Virtue/Moir and Hanyu triumph at NHK Trophy

 

NHK Trophy, as most of the time the sixth and last event of the ISU Grand Prix Series, returned to Sapporo on the northern island Hokkaido for the first time since 2011. The week before, Sapporo also hosted the Japan Junior National Championships which were, like NHK Trophy, a test event for the upcoming Asian Winter Games next February. All these events take place in the „Makomanai Sekisui Heim Ice Arena“, which was used for the Olympic Winter Games in 1972 when Trixi Schuba, Ondrej Nepela and Irina Rodnina/Alexei Ulanov became Olympic Champions. However, the rink is rather outdated. The rooms are small and there was no room for a press center so the media had to use another building, which was about a three minute walk away.  There was no proper heating system working at the rink so it was quite cold, especially in the mornings at practice as spectators were not allowed inside. The competition was sold out on three days with 17 250 spectators.

 

Ice Dance: Virtue/Moir break records

The duel between old World Champions Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir and their successors Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron was a much anticipated highlight of NHK Trophy. It was a bit surprising that in the end the Canadians won as clearly as they did, however, the French couple was not in top shape. Virtue/Moir dominated in the short dance with an excellent performance to three songs by Prince, showing really off all their presentation skills. The whole program is very creative and the levels were better than at Skate Canada. Virtue had wobbled on the twizzles in Mississauga, this time they were perfect. Virtue/Moir set a new record score of 79,47 points, surpassing the record set by their former training mates Meryl Davis/Charlie White at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

 

Compared to the funky Prince routine, the Blues and Swing of Papadakis/Cizeron looked a bit tame, although it was very well executed. The reigning World Champion lost a few precious points in the Blues step sequence (“Partial Step Sequence”) that garnered only a level two. Virtue/Moir looked also stronger in the free dance than they had at Skate Canada. They had more speed and were more precise. As a result, they collected a level four for all elements but the step sequences that were level three. A level four in the footwork is very rare anyway. The overall quality and expression in the performance were excellent. Virtue/Moir achieved 195.84 points, which was another record, slightly above Davis/White’s 195.52 points from Sochi.

“Tessa and I always have been a team that doesn’t really pay attention to the points. It is kind of great to hear that you got a world record score, but it doesn’t really mean too much. We know that both of these scores are going to get shattered probably in two weeks’ time. For us, especially at this time a year, especially this season, especially competing against such great skaters the focus is just on our skating and just being in the mix again. I guess, it’s nice, we’re not going to complain about it, but it’s not really our focus, that’s for sure”, Moir pointed out.

 

Papadakis/Cizeron once more impressed with their flow and fluidity on the ice that makes them look like they are floating over the ice, but they were holding back a little bit. The exit of their curve lift was shaky and the twizzles merited only a level two. “We didn’t have our best performance today, we did a few mistakes and we’re not very happy with our performance. But it’s fine, we learn, it can happen and we’ll get back home and work,” Papadakis commented.

 

Interesting enough, the programs of the two top teams are somewhat similar in style. Both chose lyrical and not very well known pieces of music for the free dance (“Pilgrims on a long journey” and “Latch” for Virtue/Moir and “Stillness”, “Oddudua” and “Happiness Does Not Wait” for Papadakis/Cizeron). The French are staying true to their successful style of the past two years, but it would be nice to see them explore a different direction (as they did in the past). For Virtue/Moir on the other hand this is a different style. They had a lot of very different programs throughout their career, for example a modern Carmen (2013) or rarely used classical music such as the Mahler Symphony (2010) or the Fred Astaire movie “Funny Face”, but all of it was still classical in a certain way.

Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte convinced with good performances and their acting skills, especially in their „Charlie Chaplin“ program. He did an extra turn in the short program twizzles, but the free dance was without any bobbles or wobbles. “We were very happy with our performance today, mostly because we were able to skate full out, we didn’t hold back at all, we were able to skate the program as we are able to in practice. We were able to enjoy it and to have many lovely moments with the crowd before we skated and during the performance,” Cappellini said.

 

Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker (USA) looked good in both their Blues and Hip Hop short dance (the crowd especially loved the Hip Hop part) and their “Liebestraum” free dance. Thanks to very good levels they overtook Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov. The Russians got only a level two for their two step sequences, but they turned in a strong performance of their dance to Astor Piazzolla‘s „Tango Ballett“. Marie-Jade Lauriault/Romain Le Gac left a good impression especially in the free dance. Kana Muramoto/Chris Reed of Japan withdrew before the short dance due to injury. He suffered a contusion to his left knee two weeks before NHK Trophy.

 

The Men: Hanyu-mania

Superstar Yuzuru Hanyu did not disappoint. The Olympic Champion shone in an otherwise rather weak men’s competition and scored a little over 300 points. He was in a different world. “Let’s Go Crazy“ is the title of the song by Prince he uses in the short program and his fans did go crazy when Hanyu swept over the ice to the shrillness of the music, wearing a new purple costume (that looked better than the white one he wore at Skate Canada). Japanese television reported about the costume in a special feature, the Hanyu-mania is in full force. When the World silver medalist stepped out of the landing of his quad loop in the short, nobody (except himself) was upset about it. “I could not land a clean quad loop, and I’m very disappointed”, he said, but added that he really enjoyed performing his program. “I want to be a rock star, like Prince” he said.

 

For sure Hanyu, who will turn 22 years old on December 7, has the status of a rock star in Japan. His mostly younger, female fans are screaming until they lose their voice and they waited outside the hotel even though it was cold to see the skater up close. The Olympic Champion turned in an almost perfect free skating to „Hope und Legacy“ to music by Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi that included a quad loop, quad Salchow-double toe, quad toe, two beautiful triple Axels. The only error came when he fell on the second quad Salchow. However, the music is not as interesting as “Seimei” and the program right now is still very focused on the jumps. Following Skate Canada, Hanyu had worked a lot on the “whole” package, as he pointed out.  “I am actually very relieved that I advance to the Grand Prix Final and also I was able to land the quad loop for the first time in an official (major competition) program,” Hanyu said. Following NHK Trophy he went to his hometown Sendai where he wanted to prepare for the Grand Prix Final.

 

If you talk about the “whole package”, you have to notice that this is something Nathan Chen is still lacking, but he is only 17 years old. The American puts the emphasis on jumps, but some might remember that he wasn’t the best jumper a few years ago (it took him long to learn a triple Axel) and he was successful thanks to other qualities of his skating. Chen missed the quad Lutz twice, but he landed quad flip-triple toe in both programs, the triple Axel is still a problem for him. Originally Nathan planned five quads (Lutz, flip, two toes, Salchow), but together with coach Rafael Arutunian, who was with him in Sapporo, he decided to take out the fifth one. “In France I struggled a lot in my program to get through the quads and I think at the moment realistically I didn’t need to put in the quad. I struggled a bit on practices on the Sal and I knew it was the jump that wasn’t reliable. I didn’t want to put the risk on my body, on my program and on my score just to do the jump”, Nathan commented. The ISU Junior Grand Prix Final Champion competed for the first time against Hanyu and was impressed: “My jaw dropped”.

 

Almost any of the remaining nine skaters had a chance to take the bronze medal and it was Japan’s Keiji Tanaka who earned it with two solid performances where he also landed his quad Salchow.

“My goal for NHK Trophy was to give a very good performance and I’m happy with the result. I finished in third place, but looking at Yuzuru and Nathan I see I’m still lacking a lot, but this competition is a great springboard for me,” the Japanese skater said. For him and Chen, it was their first Grand Prix medal.

 

Alexei Bychenko did not skate as well as he did in Moscow, but others made more errors. For example Mikhail Kolyada, who popped his quad toe into a triple in the short program, but at least remembered that he could do only a triple Lutz-double toe for a combination. The skater from St. Petersburg went for the quad Lutz that he started practicing seriously only two weeks before NHK Trophy and he landed it a few times in practice. He fell, though, as on the quad toe. “At least I rotated. I just didn’t want to pop it,“ Kolyada said (5 th ).

Stéphane Lambiel praised the young Russian skater for his talent, but he also was happy with his own student, Latvia’s Deniss Vasiljevs. The 17-year-old struggled in the short program, but his free program to „Four Seasons“ was clean with eight triples and innovative spins (6 th ).

 

USA’s Jason Brown disappointed, he not only missed his quad toe (not the ghost of a chance on this one) attempts, but also made errors on the triple Axel and doubled other jumps. His beautiful choreography could not save him (7th) . Nam Nguyen of Canada was awfully slow and made some mistakes (8 th ), Canadian Elladj Baldé messed up the free skating (10 th ) and Grant Hochstein (USA) had two off-days. Japan’s Ryuju Hino replaced Sota Yamamoto, who broke his ankle for the second time. The Japanese Federation at first even thought about inviting a foreigner, but Hino justified his nomination with two solid performances (9 th ). Ivan Righini of Italy withdrew due to injury on short notice and was not replaced.

 

The Ladies: Anna Pogorilaya rules

Russia’s Anna Pogorilaya followed up on her strong performances from Moscow. Her toeloop in the triple Lutz-triple toeloop combination in the Tango short program was called underrotated, this is something that usually doesn’t happen to her, but everything else was very good. The Technical Panel with specialists Ikuko Ishikawa and Gilberto Viadana seemed to be strict with everybody. Pogorilaya reeled off seven triples in her expressive free to “The Modigliani Suite” and “Memorial”, only at the end she almost fell on a double Axel. “I’m very excited that I’m in the Grand Prix Final again, but I didn’t think about it at all and I don’t even know where and when it takes place”, the 18-year-old commented. Later she knew that it was in Marseille and coming up next week. On and off the ice Anna likes to set herself apart with interesting costumes and fashionable outfits and came to the banquet in a traditional Chinese qipao (dress).

 

Satoko Miyahara of Japan had to do well in order to make it to the Final and seemed nervous in the short program where she fell on the triple Lutz. Three jumps in the free skating “The Planets” were again underrotated. “The rotation of the jumps is something I have to work on the most. It has become much better, but today I felt that some jumps were underrotated”, the 2015 World silver medalist admitted. Her silver medal at NHK Trophy got her as the last qualifier into the Final.

 

Maria Sotskova usually does not have underrotation problems, but in her free skating four jumps were called underrotated, the second Lutz was even downgraded. “No comment. The Lutz, yes, but I did not feel that the other jumps were underrotated“, the Russian said.  There were no underrotations in her short program „Butterflies Are Free“, but the 2016 World Junior silver medalist sometimes looks a bit gawky. Japan’s dynamic Wakaba Higuchi turned in two solid performances in her second Grand Prix (4th), while Mirai Nagasu (USA) had one underrotation in the short and four in the free (5th). Her teammate Karen Chen put out a strong performance of her Tango free program with five clean triples (6th).

Overall the level of the Ladies event was very high, there were only two falls in the whole competition (Miyahara in the short and Elizabet Tursynbaeva in the free), only Alaine Chartrand had a lot of stumbles in her free program (10 th ).

 

The Pairs: Duhamel/Radford stumble to gold

Eventually Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford’s third consecutive victory at NHK Trophy was not in danger, but they need to improve on their performances if they want to win the Grand Prix Final, at Four Continents and Worlds.  The two-time World Champions ranked second in the short. She fell on the throw triple Axel and both wobbled on the side by side triple Lutz. In the free “Non, je ne regretted rien”, Radford doubled the toeloop and struggled with the last lift. They were lucky it at least got a level two. “For me, personally, I don’t know what happened, but at the end of the program my body got very tight, my legs were very tired and we just mismatched the timing on that last lift and it was a bit of a struggle. But we have to make these mistakes throughout the season so that we can learn from them so that they don’t happen again,” Radford explained.

 

Obviously, the Canadians are taking high risks and continue to push the limits technically, but their programs this year seem a bit lame. Maybe it looks that way, because they haven’t skated them yet perfectly in competition. Actually, last season it was similar, the team from Montreal needed time to get into top shape and then at Worlds came out very strong to deservedly repeat as World Champions.

 

One week after their international debut in Beijing at Cup of China Cheng Peng/Yang Jin did well again, especially in their cute short program “My Drag”. In the free skating “I Will Wait For You” she missed the double Axel and triple toe. By finishing second the Chinese team reached the Grand Prix Final like their former partners did. “We didn’t think about going to the Grand Prix Final, our goal was just to show what we can do in training and to be satisfied with our performance”, Jin noted. “Today I made mistakes on the jumps and we did not show our level. We are in second place, but not satisfied with the performance”, Peng commented.

 

Their teammates Xuehan Wang/Lei Wang had some problems with the solo jumps as well, but showed good quality pair elements (3 rd ). “Overall we are pleased with our program, although there were still errors and it was not perfect. But we know what we have to work on for the next competition”, Lei Wang said.

 

Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea (USA) missed the triple Salchow in the short program, but their free to „Song of India“ and „Marche Slave“ was clean except for her touch down on the throw triple Lutz (4 th ). Germany’s Mari Vartmann/Ruben Blommaert did not make any major errors in the short, but had a few wobbles here and there. Vartmann crashed on the throw triple flip and Blommaert on the triple Salchow (that she singled) in the free skating (5 th ). Miriam Ziegler/Severin Kiefer of Austria improved on their performances at Trophee de France and landed their throws in the free skating (6th). Japan only sent one team, Sumire Suto/Francis Boudreau Audet, who had a few problems with their side by side jumps and throws (7 th ). Kirsten Moore-Towers/ Michael Marinaro of Canada had to withdraw like from Rostelecom Cup as she is still recovering from a concussion.