Alexandra Trusova

AP

Ice Age: Should a country’s senior nationals include figure skaters frozen out of senior – or even junior – world championships?

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Over three days in late January, Alysa Liu turned into a sensation whose fame briefly reached beyond her sport.

Liu went from becoming, at age 13, the youngest senior national champion in U.S. figure skating history to appearances on TODAY and the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, charming both viewers and the hosts.

And then, because of her age, Liu disappeared from not only the wider stage provided by those shows but also from figure skating’s stage until next season.

The situation is similar for the three young women, Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, then 14, 14 and 15, respectively, who swept the senior podium at the Russian Championships in December.

And for Stephen Gogolev, 14, senior silver medalist at the Canadian national championships in January.

At least the three Russians and Gogolev made the minimum age cutoff for this week’s World Junior Championships in Zagreb, Croatia, although Kostornaia withdrew for unspecified medical reasons. Liu is too young even for junior worlds.

But none of those five are old enough to compete in the senior world championships later this month in Japan.

That means the premier figure skating event of this season will be missing five of the best and most compelling skaters – at least as determined by national championship results – from three of the world’s traditionally powerful skating countries.

That’s enough to leave even dedicated figure skating fans scratching their heads. And it cannot help gain fans in the United States, where interest in the sport is flagging, among the people who might stumble upon NBC’s coverage of senior worlds and wonder what happened to that Liu kid.

That raises the issue of whether national federations should have the same age eligibility rules as those the International Skating Union applies to international events. Since 2001, an athlete must be 15 by the July 1 before a season begins to compete as a senior in international championships and 13 by that date for junior events.

That question has taken on new significance because of the current iteration of the sport’s judging and scoring system (IJS), first used at Worlds (with different parameters) in 2005.

The system now has made it possible for advanced 13- and 14-year-olds, whose often pre-pubescent morphology makes it easier to do the most difficult jumps, to get enough technical points to overcome their lack of mature skating skills and presentation.

In the past, phenoms like Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan could go from winning senior national titles and medals to compete as seniors internationally before their 15th birthday. Whether that was a good or bad idea is open to a debate that the sport’s current realities has revived.

“I fully understand the concern about the confusion that the various age limit rules may create, and I fully agree that it would be much wiser to have the same rules nationally and internationally,” Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU’s single & pair skating committee, said in an email. “I find (it) nonsense to allow 11-year-old girls to compete in senior events and national championships.

“Unfortunately, the ISU cannot interfere in national regulations, but I definitely would support the idea of discussing the matter with the various federations concerned and try to convince them of the importance of having their champions to represent them in senior ISU Championships.”

That discussion likely won’t get far, given the feelings of national federations like Russia, Canada and the United States.

“While the ISU has rules based on age, U.S. Figure Skating does not – and will not – impede the advancement of an athlete in domestic competitions based on age,” USFS president Anne Cammett said in an email.

“U.S. Figure Skating’s position on performance continues to be based on proficiency and achievement as opposed to age categories… We will continue to follow what the organization believes is in the best interests of our skaters in their pursuit of excellence.”

Through a spokesperson, Skate Canada chief executive Debra Armstrong said her federation is satisfied with the system that allows athletes to compete in senior national events before they are eligible for such events internationally.

Alexander Lakernik of Russia, the ISU’s top figure skating official, said via email, “It is not so evident that federations who allow their young skaters to compete in seniors are wrong.”

Lakernik, like Bianchetti, noted the ISU has no authority to interfere in the rules of national federations.

Lakernik contested the idea that very young skaters could not win in seniors under IJS until recently, noting that Adelina Sotnikova had won the Russian Championship at age 12 and gone on five seasons later to become 2014 Olympic champion. But when Sotnikova won her country’s 2009 senior nationals, Russian women’s singles skating was struggling toward at its lowest ebb since the early 1980s.

Another eminent Russian, venerable coach Alexei Mishin, said in a text message he “completely agreed” with the idea national federations should use the same age rules as the international federation.

As part of its selection process for the World Junior Championships, the Japanese Skating Federation allows the top six finishers from its junior nationals to compete in the senior event about a month later. In an email, the JSF said its records show no junior ever has won its senior national title.

Japan’s Mao Asada, an eventual three-time world senior champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist, won the 2005 national silver medal at 14. Asada could not compete at senior worlds that year or the Olympics in 2006, when she would have been a gold medal contender.

“Some people have the opinion that you want the best at competition,” said Canadian coach Brian Orser. “Others think if they are going to compete as seniors, they probably should be that age at nationals. I have no opinion either way.”

In sports like gymnastics and Alpine skiing, the U.S. federations use the same age rules for senior events as its international federation. In gymnastics, it is 16 in the calendar year of a competition for women and 18 for men. In skiing, it is 16 during the calendar year, so Mikaela Shiffrin, now the sport’s leading woman at 23, was able to do her first World Cup race two days before her 16th birthday.

Track and field follows different national and international rules.

USA Track & Field has no minimum age for men in senior (or “open”) track and field championships and a minimum of 14 for women. At this year’s world championships, minimums vary by event, with the endurance events requiring an older minimum, and all athletes must have been born before 2004.

In addition to facing questions about harmonizing national and international age minimums, figure skating officials have been talking about raising the international minimums. Although a so-called “urgent” proposal to raise it to 17 for seniors did not make it to floor discussion at last summer’s biennial ISU Congress, the issue is expected to come up again in 2020.

Laura Lipetsky, who coaches Liu, has repeatedly said she and her skater are not frustrated by having her held back internationally by her birth date because they were aware of the rules in place.

But Lipetsky unsurprisingly is opposed to the age restrictions.

“Minimum age requirements shouldn’t be a factor in sending a qualified skater to either nationals or worlds. A skater should be judged strictly on her talents,” Lipetsky said in a text message.

“Many have made the argument that a minimum age should be established in order to make sure that we have mature skaters on a world stage. Unfortunately, in ice skating a person’s age does not establish their maturity level. Many girls mature at different ages.

“A 12-year-old skater can have mastered all the triple jumps for a high technical score but lack the maturity to score high in the artistry marks. In this scenario, she will probably not score high overall marks. You can take another skater who is 12 but mature for her age, (who) has all of the triple jumps and the maturity level to score high in artistry. A skater’s maturity level should not judged by an age, but by their performance.”

Coincidentally, while Liu won’t be competing at junior or senior worlds this month, she will have another turn in the spotlight for a non-sports audience this Friday, when VH1 airs its annual Trailblazer Honors.

Liu is being recognized as an “Everyday Trailblazer” in this year’s awards, which are centered on breakthroughs in female empowerment. Other honorees include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Burke.

Pretty heady company for a 13-year-old, even if you could bet she would rather be with kids around her own age when they skate the short program Friday at junior worlds.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

MORE: Jason Brown didn’t think he’d make PyeongChang without a quad, sees season as stepping stone

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook Day 1: Can U.S. Figure Skating’s junior world team help improve results?

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The next time you complain about working overtime, think of Timoki Hiwatashi and Ting Cui.

The young skaters distinguished themselves at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Mich., placing fourth and fifth, respectively, in the senior men’s and ladies’ divisions. Cui finished up her event the night of Jan. 25; Hiwatashi, on the afternoon of Jan. 27.

Both are age-eligible for the 2019 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Zagreb, Croatia Mar. 4-10, and both were invited to U.S. Figure Skating’s first-ever World Junior Team Camp, held Sunday and Monday in Strongsville, Ohio. To no one’s surprise, they were selected for the U.S. World Junior Team.

From there, Cui and Hiwatashi journeyed to Anaheim, Calif. for the 2019 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships. Three major competitions and a monitoring camp, all in the space of six weeks.

MORE: Bradie Tennell, Vincent Zhou lead Four Continents after short programs

“I flew straight here, so it’s kind of been a crazy week after nationals,” Cui, 16, said.

The 19-year-old Hiwatashi, who wasn’t expecting his fourth-place finish and subsequent Four Continents’ assignment, is glad to be here but admitted the schedule was tough.

“Originally I was planning to go back (home) to Chicago, take a rest, I wasn’t expecting fourth,” Hiwatashi said, adding, “I guess I may be a little fatigued, but I try not to think about anything. I try to do the best recovery I can, the best warm-up I can, to come here and not get injured.”

Neither Cui nor Hiwatashi looked fatigued during their short programs at the Honda Center on Thursday. Cui skated clean, earning 66.73 points and seventh place for a Rachmaninov short that included a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination; Hiwatashi touched down his free leg on the landing of his triple Axel, but shone in the rest of his jazzy “Cry Me a River” program, earning 76.95 points for ninth place.

“I was just trying to be focused and do what I do in practice,” Cui said. “When I landed (the triple-triple) I was happy to be able to complete it. It wasn’t my best one but I was happy I did it.”

Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Cui in Colorado Springs, Colo., doesn’t think his skater is overdoing things.

“She practices so intensely, I told her to just think of it as how you practice every day,” Zakrajsek said. “She likes to have an intense workload, so nationals with the Junior Worlds Camp and then (Four Continents) is just like three weeks of hard training. If anything, it’s made her do less than she normally does in training.”

Cui, Harrell hope to end Junior Worlds’ medal drought

The camp, which included singles’ skaters only, simulated competition of both the short programs and free skates, with skaters receiving protocols complete with element levels, grades of execution and program component scores. Zakrajsek was uncertain if the process helped Cui.

“Well…I’d guess yes,” he said. “I think competing here in Anaheim is really helpful for Ting. We do what we are told we have to do (by U.S. Figure Skating) and the camp is not negotiable.”

No U.S. lady has earned a medal at Junior Worlds since Gracie Gold took silver in 2012. In the six seasons since then, Russian and Japanese ladies have claimed all of the medals. The last U.S. lady to win the event was Rachael Flatt in 2008. Cui, the top U.S. finisher last season, placed seventh.

At the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, Russians Alena Kostornaia, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kanysheva claimed the top three spots. No U.S. lady qualified.

Results like this helped give birth to the camp, said Justin Dillon, U.S. Figure Skating’s Director, High Performance Development.

“The data over the last couple of years has shown our skaters are not as consistent as we would like them to be,” Dillon said, attributing some of the deficit to lack of direct head-to-head competition.

“We want to put these athletes together for a little bit of training, and also competition,” he added.

Differences in event types – some of the skaters competed on the Junior Grand Prix, while others had their best performances at senior events – make direct comparisons difficult.

“For example, the energy was different for Gabriella Izzo, who won juniors in Detroit, than it was for the ladies competing as seniors,” Dillon said. “I would like to see them do junior programs side-by-side…Apples to apples is a better way for U.S. Figure Skating to evaluate the athletes.”

Hanna Harrell, fourth at the 2019 U.S. Championships, will join Cui in Croatia. Alex Krasnozhon, who placed fifth in Detroit, and Camden Pulkinen, who was 12th, round out the U.S. junior men’s team.

Other skaters considered at the camp were: on the ladies’ side, Starr Andrews (eighth in Detroit); Emmy Ma (ninth) and Izzo, the 2019 U.S. junior ladies’ champion. Andrew Torgashev, seventh in Detroit, attended the camp, as did the top two junior men’s finishers, Ryan Dunk and Dinh Tran.

U.S. men have fared better on the junior circuit than U.S. ladies. In recent years, Nathan Chen and Hiwatashi have earned medals at Junior Worlds, and Vincent Zhou won the event in 2017.  But while Pulkinen, Hiwatashi and Torgashev all qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, none of them earned medals. (Torgashev withdrew from the event due to a fractured right big toe.)

According to Zakrajsek, while Pulkinen was disappointed by his programs in Detroit, his performances at the camp helped lift him to the team.

“At this camp, everyone stands around and watches you, including your competitors,” Zakrajsek said. “Eyes are on you the entire time, and Camden went out and did clean programs. He threw down a clean long program when he had to.”

The U.S. Championships and World Junior Team Camp are not the only criteria considered. The International Selection Committee also looks at performances on the Grand Prix circuit; placements at past World Junior Championships, and ISU Challenger Series’ performances.

“Camden did very well in Tier 2, 3 and 4 of the criteria, but in Tier 1, nationals, he didn’t,” Zakrajsek said. “At camp, we did some things a little different than we normally do, to help bring out his best.”

As for Cui, Zakrajsek thinks she’s capable of scoring an upset at the World Junior Championships.

“She has a maturity and a complete performance (quality) not all of the top girls have,” he said. “We know she can break 70 points in the short program, she did that at the Junior Grand Prix at Ostrava (in September; Cui placed seventh overall). She’s even stronger now. If she can break 70 in the short at Junior Worlds, she will be right in the medal hunt.”

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ISU’s Junior Grand Prix free live streams boost figure skating views around the world

Alexandra Trusova (RUS) 2018 ©International Skating Union (ISU)
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Hi, Ted,

I’m Laura from Peru. I like figure skating so much; perhaps it’s not very popular in my country. I wanted to thank you for your comments on the events. They are very useful for people like me who just started to follow this sport.

–Email sent to Ted Barton during one of this season’s Junior Grand Prix events

 

Laura Quinto Castro spent her childhood in Tarma, a city at 10,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, where there was no ice rink. When Quinto Castro moved 150 miles west to coastal Lima, at age 11, she found what had been the lone permanent rink in her country, but that facility now has become itinerant in Peru’s capital for lack of funding.

Quinto Castro, 27, still managed to develop a strong attraction to figure skating by watching ESPN Latin America’s telecast of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Like many people worldwide, she was mesmerized by the exploits of 15-year-old Russian Yulia Lipnitskaya. A couple years later, Quinto Castro wondered what had happened to Lipnitskaya, the darling of the Sochi Winter Games.

So Quinto Castro began searching YouTube, which recommends videos based on the subject of the searches. One day, a video from the International Skating Union’s Junior Grand Prix Skating Channel on YouTube popped up. She subscribed to the channel and found that it does streams of the JGP competitions that are available free and live throughout the world everywhere but Japan and South Korea, where TV networks have bought rights to the junior events.

Quinto Castro, a one-time roller skater, now is among the 66,754 subscribers to the channel, which will do its final live broadcasts of this season from the Junior Grand Prix Final Thursday through Saturday in Vancouver. Twelve-month streaming data (August-to-August) of Junior Grand Prix events on the YouTube channel, both live and archived, show viewer hits grew from 3.1 million for 2014-15 to 14.1 million for 2017-18 and could reach 15 million in 2018-19. The totals increase as people watch archived video.

Viewers to date this season have come from 83 countries. And Peru, which is not an ISU member country, is just one of the unlikely places where people are watching.

“We’re very proud of bringing the sport to countries where people could never have seen it,” said Ted Barton, the Canadian who does commentary on the streams.

Ted Barton interviews U.S. ice dancers Rachel & Michael Parsons after their win at 2015 JPG in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Courtesy Rob Dustin)

Barton has asked viewers to send him their comments and suggestions via an email address given verbally and shown on the live streams. Quinto Castro was among those who responded. Other emails came from Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore, Iran (“A very odd country for figure skating world, but we do love figure skating. Though we are not member nation of ISU, we have quite great figure skaters at our tiny rink in Tehran!”) and Brazil, where a 15-year-old named Camila wrote:

“I’m watching the JGP stream now, thinking ’bout how I’d like to be a figure skater myself, but, living in Brazil, there’s not really much hope for that. Still, I really love the sport, and watching it makes me just so happy. I wonder if other people out there feel like me.”

That others clearly do is reflected in the viewership statistics. Half the views come from Russia, whose young women have dominated junior singles for several years, and Japan, which has both top junior singles skaters and the most popular active skater in the world, two-time Olympic men’s champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

“We always believed it was going to be a successful project,” said Selina Vanier, the ISU Communication & Media Manager. “The more visibility we give the sport, the better it is.”

(The ISU also streams its senior events, but those are geo-blocked in the countries with TV rights-holders, which means most of the world. Some of those broadcasts are free over-the-air, but many require a paid cable or streaming service subscription, such as the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold, which will give its subscribers live streams of the entire senior Grand Prix Final competition this week.)

MORE: How to watch the Grand Prix Final

While the junior numbers remain decidedly modest by comparison with other sports, they nevertheless reflect substantial intangible value on an ISU annual investment believed to be around $450,000. (The ISU declined to give an exact figure for JGP stream funding, part of the ISU Council’s projects budget, which was $3.2 million in 2017.) It is unimportant that the ISU revenue from the YouTube hits amounts to nickels and dimes at this point.

For a sport increasingly challenged by its viewer demographics (largely older) and competition from other forms of entertainment, the venture can be called a success, especially as a way to engage the generations who consume much of their entertainment on mobile phones.

“The streaming aspect is critically important to reach not only new fans but a younger demographic,” said Ramsey Baker, U.S. Figure Skating’s chief marketing officer. “That aspect alone makes it worth the investment.

“The Junior Grand Prix is a nice starting point for someone to get into watching the sport. And it provides the ISU with data that can help them develop media partners in new territories.”

Caitlyn Chen, vice-president of Chinese digital media colossus Tencent (an ISU rights-holder in China), told an International Basketball Federation summit this fall that market research showed of the 160 million Chinese born between 2000 and 2010, over 70 percent “say they are following closely at least one sport. From this, we can see they are not just using phones or smart media to play games.”

For the world’s hard-core skating fans, the free Junior Grand Prix streams are manna from heaven, especially because Barton is a big part of feeding their appetite.

It is fitting that Barton has an integral role – if, by his own estimation, an improbable one – in the success of the project.

Barton, 64, a native New Zealander who moved to British Columbia, was Canada’s national junior men’s singles champion in 1973 and finished 16th at senior worlds in 1976. Beginning in 2002, when the ISU began implementing a new judging system in reaction to the Salt Lake Olympics pairs judging controversy, Barton was involved in implanting the video replay that became a key part of the new system.

When U.S. Figure Skating created icenetwork in 2007, it realized the video replay camera used at competitions could serve another purpose: providing the content from the sectional, regional and national (junior and below) events it wanted to stream to icenetwork subscribers. Baker said there eventually were discussions among ISU officials about ways the international federation could use the video footage from its replay camera at ISU events, and that led in 2011 to the first Junior Grand Prix streams, which used a single camera.

“Live streaming was still knives and bearskins at that point,” said Rob Dustin, a longtime figure skating producer on various platforms.

In the 2013 season, the ISU had 1.5 million YouTube views of the rudimentary streams, according to Dustin. At that point, the ISU hired him and his company, Red Brick Entertainment, to provide a real production using five or six cameras but keeping costs down with what he calls a “high-speed, low-drag approach” that includes just four or five production people at an event. One big cost saving comes from being able to process and encode the stream on site and doing it without paying what Dustin said would be $150,000 for a “legacy” broadcast replay system.

The coverage includes every skater in every Junior Grand Prix event, not just the elite shown in many network broadcasts of senior competitions. That can mean two dozen skaters in men’s and women’s singles, but it guarantees fans in, say, Indonesia, will see their nation’s lone competitor. For those who want to watch only that athlete, Dustin and his team provide that individual video within minutes of the skater’s group having finished.

“The ISU wanted us to be the voice of those skaters,” Dustin said. “The ISU is doing this for exposure, not for revenue.”

Best of all, the coverage has been reliable: by Dustin’s count, the JGP live stream has been down for less than an hour in approximately 1,000 hours of streaming over the past five seasons.

The Red Brick Entertainment Junior Grand Prix crew visiting Moscow’s Red Square before heading to a 2017 JPG event in Saransk, Russia. Left to right are cameraman / editor Austin Boylen, digital specialist Alex Metzman, director Tom Wherle, cameraman / editor Tim O’Laughlin, executive producer Rob Dustin and commentator Ted Barton. (Courtesy Rob Dustin)

From viewers’ standpoint, the best thing Dustin did was to bring on Barton as commentator, no matter that he had no training or experience for the role. (His real job is executive director of Skate Canada British Columbia / Yukon.)

“I was without question horrible at the beginning,” Barton wrote in an email Monday. “I hated doing it (at first) but knew if the streaming was to be successful, I had to make it something different – but most importantly something people would respect and maybe even learn some small details from.”

What Barton brought to the table was in-depth knowledge of the judging and scoring systems, a refusal to make himself the center of attention and a decision to comment honestly but not disparagingly about the skaters. He talks only during the replays, which he chooses, and his restraint is noticeable: even a history-making successful quadruple Lutz by 14-year-old Russian Alexandra Trusova this season, first by a woman in international competition, did not bring a verbal exclamation point from Barton but rather a simple acknowledgement of the jump having been fully rotated.

“People would very quick to criticize the ISU if I did what everyone else does and speak too much,” Barton said. “So, I decided there would be no commentary during the performance. I wanted to be respectful of the work of the skater and coach/choreographer and… reserve thoughts/opinions to after the performance.”

He then prefers to explain technical reasons for mistakes rather than to focus on how badly the mistakes damage a performance.

“Ted has a different way of looking at a skater who has gone ker-splat,” Dustin said.

So this is what Barton had to say after Marina Asoyan of Armenia, in her international competition debut at age 15, fell three times and had just one positive grade for 11 elements in the free skate at the Junior Grand Prix in Armenia:

“Marina wanted so badly to skate well in front of her hometown fans. Maybe she was just a little too excited… You could see her disappointment at the end of the program… There’s the double loop (a fall), and she’s not on top of her feet at all… It was just one of those frustrating times when nothing seems to go right.”

Figure skating fans generally favor such a kid-gloves approach to commentary, especially where a young and/or inexperienced athlete is involved. (Barton is more self-critical, promising to improve his sometimes-botched pronunciations of names.) And many fans complain vociferously on social media about commentators who talk throughout the performance.

“When I began to see the emotion, both positive and negative, on the faces of these young skaters I then knew I had to support their successes and help them through their failures,” Barton wrote. “Just be honest but sensitive in the delivery and encouraging in some solutions.

“I know what parents go through emotionally just watching their sons and daughters perform, let alone what they (the skaters) have to deal with on social media, so I wanted to try and be a voice of reason and encouragement. I would say for the most part we have been successful.”

The vituperation on social media, even where juniors are involved, reached the point where it was decided before this season to turn off the live chat during streaming on the YouTube site.

MORE: Yevgenia Medvedeva responds to social media criticism

The skaters speak for themselves in post-competition interviews, some requested specifically by the rights-holders in Japan and South Korea. It is a sort of informal media training for what may lie ahead at the senior level, and it introduces their personalities to viewers.

It also fuels the interest of viewers like Quinto Castro, who said in a recent email to me that she has become “a big fan of the Russian ladies” while following the junior events since the 2016-17 season, and she wishes she did not need a cable subscription to watch more senior events live. (Peru – and every South American country but Brazil and Guyana – falls under ESPN’s rights agreement for South America.) Exposure cannot always trump revenue, and rights-holders want a return on their investment.

At least it is easier to watch figure skating in Peru than to practice it.

“In the future, I would like to go live in another country and try to do figure skating for adults,” Quinto Castro wrote.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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