The curse of the 2006 Grand Prix Final


by CĂ©line Oreiller
Photos © Vera Alexandrova

You know that something is wrong when you arrive in St Petersburg in mid December and there is no snow to be seen anywhere. You know that something is VERY wrong when only three men out of six are in shape to skate at the exhibition of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final. Here is what happened between those two moments, and even a bit before.

Just like every year, the roster for the 2006 Grand Prix Final was set and complete two weeks before the event, once the six qualifying competitions were over. At first there were some doubts about Alban Preaubert's participation when news spread that he couldn't skate at the French Nationals because of an injury. It turned out that he made it to St Petersburg, unlike Tanith Belbin & Benjamin Agosto (USA) who withdrew shortly before the Final started - luckily, the first alternates were Russia's Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski, who quickly packed their suitcases and jumped on the train from Moscow to St Petersburg.

On Friday, the first day of the competition, there were six ice dance teams, six men, six ladies and six pairs at the morning practice. It would be the first and last time all skaters would be there.
The original dance opened the event. Marie-France Dubreuil & Patrice Lauzon (Canada) took the lead with a good performance of a program that they had created only three weeks earlier. The Bulgarian reigning World Champions, Albena Denkova & Maxim Staviski, had a mistake in the straight line step sequence that put them in second place, while Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin (Russia) came in third, less than 0.5 points behind the Canadians. Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder (France) placed fourth, followed by Khokhlova & Novitski and Melissa Gregory & Denis Petukhov (USA).

By the time the men had finished the warm-up, Evan Lysacek (USA) had decided to withdraw because of a hip injury sustained on a fall in the morning. Johnny Weir (USA) and Nobunari Oda (Japan) both fell once and had problems with their jumps, which put them respectively in fifth and fourth place. Despite not being in top shape because of his injury, Preaubert delivered a good performance of his "Flight of the Bumblebee" and ranked third. Daisuke Takahashi (Japan) and Brian Joubert (France) had clean performances and earned high levels on their spins and step sequences. This gave them a lead of more than eight points over Preaubert - Joubert finishing just 0.76 points ahead of Takahashi.

After the ice resurfacing, the announcer told the audience that the ladies' short program was delayed by some 20 minutes, because three competitors had been stuck in a traffic jam and just made it to the rink. Those three ladies were Sarah Meier (Switzerland), who managed to pull out a clean performance, Fumie Suguri (Japan) and Julia Sebestyen (Hungary), who both made mistakes on the jumps. They later confessed that the situation had been very stressful and that they had to put their dresses on and warm up on the bus. Korea's Yu-Na Kim and Japan's Miki Ando and Mao Asada had good skates that included triple-triple jump combinations, giving them a clear lead over the three "unlucky ladies".

The pairs closed the evening. Valerie Marcoux & Craig Buntin (Canada) had a shaky performance that placed them sixth. Despite of a fall on the throw triple axel, Rena Inoue & John Baldwin (USA) finished third in the short program, just ahead of Aljona Savchenko & Robin Szolkowy (Germany) and Maria Petrova & Alexei Tikhonov (Russia) after both pairs had problems on their side-by-side jumps. The two Chinese pairs were last to take the ice: Dan Zhang & Hao Zhang had a small mistake on the death spiral, while two-time World Champions Xue Shen & Hongbo Zhao had a clean performance and deservingly took a four-point lead over their teammates.

On Saturday, the ice dancers were again first to take the ice. This time it was Dubreuil & Lauzon's turn to make a clear mistake on the twizzles, which made them hold back and skate more cautiously in the second part of the program. Denkova & Staviski, on the contrary, had a strong performance of their free dance to the "Seven Deadly Sins" that won them the gold medal, some five points ahead of the Canadians. Domnina & Shabalin actually finished second in the free dance with what they considered as their best performance of the season so far, but they stayed third overall. Delobel & Schoenfelder made some mistakes that prevented them from getting any closer to the podium, while Khokhlova & Novitski and Gregory & Petukhov stayed in fifth and sixth.

The men's event was somewhat more dramatic. Weir had withdrawn during the morning's practice due to a hip injury, cutting down the number of participants to four.

The competition started well nonetheless, with Oda delivering a much stronger performance than on Friday and hitting eight triple jumps. Preaubert couldn't keep up with him and finished out of the podium. Takahashi then took the ice and started off well with a (two-footed) quad toeloop and two triple axels, but he had a very hard time in the second half of the program, struggling with his spins and almost collapsing during the straight line step sequence. He said later that he had been feeling sick and weak for two days and his coach admitted that he would probably have withdrawn if there hadn't already been two skaters out. Despite his problems, Takahashi held on to the silver medal. Joubert skated last, and even if his performance wasn't perfect, he still landed a quad toeloop-double toeloop combination as well as six other triple jumps, increasing his overall lead to 9 points.

On paper, the ladies' free program was meant to be an interesting fight for the gold medal, but it didn't turn out as expected. Sebestyen and Suguri made a few mistakes on the jumps that kept them away from medal contention. Meier had a lovely program and earned level 4 for all her spins and spiral sequence, but she doubled a lutz and toeloop. She thought she'd stay in fourth, until Ando, affected by a cold, failed to deliver and singled four of her jump attempts, dropping to fifth in the overall results. Asada had a sub-par performance, falling on her opening triple axel (downgraded to a double) and having trouble with other jumps. She received only the fourth score in the free program, but clutched to the silver medal thanks to her strong performance the day before. Kim, who came into the competition with a back injury, had a good skate that included a beautiful triple flip-triple toeloop combination. The sixteen-year-old logically won the event, some twelve points ahead of Asada, in her first participation in the Grand Prix Final.

The pairs' free program was quite a let-down. Petrova &Tikhonov skated one of their worst programs in a long time and Inoue & Baldwin had some big problems on the throw and side-by-side jumps. Marcoux & Buntin didn't make any major mistake but only managed to move up one spot in the overall results. Savchenko, who was also on the list of injured skaters coming into the competition, singled the axel, but she and Szolkowy climbed up to second overall when Zhang & Zhang failed to deliver a good performance, mostly due to her being... yes, sick! She actually didn't even make it onto the podium shortly after their skate and he received both bronze medals. Luckily Shen & Zhao were in good shape and closed the competition with a perfect and inspired program, winning their fifth Grand Prix Final with a seasonal best total score of 203.19 points.

On Sunday, the exhibition gala saw the skaters perform one last time in the beautiful Ice Palace of St Petersburg. Ando, Takahashi and Zhang & Zhang didn't skate because of illness, but the other skaters were highly enjoyable and the large audience was very supportive and appreciative of the programs they got to see. The exhibition wrapped up this season's Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series as well as all major ISU competitions in 2006. Now let's hope that all skaters will quickly recover, including of course those who didn't even make it to the Final because of injuries and illnesses, and that they'll all come back strong for more exciting performances in 2007.

Happy New Year to everybody and best wishes of health, success and happiness to the wonderful athletes who brighten our winters!

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