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Skate Today

Top Stars Battle to Retain Spots on National Teams

The next two weeks should prove to be exciting times in North America. At least for the approximately 428 figure skaters competing that is. Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio will play hosts to their respective countries National Figure Skating Championships.

The 2009 BMO Canadian Championships will hit the ice January 14-18 where Canadians will showcase their talents in both the junior and senior division. Approximately 150 skaters should be on hand to battle for spots on Canada’s National Team. The importance of these championships should not be underestimated as the Four Continents and both Junior and Senior World Team Members typically are identified. However, in the opening press conference on Thursday, Skate Canada announced they will depart this usual practice and will reserve the senior world team announcement until after the Four Continents Championships in February. This will allow the organization to evaluate teams who have been injured this season for participation in the upcoming World Championships in March. The World Championships which will be held in Los Angeles, California will serve as the initial qualifying event for the 2010 Olympic Games.

The senior events will kick into high gear on Friday the sixteenth with the original dance. That event will be followed by the short programs for women, pairs than men. Three national champions will be crowned on Saturday with the free skate for women, pairs, and free dance. On Sunday the competition winds down with the crowning of the men’s champion and the exhibition of champions. Skate today will be on hand and will provide coverage of the senior competitions.

Joannie Rochette should dominate the women’s event as she goes for a fifth straight title. The twenty-three-year-old from Ile-Dupas, Quebec, started her season with strong performances winning both her Grand Prix Events (Skate Canada and Trophee Bompard), which qualified her for the Final. At the Grand Prix Final, she struggled in the short program finishing sixth. Joannie fought back to finish third in the free skate and fourth overall.

Attempting to challenge Rochette should be three-time silver medalist Mira Leung of Vancouver, bronze medalist Cynthia Phaneuf of Sorel, Quebec and Marianne Samson of Greenfield Park.

In the pairs event reigning champions Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay have withdrawn from the event. Anabelle suffered a spiral fracture in her right leg during a practice session last summer and has had insufficient training to compete in the event. The Canadian Champs will remain in the running for a spot on both the Four Continents Championship and World Figure Skating Championship team despite their withdrawal from these championships. Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison should be the front runners for the gold in Saskatoon but the pair struggled during their Grand Prix Season where they failed to qualify for the final. The World bronze medalist’s will need to regain their confidence in order to recapture the title they held in 2007. Meaghan Duhamel and Craig Buntin, who teamed up last season, should be their closest challengers with Rachel Kirkland and Eric Radford also in contention for a medal.

In dance, World silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir return to competition after being side-lined since last fall when Tessa had surgery on both shins to treat her chronic exertional compartment syndrome. Chronic exertional compartment syndrome is a repetitive stress injury suffered by high performance athletes. The duo admits they have been unable to train at 100 percent, but feel they are ready to defend their national title. In a class of their own the dancers should have few worries this week and are excited to preview their new programs. The competition should be tight for the silver medal as only two spots are available on this year’s world team. Favored for the World spot should be Junior World silver medalists Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier. The duo have had a stellar season thus far capturing a surprise silver medal at Skate Canada and a fourth place finish at Trophee Bompard in their first season on the senior circuit. Other possibilities are reigning silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, bronze medalist’s Allie-Hann McCurdy and Michael Coreno and Siobban Karam and Kevin O Keefe.

With the retirement of World Champion Jeffrey Buttle it should be clear sailing for Canadian Champion Patrick Chan to pull off a repeat. Chan an accomplished pianist and tennis player as well, qualified for the Grand Prix Final but struggled in both his short and long program and finished fifth. The 18-year-old shrugged off those difficulties and refocused himself on training for these championships. Three spots are available for the men at both Four Continents and the World Championships. Likely contenders should be Shawn Sawyer, Fedor Andreev, and Kevin Reynolds. Jeremy Ten, Joey Russell, Kenny Rose, and Vaughn Chipeur could also contend for a medal. Sawyer has had a remarkable season earning personal best scores at both Skate America and Skate Canada where he won the free skate. Reynolds is an impressive jumper and has a couple of quads in his arsenal but lacks the refinement and presentation of Sawyer and Andreev. Andreev, son of the famed choreographer Marina Zoueva is always a wild card at any event.

As things wind down at the Canadian Championships, excitement moves south of the border to Cleveland, Ohio and the 2009 AT&T United States Championships. During the week of January 18-25, 2009 competitions will be held at the novice, junior and senior levels. As the Americans tune-up their technical and artistic skills, Skate today will be on hand with reports on the senior championships starting on Thursday, January 22.

On January 8, Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto told U.S. Figure Skating Association they will not be going for a sixth straight U.S. title, citing the injury that forced Agosto out of the Grand Prix Final in December. Agosto reported he has had insufficient training to compete at an elite level as a result of the injury. The duo further stated they expect to be ready for competition by the World Championships in March. They are filing a request for placement on the World Championship team based on past results.

With the withdrawal of Belbin and Agosto, it should be clear sailing for U.S. Silver Medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White to claim their first U.S. title. The dancers have made great strides this season winning Skate Canada and capturing the bronze medal in Russia. This Michigan based team not only qualified for their first Grand Prix Final but brought home the bronze medal to boot. The two other spots on the World and Four Continents team are not as clear, with the World Junior Champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates the front-runner for silver. While lacking some of the sophistication of some senior teams the dancers programs are packed with technical difficulty. Last year’s bronze medalists Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre hope to return to the podium, however, they will have to fend off challenges from husband and wife team Jennifer Wester and Daniil Barantsev, the Canadian/American match-up of Morgan Matthews and Lief Gislason, and the newly crowned Junior Grand Prix silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell.

American Champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker should have little trouble claiming their second national title. The Colorado based pair are sassy, exciting, powerful, and technically proficient. Their West Side Story free program is a masterpiece. They earned silver at Skate America and bronze after an uncharacteristic sloppy skate at Skate Canada. The other spot on the World Team should come down to a four way battle between 2006 World bronze medalists Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, 2007 National Champions Brooke Castille and Ben Okolski, 2007 pewter medalists Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, and 2008 pewter medalists Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent.

In the ladies event reigning U.S. Champion Mirai Negasu has grown approximately five centimeters and the teen has struggled with her jumps so far this season. She did not fare well during her Grand Prix events and other top challengers are on hand and hope to take advantage of nature’s interference. World Junior Champion Rachael Flatt should be at the top of that list as the sixteen-year-old has the technical goods to take the step to the top. The selection of the ladies team is especially important as only two ladies will represent the country in Los Angeles in March. The placements in the upcoming World Championships dictate the number of spots for the Olympic Games in 2010. Therefore, it’s two up and two count for the American women and the combination of both their placements cannot equal more than thirteen, if they want to qualify a third spot in Vancouver. Rumors have already surfaced of possible comebacks for Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen and two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan. Should their return be successful it could complicate the hopes of those competing in Cleveland.

Other likely challengers for a World team spot could come from reigning bronze medalist Ashley Wagner, 2007 U.S. Bronze Medalist Alissa Czisny, 2007 World Junior Champion Caroline Zhang, 2007 Pewter medalist Bebe Liang, 2006 World Champion Kimmie Meissner, and 2007 U.S. Silver Medalist Emily Hughes.

The men’s event remains wide-open and on any given day anyone of a number of competitor’s can step up and claim the National title. It is a star-studded field with the likes of two-time World Bronze Medalist Evan Lysacek, reigning World bronze medalist and Grand Prix bronze medalist Johnny Weir, Grand Prix Final Champion Jeremy Abbott, and the entertainer Skate Canada silver medalist Ryan Bradley. If the top men crumble under the pressure a long list of top men will be ready and waiting for their time in the limelight. It is clearly the most unpredictable. and should prove to be the most contested event of the week.

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