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Skate Today

NHK Trophy Jumps from China to Japan

The 2002 Olympic Venue Big Hat Arena plays host this week for the fourth qualifying event of the 2009/2010 Grand Prix Series. Figure skating is booming in Japan and skaters will be treated like rock stars while performing to packed houses of adoring fans. The 31st NHK Trophy is the fourth qualifying event in the series which began four weeks ago in Paris, France. Since then, the weekly series has traveled the globe making stops in Moscow and Beijing, en route to Nagano.

Approximately,sixty skaters from thirteen countries are on hand to make a bid for a spot in the prestigious Grand Prix Final where the top six skaters or couples in the series will battle it out for a global purse of 272,000 USD. Besides points towards berths in the final, skaters will try and lay claim for a share of the 180,000 USD up for grabs here at NHK. The final will be held back in Tokyo, Japan from December 3-6, 2009. Once again this year’s series will host both junior and senior finals.

This season’s series should be anything but predictable with many fresh faces going up against the more experienced veterans. Most notably this season is the return of some of the medalists from the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino.

While not part of the Grand Prix Series, Olympic silver medalist Stephane Lambiel knocked the socks off his competition at Nebelhorn Trophy winning the completion by over thirty points back in September. Then two weeks ago in Moscow 2006 Olympic Champion Evgeny Plushenko returned to competition in top form and obliterated his competition at that event.

Last week in China former World Champions and Olympic bronze medalists Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao trounced training mates and 2006 Olympic silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang in their Olympic season debut to capture the gold medal. Next week at Skate America in Lake Placid, New York reigning Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen will return to competition and take her first steps toward her third Olympic quest.

This week in Nagano the men’s event we will see the return of 2007 World silver medalist Daisuke Takahashi to Grand Prix series after missing last season due to injury. This is his second competition this season, but his first in the series. In October, the Japanese skater captured the gold medal at Finlandia.

Takahashi goes up against a star studded field of competitors. 2007 World Champion Brian Joubert is hoping to rebound from a disappointing showing at Trophee Bompard where he placed only fourth in the first event of the series.

2008 World bronze medalist Johnny Weir is back in Japan where he also hopes to improve on his performance of Cup of Russia where he placed fourth.

In contrast, it is the second event for 2009 Grand Prix Final silver medalist Takihiko Kozuka who had a strong showing two weeks ago in Moscow where he captured the silver medal behind Olympic Champion Evgeny Plushenko.

Reigning Grand Prix final Champion Jeremy Abbott comes to Japan with new coach World Champion Yuka Sato. Abbott has had a series of disappointments since winning his first US title last January, but has yet to perform in the series this season. When Abbott is on his performances are stunning

A dark horse in the race to the podium could come from last year’s Junior World Champion Adam Rippon. Rippon was stunned in Paris when he captured the bronze medal and made history performing the first ever Rippon triple Lutz. Widely known the Tano triple Lutz was first performed by Olympic Champion Brian Boitano.

Boitano invented the variation of a triple Lutz when he performed it with one arm overhead. Rippon took the jump one step further and performed the Lutz with two arms overhead.

The pair event should be a slam dunk for reigning Grand Prix Champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong who won their first event in the series two weeks ago in Moscow. However, should the Chinese make mistakes reigning World bronze medalists Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov should be ready to take a step up to the top of the podium.

The two teams battled in Moscow, but the Russians had difficulties with some of their elements. Both teams are elegant and powerful and should easily capture a spot in the final here in Nagano.

Two American teams, former American Champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin and reigning national silver medalists Caydee Denny and Jeremy Barrett should go head-to-head with World Junior Champions Ksenia Krasilnikova and Konstantin Bezmaternikh for the third spot here in Japan.

Inoue and Baldwin are most notably known for their throw triple Axel performed at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino where they placed seventh return to Japan after capturing the silver medal last season at NHK. The team has struggled in recent years and is hoping to regain their form and get another shot on Olympic Ice this February in Vancouver.

Denny and Barrett virtual unknowns splashed onto the scene last January capturing the silver medal at the US Championships and placing at Four Continents and ninth at the World Championships in their first season together.

Krasilnikova and Bezmaternikh have a long list of international titles on the junior level and are currently ranked fourth in Russia.

Front-runner Miki Ando has home advantage here in Japan, but will have to fend off a challenge from Swiss Champion Sarah Meier, teammate Yukari Nakano, American pewter medalist Ashley Wagner, and World Junior Champion Alena Leonova.

Ando won the event in Moscow albeit not performing her best. Wagner and Leonova placed second and third, respectively two weeks ago behind Ando. Nakano placed third in her first event of the series Trophee Bompard. Meier has yet to compete in the series and pulled from the Nebelhorn Trophy in September due to injury. European bronze medalist Laura Lepisto could also factor in the medal mix. This is her first event in the series, but she placed second at Finlandia last month.

The dance event should be dominated by American Champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won both Nebelhorn Trophy and Cup of Russia earlier this season. The duo’s programs are packed with technical difficulty, and it’s not likely they will have any challenge here at NHK.

Brother and sister team Sinead Kerr and John Kerr should easily sew up the silver spot with three solid skates.

The bronze medal is up for grabs and most likely 2008 junior World champions Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier. The Canadians are super smooth but are young and need experience under their belt.

The competition begins Friday with the compulsory dance.

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