Schrödinger’s Placement: Four Continents 2019

Spot the Stationary Lift

When Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue hit the closing pose of their Four Continents free dance I was already halfway to the kitchen to get a second piece of cake. “That was a little frantic, but they’ve got this,” I thought, “I know how ice dance works.” Hubbell and Donohue clearly thought the same judging by their commentary in the Kiss & Cry. “C’mmon, just hit the plus five, let’s go,” and “Everything’s Level 4 don’t review it,” are now the most infamous quips ever uttered in the K&C before getting utterly hosed by the technical panel.

Never take a placement for granted. You don’t know what’s going to happen until the score box opens.

Figure skating is a political sport as much as it is an athletic pursuit, and ice dance is the most treacherous discipline of the lot. The difference in quality between the top teams is slim, so coaches, judges, federations, and the skaters have to work in the margins to push teams ahead. Sometimes it’s blatant vote swapping, and sometimes it’s the subtlety of which coaches get to sit in the Kiss & Cry or where you take your training, but every gesture matters. For Hubbell and Donohue, that lift cost them an ISU championship and may have changed the arc of their entire season. True, they can return to Montreal and read it as a “wake up call,” but their loss cost them crucial momentum heading into Worlds. Hubbell and Donohue need every last point in their favour in a head-to-head matchup against Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who look flawless after a commanding victory at Europeans. A fourth place finish in the penultimate competition of the season from a dodgy technical error is a sign: skate flawlessly, or watch your medal slip away.

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But what of our Four Continents ice dance medalists? For Madison Chock and Evan Bates, this was a delightful surprise tempered with shock. They’re gold medalists in their second major competition of the year, which must be a massive confidence boost as they prepare for Worlds. Also in the shocked but delighted category are Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who likely assumed they were safely in fourth place after Hubbell and Donohue cleaned up the final flight. While their rhythm dance continues to be a sore spot, their free dance has grown more resplendent with each performance. But Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje must be wondering what their season holds. They won the silver medal, but lost the free dance to Gilles and Poirier, just as they did at Canadian nationals. The judging panel was not especially generous with component scores, and many other teams have stronger technical content. They held off Gilles and Poirier in both competitions based on the strength of their Tango Romantica, but that slight advantage is unlikely to keep them in podium position at Worlds, barring unforeseen disaster–or a lift that drifts.

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The dancers who finished off the podium were no slouches, either. Special shout out to Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen for Best Dramatic Use of a Skirt in a Flamenco Program. Meanwhile, Misato Komatsubara and Tim Koleto remained unflappably cool in the face of an announcer who apparently couldn’t tell the difference between an “i” and an “o” sound when pronouncing Koleto’s name, and an epic music snafu in the Gala. Oh, and for what it’s worth, Tim wears that bordeaux velvet blazer with a conviction that should make Jean-Luc Baker weep. #TeamKoKo

Highwire Acts

If you weren’t breathlessly awaiting the return of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han I don’t know what kind of skating fan you are.

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Sui and Han might be the most brilliant pairs team of their generation, effortlessly confident and impossibly cool. Have you seen anyone else make headphones look this good? But that brilliance has been marred by serious injuries, which has limited their training time and sidelined them from competition. They looked gorgeous but undertrained at Four Continents and they narrowly won over Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, thanks to the latter missing a lift in the free skate. Even in what is effectively pre-season shape, Sui and Han are still in contention for a World title next month. Their lifts are outrageously fast and confident, with Sui throwing herself into positions that would make a lesser skater quake, and their choreography is always fresh and modern. If they can get the training time in, their programs will be stunning.

The Comeback Kid

Rika Kihira is 154cm of pure determination. Two triple axels and four minutes of nerve were all it took to redeem a fifth place finish in the short program with a Four Continents title.

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It would be easy to critique Kihira’s “inconsistency.” She has played the comeback card a few times this season after missing her triple axel attempt in the short program. The inconsistency argument glosses over the absurd difficulty of what Kihira is attempting: three triple axels in two programs is uncharted territory for women’s figure skating. We should be discussing how Kihira’s success rate on the triple axel is better than most of the senior men, and how her programs never fall apart even when she does. Kihira is a spectacular skater and if she can hold her form she will be a World champion.

Pleasant Surprises

Was anyone else relieved that Shoma Uno simply made it through Four Continents in one piece? Uno was injured at Japan Nationals and has been nursing that ankle injury ever since. A wonky ankle is a serious liability in the high-flying world of men’s figure skating, but the injury seemed to help Uno focus on what’s essential in his skating, fighting for every landing.

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Uno’s free skate wasn’t perfect, but he skated with such passion and intensity that it cancelled out the errors. Moonlight Sonata should feel shopworn at this point in the season, but Uno feels the music so strongly that it’s impossible to remain unmoved by the performance. Even with the errors I always find Uno’s skating compelling because it’s unlike anything else in the men’s field. Shoma Uno: more than an also-ran.

Another pleasant surprise in the men’s event was Boyang Jin. This has not been a spectacular season for Jin, but his performance at Four Continents is much closer to the form that won him two World bronze medals in 2016 and 2017.

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Are the programs corny? Yes. Is he doing his best to sell the hell out of them anyway? Yes. In many ways “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a perfect choice for a 21 year old from Harbin who, plunked in any other context but high performance figure skating, would likely be pinning classic rock album cover posters to a dorm room wall. There is an unvarnished quality to Jin’s skating which often reads as unsophisticated, but there’s also exuberance and a real joy that comes from entertaining a crowd. It’s not subtle, but it is genuine, and Jin is finding more and more ways to express that flair for showmanship as he gets older. He’s never going to be Patrick Chan, but I’m not sure he has to be, either.

Header/feature image copyright International Skating Union (ISU)

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