Think of the Children: A Junior Worlds Preview

A couple of years ago no one would think to watch the Junior World Figure Skating Championships beyond super fans and the extended relatives of the skaters themselves. Junior figure skaters have fleeting moments of relevance as the unpredictability of puberty, training, injury, and the trends of the sport can render a skater irrelevant before they cross the threshold of adulthood. Commentators might note a former Junior World or Grand Prix Final Champion during their first senior season as a fun bit of trivia, but most skated straight into the middle ranks of senior competition. Junior figure skating was an obscurity within the oddity that is elite figure skating.

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Junior figure skating is still niche, but it’s undergone a transformation in public perception as little skaters started pulling off very big tricks. Want to see a female skater land a quad lutz? Check out Alexandra Trusova and Anna Scherbakova. Did you see that video of Alena Kostornaia landing a beautiful triple axel in practice on Twitter? How long until Stephen Gogolev busts out a quad flip in competition (he’s already landed the toe loop, salchow, and lutz)? Didn’t a 13 year old (Alysa Liu) break Tara Lipinski’s record as youngest US National Champion this year? Suddenly, the junior ranks are where the fireworks are popping and the skating cognoscenti are watching. Jackie Wong live-tweets junior Grand Prix events with the same diligence as their senior counterparts. It’s easier for me to find a full stream broadcast of a JGP event from Latvia than watch replays of the European Championships. Junior events are hot tickets.

Lady Luck

The sudden exposure of junior figure skaters is the result of a perfect storm of preparation, performance, and publicity. It’s no accident that some of the most spectacular juniors are fresh out of Eteri Tutberidze’s training camp. The Sambo 70 skating club has spent years perfecting it’s formula for crafting delicate spindles who pop every expectation about what pre-teen girls should be able to accomplish technically. Tutberidze’s students swept the senior Russian national podium this year (something I wrote about here), and the last 4 Junior Grand Prix Champions have been under her tutelage. Tutberidze assembled a junior dynasty that’s peaked with the A Team Troika of Trusova, Scherbakova, and Kostornaia. Add in a savvy social media strategy where you release spectacular practice footage to feed the hype and of course everyone will watch.

Junior skaters (and younger) are pulling off astounding feats of athletic prowess, but those feats always come at a cost. Growing up is something elite figure skating seems to thwart at every turn. For every Carolina Kostner there are dozens of girls burned out by eating disorders, injury, puberty, and the anxiety induced by a lifetime of judgment. This is where the reflexive dismissal of Alysa Liu’s triple axel comes from. Stay with figure skating long enough and you’ll see the shooting star cycle happen over and over again. Ultimately, I’m not excited by the technical tricks themselves: I’m excited to see what kind of skater will emerge as an athlete grows up if given the chance.

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I have strong hopes that more than a few of the current juniors will withstand the pressure of puberty and thrive as seniors. If there’s anyone you should be watching at Junior Worlds this year it should be Alena Kostornaia. Her composure and focus on the ice is uncanny and her musicality is divine. She also strikes me as a skater who has a long view of what a successful skating career can be. Unlike Trusova and Scherbakova she has not landed a quadruple jump in competition, though we have seen glimpses of stunning triple axels in practice, and her programs feel better balanced as a result. I don’t doubt that she’s tried quads in practice, but either she or someone in her life made the decision to focus on landing clean triples. Her short program from the Junior Grand Prix final might be the performance of the season, junior or senior. If she skates with the same focus and ease this week a junior World title is easily within reach.*

Boys to Men

Much of the junior world hype is focused on the ladies’ discipline, but the Quad Question (“How Long Will They Last?”) looms over the men, too. Unlike the junior ladies, who tend to leap up to the senior ranks as soon as they’re age eligible in order to maximize their window of pre-pubescent technical reliability, junior men tend to linger in the hopes of developing stronger, more consistent quads before facing the outrageously deep senior men’s field. Imagine being a junior male skater looking at a transition to the senior ranks knowing you’ll have to compete against Chen, Hanyu, Uno, Kolyada, Jin, et. al–I might opt to spend an extra year in Juniors too, hoping against hope that someone big retires, quits, or forgets how to jump.

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Camden Pulkinen and Tomoki Hiwatashi are two skaters who could make a great last impression in their final junior year. Both qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final this year and both have a promising mix of artistry and athleticism, nascent but not naif. Pulkinen’s Piazolla tango short program? Gorgeous. His wild inconsistency from competition to competition–indeed, from short program to free skate? Gut wrenching. Pulkinen had a firm lead going into the JGPF free skate and came completely undone. That tango, however, is a glimpse of the greatness Pulkinen can achieve when he pulls everything together. He has booming jumps and he’s unafraid to connect with his music and the audience. That confidence is rare in junior men, who, much like any other teenage boys, would probably rather hide under a mattress with a bottle of mountain dew than wear the battle scars of puberty in public under halogen lights. If Pulkinen can find that confidence he is in line for a podium placement, if not the World title.

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Tomoki Hiwatashi is coming into Junior Worlds with two of the best back-to-back competitions of his career under his blades. He performed near-flawless free skates at US Nationals and then Four Continents and reminded everyone that he is a skater with enormous technical promise. There’s also something to be said for choosing weighty, dramatic music for a 19 year old boy: at that age, everything is drama and all emotions feel titanic. Hiwatashi manages to take what would ordinarily read as teenage angst and give it Wagnerian heft.

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I would be neglecting my duties as a figure skating fan to discuss the Junior men and not mention Stepehn Gogolev. A scant 13 years old and landing multiple types of quads, Gogolev will be a title threat from the moment he laces up his skates this week. He won the Junior Grand Prix Final on the strength of those quads, but his weakness is inexperience. An inconsistent pair of Junior Grand Prix outings initially cost Gogolev a spot in the final before he was called up as an alternate, and he might have won the Canadian senior men’s title in January were it not for a costly jump error in the free skate. Gogolev has the jumping prowess to clobber every other skater in the field, but he will need to keep a clear head to do it.

Tiny Dancers

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Much of the junior Worlds discussion focuses on the singles disciplines because if there’s anything more of a crapshoot than puberty it’s the stability of paired figure skating disciplines. Many of the top junior pair and ice dance teams will trade partners multiple times between now and their mid-20s, making it hard to feel invested in a pair you know is likely to split. If there’s anyone you should watch, however, it’s ice dancers Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik from the United States. They are preternaturally charismatic and engaging on the ice and as they grow stronger, physically and mentally, they have the chops to become serious senior dancers. Get on board the hype train before it leaves the station!

After I published this post the Russian Figure Skating Federation announced Alena Kostornaia has withdrawn from the World Junior Figure Skating Championships due to injury. Still looking for a preview of what to expect in the junior ladies event? Check out my recap of Senior Russian Nationals to find out more about Anna Scherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, the two skaters likely to fight it out for the title in Kostornaia’s absence.

Feature/header image © International Skating Union (ISU).

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