International competition returned to Halifax, NS with 1997 Skate Canada. Halifax was the site of the 1990 World Champions and after seven years the arena is a lot older and a lot newer. The seating area and other parts of the building are showing their age, but renovations are under way, and luxury boxes are being added. Halifax will be the site of the first Four Continents Championships in February 1999.
Michelle Kwan had no real competition to speak of in the ladies event, and so even with a few errors in the long program she was able to win easily. That will not be the case at the Olympics or Worlds, and so while we view Kwan as the favorite at this point she does not have a lock on the gold medals. Maria Butyrskaya showed some flashes of brilliance here, but she remains inconsistent. The bronze medallist, Surya Bonaly, did well enough here to show that she must still be taken seriously as a medal contender in Nagano. She has fully recovered from the tendon injury that crippled her season last year and her programs are medal worthy if she stands up when she has to. Vanessa Gusmeroli got off to a dreadful start in the short program but was able to recover somewhat in the long. It was not a good competition for her, a fact she acknowledged herself. She cannot be counted out for the season at this point but the nagging doubt remains that her bronze medal in Lausanne was the result of a fortunate set of circumstances for her that are not likely to be repeated. Nicole Bobek has her work cut out for her in the next two months. She can land the tricks in practice, but competition is another question. The problem here appears to be more in her head than in her feet.
Going into this competition Elvis Stojko was already viewed as the front runner for the gold at the Olympics and Worlds, and his two performances here solidify that impression. Both programs are superior to last year's and are distinctly stronger in the second mark. This is particularly bad news for Todd Eldredge who does not have command of a quad toe at this time, and whose long program this year is weaker in the second mark. The bottom line is he has started off the season without making progress in the first mark and appears to be giving up ground in the second mark. Ilia Kulik may be in a better position to challenge Stojko. He has a better chance than Eldredge of working a quad into his program, but he will still have to rely on the second mark to beat Stojko, something that seems unlikely based on the current choreography of his long program. Daniel Hollander looks to be in serious trouble. His performance here left one wondering if he will even be able to make the US World Team this year. He has everything working for him but the jumps. This has been the case for well over a year and no sign of progress was to be seen here this week in that area.
Although clearly the front runner, it is nevertheless still to early to mail Elvis the Olympic gold medal. Still to be heard from is Alexei Urmanov, who had an excellent chance to win the gold in Lausanne until his groin injury knocked his out of the competition. It remains to be seen how his physical condition will play out this season. Then there is the fact that Stojko is not invincibly consistent. He does make his share of errors, and a significant error in either the short program or the long could well spell disaster for him with so many strong skaters waiting in line for him to fall.
Kasakova and Dmitriev were the only team here this week which has a serious chance to medal at the Olympics. They would have an even better chance if Dmitiriev would lose 20 pounds. They clearly have the edge in the second mark over both Woetzel and Steuer, and Eltsova and Bushkov, but will have to bring up their technical quality a notch in order to move up (assuming of course their competition doesn't help them by falling down). Although they are not likely to challenge for a medal in Nagano, two teams that skated here that have improved considerably since the spring are the French team of Abitbol and Bernadis, and the Polish team of Zagorska and Siudek.
Expect to see Bourne and Kraatz's "Riverdance" routine to be hyped extensively going into the Olympics as a dance with the potential to knock off the top two teams. Not likely. It is an entertaining but user friendly routine. With so many in-place steps, straight line sequences, and so few turns or edges it is difficult to believe that they will move up from their third place finish at '97 Worlds. It's a great exhibition number, but is it Ice Dancing? A similar problem plagues the free dance of Lobacheva and Averbukh. It's an interesting, attention getting number but is not the type of dance the judges are looking for today. After a spot of trouble in the compulsory dance, Punsalan and Swallow dispatched Lobacheva and Averbukh convincingly. Baring disaster, they should have no problem holding their sixth place position and have a chance at moving up one spot this year. Whether they do will depend on Moniotte (who is injured) and Lavanchy, and Anissina and Peizerat who we have not seen yet this season.
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