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Weaver, Poje take their chances with Thank You Canada tour

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The Thank You Canada figure skating tour kicks off in Abbotsford, British Columbia on Friday night, the first stop on a 27-city swing stretching across 11 Canadian provinces and more than 4,500 miles.

Most of the participants, including tour co-producers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir; Patrick Chan; Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford; and Kaetlyn Osmond, are members of Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the PyeongChang Olympics. They are joined by three-time world champion Elvis Stojko, winner of Olympic silver medals in 1994 and 1998, and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, two-time Canadian ice dance champions and reigning world bronze medalists.

“We’re so lucky as Canadian athletes to have received such support over the years,” Virtue, who also won two individual Olympic ice dance gold medals with Moir, said on CTV’s Your Morning. “This has been on our radar for a long time, to do a tour to sort of give back and say thank you in our own way.”

“The timing feels right, now that we are not doing any amateur skating this season,” Moir added.

The timing is also right for the long-retired Stojko. Chan, and Duhamel and Radford, formally announced their respective retirements from eligible competition soon after the PyeongChang Games. Osmond, the reigning world champion, is not competing this season.

That leaves Weaver and Poje. The couple is skipping the ISU Grand Prix Series this fall, but plan to return to competition at the 2019 Canadian Figure Skating Championships, held in Saint John, New Brunswick, from January 13-20. There, they will likely face a fierce battle for the Canadian title with Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who bested them at the event last season (though Virtue and Moir won).

Forgoing the chance to compete their programs in front of judges and technical specialists could be a dicey strategy, given the ever-shifting International Judging System (IJS), which had intricate changes to required ice dance elements issued during the off-season. Having just won their first world medal since 2015, Weaver and Poje risk losing some of the momentum they fought so hard to build.

“That’s a very good point and the absolute first thing we thought of,” Weaver, 29, said. “However, momentum is kind of a funny concept, because it’s not really a tangible thing. We were given this opportunity to tour Canada in 2018 with the Olympic gold medal-winning team. This opportunity now is priceless. We are going to show our competitive programs on the tour, we’ll be out there many times across the country, so we see this as a definite asset.”

The couple opened their season with a win at the Autumn Classic International in Canada last month. Their programs, including a tango rhythm dance and a free dance to “S.O.S. d’un terrien en détresse” from the rock opera Starmaniaa tribute to their late friend, Denis Ten – were well-received, but as is typical early in the season some of their element levels needed improvement.

“We really wanted to push ourselves to come to (Autumn Classic) and get what we needed for feedback, and now we have three months before our next competition to really develop the programs,” Poje, 31, said. “But going out on tour and performing (the programs) every night is really a great asset for us. Instead of performing them only three times maybe in a (fall) season, we perform them many times.”

Weaver and Poje won the Grand Prix Final in 2015 and 2016, and then went on to place fifth and third, respectively, at the world championships. Last season, they failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final after placing second and fourth at their Grand Prix events.

“We won the Grand Prix Final twice, we’ve not made it countless times, it really has no bearing on the rest of the season most times,” Weaver said. “You win some, you lose some. You still need to bring it when you need it.”

“We figured, if we have a great product, let’s get out early, let’s put our feet down and say, ‘We’re not going anywhere,’” she added. “We’re going to build our repertoire in a different way (on tour), as well as live in a different way and then come back to competition.”

Plenty of practice time, including regular consults with ice dance technical specialists, is part of the program.

“We will not be dilly-dallying, we are very, very organized,” Weaver said. “This presents a unique challenge for us, one we’ve never done before, I don’t know if anyone has ever done it before. We’ve scheduled our down time with (technical) callers, with our coaches. The producers of the show know we are competitors and that is our main goal, so it’s a give-and-take with the show. It’s a risk, but it’s one we are ready and excited for.”

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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Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje debut free dance tribute to Denis Ten

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Sometimes, you have to follow your heart, even if it makes you sad.

That’s what Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje thought when they chose to perform their free dance to “SOS, d’un terrien en detresse” this season. The tender Kazakh ballad was used by their friend, Denis Ten, who trained alongside them in Hackensack, New Jersey for a time. Ten died on July 19 in his home city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, after being stabbed by robbers attempting to vandalize his car.

“He was our dear friend. We found this music when we went to Kazakhstan and (saw) him skate to it this summer,” Weaver said. “We couldn’t get it out of our heads.  We came home and built a program around a different version (by Los Angeles: The Voices).”

The debut of the sensitive, yearning program earned Weaver and Poje 120.74 points and the title here in Oakville.  Canada’s world bronze medalists gained six Level  4 elements, the most valuable in figure skating’s scoring system, and judges also awarded high scores for interpretation and performance.

“When the tragedy struck, we knew our mission in this program was to do it for Denis,” Weaver said. “It’s about a person who is in distress and has a guardian there to care for him, and in the end,  they both understand it’s (the guardian’s) time to go. It’s the tragic sweetness and acceptance of it we’re trying to feel and portray.”

Doesn’t repeatedly training a program with such tragic connections get draining?

“That was the hardest thing,” Poje said. “But all of the memories we have of Denis bring us such joy. We had great laughs, especially the year we trained together. It made us feel at peace with going out there. We know how much he has touched people around the world.”

“This is our medium, our form of expression,” Weaver said. “We felt we needed to use it to pay tribute. We are able to channel our feelings into art, and that’s our way to deal with the tragedy.”

The free dance was choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo, who coached Weaver and Poje for several years at the Detroit Skating Club. Although Nikolai Morozov, who works in Hackensack, remains the couple’s primary coach, they also work with Camerlengo and Igor Shpilband in Novi, Michigan.

Morozov thinks this arrangement of high-powered ice dance honchos is a trio made in heaven.

“They love to work with Pasquale, and Igor is very excited to work with them,” he said. “We are just happy because to us, it is most important that they are getting better. I don’t think we have egos any more. We are just happy to work with great skaters. It’s been very easy.”

Autumn Classic was Weaver and Poje’s first and only fall competition this season. They next compete at the 2019 Canadian Figure Skating Championships. Tomorrow, they join rehearsals for the upcoming “Thank You Canada Tour” across the nation, along with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir; Patrick Chan; Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford; Kaetlyn Osmond; and other figure skating stars. The couple will alternate performing their competitive rhythm dance, a romantic tango, with their free dance.

“Whatever the feeling is in the morning, short or free, is what we’ll do,” Poje said.

“We will definitely get both programs out there in front of the audiences,” Weaver added.

Two teams training at Gadbois Center in Montreal, Quebec under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice LauzonAdrian Diaz and Olivia Smart of Spain, and Shiyue Wang and Xinyu Liu of China – placed second and third, respectively.

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Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic; Hanyu leads men

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A cool and confident Bradie Tennell scored a big upset at the Autumn Classic International in Oakville, Ontario on Friday night, defeating two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia by 1.72 points to win her first-ever senior international title.

“I had a bit of a rough warm-up, so I’m really glad I was able to come back out there and do what I normally do,” Tennell said. “Obviously, there are some improvements that can be made, but overall I’m really happy with it, because it’s just the first one of the season.”

The U.S. champion, sixth in the world last season, has set an ambitious goal: “I want to be a whole new skater, unrecognizable from last season,” she said at U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp last month. Performing her free skate to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Benoit Richaud, she was more expressive and elegant, with angular movements and staccato footwork.

Famed for her consistent jumps, Tennell landed seven mostly solid triples including two triple-triple combinations, although two jumps were judged short of rotation. The program scored 137.16 points, bringing her total to 206.41.

“I’ve always loved (Romeo and Juliet) and I think it’s a very mature piece,” Tennell said. “There is so much feeling behind it. It’s obviously a very tragic story. There was a lot to do there as far as interpretation and choreography.”

“There are some things that need to be tweaked, but I love the program,” Denise Myers, who coaches Tennell in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, said. “It showed a more mature, different side to Bradie, which is what we are striving for this year. We will definitely return to Benoit to fix a few things. But this being the first big competition, just getting the program out was the goal.”

Medvedeva, who held a slim lead after the short program, also had a solid outing, landing six triple jumps in her free to a tango medley. But she fell on a triple loop and fumbled one of her three spins.

If she was disappointed, she certainly did not show it, running up to embrace and congratulate Tennell before warmly greeting reporters in the mixed zone.

“To be honest, I feel just amazing,” Medvedeva said. “This competition was really an incredible experience. First competition with my new team, new coaches, new everything.”

Heavily favored to win gold at the PyeongChang Games, Medvedeva was edged by her younger training partner Alina Zagitova.  She left Eteri Tutberidze’s group in Moscow this spring and seems to be thriving under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

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“There (were) a lot of mistakes and a lot of places where we can do better, but for my free program, it was really good,” Medvedeva said. “I feel I can do it better, perfectly clean. I have a little bit more than a month to make everything better (before Skate Canada). I can’t wait to go back to Cricket to work and make it better, better and better.”

Mae Berenice Meite of France had a strong free skate to place third with 178.89 points. Kailani Craine of Australia was fourth. In another surprise, Japan’s world silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi fell on a triple flip and had trouble with other jumps, and placed fifth.

The men’s short program, also held on Friday, proved that even two-time Olympic champions get a bit nervous at the start of the competitive season.

Yuzuru Hanyu leads the field by more than seven points, but Japan’s superstar didn’t skate his new short to Raul di Blasio’s “Otonal” the way he had hoped, with a slightly scratchy landing on a quadruple toe-triple toe combination and a major error on a sit spin combination that resulted in zero points for the element. Still, he landed a solid quadruple salchow and takes 97.74 points into Saturday’s free skate.

“This is the first competition and it’s always nerve-wracking,” Hanyu said through an interpreter. “The flow was not so good. I had a little glitch in my spin and quad, because I was so nervous. I am glad I was able to complete the program without major mistakes.”

Hanyu, who fought through a right ankle injury last season, told reporters he was fully fit for the season.

“I am not even thinking about my ankle,” he said. “I am just disappointed I did not show my step (sequence) better today.”

Junhwan Cha of South Korea, who trains alongside Hanyu at the Cricket Club, had no such worries. Skating to a medley of classic waltzes, the 16-year-old had the finest short of his career. Moving with speed and assurance, he landed strong jumps, including a quad salchow, and sits second with 90.56 points.

“The big thing is I don’t have any injuries, and I don’t have boot problems,” Cha said. “I am just training very, very hard.”

Jason Brown, third with 88.90 points, had a superb debut of his short to Two Feet’s “Love is a B—-,” showing a striking step sequence with lots of sliding moves as well as a strong triple axel. The 2015 U.S. champion lost ground when his triple lutz-triple toe combination was saddled with an under rotation.

“I got a little winded before the Lutz-toe combo but fought through that,” Brown said. “It’s the focus, and where to put that focus, in the program that I’m still learning.”

Like Medvedeva, Brown moved to the Cricket Club this spring to train under Orser and Wilson. The team has been re-working his jump technique, including the quad toe loop, a jump Brown hopes to land in competition this season.

“I work on it every day and it’s getting stronger,” he said. “(Orser and Wilson) have really been patient with me, working with me methodically. Each day I’m learning something new. We are really looking at it as a four-year program.”

And earlier Friday, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France, reigning world bronze medalists, notched a total 210.21 points to win the pairs’ title by nearly 25 points. The only major error in their sensuous and edgy free skate to the Chris Isaak-penned “Wicked Game,” choreographed by Charlie White, was James’ fall on a throw triple salchow.

“I have only done double salchows and quads for the last three years, so muscle-memory wise, it was too high and opened up too late,” James said. “I only had five days to relearn a triple salchow….It was too easy for us and there was (lack of) concentration.”

The skaters, who train in Florida, abandoned their throw quad after new judging guidelines lessened its value.

“When we first did it, we needed it because we were stronger technically, than artistically,” James said. “We needed something (to differentiate) us from everyone else. It was worth 11 points when I landed it and when I fell it was (worth) 8 points. Now it is 6.8 points or so with a fall, and it’s not worth the energy and the risk.”

Instead, James and Cipres are focusing on their lifts, as well as seamless transitions in and out of the elements.

“We want to skate almost like dancers, and do elements like pairs,” Cipres said. “We are pretty happy about our program here and we think we are going in the right direction.”

Other pairs had rough free skates. Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, second overall with 176.32 points, had falls on their throw triple loop and side-by-side triple toe loops. 2017 U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had three falls in their program and placed third with 164.43 points.

Like James and Cipres, Denney and Frazier train in Florida under three-time U.S. pair champion John Zimmerman and his wife, former Italian champion Silvia Fontana.

“I think they felt the stress of wanting to prove something,” Fontana said. “They have worked really, really hard, not only on elements but everything in between, unison and skating skills …. The biggest challenge it to keep them confident. We know they are progressing really well, but they need to believe it themselves.”

A new U.S. pair, California-based Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, had a solid free skate and placed fourth.

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This year’s rhythm dance is all about the Tango Romantica, a pattern dance that takes up nearly a minute of the 2 minute, 50 second program. It hasn’t been competed since the 2009/2010 season, so the most experienced teams – like Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, Canada’s world bronze medalists — may have an advantage.

Performing to a medley including “Libertango,” choreographed by Igor Shpilband, Weaver and Poje performed an elegant, compelling program that earned 76.53 points. They lead the field by more than 9 points.

“It’s a romantic tango. We wanted to take away the aggression and the over the top drama, we’ve done that (before),” Weaver said. “We want to do something understated and beautiful and romantic.”

“The feeling we’re trying to create is: you’re going to a ball and halfway into the night, the slow song comes on, you see each other and you connect immediately,” Poje said.

The skaters, who split their time between Hackensack, New Jersey and Novi, Michigan, train under a trifecta of prominent ice dance coaches including Nikolai Morozov in Hackensack, and Shpilband and Pasquale Camerlengo in Novi.

“(Shpilband and Camerlengo) are very seamless,” Weaver said. “Pasquale is an artist, Igor is also an artist as well as a great technician. The great thing is everyone is under one plan. Nikolai communicates with Igor on a daily basis and Pasquale is always involved as well… We have three of the most legendary coaches ever, but it never feels like a competition. Everyone is united to help us reach our goals.”

“Nikolai is our head coach, and everyone realizes that,” Poje said. “The great thing is, Igor understands that. He and Pasquale are supplementing what we have.”

Olivia Smart and Adria Diaz performed a classic Argentine tango and sit second with 67.35 points. Carolane Soucisse and Shane Firus of Canada’s “hip-hop” tango placed third, earning 65.38 points.

The Autumn Classic concludes Saturday with the free dance and the men’s free skate. The event will stream live on Skate Canada’s Dailymotion page.