As the Olympic figure skating season moves into the national championship phase, a few more observations about the Grand Prix season and Grand Prix Final:
1. All you Alina Zagitova detractors (that includes you, CBC) aren’t going to like this: the new Grand Prix Final winner, age 15, looks more impressive every time I see her.
Part of it owes to the free skate costuming and program layout that emphasize her strengths, which are jumps and a "look-at-me" attitude.
The vibrant red in the tutu-qua-dress and long gloves Zagitova wears grabs the eye, says she is portraying a ballerina and limns her movement so strikingly it is easy to forget she does no jumps in the first half of the four-minute free skate to the Russian ballet classic, “Don Quixote.” And while I hope the rules will be changed to eliminate such 100 percent back loading, who can fault her coaches for taking advantage of the point bonus that comes with those jumps, which also are the final impression on the judges before they submit marks?
“At first I thought I was going to really dislike it,” 1998 Olympic champion and NBC commentator Tara Lipinski said of Zagitova’s back-loaded free skate, “but I have learned to enjoy it. She has found ways to make it more enjoyable by building the excitement toward the end of the program and making sure her jumps are coordinated with crescendos in music. There always is a way to play the game.”
2. Speaking of packaging, it’s amazing how Russian Maria Sotskova, 17, went from slogging along behind “Swan Lake” in the short program at the Grand Prix Final to being in complete harmony with the more languid tempo of her free skate music, the ethereal “Clair de Lune.” The latter performance brought her the silver medal behind Zagitova.
3. What a difference a few days makes: Mao Asada won the 2005 Grand Prix Final at 15 but was ineligible for the 2006 Olympics because she was 87 days past the age cutoff (turning 15 by July 1 of the year before the Olympics.)
Zagitova is eligible for the 2018 Olympics because her birthdate beat the deadline by 41 days. She has become a strong medal contender, and the gold is not out of reach if countrywoman Evgenia Medvedeva, the overwhelming favorite, is not completely healthy.
(Some Asada news: She ran her first marathon Sunday, finishing the Honolulu race in 4 hours, 34 minutes, 13 seconds. Knee pain kept Asada, 27, from her goal of breaking 4 ½ hours. She retired from skating competition after last season.)
4. The pairs competition at the Grand Prix Final was a reminder that when pairs skating is really good, it is breathtaking, given the eye-catching (death-defying?) nature of the twists, throws and lifts involved.
It also was proof that whatever the German Figure Skating Federation paid its French counterpart in 2015 to release native Frenchman Bruno Massot so he could pair with Aliona Savchenko as a German team was worth it. (The figure I have heard is $33,000.)
Savchenko, still a 5-foot wisp at age 33, and Massot, 6-0 with the look of an NFL tight end, won the Grand Prix Final with jaw-dropping athleticism. Their speed and power, reflected in the rafter-rattling twist, the horizontal distance she covers on throws and the rotational velocity on a back outside death spiral, also enhanced the component scores to a degree their free skate score was the highest ever.
The Germans’ Chinese rivals, reigning world champions Sui Wenjing, 22, and Han Cong, 25, also were brilliant in the free skate after he fell on a jump in the short program. Sui and Han, a smaller couple (she is 4-11; he is 5-7) have a finesse and an emotional electricity that infuses their skating with sophisticated sparks - and a quad twist.
The Germans and Chinese were in another league from the other four teams at the Grand Prix Final, just as they were while finishing in the reverse order at last year’s World Championships. Their battle for Olympic gold should be terrific.
5. In ice dance, two teams also have separated themselves from the rest: reigning world champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, whose résumé also includes Olympic gold and silver, and Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, who won world titles during the Canadian couple’s two-season hiatus from competition after the 2014 Olympics.
The debate over which team is better already has been heated to the level of vitriol by anonymous, gutless social media trolls. A French dance judge, David Molina, felt threatened enough by tweets directed at him that he reported them to the police in Paris, according to a story in Le Parisien. In an email to me, Molina declined comment.
The French couple has had the upper hand this season, becoming the first team with a total score of 200 or more at their first Grand Prix event, then topping that twice since. The most recent was at the Grand Prix Final in Japan, where their 202.16 beat a 199.86 by Virtue and Moir.
(Papadakis and Cizeron went right from the Grand Prix Final that ended Sunday in Japan to the French Championships, where they easily won Friday’s short program over a weak, four-entry field despite a fall.)
As was the case during the six-year rivalry between Virtue-Moir and 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States, the competition between the Canadians and the French has produced some spectacular skating from both.
It has also reinforced the Canadians’ stature as one of the greatest ice dance teams ever – certainly the greatest since Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean dazzled the competitive skating world from 1981 through 1984. Virtue and Moir are almost certain to join another Russian team, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, as the only ice dancers with medals in three straight Olympics. Klimova and Ponomarenko went bronze-silver-gold in 84-88-92.