Grand Prix Final 2018: The Gentlemen

Nathan Chen obviously and easily defended his Grand Prix Final title this week in Vancouver, scoring 6 points ahead of Shoma Uno and 15.01 ahead of bronze medalist Junhwan Cha. Flat numbers, however, obscure just how unsettled and underwhelming the men were on Friday night. I should have just recorded myself making strangled howling noises at the end of the men’s event and called it a day. But I’ll still attempt to recap the men’s event in a way that doesn’t devolve into wailing, “Why, Shoma, why?!” 

Why, Shoma? WHY?!

I always want good things for Shoma Uno and it never quite works out for him. He won both of his Grand Prix events, but he he hasn’t skated either program clean all season. This week was an opportunity to show the world that, Hanyu or no Hanyu, Uno is the man to beat. He missed that opportunity. 

The technical faults in both performances are a double shame: they cost Shoma a gold medal, and we were denied the chance to see his programs at their best. I don’t think Uno and coach/choreographer Mihoko Higuchi get quite enoujgh credit for how lovely both program are. They’re perfectly calibrated for Uno’s subtle intensity. They also don’t sacrifice quality to cram in all the IJS key scoring points: somehow, there’s still room for the stroking and edges to unfurl over the ice. Even with the mistkes on Friday night, the four minutes of Shoma’s Moonlight Sonata passed like a dream. When the music stopped, I wasn’t ready for him to leave the ice. 

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Uno must master the head game if he wants to move ahead of his competitors. I don’t want to see his career become the story of “That Other Guy From Japan” with a lifetime supply of silver medals. He has all the ingredients to be a World and Olympic champion (*knocks on wood to forestall catastrophe*) and he’s come ever so close to those titles. It can still happen. We believe in you, Shoma!

Nathan Chen

The freshly-minted 2018-19 Grand Prix Final champion was not in prime form at this event. Granted, he landed 5 clean quads during this competition, and his free program score is just a hair off of the high water mark Hanyu set at GP Helsinki (189.43 to Hanyu’s 190.43). Technically, the goods are still there, but Nathan Chen is missing the polish that made him shine last season. Watching him in practice it’s easy to see where the tarnish is coming from. Chen would practice his quads, the odd bit of footwork, and a handful of spins. I skipped Day 3 practices, but I did not see a top-bottom run through of either program on Wednesday or Thursday. He set up the jumps and skated through the rest of the music. 

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If I’m being hard on Chen, it’s because great talent prompts great expectations. His short program is, once again, a delight, but it’s not as sharp as it was when he debuted it over the summer. Land of All should be a broody modern dance piece, but without the original transitions and full commitment to the choreography, it falls flat. Chen commented during the post-event press conference that he wanted to return to choreographers Marie-France Dubreil and Sam Chouinard for “touch ups” before US nationals. He effectively has the Christmas break to train up the choreography again before his next competition. 

Junhwan Cha

Cha was the only skater in the men’s event who looked completely relaxed both in practice and competition this week. That serenity carried Cha to a cool bronze medal in his first Grand Prix Final appearance. Unlike Shoma Uno, where a single mistake can prompt a pileup of errors as the program goes on, Cha has the confidence to mentally reset and approach the rest of the elements with a clear head. 

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I had to include the “Soohorang in costume as Junhwan Cha” picture. Couldn’t help it. 

Cha also deserves points for doing a good job with some questionable program material. Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet don’t inspire much enthusiasm as music choices, but Cha finds lovely moments in both. The music trades on his post-Olympic heartthrob status in South Korea (and beyond!), so from a PR perspective having him skate as Prince Charming and Romeo in the same season is a branding masterstroke. He’s still growing as a performer, but he has such solid training to build on that the artistic development will happen sooner than we expect. 

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