It isn’t even October, and this Olympic figure skating season already has featured some stunning performances – all in Class C level competitions of the International Skating Union's Challenger Series.
(Class A is the Olympics - make them A+ - and World Championships. Class B is Grand Prix - with the Grand Prix Final a B+.)
Does that still mean the best is yet to come or that a few top skaters – especially in singles - will have peaked too early, with the Olympics not until February in South Korea?
Only time will tell, of course, but the changed framework of international competition, with Challenger Series events now drawing media attention and audiences for live streams, means some skaters are trying to be great in many events from September through early April.
Russia’s Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, then 18, pulled that off in the 2014-15 season, winning eight of the 10 events she finished (with two second places), including the Grand Prix Final, European and world championships. But Tuktamysheva looked weary in the free skate at the 2015 worlds, and she has not been the same skater since, finishing eighth at the last two Russian Championships.
What we have seen (in at least one program) from Olympic medal contenders Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova of Russia, Marin Honda, Wakaba Higuchi, Shoma Uno and Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and Javi Fernandez of Spain has been top notch.
Hanyu’s short program at last weekend's Autumn Classic and Uno’s short program at Lombardia Trophy a week earlier were both brilliant. Hanyu’s, in fact, simply was otherworldly, but he faltered badly in the free skate, while Uno was strong in both.
U.S. stars like Nathan Chen and Ashley Wagner are taking a measured approach. Chen used little of his quad arsenal in winning the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, although he did add a quad loop to it, making him the first to land cleanly five different types of quads. Wagner’s plans do not include a Challenger Series event.
**It is disappointing but sadly understandable to see skaters with the excellent interpretive skills of Hanyu and Wagner using the same program music for the third time in four seasons. In Hanyu’s case, it is the haunting, exquisite Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G Minor for the short program. In Wagner’s, it is the 2001 film “Moulin Rouge,” which already qualifies as an old warhorse, for the free skate.
Hanyu, 22, reigning Olympic and world champion, also is using the same Japanese film score in his free skate for the second time in three seasons. And Wagner, 26, three-time U.S. champion, has the same short program music (“Hip Hip Chin Chin”) for the second time in three seasons.
Hanyu does extremely well with abstractions – music that has no underlying story. Wagner is gifted theatrically, which means musicals are her sweet spot.
But there are dozens of other musical offerings each could have chosen, as Wagner originally did with “La La Land” before returning to the comfort of “Moulin Rouge.” That was her music at the 2016 World Championships, when she used every drop of her emotion and artistic maturity in becoming the first U.S. woman to win a world or Olympic medal (silver) in a decade.
My colleague Jackie Wong did a quick tally and counted at least 20 two-peat or three-peat programs this season. (For the sake of this discussion, two- and three-peat does not mean consecutive.)
For those who follow figure closely and now have the ability to watch virtually every event live on the Internet, which includes judges, repeats mean a lot of "been there, seen that" yawns. Olympics-only viewers won’t see it that way, but I still wish the International Skating Union would require skaters to have new material for the Olympic year.
Stretching one’s limits is what marks greatness in a performer. That has double meaning for skaters, who can push the envelope athletically and artistically. Doing both is difficult, especially with what is at stake in an Olympic season.
For seasoned skaters like Hanyu and Wagner, the combination should be a given, but the technical demands of the current judging system often take so much effort they kill artistic ambitions.
That is why what South Korea’s Yuna Kim did at the 2010 OIympics seems more remarkable with every passing year. Kim’s short program and free skate music were both new to her, and she mastered all the elements while performing beautifully to the contrasting pieces: sassy and droll in the “James Bond Medley,” floating like a feather in the wind to the airy, jazzy rhythms of Gershwin's Concerto in F.
**Speaking of the Koreas: After Thursday’s short program at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the North Korean team of Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik is in excellent position to earn one of the remaining five pairs spots at the 2018 Olympics. Ryom and Kim are third among the teams vying for those spots, with a nearly six-point lead over the sixth-place team.
North Korea has had figure skating entrants at five Winter Olympics, most recently in 2010. There could be extra significance this time, as some feel the presence of North Korean athletes at a South Korean Olympics would all but eliminate the possibility of further dangerous, hostile action from North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un during the Games – and, in the months leading up to them.
Of course, that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of the U.S. president* turning one of his frequent Terrible Two tantrums into a push of the button, but…
There is also no guarantee North Korea will decide to send athletes to Pyeongchang.
For a full look at the possible ramifications of the North Korean team’s performance in Germany, read my colleague Jeré Longman’s story in today’s New York Times.
(This was Part II of my early look at a fast-developing figure skating scene in this Olympic season. For yesterday's Part I, focusing on proposals for "radical change" in the sport, click here.)