Ice Network

'Best of the B's' kicks off Thursday in Oberstdorf

Ten, Brown, Gold head up impressive field; Canada vs. U.S. in ice dance
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Denis Ten will perform his 'spectacular' -- and exhausting -- free skate at this week's Nebelhorn Trophy. -Getty Images

The Nebelhorn Trophy, held in the picturesque mountain resort of Oberstdorf in southernmost Germany, has reigned as figure skating's most prestigious "B"-level international competition for 45 years.

World and Olympic champions, including Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean (1977), Todd Eldredge (1987) and Ilia Kulik (1994), enjoyed their first international successes there. More recently, Yuzuru Hanyu, Carolina Kostner, and Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov sharpened their programs at Nebelhorn prior to the Grand Prix season.

The biggest star in Oberstdorf this week will be Denis Ten of Kazakhstan, who won his country's first-ever Olympic figure skating medal, a bronze, in Sochi.

Last season, Ten battled ankle injuries and boot problems. He withdrew from Skate America and fought through several disappointing performances before a fine free skate lifted him onto the Olympic podium.

Frank Carroll, who coaches Ten in Southern California, thinks this season will be a different story.

"He is skating very well, nothing like the issues he had last year," Carroll said at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City earlier this month. "He is ready to put his programs out there at Nebelhorn. Lori [Nichol] has given him what I think is a spectacular free skate (set to music by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble), very difficult, and when he skates it well, it takes my breath away."

"Mine, too," the skater joked on Twitter. "I barely breathe (doing the program) sometimes."

Ten squares off against Jason Brown, who competes with two new programs choreographed by Rohene Ward. The U.S. silver medalist brought the house down performing his short, set to Little Walter's "Juke," at the Ice Dreams show in East Meadow, New York, last Saturday.

"The programs are so difficult, I'm still getting comfortable with the choreography," Brown said at Ice Dreams. "Later in the season, I feel like I'll be putting even more into the performance. "

Brown will not do a quadruple toe loop in Obertsdorf.

"He has a good percentage on his quad in practice, but we're not going to put it in the programs yet," Brown's coach, Kori Ade, said.

Alexander Johnson, seventh in the U.S. in 2013, returns to international competition for the first time since winning silver at the 2013 Challenge Cup in The Hague, Netherlands. He sat out last season with a serious ankle injury.

Ten and the Americans will be challenged by Czech Michal Březina, who was forced to withdraw from the Lombardia Trophy last week after an attack of food poisoning. Březina, the 2013 European bronze medalist, had trained under Viktor Petrenko in Hackensack, New Jersey, for several seasons, but returned to Oberstdorf and former coach Karl Fajfr this spring.

Other medal candidates include Ivan Righini of Italy; Russians Konstantin Menshov and Sergei Voronov; Israel's Alexei Bychenko, who trains in Hackensack with Craig Maurizi; and Canadian Elladj Baldé, who electrified Skate Detroit this summer with his short program to James Brown hits.

Gold heads up ladies field

U.S. champion Gracie Gold, the fourth-place finisher in Sochi, is the highest-ranking lady on the Nebelhorn roster. The 18-year-old, who, like Ten, trains under Carroll, will debut her new Nichol-choreographed Phantom of the Opera free skate in Oberstdorf.

Gold is joined by 2013 U.S. junior silver medalist Mariah Bell, who will be making her international senior debut. Bell moved to Monument, Colorado, in May to train alongside Brown in Ade's group, which also includes Jordan Moeller and Tyler Pierce.

"It is just the best, most motivating rink around, I think," Bell said. "I'm still working on triple flip-triple toe and triple toe-triple toe, but Kori and I will decide what is best to do once we get to Oberstdorf."

Two Russians, Elizaveta Tuktamisheva and Alena Leonova, return to competition after battling injuries last season. Another Russian, Anna Pogorilaya, appeared on the entry list until a few days ago, but she has since withdrawn due to illness, according to Russian media reports.

It's Weaver and Poje vs. Chock and Bates in dance

Canada's reigning world silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are favorites to take home gold in the ice dance event.

The skaters, who train at the Detroit Skating Club (DSC) under Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo, as well as in Toronto with Shae-Lynn Bourne, will skate their paso doble short dance mainly to "La virgin de la Macarena" and their free dance to a modern version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, recomposed by Max Richter.

"We want the step sequences to be the real highlights of our programs, and we made our material more difficult than last season," Weaver said this summer. "We like the idea of creating our own steps in the paso doble, but we don't like the rule of one less lift (in the free dance) because lifts are always crowd-pleasing."

Weaver and Poje's biggest challenge will come from U.S. silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who train in Igor Shpilband's group in Novi, Michigan. The team withdrew from the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic earlier this month and will debut its programs -- including a free dance to Gershwin's An American in Paris -- in Oberstdorf.

"All our lifts are new, because if you want to get to the top, everything has to be fresh," Bates said this summer. "Our skating has become a bit smoother, lighter and is still fast, and I think we have a stronger presence."

"This year, their program is dancey but dramatic as well," Shpilband said. "This is what the ISU wants to see."

The battle for the bronze medal may come down to reigning U.S. world junior champions Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who train at DSC, and Germany's quirky, avant-garde duo of Nelli Zhiganshina und Alexander Gazsi, who placed 11th in the world last season.

Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, fifth at the 2014 Olympic Games, had planned to compete, but Soloviev is having knee (meniscus) surgery this week. They have withdrawn from Nebelhorn and their two Grand Prix events.

Open field in pairs

Russian Olympic champions Volosozhar and Trankov have won gold at Nebelhorn Trophy the last three seasons, but they are not competing this fall. In their absence, the pairs event is wide open.

Two Colorado Springs-based teams trained by Dalilah Sappenfield and Larry Ibarra will challenge for the podium.

Coming off a win in Salt Lake City, 2013 U.S. silver medalists Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim prepared for Nebelhorn by performing their "Tango de Roxanne" short program at Ice Dreams.

"It was great to get more experience doing our new (star) lift under spotlights," Knierim said. "Our biggest thing we want to work on from Salt Lake is our lines and unison."

U.S. junior champions Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage, fifth at the 2014 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, made their senior international debut in Salt Lake, where they won bronze. They have taken a huge step forward this season with programs choreographed by Julie Marcotte.

"We set a plan for them all season, adding more choreography and detail in the programs, and they've stuck to the plan and realized how important the component mark is, especially in seniors," Sappenfield said.

"Last year it was great for them to stay back in junior and get one more year of experience," she continued. "They're very close, they work great together, and they're very united."  

Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov of Russia return to competition after missing last season due to Smirnov's knee injury. French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès, who now train in Moscow, are also medal contenders, as are Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.

Lynn Rutherford contributed to this report.