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Grand Prix Final Returns to Barcelona

by Liz Leamy

After a successful run in 2014, the ISU Grand Prix Final has returned to the beautiful seaside city of Barcelona, Spain.  This group of premiere skaters, all  qualified for this event, to be held December 10th-13th at the International Convention Center in Barcelona, Spain, by accruing the highest number of points from the six Grand Prix competitions held around the globe in October and November.

The U.S. qualified six entries in three events: Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner, in the Ladies event; Alexa Scimeca & Chris Knierem in Pairs; and along with Madison Chock & Evan Bates, Maia & Alex Shibutani and Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, in Dance.

Gold Leads Ladies Contingent

Gracie Gold, the 2014 U.S. titlist and two-time U.S. silver medalist who stands as the top seed of the ladies group at this event, seems to be hitting her stride better than ever this season, scoring silver at Skate America in October and first in the short program at the Trophee Eric Bompard in November (where the free skate and last leg of the competition had been cancelled due to the tragic shooting rampage that had occurred 360 miles away in Paris that same weekend).

Gold, 20, who has been training in Los Angeles with the iconic Frank Carroll for more than two years, also seems to be at a point in her skating where she seems to have achieved visible harmony with the idea of being a serious star in the sport.

Strong, resolute and as smart as a whip, this past year, Gold seems to be handling both her skating and personal life with the confidence, expertise and gumption of a veteran world-class athlete, approaching life with the philosophy of just striving to try and be her best at whatever she does.

Asked about the rash of Russian jumping jacks flooding the top international ranks, Gold said there are always some level of hype over particular contenders and her approach is really to just stay focused on the tasks at hand.

“Anytime you go to a high-level competition, there are going to be great skaters, so I have to [just] keep my nose down because really, I just train to skate my best,” said Gold.

This year, Gold has selected ‘El Chocio’ by the Cello Project for her short and Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ for her long program, both of which have been described as ‘exceptional creative pieces’ by Slavka Button, a U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame Coach who taught Janet Lynn, the five-time U.S. champion and 1972 Olympic bronze medalist who helped revolutionize the artistic bar of women’s skating.

Gold described these programs, both of which seem to be a perfect compliment to her skating, as definite favorites.

“I really like my programs this year,” she said.

Ashley Wagner, the three-time U.S. titlist and sixth-seeded Grand Prix Final ladies qualifier in this event, will be joining Gold in taking on the rest of the contenders, who also include two top Russian and Japanese skaters, including Mao Asada, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist and three-time World champion, on the roster.

This past fall, Wagner, 24, who trains in Artesia, California with Rafael Artunian, had a solid Grand Prix run, claiming gold at Skate Canada and fourth at the NHK Trophy.

This year, she is skating to ‘Hip Hip Chin Chin’ by Club des Belugas for her short and ‘Moulin Rouge’ for her free skate, both of which were designed by Shae-Lynn Bourne, the Canadian World dance champion.

Returning to competition this season, and fourth seed in the Ladies event, is Mao Asada (JPN).  The two-time World Champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist took off the 2014/15 season, earned a first and a third in her two Grand Prix appearances.

Missing from the Final is  Elizaveta Tuktemysheva (RUS).  The reigning World Champion did not score well in the Short Program at both Skate Canada and Trophee Eric Bompard.  At Skate Canada a strong performance in the free skate pulled her into second place, but at Bompard, the cancellation of the free skate prevented the possibility of a repeat comeback.  She ended eighth in the Grand Prix standings.

Men's Event Promises to be Slug-Fest

The Men's provides an outstanding match up of three World Champions, in Patrick Chan (CAN), Javier Fernandez (ESP) and Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN).  These three masters ofthe quad are joined by newcomers Bpyang Jin (CHN), Daisuke Murakami (JPN) and Shoma Uno (JPN).  Hanyu scored a record 322.40 points at NHK, giving the other men a monumental goal to achieve here in the final.

No American men made the final, with Max Aaron ending eighth in the final standings, and Adam Rippon tenth, while Jason Brown competed in only one of his two Grand Prix assignments.

Pairs Final Includes Seven Teams

Instead of the normal six finalist, the Pairs event has seven entries, with the addition of the seventh seeded team of Julianne Seguin & Charlie Bilodeau (CAN).  The Canadians competed at Trophee Bompard.  Due to the cancellation of the Bompard free skates, the rules were adjusted to allow any competitors who placed seventh in the final standings and who competed at Bompard to qualify for the finals.  Seguin & Bilodeau fell under this rule and find themselves in the Final in their first senior Grand Prix season.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford, the 2015 World Champions head up the field.  Wenjing Sui & Cong Han (CHN), who were third seeded for the Final withdrew due to injury and have been replaced by the eighth seed Cheng Peng & Hao Zhang (CHN).

In a major accomplishment, American Alexa Scimeca & Chris Knierim, made the final as fifth seed.  They are the first American pair team to make the final since Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Broubacker in 2007.

Missing from the Final are Tatiana Volosozhar & Maxim Trankonv (RUS),  who placed first in the Eric Bompard Short Program but were assigned only one competition this season.  The reigning Olympic medalists are returning to competiton this season after taking of the 2014/15 season.

U.S. Teams Comprise Half of Grand Prix Final Dance Roster

Madison Chock & Evan Bates, the 2015 U.S. Champions and World silver medalists, will be at the helm of the formidable U.S. dance contingent at this event.

This team, along with Maia & Alex Shibutani, the 2011 World bronze medalists and five-time U.S. medalists and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the 2015 bronze medalists, comprise three of the six-team-member dance duo roster.

Chock & Bates, who train in Novi, Michigan with the venerable Igor Shpilband, have made their name as a premiere dance duo due to their great technical expertise and high-energy drama and artistry, something that certainly seems to be a winning formula at the elite ranks.

This fall, the two, who are skating to ‘More’ from the Concerto in Central Park and Unchained Melody as the Foxtrot and Waltz for their short and Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto #2’ for their free dance, clinched gold at Skate America and silver at the Cup of China, ranking them as the second-highest seed in this event, only trailing leaders Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, the 2014 Canadian World silver medalists, and 2015 bronze medalists.

Maia & Alex Shibutani, the talented brother-sister duo who train in Ann Arbor, Michigan with Marina Zoueva, the 2014 Professional Skaters Association Coach and Choreographer of the Year, have also been having an stellar Grand Prix season so far this year, as they scored second at Skate Canada and first at the NHK Trophy, designating them as the fourth-highest seed in this event.

Reputed to be one of the hardest-working dance teams around, the Shibutanis have been focusing intently this past year on further increasing their artistic and technical bar, efforts that so far, have earned them some excellent results.

For their short dance, they are skating to the classic ballet piece, ‘Coppelia’ by Leo Delibes, a program that was created by Zoueva.

Their free dance, meanwhile, to ‘Fix You’ by Coldplay, a program choreographed by Peter Tchernyshev, the five-time U.S. dance titlist with partner Naomi Lang, is a much more contemporary piece that so far, seems to be a major artistic hit with both officials and fans alike.

“The Shibutanis are talented and hard working and at this point, they have been around long enough to know what works,” said Slavka Button, who had coached Maia and Alex in the New York metropolitan area when they were younger. “They definitely have what it takes.”

Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue are the third entry rounding out the American roster at this event, ranking fifth among the six teams by placing first at the Trophee Eric Bompard and third at the NHK Trophy.

This enigmatic duo, known for their long lines, high speed and arresting artistry, have been training this past year with Marie France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Roman Haguenauer in Montreal, Canada and will be skating to K.D. Lang’s ‘Hallelujah’ for their short and Daft Punk’s ‘Adagio for Tron’ for their free dance.

In addition to Weaver & Poje, the American couples are going up against the 2014 World Champions Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte (ITA) and 2013 World bronze medalist Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev (RUS).  The Russian couple missed the 2014/15 season due to Solovieb undergoing knee surgery.

Missing from the Dance event are  the reigning World Champions, Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron (FRA).  Papadakis was injured earlier in the season and did not recover in time to compete in their Grand Prix assignments.