Sasha Cohen out, but the women will still be the main attraction at Grand Prix figure skating event in Paris
Jennifer Kirk, who finished third at the U.S. figure skating championships in 2004 and fourth in 2005, will write a weekly blog for The Times providing insights into the skating world during the final months leading into the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Since retiring from figure skating in 2005, Kirk, 25, has been working on obtaining a college degree in broadcast journalism and has spent the last few months blogging about skating at Trueslant.com/jenniferkirk.
Since the world championships last March, the top skaters in the world have had little time to rest. The past few months have been spent furiously training and polishing every detail of their skating in anticipation of the Olympic season. This week a group of these skaters will test their off-season work in Paris at the Trophee Eric Bompard, the first of six International Skating Union Grand Prix events.
Until late last week the biggest story surrounding this week’s event was the comeback of 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen. Unfortunately, Cohen issued a statement Friday announcing her withdrawal from Trophee Bompard, citing tendinitis in her right calf. Cohen has spent the last three years away from competition and struggled with her jumps in recent performances. Despite her injury, Cohen says she still plans to compete at her second Grand Prix event, Skate America, next month.
Although Cohen is out of the mix this week, the ladies event will be this main attraction. Reigning world champion Yu-Na Kim appears hungry for her first win of the season and poised to face her biggest rival, 2008 world champ Mao Asada. While Kim was the easy winner at last season’s world championships, Asada beat her at the Grand Prix Final just a few months earlier and was very strong on the series last fall.
That said, this week my money’s on Kim to bring home the gold. Although both Kim and Asada have beautiful artistry and are tough competitors, Kim has the edge when it comes to consistency and technique on her jumps. Look for Kim to try a new, more difficult combination in her programs this week, a triple lutz-triple toe loop.
Along with Kim and Asada, keep an eye out for American Caroline Zhang. Zhang went through a carousel of coaching changes over the off-season and didn’t appear to be in her usual form at a local competition last month. Although she has been battling a knee injury and suffers from poor technique on some of her jumps, she’s a very consistent skater, her main asset as she attempts to make it to the podium in Paris.
The men’s title will probably be won by either five-time world medalist Brian Joubert or Japan’s Nobunari Oda.
Joubert is a pretty consistent jumper and will have the home-ice advantage this week, but he lacks Oda’s spins and intricate choreography.
Oda was strong on the Grand Prix series last year, winning his sole event. However, he struggled after a drunk driving arrest in 2007, which resulted in his sitting out the 2007-08 season. This year he appears more focused than in the past and is ready to regain a spot at the Grand Prix Final, which will probably start with a win this week.
Like Oda, the American pair team of Rena Inoue and John Baldwin sat out the series in 2007. The duo, who train in Aliso Viejo, failed to make the world team last year but skate with a good amount of speed and are the first team to successfully land a throw triple axel in competition. Although Inoue and Baldwin have struggled with inconsistency in the past, if they skate two solid programs this week they have a realistic shot to stand on the podium in Paris. Look to see if there is any improvement in Baldwin’s stamina, which has always been one of the team’s biggest weaknesses.
Inoue and Baldwin may come home with a medal, but it will be nearly impossible for them to beat Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. Savchenko and Szolkowy are coming off a strong season, culminating in their second world title, and are my pick for gold this week in Paris.
Others to watch in the pair event: Russia’s Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov, who won the bronze medal at the European Championships last season, and Canada’s Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison, who won world bronze in 2008.
Heading into Paris, Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are the clear favorites in the dance event, but they’ll have to be in top form if they want to skate away with an easy victory. Great Britain’s Sinead and John Kerr have been skating well and come in as Virtue and Moir‘s stiffest competition. There are also three very strong American teams traveling to France, each with the ability finish in the top five, and perhaps even come home with a bronze medal if they can hold off France’s Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat.
The next six weeks will serve as a dress rehearsal and give us a better understanding of who the key players will be at the coming Olympic and world championships. While there are some clear-cut favorites in each discipline at this week’s Trophee Bompard, because 2010 is an Olympic year there is also a great chance for a dark horse to take the field by surprise.
With the intense pressure that comes with an Olympic season, there‘s always the opportunity for a favorite to collapse under the pressure or an underdog to rise to the occasion. Just ask 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes.
-- Jennifer Kirk
Photo: Jennifer Kirk.