The first half of the Grand Prix figure skating season bounced from storyline to storyline — from lyrics to Russian and Japanese dominance to Olympic champions’ injuries.
NBC Sports figure skating analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir provided thoughts as the series shifts to the fourth of six events, the Rostelecom Cup this weekend, before the Grand Prix Final.
The Grand Prix season began with skepticism about a new rule allowing skaters to perform to music with vocal lyrics. Many adopted the change, including U.S. champion Gracie Gold, who was initially against it.
Weir said before the season he was “terrified” of what the programs might look like. Now that he’s seen it, the two-time Olympian said it’s “a little bit mind-blowing” listening to lyrics, especially in the instances it’s for an entire program.
“It can work for and against a skater,” Weir said. “So far, it’s been more against skaters than it is for them.”
The 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron‘s short program is set to Kenny Loggins‘ “Footloose,” a performance that placed him fifth at Skate Canada (he moved up to third after the free skate, in which he mostly performed without spoken words).
Four-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott took second in the Skate America short program, accompanied by Sam Smith‘s “Lay Me Down.” He struggled in his lyric-less free skate, dropping to fifth overall.
Another trend surfaced as the Grand Prix series shifted to Skate Canada and Cup of China the last two weeks. Russian women and Japanese men have won five of the six individual competitions so far. In the only outlier, Japanese Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu finished second at Cup of China despite falling five times in his free skate with a head injury.
What was so impressive about three different Russian women sweeping the first three events was not only that it was unprecedented but also that Olympic champions Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya were not among the trio.
Sotnikova is out with an ankle ligament tear. Lipnitskaya finished second in her Grand Prix season debut at Cup of China, calling her free skate the worst of her life and pouring her stressed soul out in an interview.
“Yulia was thrown onto the cereal box, per se, for such a huge country that has such a long history in figure skating,” Weir said. “She didn’t look as prepared as she has in the past for competition [at Cup of China], but she’s very mentally tough, and she has ice in her veins in some ways.”
Next month’s Russian Championships will arguably be the deepest women’s competition in the world this season. Russia can send only three women to the World Championships in Shanghai in March.
“It’s been predicted for a few years now, the Russian ladies’ dominance,” Weir said. “We’re not just watching a renaissance in skating in Russia. We’re also watching these ladies jostle for position in their country.”
None of the three U.S. women’s Olympians have overly impressed Lipinski.
“I haven’t seen someone that’s jumped to the forefront,” Lipinski said. “At the same time, I’ve seen progress from the skaters.”
Like Polina Edmunds, the youngest U.S. Olympic skater since Lipinski. Edmunds fell on the first jump in her first-ever Grand Prix skate at Cup of China and finished seventh in the short program.
But Edmunds placed second in the free skate, landing seven triple jumps. Edmunds can build on that in two weeks at NHK Trophy in Japan, which is wide open with Sotnikova’s absence.
Gold was third at Skate America, messing up a simple spin, and has yet to win a senior international competition. Ashley Wagner took second at Skate Canada, the best result of any non-Russian this season. Still, Wagner could do better, Lipinski said.
“I haven’t seen [Wagner] really exploring, pushing her own technical merit up to a higher level yet,” she said.
Weir sees a similar complacency in Wagner’s countrymen.
“The American men, for the most part, are sitting a little bit in their comfort zone,” he said. “Yes, they’ve won medals in all three Grand Prixs so far, but they haven’t put up performances that are capable of competing with the likes of Yuzuru Hanyu, [Russian] Maksim Kovtun and [Spaniard] Javier Fernandez, who are kind of leaders of the sport at the moment.”
In particular, Jason Brown hasn’t progressed as much as Lipinski expected.
The ponytailed skater who thrilled with his “Riverdance” free skate last season looked shaky technically at Skate America. Brown finished second, nearly 35 points behind winner Tatsuki Machida, who is another of the elite class of men’s skaters.
Brown, who hasn’t added a quadruple jump to his competition programs yet, fell on a triple Axel and stepped out of a triple-triple combination in his free skate.
“It would have been great after the Olympic year to reset the tone and have the judges look at him as a serious threat every single time,” Lipinski said. “I don’t think that’s happened.”
Brown leads the U.S. singles entries at Rostelecom Cup this week. NBC will air coverage Sunday from 4-6 p.m. ET.