and sincere passion as compared to either Weaver and Poje's or Papadakis and Cizeron's performances... and wouldn't you know it? The Choreography and Interpretation marks were generous as always. That said, their short dance which earned them 74.47 and the lead in that part of the competition was the best performance I've seen from them all season hands down even if that program isn't my cup of tea either. Their first twizzles were so on point they could have been in a freaking instructional video. I just sincerely fear this may be next:

Now that we've all learned about double dream feet, let's get back to the ice dance event. It was nice to see Gilles and Poirier rewarded with a sixth place finish after their incredible growth this season but must have been a bitter pill for the Shibutani's to swallow going the classical route this season to appease the judges and ultimately finishing fifth with their finest free dance ever on the World stage. 

One of the most egregious examples of utter foolishness in my opinion was the skewering of Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam. Dropping from eighth to thirteenth place was quite the slap in the face for a beautiful team and free dance. Their PCS score was actually higher than at Four Continents so it looks like the level on their midline step sequence and the twizzles are what did them in. I don't know about you, but the more ice dance is technically quantified the more frustrating it all becomes to me. The eternal optimist in me is grateful for the phenomenal skating but the realist sees an Italian referee and a result that doesn't reflect the bigger picture of the performances we saw out there.

MINIMUM SCORES AT THE "WORLD" CHAMPIONSHIPS: In an obvious effort to save money, in recent years the ISU introduced a Minimum TES requirement for skaters to be even eligible to compete at the World Championships (below table courtesy good ol' Wikipedia):

Minimum technical scores (TES)
DisciplineSP / SDFS / FD
Ice dance2939
Must be achieved at an ISU-recognized international event
in the ongoing or preceding season.
SP and FS scores may be attained at different events.

Although this ruling eliminated the need for skaters (or unseeded skaters) to have to tire themselves out by competing in an initial Qualifying Round or Preliminary Round, in effect this not so brilliant move from the ISU vastly limited the number of ISU member nations to even send ONE skater or team to the World Championships to thirty seven. Thirty seven? Depending on the source, there over one hundred and ninety countries in the world and seventy three of those countries are ISU members. That effectively means that thirty six countries didn't get to even send a single entry to the WORLD Championships. Talk about inclusiveness. If many countries aren't even going to bother to offer decent television coverage of the competition itself, I'm not quite sure what all the hoopla is about in terms of saving money anyway, right? As I wrote when talking about the EXACT SAME ISSUE in the Four Continents blog: "If you're just going to cut half of the skaters after the short program anyway and get rid of qualifying rounds, I don't see what the harm is in allowing them the opportunity to go and LEARN from skating against some of the world's best. I'm reminded of Père Henri's wonderful sermon from the end of the movie Chocolat: 'Listen, here's what I think. I think that we can't go around... measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think... we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create... and who we include.' Cinquanta doesn't get it... not by a long shot." It's easy to sit back in our armchairs in countries with outstanding training centers and resources and say that maybe the skaters who didn't meet these TES scores "aren't good enough", but that's completely missing the point as far as I'm concerned. 

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":

I've Cried Enough For All Of Us: The Mabel Fairbanks Story

Photo courtesy "Ebony" magazine

"I have a certain way of being in this world, and I shall not, I shall not be moved from doing what I think is right by jealousy, ignorance or hate." - Maya Angelou

"I do not skate with my feet but with my head." - Mabel Fairbanks, "The Chicago World", June 26, 1948

Mabel Fairbanks was born on November 14, 1915 on the land of the Seminole people in the Florida Everglades. She didn't know her father and her mother died at the age of eight, after which she was raised by her grandmother in Jacksonville. At the age of fourteen, she was sent up to New York City to live with her sister and take a business course. While working as a babysitter to a young mother, she watched other people her age skating on a small pond that wasn't far from Central Park and was so taken by the sport that she became determined to take it up herself. 

Using a dollar and twenty five cents from her meagre babysitting wages, Mabel bought a pair of used skates at a pawn shop that were two sizes two big and stuffed them so they'd fit, and headed out skating on the pond. She struggled with the subpar ice conditions and an onlooker suggested that she'd fare better at an actual rink. To say Mabel, who was of both African American and Seminole heritage, wasn't exactly accepted with open arms was the understatement of the century. A cashier at the Gay Blades Ice Casino on Broadway and 52nd Street told her "blacks didn't skate there". She returned several time and each time was told th same thing and turned away. Finally, Lewis Clark (a manager at the rink) let her take to the ice. Maribel Vinson Owen and Howard Nicholson were sympathetic and offered her some tips, but she certainly wasn't welcomed to the sport with open arms.

Photo courtesy "Ebony" magazine

I want to get a few things across here. This wasn't the bible belt; this wasn't Alabama, Tennessee or Arkansas. This was New York City and the racism wasn't watered down in the least. Maribel Vinson Owen and Howard Nicholson weren't permitted to teach Mabel on the regular sessions, so they stayed behind and gave her free lessons on the public sessions because she saw something in her. When you have rinks blatantly posting signs that say "No Negroes Allowed", not only was Mabel at risk of being booted out of there at any minute, Maribel and Howard were in real danger of losing her jobs and/or students for helping Mabel... and that's a big part of this story that's not given much contemplation. Also, Mabel just wasn't a good skater, she was an excellent skater. Yet, she couldn't test or compete. Want someone to point your finger at? Look no further than the two men who held the presidency of U.S. Figure Skating from 1930 to 1937 in alternating terms: eight-time U.S. Champion Sherwin Badger and former pairs skater Charlie Morgan Rotch. They called the shots at the time. They could have changed things if they wanted to, but they didn't. This isn't really about finger pointing though, because right down to the cashier who wouldn't let Mabel in to skate to the parents and fellow skaters who viewed her with derision, racism was and is a societal problem... not just an issue of a couple jerks being jerks. 

Photo courtesy "Opportunity" magazine

At any rate, the ever-determined Mabel didn't give up hope of being able to compete with her peers and even tried to do something about it. In the "LA Times" in 1998, she recalled, "I wanted to train for the Olympics. So I went to black doctors, lawyers, teachers, anyone I could think of who might help fund lessons and everything I'd need. They all said, 'Go away little girl.'" By now most people would have hung up their skates but Mabel wasn't having it one bit.

In 1940, Mabel ultimately made the decision to leave New York City behind and move to California. With the help of a promoter named Wally Hunter, she embarked on a professional career, performing with Belita in "Rhapsody On Ice" at the Teatro Blanquita in Havana, in USO nightclub shows in France and Germany, "School Days On Ice", George Arnold's Ice Revue in Palm Springs and on an ice tanks installed at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Gayety Theatre and Play Room Night Club in Los Angeles. She also performed as a dancer in a floor show called "Harlem Holidays" at the Little Harlem Club in Los Angeles, wowing audiences with a dance she called the 'Holly-Harlem-Hula-Boogie'. She'd received instruction in dance from Jean Hamilton of Michael's School of Acrobatics.

Bob Turk and Mabel Fairbanks. Photo courtesy "Ebony" magazine.

A clip of Mabel's skating found its way to the "All-American News" - America's first newsreel catering to black audiences - in 1945. Her skating took her to places of the world many only dreamed of visiting, but when she wanted to be considered for the big touring ice shows of the time - the Ice Capades and Follies, she was flatly turned down and told, "We don't have Negroes in ice shows." A letter to Sonja Henie, whom she'd idolized after seeing "One In A Million", went unanswered. 

Photo courtesy "JET" Magazine

World Champion Randy Gardner explained, "Mabel's professional skating career was during the time where there was segregation in this country and abroad. I remember her telling me that when she would do shows, during the breaks or at dinner time, she would have to sit outside away from the other cast members to eat her meal. But, Bob Turk (who later became producer and director of the Ice Capades) would go out and sit with her during those times so she wouldn't have to be alone. Even going through those experiences, she had so much spirit and drive, I guess she had to create a survival technique in order to succeed in a prejudiced world. And she did!"

Photos courtesy "Ebony" magazine (top) and "JET" magazine (bottom)

Ignoring the signs of "coloured trade not solicited" displayed in California rinks, she embarked on a lucrative coaching career in California at The Polar Palace in 1949. She continued to perform professionally throughout the fifties and early sixties, appearing in the television program "Frosty Frolics" and the International Ice Festival in Bogota, Colombia.

Photo courtesy "World Ice Skating Guide"

Mabel also toured with her own show, "Ice America", which was billed as the "world's only interracial ice and stage show". The tour donated a portion of the proceeds to the Bronx charity Eastside Settlement House Building Fund. 

In 1951, Mabel toured the Southern states in George Arnold's production "Rhythm On Ice" and was sent by Columbia Pictures to the Far East, where she was the only American star in a skating production at a Japanese rink.

Photo courtesy "Ebony" magazine

Over the years at the Polar Palace and Iceland, Mabel taught a who's who of Hollywood how to skate - Natalie Cole, Eartha Kitt and her daughter Kit, Joe Louis, Dean Martin's whole family, Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby's granddaughter among them. She also coached an impressive roster of elite competitive skaters and mentored skaters like Debi Thomas, Kristi Yamaguchi, Rudy Galindo and Scott Hamilton. If someone was too poor to pay for lessons, she taught them for free and let them stay with her at her home on Laurel Canyon Boulevard... that's what kind of woman Mabel was. She continued to fight for the rights of skaters of colour her whole life, petitioning the Culver City Skating Club to admit Richard Ewell III to its membership in 1965, making him one of the first African American skaters to gain admission to a U.S. figure skating club. The next year, she coached Atoy Wilson to become America's first U.S. champion of colour when he won the novice title at the 1966 U.S. Championships. She coached Ewell and his partner Michelle McCladdie, who become America's first African American pair team to win a U.S. junior title in 1972. When Rory Flack wanted to quit skating at the age of thirteen because of the racism she was experiencing, Mabel urged her to soldier on. 

Left: Tai Babilonia and Mabel Fairbanks. Right: Mabel Fairbanks and her student Gjert Gjertson standing in the ruins of The Polar Palace, destroyed by fire in 1962

Mabel was also the person who paired World Champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. Tai recalled, "Mabel was not of this planet. She was unique, eclectic, one of a kind, motivating. I could go on and on. In the late sixties, in her locker in the back room at the rink in Culver City, she had at least four pairs of skates in different colours. I think they were Harlick's made especially for her? I never asked. A pair were pink and that's why I wear the pink skates - to honor her. She had flaming red hair, her wardrobe was different and eclectic. It looked part couture, part old pieces she had... just a mix and match of everything. It's so hard to explain her but she really liked to stand out and she knew how. She lived in Hollywood and the house is still there. For a lot of her students it was like our second home. We'd stay there after skating Friday nights and have sleepovers and she'd drive us to the rink the next day. I have magical memories of that home. She lived a block and a half north of Sunset Boulevard. It was just so normal for us. On ice, she was very much a disciplinarian but just so motivating!" 

Photo courtesy "Ebony" magazine

Randy Gardner recalled, "I started group classes with Mabel when I was seven years old. She was exuberant, colourful and fancy. I had never really met anyone quite like that before. Her personality made her classes and private lessons so much fun. I couldn't wait to get to the rink to take her class. Mabel was the one that paired up Tai and me for the local skating club show. She took a chance, I guess, but she really encouraged us to skate pairs, but neither of us really wanted to do it. After all, I was ten years old and Tai was eight. Later in life, when she had retired and health issues arose, she never forgot to call me during all the holidays, especially Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Those calls made me feel like I was special, just like she always had when I was young boy beginning to skate... She changed my life, my family's life, she changed Randy's life. Who knew it would start with something as simple as 'hold his hand and skate around the rink together'... To say that we are still holding hands so many years later, that's so powerful to me. I am so grateful for the lessons from her that I learned that I still use in my skating life and everyday life and as a mother, person and a woman. She never backed down and that's what I loved about her. You don't back down. You learn from that. She fought for herself but more than that she fought for us. She was a remarkable woman."

Photo courtesy "Ebony" magazine

Mabel devoted the majority of her time to skating, but also enjoyed swimming, playing tennis, exercising, glass etching and painting. She never really got into dating, telling an "Ebony" reporter, "Skating was my great love. Everyone wanted to marry me, but I was married to skating." Her students became almost like surrogate children to her and she coached until she was seventy nine years old. 

At the 1997 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville, Mabel was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall Of Fame, a moment that meant just so much to her and the students lives that she touched. Tai Babilonia recalled, "That was her moment! I was there and Atoy [Wilson] was there. I've never seen her happier than that night.  Mabel getting that induction and to be there for her and walk her out on the ice, that is up there in the top three moments of our career, because without that, we wouldn't even be talking."

Photo courtesy "The Greater Omaha Guide"

Sadly, Mabel was diagnosed with the neuromuscular disease Myasthenia gravis in 1997. In 2001, she was also diagnosed with leukemia. She passed away in Burbank, California on September 29, 2001, the same month as the 9/11 attacks in the city she grew up as a young skater. Tai Babilonia kept in touch with Mabel until the day she passed. She received a call from Atoy Wilson letting her know that Mabel had just passed away and rushed to the hospital right away to sit with her. "I felt she was still there," Tai recalled. "To be able to sit and have that final conversation... that was a very special moment."  

In 1998, when a reporter visited Mabel's home and teared up hearing about the struggles she faced in the figure skating world, Mabel told her, "Don't cry dear... I've cried enough for all of us." Thank you, Mabel Fairbanks, for making an impact... and for never backing down.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":

The Brilliant Brunet's

Photo courtesy National Archives Of Poland

Simply put, no French pairs team in history has ever replicated the achievements of the husband and wife team of Andrée (Joly) and Pierre Brunet. As a pairs team, they won eleven French national titles, a European title, four World titles and three consecutive medals (the latter two gold) at the Winter Olympic Games.

Left:  Andrée Brunet posing in her skates. Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France. Right:  Andrée and Pierre Brunet in 1927. Photo courtesy National Archives Of Poland.

What made The Brunet's dominance even more incredible was that during their tenure, they also both dominated the singles competitions at the French Championships as well. Andrée won ten consecutive national titles from 1921 to 1930 and Pierre won seven men's titles to boot after claiming the silver medal in his first effort at age seventeen in 1923. Even more mind blowing was that during their career as a pair in international competition, they were only ever defeated twice: at the 1924 Olympics and the 1925 World Championships.

Photos courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

Born in June of 1902, Pierre Brunet got his start as a skater at the age of nine when he came to Paris from Northern Paris with his father, a French industralist. His New York Times Obituary describes his beginnings as a skater: "Playing hooky one day, he stumbled upon a frozen pond in the Bois de Boulogne and was so enchanted by the novel sight of the skaters that he promptly went home, got his savings and bought himself a pair of skates and a book of instruction." According to Steve Milton's book "Figure Skating's Greatest Stars", "Brunet was a 19-year-old engineering student at Paris Technical Institute when he met Andrée Joly on Paris' only indoor rink... 'When I saw a couple engaged in skating pairs for the first time, I gave up the idea of engineering,' Brunet recalled to New Yorker magazine in 1954. 'I could see that there was so much to be done,., from an engineer's point of view.'" And invoke change was exactly what these two did.

Photos courtesy National Archives of Poland, Bibliothèque nationale de France

The Brunet's were every bit as groundbreaking as they were unbeatable. They invented mirror skating, the term coined to describe performing side-by-side movements in opposite directions (such as jumps and spins) in unison and Andrée broke convention of the times by wearing black skates like her partner's and wore black instead of the customary white dress of the time to match her partner's costume. They were lauded for being the first team to present a more complete package. American judge Joel Liberman wrote: "They have everything: program, rhythm, speed, style and personality. One cannot think of them apart. Even their separating moves are part of a pairs picture." Though their performance of the first one handed lift in ISU competition was a technical innovation, Pierre Brunet himself once famously said that skating was becoming "a sport for kangaroos" in reference to the drive to add more and more athletic jumps to programs.

Marrying in 1929 halfway through their competitive career, the pair soldiered on, winning their final World title in 1935. They turned professional prior to the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany,
refusing to participate or support the Nazi propaganda that was thematic in those Games.

Top: Otto Gold, Joy Ricketts and Andrée and Pierre Brunet in "St. Moritz And The Engadine Express". Middle: Andrée and Pierre Brunet striking a pose. Bottom: Andrée and Pierre Brunet at the fore of a group of bowing skaters at the Palais de Glace in Paris.

After narrowly losing the World Professional title, they appeared in "Rhapsody On Ice" at London's Royal Opera House  alongside professional star Belita and "St. Moritz And The Engadine Express" at the Stoll Theatre with Otto Gold. They emigrated to the U.S. in 1940, appeared in numerous carnivals and took up coaching. During World War II, they ran a summer school at the Pullar Ice Stadium in Sault St. Marie, Michigan.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Their son Jean-Pierre Brunet was a very successful skater in his own right who won two U.S. pairs titles with his partner Donna Pospisil in 1945 and 1946. Tragically, the summer after he won his second U.S. pairs title, he was tragically killed in an automobile accident at the age of nineteen in his prime. This loss would have unhinged many parents but as coaches, The Brunet's were every bit as unstoppable as they were competitors.

Andrée and Pierre Brunet with baby Jean-Pierre in Paris. Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France.

They taught at the New York Skating Club's rink at the old Madison Square Garden and later in Long Island, Illinois and Michigan, Among their pupils at one point or another were some of the sport's most iconic champions, names like Carol Heiss Jenkins, Donald Jackson, Janet Lynn, Gordon McKellen, Alain Giletti, Alain Calmat, Scott Hamilton and Dorothy Hamill.

Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Olympic Gold Medallist Carol Heiss Jenkins spoke of her time with The Brunet's in her 2012 interview with Allison Manley for the Manleywoman SkateCast: "So I was a member of the Brooklyn Figure Skating Club until I was about six, and someone said to my mom, you should get in touch with the Brunets. And by the time we joined the Skating Club of New York, we were all skating. I didn’t take from Mr. Brunet right away. I started with his wife Andrée, everyone had to start with her and you had to be just a little bit better. I do remember very clearly skating around him when he was giving lessons, I was probably a real pest, so he would see me and notice me because I wanted to take from him so badly. So finally after about a year of taking from Mrs. Brunet, my mom said I would get a tryout lesson with Mr. Brunet, and oh my gosh, I was just beside myself. And I had Mr. Brunet as my coach for all those years, from when I was six and a half, and he was the only coach I ever had, except during the summer when he didn’t teach and we would go away and take from someone else for a few weeks... Pierre was a second father to me, and I can say that now because as the years went by, my mother became ill, and he comforted me during my mother’s death. I trained six days a week, I didn’t always have a lesson every day, but he was always in the rink nearby. And as the years went by we had some heartaches and tragedies, his son being killed in 1948 at the age of 18, and then my mother’s death. And then the wonderful times, winning my first national championship, getting my Axel, getting my double Axel clean, winning the world championship, and of course the Olympics. As I got older and thought back to the lessons at the rink, he would talk about politics, he would talk about what was going on that day, and if you didn’t know what was going on, he told you to read the newspaper."

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

Scott Hamilton too spoke of his time working with Pierre Brunet in his book "The Great Eight": "I was intoxicated by everything Pierre offered... He would come to the rink every day, dressed formally in a white shirt, jacket and tie, and he spoke with a thick, French accent. He did everything as classy as it could be done. He introduced me to structure and discipline in my skating for the first time. I responded very well to his coaching style."

Photo courtesy "World Ice Skating Guide"

Pierre Brunet continued to coach star pupils until his retirement in 1979 although his wife retired earlier due to a back injury suffered in a car accident. One moment that stands out when thinking of Pierre Brunet is his recognition of Janet Lynn's amazing talent, for it was he that encouraged her to go out and bow to the appreciative audience when she didn't medal at the World Championships despite giving an otherworldly free skate.

Dismayed by the elimination of compulsory figures in world competition the year previous, Pierre Brunet passed away of Parkinson's Disease at his home in Boyne City, Michigan on July 27, 1991 at the age of eighty nine. Andrée too, would pass away at age ninety one in Boyne City in 1993. Though Abitbol and Bernardis claimed bronze in 2000, the Brunet's remain to this day the only pairs team in history from France to win a World title and their contributions not only to skating but to coaching many of skating's greatest stars were absolutely vital.   

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":

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