by Alexandra Stevenson
The timing on this made-for-television event certainly made it "challenging" for the eight female and four male entrants from the US, Russia, Japan and China.
Michelle Kwan admitted, "Tonight took a lot of concentration from me. It was just as tough as Worlds. This was The International Figure Skating Challenge? It was a challenge! This one was like, okay, go on tour, work on your exhibition program, get your mind set. Now do a four minute long program. Its like switching gears. It was a test for all of us. I've deteriorated since worlds. This is what you got."
The contest, for which the skaters get appearance fees but not prize money, may be soon forgotten. Yet it may earn its niche in history as Olympic champion Sarah Hughes competitive swansong.
Expecting world champions Kwan and Evgeny Plushenko, and their main rivals, to shine only ten and eight days respectively after she won her fifth world title in eight years and he his second in three years is unrealistic especially when you consider their schedule.
The day after taking part in the exhibition program at Worlds, they and five others of the twelve competitors in this Connecticut invitational transferred from Washington DC to Baltimore to begin rehearsals for Champions on Ice which opened in that city on Friday April 4. The rehearsals were quite elaborate since all the performers appear not only in their solos but also in group numbers.
Over the next two days they did shows in Philadelphia and East Rutherford. It is no wonder most didnt perform their best in Connecticut. It was, however, the seasons last chance to see the sports top names doing their competitive routines and the approximately five thousand spectators who paid from $30 to $50 for two and a half hours entertainment got their moneys worth. (The field included four of the top five men from the Washington Worlds, six of the top eight women plus the 2002 world champion.)
Both Kwan, who, amazingly, is only 22 despite all her world medals and seven national titles, and Plushenko, 20, won in unanimous decisions.
The arena in Bridgeports Harbor Yard opened in the fall of 2001. It seats 8,500 and has excellent concession stands. It is only a few minutes walk from the train station and has a Holiday Inn nearby although the skaters and officials were housed in a Marriott Trumball, twenty minutes ride away.
Skating second, Kwan performed to her guitar and violin Aranjuez music opening with a shaky double instead of triple loop. The following triple lutz had a considerable lean in the air but she saved the landing and, showing great strength, was able to get airborne immediately and completed a double toe.
The rest of her graceful routine included a triple flip, double axel, triple salchow, triple toe to double toe, and, right at the end of the four minutes, a second triple lutz, making a total of five triples.
"You usually can't expect too much from yourself after a huge competition like Worlds," Kwan admitted. "I was kind of stressed because I had started the tour and hadn't worked on my exhibition program. Then I had to look good going out there and put 100% in front of thousands of people, and then to do a long program when you are not really ready and it's 10 days after worlds - for me there was not the practice time I wanted. And you're trying to get off what the high was at worlds... Since worlds Ive only practiced this program one hour!
"But this whole season has been amazing. I started with nothing. I found Scott (Williams, her low-key, young coach). I got my programs done (by Nicolai Morozov). I decided to compete because I had nothing to lose, I could only gain. After a while, the structure (of her mindset this season) got to me. Its a breathless structure. No stress. Just one moment at a time. No looking long term ahead."
In contrast, the twice world bronze medal winner, Fumie Suguri of Japan, gave her best performance of the season to Swan Lake music. She had great speed and flew through six very solid triples, two combined with double toes, with no uncertain steps whatsoever. She finished second in a split decision.
Three of the five judges placed Suguri, who practices with distinctive padding on her left thigh, second. The other two thought she was third best. There was no secret judging at this event, and ordinals and judges identities were provided. Vanessa Riley, the British judge, said she liked it that way and was ready to give an explanation of her marks to anyone who asked.
She preferred Ann Patrice McDonough over Suguri while Alexander Kogan of Russia thought Sasha Cohen should have been second.
Cohen, who finished third despite a sixth place from Riley and a fifth from Elizabeth Clark of Canada, drew to skate last. She began her Rachmaninov routine with a triple lutz to double toe quickly followed by a second triple lutz. However, on her next jump, the triple flip, she put her hand on the ice.
She also completed a triple loop, triple toe, triple salchow to double toe, double axel and triple salchow. Some believed she may have had a couple of double foot landings but it was impossible to say for certain without access to the video tape.
Cohen, of course, is a treasure who would be worth watching even if she did no jumps. Her spins are unmatched, her footwork inspiring and her forward inside to outside split spiral is the epitome of ballerina gracefulness.
"I've learned not to judge myself by placement but by the way I skate," Cohen explained. "I felt good tonight. I was pretty happy. Nationals (where she finished third) was disappointing but not Worlds (where she was fourth for the second straight year). In Worlds I did my first clean long (in the qualifying round) and my first triple-triple.
"Ive just kept going since Worlds. I flew home to pack and repack and had no sleep at all. Its been really tough. I havent had a day off. The tour is fun but weve just kept going.
"It was a little bit more difficult not having Tatiana (Tarasova, her coach) here. Shes in Russia right now. But Ive learned to become more independent. What she is there for is to make me strong enough to do it on my own. Shes there teaching and training me, but ultimately when youre out there, its your battle.
"Im getting more comfortable in the east. (Her family moved from California to Connecticut last year.) Itll make me a lot stronger. I havent even thought about next season yet." At practice, Cohens mother stood in for Tarasova. Cohen said, "Its nice to have a second pair of eyes there."
McDonough, who performed first, gave a far better showing than at Nationals where she also finished fourth. Interwoven into her excellent Madame Butterfly routine were seven triples including a triple lutz to double loop.
In addition to the second place from Riley, McDonough received three fourths and a jolting seventh place from the Russian. (AP drew to skate first. Maybe he hadnt put his glasses on yet, or maybe jetlag kicked in.)
Fifth, despite an eighth placement from the Japanese judge, Hisashi Yoshikawa, was the 2002 world champion, Irina Slutskaya of Russia, who has had an extremely difficult season. At the end of last year she lost her national title to Elena Sokolova. Then, at the Grand Prix final in St. Petersburg earlier this year in which she finished second to Cohen, Slutskayas mother collapsed from kidney failure.
Natalya Slutskaya, who is only in her early forties, was rushed to a hospital in St. Petersburg and eventually put on a dialysis machine. Naturally Slutskaya stayed at her bedside instead of returning to her hometown, Moscow, to train, and there was no question of her defending her world title.
Slutskaya, 24, said, "I didnt really practice because I was spending time with my mom. Maybe I have a couple more worlds but I have only one mom." Her mother has now stabilized and is back in Moscow and Slutskaya has resumed earning her living by taking part in the Champions on Ice tour.
In Bridgeport Slutskaya began her La Traviata routine well with a very nice triple loop executed after back outside double three turns. However, she singled the following jump, a lutz. She recovered with a triple salchow to double loop that led into a double toe. Then came a triple flip, a successful triple lutz, double axel and a triple toe. As usual her spins were great including Biellmanns which showed off her flexibility.
She took her defeat in Bridgeport well. "I had good speed and good presentation. This year was really tough for me because I love competition. Its impossible to always win. Its sport. It was tough after the Grand Prix final. I dont like to say I will continue to compete because nobody knows what will happen tomorrow look what happened to my mother."
The very pretty Sokolova, who won the silver medal in Worlds, is taking part in her first Champions on Ice tour. Although she began her performance in Bridgeport well with a triple lutz to double toe and a triple flip, she two footed the second jump in her combination of triple salchow and triple toe, aborted the triple loop, and two footed the landing on her second triple lutz.
The mistakes made the routine boring but she was the only competitor to try a triple-triple combination. She finished sixth, although the British judge placed her last.
In excellent English, she said, "This was something special for me. It was really difficult because not much practice but Im absolutely satisfied with today. That was hard. Now I try to forget about everything. My coach and I now think about choreography and music for next season but even if we had chosen we do not say. Its a secret. My knee hurts but when you see people and they applaud you dont realize you have pain."
Shizuka Arakawa of Japan, who finished seventh in Bridgeport, has had a checkered career. Now 21, she won the Japanese senior title way back in 1998 and finished 13th in the Olympics in her home country but plummeted to 22nd at Worlds.
Although she kept her national title the following year, she did not compete in Worlds. She plummeted to fifth nationally in Japan in 2000. She bounced back to take second place in her own country in 2001 and 2002 but was not sent to Worlds.
This season she was only third in Japan but in Washington, in only her second appearance in Worlds, she finished eighth. Richard Callaghan, who looked after her in Bridgeport and has worked with her in the past, is very complimentary about her potential. In practice she was accomplishing a triple combined with two doubles.
In the contest, performing to music from the movie Titanic, she opened with triple lutz to double toe followed by a triple salchow to double loop and a triple flip. There was a lovely head to skate camel spin, a second triple lutz and superb triple loop but she stepped out of a triple toe. Her blue ribbon dress, though nice in and of itself, did not suit her.
Sarah Hughes, the Olympic champion taking part in what might be her last Olympic-eligible event, finished last (although the British judge placed her seventh above Sokolova and the Japanese judge thought she was better than Slutskaya).
When pressed about her plans, she confessed, "I don't know what I am going to do. I've been waiting until now to decide and to regroup and look back at what I've done. I have had a lot of success on the ice and am very proud of it, and I don't regret anything. Skating builds a lot of character and has let me show more of my strength as a person."
Up until a few days before the show opened, Champions on Ice advertised Hughes as being on the tour but she is not appearing in it. Not being around the others, perhaps led to her not getting the news that she was expected to perform her competitive routine in this event.
"I was going to do my exhibition program. I didnt think to ask my coach. When she put on (the La Bayadere music) I thought she was joking. I said, What? Hughes said with a depreciating laugh.
Doing your competition number was not a requirement last year. The change surely has something to do with the ISUs policy of channeling money earning opportunities to its top competitors while closing loop holes which allow skaters, who are maintaining their eligibility but sitting out Grand Prix and Championship events, to take part.
The 17 year old Hughes will graduate high school this spring. She earned early acceptance for Harvard University, which her older sister attended before progressing to Columbia Law School and has heard "good news" from Yale.
"I have so many alluring opportunities. There are so many things I want to do, it's painful to try to think about where I see myself. Before, I saw only the Olympics in front of me and I would do anything I could to make the Olympic team. Now that the Olympics are over, do I want to keep competing or do I want to reach society in a different way? Its been incredibly difficult to find the time for everything. The sooner I decide, the better. It's driving me crazy."
No one can deny the mastery and utter joy she showed in winning gold in Salt Lake. How could she ever hope to cap that showing? Yet shes reluctant to leave the sport at so early an age when she has never won a Nationals or Worlds.
Hughes did not appear affected by her last place in Bridgeport a situation that, I believe, is unique for her. "(This event) doesnt have the intensity of a world championship. It wasnt the greatest skate ever. It was okay. As an athlete, I'm always looking to achieve to the best of my ability, but the situation I'm in now, the best of my ability is not really my full potential. Its been a very emotional season off the ice."
If she does continue in the sport, her coach, Robin Wagner, has told her it can not be a repeat of this season. A torn ligament in the back of her right knee forced Hughes to miss the Grand Prix season, and resulting lack of practice competition had an effect on her performance in Nationals and Worlds, where she finished sixth only one place up from her debut in that event in 1999. (She was seventh in Helsinki, fifth in Nice and won the bronze in Vancouver. She did not compete in Worlds in Nagano last year.)
Hughes dropped the second triple-triple from her free routine this season. In Bridgeport she was only able to bring off only three clean triples, toe loop, salchow and loop. On both the lutz and flip, although she got good height, she landed on two feet after just two and a half revolutions.
She has grown an inch to five foot five and developed a charming, womanly figure. While she certainly does not have a weight problem, the growth and shift of center of gravity have created a problem. Even an extra pound can throw off split second timing. And, of course, there have been so many constraints on her time, which has interfered with her full time training.
Her coach, Robin Wagner, explained, "If she wants to continue to compete, it has to be a full effort, a full season, not a half-effort like this season. We've always really thrived on training. Performing is wonderful, but great moments come through breakthroughs in training -- sweat and tears. When you don't have many, many months behind you, it's frustrating. It's been frustrating for both of us."
There was criticism that the event included only four men. Missing was the twice world bronze medal winner Takeshi Honda of Japan who is taking part in the French tour. Some felt that the USs number three Ryan Jahnke should have been invited. (Jahnke was home in Colorado Springs having a cyst removed from his foot.)
Skating second of the four men, Plushenko presented his "Criminals of St. Petersburg" routine adorned with one silver and one black glove in a mostly pleasing modern outfit that had one jarring aspect. It looked as if part of his shirt had managed to come out of his trousers.
He two-footed his opening jump, a quad toe loop, and had a scratch landing on his next move a triple axel. However he soon accomplished a second triple axel which led into a double toe. A doubled lutz was easily forgotten and he soared into a triple salchow, triple flip and triple loop. The program included unique moves a pull up forward outside spiral and positions in spins, which demonstrate great flexibility.
His coach, Alexei Mishin, has obviously watched his ex-pupil Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin very carefully and is steering Plushenko into developing his footwork and on-ice personality.
Plushenko was in a very good mood. "This season I win everything, short program, long program, every judge give me first." He explained his inflamed knee which plagued him in Washington DC had stopped causing problems but he had a hip injury incurred on a recent fall on a quad Salchow.
He also revealed that a treat had awaited him after his win in Washington. The Baltimore Orioles let him throw out their ball for their opening game in Baltimore. "I never even watched a game in my life, but I got it over the plate," Plushenko said. He joked, "I was more nervous throwing the pitch than skating in the world championships."
Unlike Worlds when many thought Timothy Goebel should have beaten Plushenko, Goebel didnt really challenge Plushenko in Bridgeport. The 22 year old twice world runner-up presented, for the last time, his routine to Gershwins "An American in Paris".
Skating first, Goebel began with a triple flip but singled the salchow and did a double three coming out of his triple axel. His combination of quad and triple toe loops became a triple-triple. Eventually he was able to bring off a triple salchow and triple lutz.
"My "American in Paris" program is now officially retired! Ill never wear this costume again. I had great success with it but its time to move on," Goebel said immediately following the event.
Like the other competitors, Goebel felt the competition was difficult but said he had no excuses. "What makes it challenging to skate here is that its directly after the opening of the tour. The first few stops on the tour are hard. But were all athletes, were all in good shape and we all want to compete. Going back into competition so quickly after the tour is kind of funny. Skaters dont multi-task well."
Goebel gained second place in a three to two judges decision over the three-time and current U.S. champion Michael Weiss. Weiss, who finished fifth in Washington, presented his Malaguena program. He fell on his opening jump, the quad toe. His second jump was a triple toe and he landed the third, a triple axel, with his hand on the ice.
The 26 year old father of two then accomplished a triple loop, a triple axel to double toe, and a triple flip to triple toe. He then stepped out of a triple salchow and finished with a triple lutz.
Chengjiang Li of China, who was fourth in Washington, was the only competitor to land a clean quad, a salchow but his first move turned into a combination of two triple toes. The 23 year completed a triple axel to triple toe but then stepped messily out of a triple lutz and put his hand down on a triple flip.
The audience enjoyed some of his unusual "robotic" moves to music from Star Wars but the judges placed him unanimously fourth and last.
Giving exhibitions at this event were the new US pairs champions, Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, who skated to Madonnas Frozen, and ice dance champions, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev who gave a graceful and evocative showing to "Time. I Will Be There". Unfortunately Tchernyshev tripped over his toe rake at the end of the routine and collapsed onto Lang. The audience laughed with them but Lang was seen later massaging a sore back.
The fall of the event, however, was undoubtedly presented by Weiss who tumbled from his Tornado, the move only he does. Its a back somersault with a twist. This one had not only the planned twist but an unanticipated one and Weiss sprawled on his backside for quite a distance.
ABC will air the show on May 11, 1pm ET.