Yu, Jin step halfway to pairs title at junior worldsTarasova, Morozov land second in short; USA's Aaron, Settlage sit fifth
As a 5-year-old, Yang Jin watched on television as Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao turned in a technically superb performance to win silver at the 1999 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki.
Some 15 years later, at the 2014 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, Zhao is Jin's coach, and Jin and partner Xiaoyu Yu are a free skate away from one of the few titles the illustrious Shen and Zhao did not win: the world junior championship.
Combining powerful elements with a soft and elegant style, the team from Harbin in northern China earned a personal-best 62.58 points for their short program to Jules Massenet's "Meditation" from the opera Thais, choreographed by Marina Zoueva. This included the highest program components score of the event.
Their throw triple toe loop was high and covered much ice, gaining +3 and +2 grades of execution (GOEs) from the nine judges. The Level 4 double twist -- a triple is not permitted -- was elegantly landed, and Yu could have added one or two more rotations. The required double Axels were landed in perfect unison.
"We skated up to our level as well as we can do in practice," Jin said. "However, there still were some little errors and things we can do better. We still can improve the performance aspect of our program."
"In China, skating is not that popular, but we are skating because we love this sport," Yu said. "I like it especially because it is a sport which is combined with music."
Yu and Jin -- who also won their two Junior Grand Prix events, as well as the JGP Final -- are a free skate away from an undefeated international season. They are the sole Chinese pair competing in Sofia; Mingyang Zhang and Zhong Xe, the only other Chinese pair who competed on the 2013-14 Junior Grand Prix circuit, were not entered.
The Chinese are in a familiar situation, pursued by a pack of Russian teams which sit in second, third and fourth place. The best of them, Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, earned 59.46 points for a short that included an excellent double twist and throw triple toe loop. Their only mistake happened when they almost bumped into each other during the step sequence.
"We have mixed feelings regarding our performance," Morozov said. "We felt we were lacking the emotional part, and we had some small mistakes. But overall, we are happy with how we did."
"This year we are better than at last year's junior worlds because we have trained together now for almost two years," Tarasova added.
Tarasova and Morozov, who were fourth at the JGP Final, train in Moscow under Stanislav Morozov (not a relation), who is also on the coaching team of Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, and Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov.
"I originally wanted to play hockey, but then I preferred figure skating," Morozov said. "It is much nicer to skate with a woman on the ice than alone."
Vasilisa Davankova and Andrei Deputat, fifth at the JGP Final, sit third with 58.35 points. Their elements were clean but not outstanding.
"We are pleased with today's performance," Davankova said. "There were just some levels we didn't get. Still, our elements were good, and the emotions were good as well. The audience supported us, and our friends were cheering for us.
"We look up to Volosozhar and Trankov, and we can learn a lot from them," she added. "We also look up to Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy and especially like their Pink Panther program."
Maria Vigalova and Egor Zakroev, who won silver behind the Chinese at the JGP Final, also had clean elements and placed fourth with 55.32 points. Unlike the other Russian pairs, they do not train in Moscow or St. Petersburg but in the far smaller city of Perm in the Ural Mountains, the hometown of Trankov.
U.S. junior champions Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage, who train in Colorado Springs under Dalilah Sappenfield, skated a personal-best short program to place fifth with 51.95 points. All of their elements were clean, but they did not execute the throw triple toe loop they had planned, electing to do just a double.
"We wanted to put out a clean program, and we did that," Aaron, the younger sister of 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, said. "We have worked a bit on the triple throw, but we were not ready to perform it yet."
"We are really happy because we have performed well today," Settlage added.
U.S. juniors Kaitlin Budd and Nikita Cheban of the Detroit Skating Club, who train under Jason Dungjen, are ninth with 41.95 points. Budd fell on the double Axel and step sequence, but other elements -- including a throw triple toe loop -- were clean.
"Everything except my two falls was OK," Budd said. "I have to stay calm for tomorrow's free program."
Aya Takai and Brian Johnson, who were seventh in juniors at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, sit 11th here with 40.24 points. Their double Axel and twist were good, but Takai touched her hand down on the throw double toe loop and the lift was a bit shaky.
"We are extremely pleased because it was one of our better programs of the season," Johnson said. "We got most of our levels and landed the double Axel, which has not always been the case."
Only 15 pairs were entered in this event, fewer than at several recent world junior championships. Therefore, all of the teams will compete in the free skate, in which four groups of four pairs are allowed to skate.
U.S. team leader Wendy Enzmann gives the Bulgarian Figure Skating Federation high marks as hosts.
"All of our 18 skaters with their coaches and other team members arrived in Sofia on time, with their luggage and their skates," Enzmann said. "This is the most important thing. They are all healthy and excited.
"The hotel and food are excellent, and the bus transport works. The two rinks are what they are, but you do not need luxury to have a good competition. The Bulgarians do an amazing job, all of them are all very friendly and helpful, and they are proud to host this event."