Interview With Liz Manley

Every so often a rare opportunity comes along to interview one of my own skating heroes and so far I've been incredibly fortunate enough to interview several - people like Brian Orser, Anita Hartshorn, Denise Biellmann and countless others I grew up watching compete as professionals that inspired me to get on the ice at a later age than most and achieve my goals as a teenage skater. There are few out there that inspired me more than Olympic Silver Medallist Liz Manley. The first time I ever watched her amazing free skate from the Calgary Olympics probably would have been on Debbi Wilkes' Ice Time show or something like that, but I remember just being in awe... but I was even more gobsmacked by the work she did as a professional. An incredibly versatile and animated performer who always brought music, programs and costumes to the table that made people stand up and take notice, Liz was (and is) an incredibly successful chameleon on the ice and certainly a crowd pleaser in every sense of the expression. I remember seeing her perform on tour at the Halifax Metro Centre and just being like - that's who I want to be like! I have to give huge thanks to Liz for taking the time to do this interview and to the equally fabulous PJ Kwong for hooking us up. Grab yourself a nice cup of coffee and get ready for a trip down memory lane with Canada's skating sweetheart! We talk about everything from Calgary to professional skating to bullying, teen mental health and reality cooking shows. You just can't go wrong and you know you're going to love it!:

Q: I hate to start by asking you a question you've been asked a million times before but I mean... countless professional titles, three Canadian titles, a silver medal at the World Championships, a silver medal at the Calgary Olympics, two books, a TV special, touring with Ice Capades, Tom Collins, Elvis Stojko's tour... you've just done SO much! What are your proudest moments and most special memories looking back now - in 2014?

A: I think the most memorable moments looking back are of course the Olympics but my life professionally was so much fun. I met so many amazing people and got to travel everywhere. I feel that the friendships I developed through the years... well let's say priceless!

Q: YOU are actually a huge part of the reason I started skating myself. Like many people, I was just glued to the TV watching all of these dozens of amazing professional competitions that cropped up after the whole Nancy/Tonya debacle. I remember seeing you skate in ONE competition to Luther Vandross' "The Impossible Dream", Natalie Cole's "This Can't Be Love" and 2Unlimited's "Are You Ready For This?" and absolutely NAILING each one of these programs which were completely different styles and having the audience completely in the palm of your hand. I knew that's what I wanted to do and it wasn't long after that I laced up. SO... I want to talk to you about your success as a professional skater mostly because that's one of the blog's main focuses - professional skating. First of all, how hard was transitioning from the "amateur" to the pro world for you?.

A: The transition at first was very hard because I wasn't used to the gruelling travel schedule and the thousands of shows but once I got used to it and got to skate to fun music and themes I fell in love with it. My greatest job and memory was playing Cinderella for Dorothy Hamill's Ice Capades. I loved playing a role and I can truly say it was my most favourite time as a professional.

Q: I mentioned just a few of your many great programs but there are so many that I remember watching that I loved - "I Love You, Goodbye", "Cats", "Yebo", "Uninvited", "Legends Of The Fall"... I could go on and probably would. What program would you love to revise and skate to again, what program would you never skate again even if they paid you the big bucks and what program had a lot of potential that never really got realized?

A: I loved my "Legends Of The Fall" number. It was the passion I felt for the music and I matured so much with my artistry with this number. "Are You Ready For This?" Never again. I still watch the tapes and wonder how the hell did I ever get through that?! There isn't really any number that I felt could have been better. My choreographer David Gravatt did wonders with all them and I loved them all.

Q: Do you ever think we'll see professional competitions make a comeback? Should they?

A: (laughing) I think the pro competitions are tough to have today because there really isn't anything real about being pro anymore. Skaters do so many competitions and shows now they do not have to turn pro! I feel with all the events that exist now it would be tough to sell unfortunately.

Q: What I think is so cool is that after being the spokesperson for Herbal Magic and getting asked for cooking advice all of the time, you ended up on a cooking show. I remember flipping channels and being like "hold my drink! Liz Manley's on a cooking show with those cute Property Brothers...We're stopping everything and watching Extreme Potluck!". What would be on the menu at a fabulous dinner party at your house and would you be down for all figure skater version of Come Dine With Me Canada?

A: Oh my God, I would love that! Bring it on! I'm in! I love cooking. If I was to have a big dinner I would do a Manley favourite with a great roast, veggies and fruit tarts for dessert. Thanks for watching that show. It was SO much fun to do!

Q: Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford had told me that when they came to do your show, they were treated like absolute rock stars - like the complete star treatment, limo and all. I love that! Where did the idea of putting together Elizabeth Manley And Friends first come from and what have been the most rewarding aspects of doing these events?

A: It means a lot to hear that. I developed the event to raise funds for mental health. I'm passionate about this cause (especially for teen mental health) and this was an event I really wanted to do. It's been so wonderful to do and my friends in skating have been so incredibly gracious at participating in it and helping the cause. Having suffered from depression as a teen myself and understanding the need for help has made me realize the need for more awareness and the reducing of stigma with mental health.

Q: What can you tell me about the third Elizabeth Manley And Friends show you have coming up in Ottawa?

A: Years of support from the city is the backbone of my success. Without the support I got from Ottawa I may not have ever accomplished my dreams. Because of this, I'm at a time in my life where my passion is to give back to my incredible city and that is why I have created these shows, along with my husband Brent Theobald. The February event will be a star studded event with Olympic and world class skaters, aerial and acrobatic stars and the amazing Alan Frew of Glass of Tiger will be performing live along with performing live to some of the skaters. The cast has Elvis Stojko, Javier Fernandez, Shawn Sawyer, Kimmie Meissner, Gladys Orozco, Sara Hurtado and Adria Diaz, aerialist Emmanuelle Balmori, Alan Frew, Violetta Afanasieva and Pete Dack and myself. It's a two day event with an amazing gala dinner at Brookstreet Hotel on February 13 and then one performance show at 7:30 at the new TD Place on February 14. Portions of proceeds will be given to Do It For Daron courtesy of The Ottawa Senators Foundation and YSB (the Youth Services Bureau Of Ottawa. The director is David Rosen and Randy Gardner is choreographing. Presenting sponsors of this great event are TD, BDO and Accora Village. Very excited to have them support me and this great cause!

Q: Speaking Of Do It For Daron, I have to really stand up and applaud you for all of the great work you do in going to schools and talking to kids about issues like depression and bullying. I listened to your interview with PJ Kwong and am just so inspired by your candor and passion when it comes to talking about these important issues and really showing some humanity to people that are going through really hard times, of which I know you've had your fair share. I wrote a series of articles during the Sochi Olympics called "Getting Up And Saying No" that quite bluntly addressed the bullying of figure skaters in social media by "fans" and media and to be honest with you, it is an issue I am very passionate about myself. What are your thoughts on social media and bullying and what are some things athletes can do to address this?

A: It's such a passionate subject for me too and my advice to athletes is to do their best and to ignore what's said or written. It's SO hard to do but the greatest saying I carried with me was "whether they are talking about you - bad or good - at least your worth talking about!" That's my advice for the skaters who feel the bullying or pressure through media.

Q: I have to give you mad props for coming back and getting yourself in the shape you are in and skating again. You need to get on the Stars On Ice tour as far as I'm concerned... just sayin. How difficult was fighting through some injuries and returning to the ice? How has training been going?

A: (laughing) It's been very difficult as I get older but I'm hanging in there. I obviously am not the skater I used to be but I try my best. I unfortunately fractured my back in three places last spring during rehearsals and it's been a tough recovery but I'm back doing okay now!

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: That's a tough one but definitely Scott Hamilton because I loved his many characters and styles and that's what I wanted to be as a pro. Robin Cousins... I studied him for years and I wanted to jump just like him. He was the one I idolized when I competed. Last has to be Barbara Ann Scott. I grew up wanting to be her. She was a princess in my eyes.

Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A: (laughing) I think everyone knows everything about me but I'm a NFL fanatic and love to golf.


Q: What is the best advice you can offer to someone who's really struggling - whether it's with skating, depression, bullying, life... anything?

A: NEVER let anyone tell you you can't or you're not good enough! Believe!

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 figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":

Interview With François-Xavier Ouellette

If you want to talk about breakout skaters, this season's Most Improved Skaters trophy would definitely go to the ice dance duo of Élisabeth Paradis and François-Xavier Ouellette. After competing against each other for two years in the junior ranks, the Quebec team teamed up and made their first appearance at the Canadian Championships TOGETHER in 2011. Four top ten finishes (two as juniors and two as seniors) later, this talented team made their senior Grand Prix debut at Skate America International in October and finished an incredible fourth. Following that result up with a seventh place finish at Skate Canada in Kelowna, they look poised to move up from an eighth place finish last year and make a big impact at Canada's Nationals in January in Kingston. Xavier took the time to talk to me about his life in skating and partnership, working with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, his favourite skaters and much more in this fantastic interview:

Q: This season has really been a breakout one for you and your partner Elisabeth Paradis. After finishing fifth and sixth at the junior level at the Canadian Championships in 2011 and 2012, you moved up to the senior ranks and earned a seventh place finish in 2013 and an eighth place finish last year. What can you share about your journey leading into this season? What moments were most special - and most frustrating?

A: The most special moment for me was when Elisabeth and I learned that we were going to do Skate Canada. It was so unexpected that when our friends called to tell us, we were jumping everywhere and couldn't believe them. I was feeling so lucky to be able to live this big event! I think the most frustrating part of our journey was when we were junior and didn't get any Junior Grand Prix in those two years. We didn't get the chance to show what we were able to do internationally but at the same time, it was probably the best lesson we could have to never give up and fight for what we want. We finally got our first international last year and I think we enjoyed it even more.

Q: When you finished fourth in your senior Grand Prix DEBUT at Skate America in Chicago in October, that was actually only your third international competition. What do you think has been the key to your success so far this season? Is it moreso the strength of your programs, an improvement in your skating skills or both?

A: I think that Marie-France and Patrice did an amazing job with our choreography this year. They are really unique and we connect a lot with the stories. I think that it did help a lot this year! At the same time, we worked a lot on our skating skills and interpretation in the off season and it's starting to show, although there is still room for improvement. So I think we could say that it's a little bit of both.

Q: Obviously with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir not competing this year, the field in Canadian ice dance has opened up a little bit more, but there's still such depth in the field right now. What are your goals for the Canadian Championships in Kingston in January and looking beyond?

A: Yes, I agree that dance is stronger than ever in Canada and I think this is what pushes everybody to be even better. Our goal for Nationals this year is to get on the national team and maybe get a podium. In the long term, our goal is to get to the 2018 Olympics.

Q: As you mentioned before, you train in Montreal with five time Canadian Champions and two time World Medallists Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon as well as Pascal Denis and Romain Haguenauer. That's quite the talented coaching team. How does each member of your team push you to be better than you were the day before?

A: Each of our coaches brings their own little thing, which is the reason why our school here in Montreal is so complete. Marie-France is the artist of the group. She always looks at the choreography as a whole to make sure a story is told and every movement makes sense. The complete opposite is Patrice, the technician. He makes sure we get the maximum technical score and also he is the one who organizes the schedules and everything. Romain is so meticulous on every little detail and he also has so much experience in international coaching to help us getting ready for the biggest events. Pascal is my very first ice dance coach. He is the one who made me love that sport so much. He helps me a lot mentally and also knows how to make the connections work on the ice. Finally, what makes the school special is not only the skating coaches, but also the rest of the team. We work with a fantastic ballroom teacher, Ginette Cournoyer and a theater coach, Catherine Pinard, for interpretation. We also have our trainers, Paul Gagné and Scott Berish, and our ballet teacher, Daria Kruszel.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: Patrice is definitely one of them! Scott Moir is also there. Both of them have this special thing which is that they skate not only with their partner, but mostly for her so that she always looks at her best. They are also, of course, great individual skaters. The third one, I would say is Kurt Browning for his amazing footworks and entertaining and original programs.

Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A: That I used to be a hockey player and still love that sport a lot. Also, I am a huge movie fan, I watch a movie or part of a movie almost every day.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a competitive ice dancer?

A: You need a lot of patience and perseverance. I know it's a classic but I sincerely believe it is the key to success. I still tell it to myself everyday. It might not work today or tomorrow, but if you keep working it will pay off at one point.

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 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 True Gift Of Christmas: Folklore And Fabulous Skating

An otherworldly adventure from start to finish, Toller Cranston's 1985 CBC special "The True Gift Of Christmas" is at turns whimsical, dark and inspiring but never managed to be anything less than spellbinding. Full of the same imaginative dream like archetypes and choreographic concepts that made Strawberry Ice such a roaring success, "The True Gift Of Christmas" is compelling not only in its writing and performance but also in the folklore represented in the underlying story.

The story opens with a young runaway named Chris (played by child actor David Hebert) stumbling upon a ceremonial rite portrayed on ice by an ensemble cast including 1980 Olympic Gold Medallist Robin Cousins and 1984 Olympic Silver Medallists Kitty Carruthers. Wearing elaborate theatrical masks and bearing torches, the eerie scene pays tribute to the first Christmas tree which according to folklore came to be in the eighth century A.D. when St. Boniface was converting Germanic tribes to Christianity. These tribes worshipped oak trees and decorated them in celebration of the Winter Solstice. St. Boniface is storied to have cut down one an enormous oak tree that was central to the tribe's worship and instead, a fir tree grew in its place. The evergreen was then seen as a symbol of Christianity and the converted Germans decorated the tree in celebration of Christmas.

In the dreamlike fog, Chris meets and befriends a woman named Befana (played by Gemini award winning actress Martha Gibson) and quickly learns that she is stuck in a kind of limbo or "purgatory" where every year from midnight on Christmas Eve until dawn she roams this dreamland in search of a "true gift". Her character and back story is elaborated on and we learn that Befana is THE Befana of Italian folklore and holiday tradition. Her story is well explained on the website Italian-Link: "Legend has it that on the 12th night of Christmas (January 5th) the 3 Wise Men, on their search for the baby Jesus, asked 'La Befana' to join them in their quest. She initially declined, stating she had too much housework to do. She later changed her mind and went looking for the 3 Wise Men and the baby Jesus, but was unable to find them. Therefore, every year, on the night of January 5th, 'La Befana', will travel on her magic broom, to every house in Italy in search of the baby Jesus bringing gifts. Climbing down the chimneys, she brings candy (“caramele”) or fruit to the children that were good and black coal ('carbone'), onions or garlic to the children that were naughty. The children will leave out their stockings, and even their shoes, hoping to awake on the morning of January 6th to some 'caramele'. Similar to the Santa Claus tradition, many of the children will write notes to 'La Befana' and even leave out food and wine for her (sausages and broccoli in some parts of Italy). It is a tradition that is still strong in Italy with many stores selling stockings, mostly red, but sometimes even sand-colored, for the children to leave out for 'La Befana'. It is a fairy-tale story of the good witch/bad witch, depending on how you behaved during the past year. After her arrival, there are many parties and Italians will celebrate going from house to house celebrating the bonds of family and friends." Befana's freedom from this limbo (and we soon learn Chris' as well) hinges of Befana's ability to find and give a "true gift" and the various characters they meet along the way all seem to provide a piece of to the puzzle of what "a true gift" means, although Chris is much more adept at picking up on (or choosing to hear) the not so subtle clues along the way. Noting the mystique of their dreamlike environment, Befana exclaims "once you end up here, time and place don't mean anything". Their goal is to find the three wise men and 'the child king' and give them this "true gift".

They are first interrupted by Krampus, a beast-like creature who in Austrian folklore is said to reward good children but punish bad ones by putting them in his sack, carrying them back to his lair and having them for supper. They don't screw around over there, do they? Like the first story depicted on ice, Krampus also has his roots in early Germanic tribal culture. Before long, Chris (who being a runaway is 'bad') is saved by a Danish elf played by Sarah Kawahara and Befana and Chris continue on their not so merry way. 

They next encounter "The Spirit Of Christmas", a recurring narrator like character played by Toller Cranston who is very reminiscent of Pan from A Midsummer Night's Dream in a way and speaks in cryptic rhymes illustrating the lessons to be learned about what a "true gift" is along the way. They then meet these psychedelic optical illusion skating canes and Saint Nicholas and his companion Black Peter (Zwarte Piet). In Charles Truehart's 1999 Washington Post article "Dutch uestion St. Nick's Sidekick", he explains the Black Peter tradition in the Netherlands: "Black Peter has for centuries terrified Dutch children as the ultimate boogeyman of nightmares and parental threats. He is Sinterklaas's dark alter ego, his enforcer and his bagman. If you have been a good child, Black Peter will give you goodies from his bag. If you have been a naughty child, Black Peter will put you in his sack and take you away - to Spain!"    

The unlikely duo of Chris and Befana next face a scene of British soldiers and Befana explains that the scene depicts a two hundred year period in British history when as a result of Oliver Cromwell's rule Christmas was in fact prohibited. The Cromwell Association elaborates and explains that this isn't exactly the whole story: ""It is a common myth that Cromwell personally ‘banned’ Christmas during the mid seventeenth century. Instead, it was the broader Godly or parliamentary party, working through and within the elected parliament, which in the 1640s clamped down on the celebration of Christmas and other saints’ and holy days, a prohibition which remained in force on paper and more fitfully in practice until the Restoration of 1660. There is no sign that Cromwell personally played a particularly large or prominent role in formulating or advancing the various pieces of legislation and other documents which restricted the celebration of Christmas, though from what we know of his faith and beliefs it is likely that he was sympathetic towards and supported such measures, and as Lord Protector from December 1653 until his death in September 1658 he supported the enforcement of the existing measures... Although in theory and on paper the celebration of Christmas had been abolished, in practice it seems that many people continued to mark 25 December as a day of religious significance and as a secular holiday. Semi-clandestine religious services marking Christ’s nativity continued to be held on 25 December, and the secular elements of the day also continued to occur – on 25 December 1656 MPs were unhappy because they had got little sleep the previous night through the noise of their neighbours’ ‘preparations for this foolish day’s solemnity’ and because as they walked in that morning they had seen ‘not a shop open, nor a creature stirring’ in London. During the late 1640s attempts to prevent public celebrations and to force shops and businesses to stay open had led to violent confrontations between supporters and opponents of Christmas in many towns, including London, Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich. Many writers continued to argue in print (usually anonymously) that it was proper to mark Christ’s birth on 25 December and that the secular government had no right to interfere, and it is likely that in practice many people in mid seventeenth century England and Wales continued to mark both the religious and the secular aspects of the Christmas holiday. At the Restoration not only the Directory of Public Worship but also all the other legislation of the period 1642-60 was declared null and void and swept away, and both the religious and the secular elements of the full Twelve Days of Christmas could once again be celebrated openly, in public and with renewed exuberance and wide popular support. The attack on Christmas had failed." Lightening the mood significantly in perhaps one of the more memorable scenes in the entire production, Befana and Chris meet two British merrymakers who sing and skate to a nonsensical song about food and Christmas meals called "Nothing Matters". It is comical, truly bizarre and absolutely unforgettable.

A brief scene develops with these beautiful faceless skating poinsettias! Sarah Kawahara talked about this scene in my March 2014 interview with her: "It was an out of body experience for Jojo Starbuck and I to be poinsettia flowers with our heads as portions of the stamen and our arms, the petals." It's truly just beautiful. In the final main scene before a storm stirred up by Toller's Pan-like character, we are taken to an early Russian Christmas scene with some beautiful skating by Kitty and Peter Carruthers and Kawahara. In this storm, Befana loses her bag of gifts that she's been almost obsessive over collecting in search of a "true gift" to give "the child King" and Befana and Chris encounter a frozen girl who Chris recognizes as The Little Match Girl. "The Little Match Girl", a story written by Danish children's author Hans Christian Andersen, tells the tale of a poor girl selling matches in the street who is already suffering from early hypothermia but is afraid to go home because her father will beat her for not selling any matches. She lights the matches to warm herself and as she slowly dies, sees many Christmas related visions and finally her deceased grandmother. She strikes match after match to keep the vision of her grandmother alive for as long as possible until her grandmother takes her soul to heaven. Passersby take pity on the poor girl when they find her dead in a nook the following morning. Drawing from this city, Chris finally gets through to Befana that a "true gift" is one given unselfishly without one expected in return and she wraps her shawl around the frozen girl who comes to life and skates brilliantly. 

A final banquet scene set to "O Holy Night" features Chris, Befana and the entire skating cast - Cranston, Cousins, Kawahara, the Carruthers', Starbuck and partner Ken Shelley, Norbert Schramm, Simone Grigorescu-Alexander and Shelley MacLeod and John S. Rait. The skating itself in this scene is wonderfully choreographed by Cranston and Kawahara and brings a joyous conclusion to an at times dark but wonderfully told plot line. Kawahara looked back fondly on Cranston's vision for the production: "He was very driven by music, although the story always came first. Toller has a wonderful sense of humor and loves the absurd. I'll never forget when he wanted to have synchronized swimmers as shrimp in the tomato soup at the Christmas banquet". Following the final scene, as Befana has given her "true gift" she is freed from her holiday limbo and Chris awakens in the bedroom that he ran away from in wonder and no doubt more appreciation for what the real holiday spirit is all about.

It's no secret I am a huge fan of Toller's body of work as a skater and artist, but I'm hardly the only one. In Kelli Lawrence's book "Skating On Air: The Broadcast History Of An Olympic Marquee Sport", even Kurt Browning talks about the impact of Toller's early TV specials: "My mother and I enjoyed watching his specials and were amazed by everything about them. They were an adventure in skating!" With cinematography, choreography and concepts far beyond their time and creatively far superior to the majority of televised holiday figure skating fare that hits our televisions these days, "The True Gift Of Christmas" was an absolute treasure and is one worth taking the time to revisit and celebrate. It's a gift in itself!

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":

Interview With Kent Weigle

When ice dancing make its big official debut at the 1976 Winter Olympics after being tested as a demonstration sport previously, all eyes were of course on the trailblazers that were competing at those Games and paving the way for generations to come. Having previously talked to Canadian Barbara Berezowski about her experience competing in those Games, I thought it only fitting to speak with an American ice dancer about their experience in Innsbruck as well. Kent Weigle and Judi Genovesi were one of three U.S. teams competing in 1976 and in 1977, Weigle and Genovesi won the U.S. title as well. Now a respected coach in Utah, Weigle was kind enough to talk to me about his Olympic experience, how ice dancing has developed since he competed, his favourite skaters and much more in this interview you're bound to love:

Q: Your "amateur" career was filled with such amazing accomplishments... winning the U.S. ice dance title in front of a home crowd in 1977, representing the U.S. at the 1976 Olympics in ice dance (the first time ice dancing was officially included in the Olympic roster), competing at three World Championships and winning the Nebelhorn Trophy. Looking back now, what memories stand out as being the most special to you from that time?

A: You really hit on the big one in winning the U.S. title in our hometown. At that time dance was not the popular draw it is nowadays and the media coverage and the support from the local crowd was really something special. That was a big one. Our first title was actually the junior championship and that was our first Nationals. It was in Minneapolis that year (1973) and we won the junior title. It was an interesting memory. Good of course because we won, but at that time junior dance consisted solely of compulsory dances. There was no OSP or free dance. That was the last year that was the case. The dramatic thing about our win that year was that the top four teams did the dances on the ice at the same time. There was actually a day between dances and I managed to catch a horrible case of the flu and ended up in the hospital because I couldn't breathe. When you've got four teams on the ice all doing their dances at the same time, you don't really stop skating for forty five minutes so it was rather dramatic because I was sick and then sure enough, the team who finished fourth started at the wrong cue and we had to start all over again too. I dragged myself through though and it all worked
for best even if it was a rather dramatic way of doing things.

Q: I read an article in Bethesda Magazine where you said that "In the Olympic Village in Innsbruck, I remember feeling like I was in a concentration camp because of the high barbed-wire fences, metal detectors and guards with guns and dogs. It was very odd to be in something like the Olympics, where all of the nations come together, but you actually had to be protected from the world at large. Very sad, but memorable." What more can you share about this experience? 

A: It was unexpected though of course nowadays that would seem mild. In 1976, it was a more of an innocent time. The fear of terror wasn't as bad as it has been since 9/11 but at the time it was like whoa... It just wasn't anything you go into the Olympics expecting to see. There were other memories though... Funny enough, it was the first time that ice dancing was officially included in the Olympics and it was quite an honor, but because of the timing at the event, they put the initial round of ice dance immediately following the opening ceremonies. Our team leader suggested we didn't participate in the Opening Ceremonies so we weren't out in the freezing cold before we had to skate. I regret that I didn't participate because we were in no way medal contenders and it wouldn't have made the least bit of difference. It's kind of what it's all about! That was a little bit of a downer but I remember one of practice rinks was outdoors so that was kind of fun. Getting to watch Dorothy, Pakhomova and Gorshkov, Rodnina and Zaitsev and John Curry win... that was so much fun to be a
part of history and get to watch that.

Q: Rather than tour professionally, you actually turned right to coaching ice dance in 1977 and have been busy since working in Utah. Was professional skating or touring something you ever considered?

A: Do you know, I think I would have really enjoyed it but at the time there weren't really a lot of opportunities for a lot of dance couples. Dance wasn't the draw back then until Torvill and Dean did their own show. We didn't really have the venues to perform the way we would have chosen to. It didn't make sense to tour unless you could do it in a way you could feel good about. With that said, we had achieved our goals and were probably maybe getting a little sick of each other at that point anyway. It gets to the 'been there, done that, move on' point. It was a combination of being ready to move on to the next stage in your life and not really having a lot of other things to move on to.

Q: Ice dancing has obviously changed so much since you competed. What do you like about the progress that has been made and what concerns you about how the discipline has developed?

A: I think in ice dance now, there is no resemblance to what I was doing back then. Not that it's bad or even good... it's just so different. What they are able to do or allowed to do is incredible though. The rules back then were... oh my gosh, just so restrictive, that it limited what we could do. It took Torvill and Dean and that era to push that things. The rules were just horrendously restrictive. The rules now have allowed dancing to flourish and develop past where I could ever imagine. I look at Meryl and Charlie now and am like holy shit! This is just amazing skating skill. I think dancers are the best skaters out there. I know maybe I'm a little biased because I was a dancer, but it requires a skill set you don't have in singles and pairs. It just blows my mind. I don't see any negatives about ice dancing today. I think it's really positive and interesting to watch for public. The only thing I think is sad is that I loved compulsory dances. I know it's a relic but I think compulsory dances are a beautiful part of ice dance. They're so elegant and beautiful. It was dance to me. In terms of getting rid of them, I understand why it was done but I would loved to have seen that part stay.

Q: What do you feel is the biggest problem facing skating today?

A: I just think in the efforts to try to make things fair, they developed this newer system. I think the intent was good but as with anything, the downside is that programs in freestyle and even in pairs have become so formulaic to get these bullets and blah blah blah... The interest and originality of skating that was part of it all - the Janet Lynn's, the Michelle Kwan's - it transcended the technical and took it to a place where it was beautiful and unexpected and now it's just about counting the points and saving all of the difficult jumps for the back half of the program and doing this variation on a spin to get these points. The biggest problem is that it's all the same and very few skaters have been able to do something different and original. That needs to be considered and I think a lot of coaches you talk to feel the same way.

Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know?

A: (laughing) That I am really a boring person? I'm such an open book that I don't know what people wouldn't know about me? They probably don't know that I'm even around and think I dropped off the face of the earth!

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: The top of my list, of course, Charlie and Meryl. I still get moved by what they do. It just blows me away. We all thought Tanith and Ben were wonderful and they were but whoa... I just get choked up. Listen to me! Charlie and Meryl are uncomprehendingly brilliant when they skate. Martini and Underhill. I specifically remember the year when they had a bad skate at the Olympics and had a brilliant skate at Worlds and won. They were on the world tour and I was asked to be an announcer. I had to watch their program every time. As for singles skaters, gosh... Kurt Browning period... Brian Orser, Brian Boitano and John Curry. Curry was certainly in a class by himself.

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":

Frozen Tennis Courts In The Himalayas: Skating History In India

Skating history in India? You probably think that goes back what... maybe ten years? Well, that's simply not the case. I was fortunate enough to have chance to speak with Bhavnesh Banga, the President of India's Skating Federation. I also received some wonderful background about the main character in this story from British reference librarian Dorian Leveque and Thacker's Indian Directory 1920. Let's roll up our sleeves and delve deeper into some fascinating aspects of skating history in India that date back all the way to 1920!

Shortly after World War I ended, a rickshaw and carriage builder living in India by the name of Jack Blessington noticed that his water taps were freezing in the vicinity of his tennis courts. Now, you probably think... India, warm climate. You're right and you're not. Most of India is certainly temperate to warm but Mr. Blessington lived in an area of India known as Shimla, which is situated in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. Shimla is at an altitude of approximately five thousand feet above sea level. Taking some time away from his role as proprietor of his business Blessington Rickshaw Works, Blessington noted that a bucket of water he'd inadvertently left outside overnight had frozen. He decided to try a little experiment! With the assistance of his Indian servants, he flooded his tennis courts by spraying them with water. To his joy and amazement, the courts froze over and were converted into an ice skating rink during the winter of 1920. He formed the Shimla Ice Skating Club, the first skating club to be established in India and all of Southeast Asia for that matter and skating was regularly available from mid November to mid February yearly. In the club's infancy, only Europeans were permitted to skate there but after some deliberation, a few Indians were also permitted to be become members. After India gained independence from Great Britain in the late 1940's with the Indian Independence Act 1947, the membership of the club formed by Blessington in 1920 was opened to all, regardless of "caste, color and creed". Sadly, this was not something that he ever got to see in his lifetime. Jack Blessington died on February 23, 1938 at the age of fifty seven as the result of a gunshot wound, according to his death record.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Bhavnesh Banga (President of the Ice Skating Association Of India) explained that since the Shimla Skating Club was established "a couple of covered ice rinks opened in the cities of Kolkata, Ahemdabad and Delhi by private businessmen but subsequently were shut down due to unviable financial returns. There are a couple of open air ice rinks in Leh. These are again natural rinks where lakes freeze and become ice rinks. Here ice hockey is very popular. The Canadian High Commission in India is very active in giving support to the skaters of the small towns of Jammu and Kashmir. Here the skating activities started in the early nineties." Banga went on to talk about figure skating in India in more modern times: "An artificial covered ice rink of international standards was developed in a city known as Dehradun by the government, where we had some skating as well as some competitions as well... but again due to lack of funds it is lying closed down. In the last couple of years again a few private entrepreneurs have established covered but small rinks in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune but having a lack of infrastructure, our skaters have no option but to get specialized training outside India."

India's first skating club and rink in Shimla, however, remains operational in present day and presents a skating festival every year. It even hosted the country's first National Championships, organized by the Indian Olympic Association in the year 2000. Over the years the club has played host to numerous dignitaries including former Prime Ministers of India Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and Yugoslavia's first President Josip Broz Tito. In recent years, India has been represented internationally by skaters such as Amar Mehta, Ami Parekh, Aadyna Borkar, Yonika Eva Washington and Hounsh Munshi. As explained by Banga, many skaters representing India in competition do travel or live abroad, but opportunities to skate in India are indeed still available.

Vince Lombardi once said that "we would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible". You have to wonder if prior to that bucket of water freezing outside of Blessington's home in 1920, he had ever considered or believed that creating an ice rink on the grounds of his property would have ever been a reality. It is heartening that that rink is still in operation almost one hundred years later. Who knows? Maybe a future World Champion will find their skating legs in the foothills of the Himalayas. Impossible? Hardly.

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":

Katarina Witt: 6.0 Of Her Best Programs EVER!

Trying to name 6.0 of two time Olympic Gold Medallist and four time World Champion Katarina Witt's best programs is like trying to name six of Julia Child's best recipes, six of Tracy Chapman's best songs or six of one of those football people's best touchdowns or home runs or whatever it is they do. I don't know anything about the team sports. I do know a thing or two about fantastic skating and as far as understanding of music, presence and artistry on the ice, Katarina Witt is one of the most talented and memorable stars the sport has ever seen. There's something larger than life about her skating that draws you in and something so authentic about her interpretations of music that puts you at ease and makes you completely in awe of her talent. Let's celebrate Katarina's December 3 birthday by taking a trip down memory lane and enjoying 6.0 of her best programs! Grab yourselves a hot beverage (I sound like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory) and make the time to take in 6.0 of Katarina's best programs:



I may not swing in Katarina's direction, but it doesn't take an interest in beautiful women to grasp why she received over thirty five thousand love letters from men around the world after her first Olympic win at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. Always the seductress on the ice, she used the old maxim "sex sells" to her advantage both as an "amateur" and professional. Her hearty and flirtatious program to Melissa Etheridge's hit "I'm The Only One" (choreographed by Michael Seibert) surely brought her many more admirers around the world when she performed it during the 1995/1996 Stars On Ice tour and in professional competitions like the 1996 World Team Skating Championships in Milwaukee, which helped secure Team Europe's win over skaters from the U.S., Canada and Russia. What I love about this program is not only the music and costuming but the structuring. It plays to her strengths and plays to the audience and that's really what an entertaining program is about. This one's a gem.


The Academy Award winning picture "Schindler's List" is one of history's most important films, sharing with a whole new generation the story of The Holocaust... and reminding me of Anne Frank, the skater. In a program choreographed as a joint effort by Katarina and Diana Goolsbee, Katarina's "Schindler's List" interpretation centered on the story of the girl in the red coat, one of only two glimpses of color in a sea of grey and despair in the black-and-white picture. Recognizing the irony of a German skating to the music, Katarina wanted to illustrate in her interpretation of the music through movement that German people are different today but we must never forget what happened during The Holocaust. In the program, Katarina plays the role of the girl in the red coat as if she had grown up and lived and the stark and emotional choreography is representative of the girl's past and home. The program is touching beyond words and Katarina's obvious passion for peace is evident not only in this piece, but her programs to "Where To Have All The Flowers Gone?", "Sister's Keeper" and "Angel"... and after all, isn't peace and love the most important message at all any of us can share?



People were shocked when Katarina decided to join fellow Olympic Gold Medallists such as Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov and Brian Boitano when the International Skating Union allowed reinstatement of professionals in time for the 1993/1994 season and Lillehammer Olympics. After all, the diva and darling of ladies figure skating had not only won once but twice. Although she didn't have the technical difficulty to compete with the ladies field six years after retiring from eligible competition, she proved she had heart, delivering a flawless and dramatic short program to "Robin Hood" and an emotionally charged free skate to "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" dedicated the people of the war torn city of Sarajevo, where she won her first Olympic gold medal in 1984. In a 1994 interview with the New York Times' Ira Berkow, Katarina talked about her costume choice for "Robin Hood": "I wore the Robin Hood - like a man's costume - because I didn't want to be accused of seducing the judges this time... And I like the Robin Hood character. So I wore an outfit up to my neck... But I think that leaves more to the imagination. Sexier than cleavage, no?" The way people related to and cheered on Katarina and her comparatively less difficult jumps in Lillehammer is proof and parcel that the skaters who move us and who we FEEL something for are the skaters we cheer on.


I included this particular piece among the many more dramatic pieces Katarina Witt not only for contrast but to recognize its quality. "Lemon Tree" was a program Katarina skated professionally from 1996 to 1997. Set to music by Fool's Garden, it showcased Katarina's playful, flirtatious side and was peppered with nuances and fun choreography. You can't help but watch this one and smile from ear to ear!



Created by longtime choreographer Rudi Suchy in collaboration with Katarina's coach Frau Jutta Muller, The Battle Of The Carmen's and Katarina's victorious Habanera at the 1988 Calgary Games remains to this day one of the most iconic moments in Olympic figure skating history. On her website, Katarina describes her "Carmen" performance in her words: "I attempt to be seductive, coquettish, and to translate her story of love, pain and sorrow with choreography. And of course I must do this while "dying"... The bells at the beginning of my music transform me into Carmen immediately. Energetically, I jump my first combination triple toe-loop/double toe-loop, on to the triple salchow, then the double axel and another triple toe-loop. And almost without breathing. I make up for that. I spend the hard-won 30 seconds flirting with the judges, and not only with the 7 men among them, and 'posing' choreographically for the audience. That's unimaginable today! Too bad, really! Peggy Fleming and Dick Button, commentating for ABC, utilize this little "break". Peggy wants to give me a woman-to-woman compliment, and said, 'This is the moment in which Katarina attempts to draw in the audience's attention. And her theatrical...' But she doesn't get any further, as Dick finished her sentence in a somewhat brash manner, 'there's nothing theatrical about that, it's just posing.' If only they knew, that during the 'flirting break', my heart almost fell into my costume, because suddenly, I had no more strength in my legs. During the habanera, 'Love is a wild bird, which no one can tame, and it is useless to call him, if he doesn't want to come' I feel weak and tired and would prefer to stop. Hello! In front of a million spectators, I can hardly fall asleep on the ice! I realize in the run-up to the triple Rittberger, that I don't have the necessary chutzpah for that, and do a double instead. The following triple Salchow combination went so flawlessly well, I would have loved to have audibly screamed for joy. But for now I am Carmen, and can't very well let out a squeal of delight, while the jealous José is on the verge of giving me a razor sharp death blow. The last double axel is also a success, and I feel that I have given my all for Carmen. Four triple jumps securely demonstrated, every facet played out emotionally and choreographically, and yet I know-- 'lifeless' at the end, and draped across the ice- 'Oh man, nothing has been won yet, and everything is still wide open for Debi'. With a heavy heart, relieved for the most part, but still a bit anxious, I get up, and four seconds later, I'm Katarina again." In the end, despite a performance of a lifetime from Liz Manley winning the free skate in Calgary, Katarina's "Carmen" was victorious and to this day, that performance stands up as a truly epic performance - a combination of athleticism and pure theatre.



On Katarina's final tour during February and March of 2008, she revisited a stunningly appropriate program that she debuted in the mid 1990's and kept as part of her vast repertoire for over a decade. Pia Douwes' "I Belong To Me" from the musical "Elisabeth" is a piece of music seemingly so appropriate for the star that came from a controlled existence as part of the former Communist stronghold that was East Germany and went on to represent a unified Germany at the 1994 Winter Olympics and freedom both in life and in expression in a professional career and life in a new country, Katarina taking up residence in the U.S. during the 1990's. "I Belong To Me" shares the ever important message that we are our own people with our own opinions and voices and could not have been more of a fitting conclusion to her empowering career.

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 2014 NHK Trophy Competition

As they say, all good things come to an end and much like in Vanessa Williams' power ballad, the best was indeed saved for last. The final of six stops in this year's Grand Prix was the NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan. Skaters from all over the world gathered in the Namihaya Dome in what was for all their final chance to attempt to qualify for the ISU Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain in two weeks time. As with any of these event recaps, I'll post videos of some of the standout performances. Many of them might be geoblocked in your country, and for that I apologize. Around the time of major competitions, videos go up every minute and come down and get geoblocked just as fast. If you're unable to watch videos in your country, I've got some great advice for you. Go to YouTube, and under your search settings you can select 'Upload Date'. If you type in keywords for the competition or skater you want to see, you can narrow it down to 'Today' or 'This Week' and usually find just what you're looking for in minutes! And now, on to the event at hand...

Three men's spots at the Grand Prix Final would be left up to the results of the men's event in Osaka. The other three had already been claimed by Maxim Kovtun, Javier Fernandez and Tatsuki Machida, respectively.

When I interviewed Daisuke Murakami last fall, he was on the comeback trail. He told me "I was written off after my withdrawal from NHK and Japanese Nationals last year. My mindset this year was to strengthen and condition my body and start from the ground up starting with Regionals. Because I was held back physically compared to my competitors in Japan, I plan to take every competition this year and build within every competition and give my best performance at Japanese Nationals." Ultimately, Murakami finished a disappointing tenth in an incredibly deep field at that competition but his resolve to come back and fight was absolutely clear at this event. He came out in attack mode in his short program to "El Tango De Roxanne", landing a quad salchow/double toe combination, triple axel and triple flip and finishing third of the eleven men competing. In his restrained but elegant free skate to Rachmaninoff, he couldn't put a foot wrong! Two quad salchows, two triple axels, triple lutz, triple flip, triple loop... you name it, he did it and he did it with confidence and style. Really nice to see Murakami pull off a huge upset at this event and have his moment in the spotlight! I don't know about you, but if I was a bigwig at the Japan Skating Federation, I'd probably be kicking myself for not giving this guy a second Grand Prix assignment right about now... but what do you do? He won the 2014 NHK Trophy with a score of 246.07, ten points ahead of his closest competitor... and served the other Japanese men notice that he's once again a very real threat.

Russia's Sergei Voronov followed up his silver medal win at the Rostelecom Cup with a some more sterling silver in Osaka. Although he landed his quad combination in the short program, a missed triple axel saw him in fourth place with a score of 78.93. He rebounded with another technically outstanding free skate that featured a quad toe/triple toe and two triple axels. You really can't say anything bad about this guy technically - he can jump! In terms of the presentation however, like I said before, superfluous music cuts, Viktor Petrenko chicken legs and Sotnikova like showboating does not program make. To me, all that was missing was a Carlton Banks finger snap sequence. Going back to Evgeni Plushenko's "Best Of Plushenko" program, this was just too much of everything and not enough of something. The judges did get it right this time by giving him a PCS score of 77.38, the fifth highest of the men in the free skate, but if you want to look at comparisons, they gave the same program a higher PCS score than Jason Brown... in Russia. I don't know, forgive my cynicism... but that still makes me go hmm... His final score was 236.65 and he will join fellow Russian Maxim Kovtun at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona.

Japan's Takahito Mura won Skate Canada in Kelowna but up against such a strong field, it was hard to say how he'd fare here. The technical difficulty of his "Carmen" short program (quad toe/triple toe, triple axel and triple lutz) was enough to give him the win in that part of the competition, even if his PCS score wasn't up to snuff with either Hanyu or Abbott. His free skate was more of a grab bag of some nice jumps and some sloppy ones. He got in a quad toe/double toe, triple axel and triple lutz but misses on three jumping passes seemed to degenerate the flow of the minimally present choreography that was there in the first place and detract from the overall impression of the program. I don't think the music or the costume that looked like it had been pulled out of the back of Alexei Urmanov's closet helped any either. It just didn't do it for me. With a fourth place finish in the free skate and a higher PCS score than Murakami (yeah, about that...) Mura finished third overall with a score of 234.44... and earned a ticket to the Grand Prix Final.

In China, Olympic Gold Medallist and World Champion Yuzuru Hanyu injured himself badly and went out and skated a disastrous free skate replete with multiple falls. After Han Yan's participation at last week's Trophée Éric Bompard wasn't exactly a success story, I had my doubts Hanyu would be in top form at this event either. Sadly, he proved my suspicions right. In the short program, Hanyu imploded and had serious errors on two of his three jumping passes. Although his PCS score of 42.11 rewarded his musicality in the short program, the fact his TES score of 36.90 was the fifth highest of the close pack of men kept Hanyu in fifth heading into the free skate. When he came out and started his "Phantom Of The Opera" free skate with a doubled salchow and a fall on a triple toe, all I could envision in my head was this confused looking skater in China wrapped in a head bandage trying to fight his way through some losing battle. That said, the rest of the program was actually quite nice here... a triple axel/triple toe, triple lutz and two other triples made the best of a program that looked ominous at its beginning. With a third place finish in the free skate, Hanyu moved up to fourth overall with a score of 229.80... and earned a trip to the Grand Prix Final. The rebound here after the first two mistakes in the free skate aside, Hanyu managed this Barcelona ticket with four less than impressive performances. Part of me is reminded of when in 1997 the suggestion was made that a very injured Susan Humphreys stand on the ice for four minutes at the Lausanne Worlds to ensure a Canadian ladies spot for the Nagano Olympics. In the article linked, David Dore was quoted as saying "I didn't favor that. I think it's a back-door entry. I don't think it would make any of us proud and I don't think it would make Susan proud. Nothing is worth harming a person's health. I mean, she wasn't fit to skate." I don't think Hanyu necessarily looked unfit to skate in Osaka, but he certainly did not look fit to skate in China... and I'm conflicted about how I ultimately feel about his qualification for the Final as a result.

Four time U.S. Champion and Olympic Bronze Medallist Jeremy Abbott has an immense following in Japan and as usual, was a huge fan favourite at this event which he has won two medals at before (silver in 2010 and bronze last season). In Osaka, Jeremy delivered not one - but two - outstanding performances. His short program to "Lay Me Down" by Sam Smith was without question the performance of the night. It featured a solid triple flip/triple toe, triple lutz and triple axel, earning him a second place finish with a score of 81.51. His free skate to Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings" was an artistic tour de force, a perfect balance of technical difficulty and wonderful music interpretation. He completed six gorgeous triples and kept up the performance level from start to finish and earned an overall score of 229.65, which dropped him all the way down to fifth place underneath Hanyu despite earning the highest PCS score of any of the men in the free skate (83.86). At the end of the day, Abbott's performances here are to me what figure skating is about - interpreting music and telling a story on the ice. Competitive skating is fortunate to have him around for another year.

Canada had two representatives in the men's event in Osaka - Jeremy Ten and Elladj Baldé. Ten left room for improvement in his first assignment and Baldé had withdrawn from Skate Canada with a concussion. Baldé finished a strong sixth in this event with a clean short program that included a quad and a free skate that boasted a very nice quad toe, triple axel and five other triples. These were honestly two of the finest performances I've ever seen from him and he has a lot to be proud of with regard to his performance at this event! Ten had some nice moments as well, including a very credible go at the quad as well as a triple axel, two triple lutzes and a triple flip/triple toe in his beautiful free skate to "Hallelujah" but some jump problems kept him down in eighth place at this event... but you know what? He finished ahead of a World Junior Champion and the man currently ranked thirteenth in the world. That's nothing to sneeze at and Ten ALSO has plenty to be proud of in terms of the determination he fought through that free skate with.

Only two spots remained open in the Grand Prix Final that would be ultimately decided by the ladies results at this event, the other four slots all filled by Russian ladies: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, Anna Pogorilaya, Julia Lipnitskaia and Elena Radionova.

Gracie Gold may have won the bronze medal in Chicago, but in a distinctly deep field I was curious to see how she'd fare in Osaka. Spoiler alert: she did fantastic! A clean short program with a beautiful triple lutz/triple toe, triple loop and double axel earned her an ever so slight lead with a score of 68.16 that she was able to maintain in the free skate with a program that included two triple lutzes, a double axel/triple toe combination and a triple loop. She did fall on a triple salchow and double her triple flip attempt, but overall it was a good skate for Gracie and enough for the title with a score of 191.16 overall. I'm still not sold on the "Phantom Of The Opera" but that's a whole other story entirely. I'm just getting really sick of the music overload and like I've said before, unless you're Brian Boitano or Robin Cousins, it might not be the vehicle for you. That said, the results after this event's conclusion determined that both Gracie and fellow American Ashley Wagner will compete against a field of Russian jumping dynamos in Barcelona... so that should be very interesting.

I was heartily disappointed for World Silver Medallist Alena Leonova at Skate Canada. She skated a brilliant short program in Kelowna but a disappointing free skate dropped her down to sixth place. At this event, Alena again went out and delivered a flawless and thoroughly entertaining "Chaplin" short program with her usual flair and a triple toe/triple toe, triple flip and double axel to boot. Her score of 68.11 was just 0.5 behind Gracie Gold in the short... with a lower PCS score (what? WHAT?). In the free skate, like Gold Leonova wasn't perfect, but she fought through the performance even if the jumps weren't all there. Her opening triple toe/triple toe was nicely done, as was a triple flip/double toe later in the program. She was appropriately well rewarded for the strength of her choreography with a PCS score of 62.06 and although third in the free skate, her overall score of 186.40 was enough for silver. A great showing for Leonova and a firm message that she's still very much a name in the game.

Satoko Miyahara finished third at Skate Canada but on home turf in Japan, I expected her to pull out all of the stops. She stayed on her feet in the short program even if a couple of the landings looked very iffy and stood in fourth place heading into the free skate with a score of 60.69. Like her competitors, she wasn't perfect in the free skate but she did stay on her feet, perform a nice triple lutz and double axel/triple toe and keep the energy and attack going throughout her "Miss Saigon" program. Her technical score in the free skate was actually higher than any of the ladies including Gold, but a PCS score of 57.99 kept her in second in the free skate and third overall. Interestingly, this will be the first year in over a decade that a Grand Prix Final will be held without a Japanese lady competing but if you look at the strong performances of skaters like Miyahara, fourth place finisher Kanako Murakami, fifth place finisher Riona Kato and of course, Rika Hongo who took the gold at the Rostelecom Cup, I don't think it's fair to say that Japanese ladies skating is in any draught after the retirements of Mao Asada, Miki Ando and Akiko Suzuki. It's just another chapter starting.

Canada would be represented in the ladies event by Gabby Daleman. Her first Grand Prix event was the LEXUS Cup Of China, where she finished a strong fifth in her senior Grand Prix debut. Problems on all three of her jumping passes in the short program left her in seventh place with a score of 53.46 but great attack and difficulty in terms of her base mark in the free skate were her friend. She landed a nice triple lutz and a pair of triple salchows and kept on her feet in her double axel/triple toe attempt to move up from seventh to sixth place overall with a score of 164.74, ahead of some very talented skaters in their own rights like Polina Edmunds (eighth), Christina Gao (ninth) and Anna Ovcharova (eleventh).

Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov and Chinese pairs Peng Cheng and Zhang Hao and Sui Wenjing and Han Cong having already secured their tickets to the Barcelona Grand Prix Final, it would come down to the results at this event to determine the three teams that would ultimately join them.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford convincingly won Skate Canada in British Columbia with an impressive score of 210.74. Believe it or not, even in their previous partnerships, neither Duhamel or Radford had ever participated in this particular Grand Prix event and did they ever make an incredible first impression. The picture of consistency, the Canadians again reeled off another clean short program with a throw triple lutz, side by side triple lutzes and a triple twist. Let's think about just how difficult that is for a second. Lutzes. Plural. Their score of 72.70 gave them a decisive lead heading into the free skate. Despite a fall on their valiant throw quad salchow attempt, Duhamel and Radford delivered a strong free skate with side by side triple lutzes but programs on some of their other jumping elements gave them a score of 199.78, which was enough for the gold medal even if it was a bit lower than in Kelowna.

Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnoff rebounded brilliantly from a missed season due to injury with a spectacular win in Chicago at Skate America. Their short program here was indeed clean but they did look a little tight on a couple of the elements. Their score of 64.60 in that part of the competition gave them some ground to make up if they hoped to challenge the Canadians and unfortunately, they weren't able to do it. They finished third in the free skate but by 1.60 held on to the silver medal when programs on the opening side by side triple toe into triple toe sequence kind of snowballed into more programs. Like Duhamel and Radford, they too tried the quad salchow and I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the comparison of both attempts! They both looked gutsy to me! This team did rebound nicely with a throw triple loop at the end of their program but unfortunately, I thought as compared to Skate America the effect of the program suffered a bit with the mistakes from a PCS perspective at this event. Their final score was 183.60, over twenty five points back of their score at Skate America in Chicago.

At the Cup Of China, Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin won the silver medal but up against the Russians and Canadians at this event, things wouldn't prove to be as easy for the talented young pair. A problem on the throw in the short program kept them below their competitors but from a technical perspective, this pair really brought it in the free skate, their only mistake a foot down on their final throw, the throw triple flip. Their score of 182.00 was enough for bronze overall... and enough to assure that they'd join two other strong Chinese pair teams at the Grand Prix Final. Not too shabby, I'd say! My one criticism of this team really comes back to their short program... if you're going to pick really rich, textured music like that piece from Dead Can Dance, you need the costumes and expression to sell it a lot more. It's lovely choreography by David Wilson, but the skating needs to reach the performance level to really sell the program.

With four ice dance teams (Chock and Bates, Papadakis and Cizeron, the Shibutani's and Gilles and Poirier) already having qualified for the Grand Prix Final, two spots remained up for grabs.

As winners of Skate Canada and the current World Silver Medallists, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were the clear favourites for ice dance gold. The title wouldn't be a cake walk for the team though as they faced some excellent competition in Japan. Their score of 171.10 in Kelowna would be difficult for them to duplicate or exceed, They didn't quite do it, achieving a total winning score of 169.42,., but they didn't phone in their performances in Osaka either. Their free dance, in particular, is just simply put exquisite. Wonderful musicality and edges and interesting transitions and hold changes punctuate the choreography nicely and I love how the problem builds in intensity towards that final rotational lift. They'll move along to the Grand Prix Final along with Russian pair Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin, who edged into the final spot.

Russians Ksenia Monko and Kirill Khaliavan had a disappointing outing at their first Grand Prix event when they produced a strong second place short dance but pandered their way off the podium with a sixth place finish in the free dance. It was kind of the other way around at this event where they moved up in the standings rather than down with a second place finish in the free dance and a silver medal overall. I really liked how seamlessly this team worked their twizzles into their "Sarabande" free dance as well as the nice passion throughout, even if the program itself wasn't particularly innovative. Again, like I said at Skate Canada, I thought that Kirill really carried this team.

Americans Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker were the surprise bronze medallists at this event, moving up from fourth to third based on the strength of their "Romeo And Juliet" free dance. As I've said many times before about this team, they somewhat remind me of a young Tessa and Scott and I really have to swoon over Jean-Luc's knees and edges. I'm actually quite a big fan of the free dance's lifts in particular and think this team is definitely one we'll see get rewarded more and more as the tides in ice dance continue to turn. Their overall score was 146.41 and the fact they finished ahead of the Germans at this event is a clear sign the judges like what they see.

Britons Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland performed well at the Rostelecom Cup, so well in fact they won the bronze medal there. In Osaka the team started strongly with a second place finish in the short dance, but their free dance just seemed a little off from start to finish at this event. The twizzles weren't their best and unfortunately a rather rough fall from Nicholas really disrupted the flow of the program... a shame because compared to how they skated at Rostelecom that Muse free dance has so much potential. A sixth place finish in the free dance dropped them down to fifth overall with a score of 137.88.

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