Ice Network

Ladies, pairs ready to light up the ice at Finlandia

Asada takes on Tuktamisheva; Duhamel reconnects with Finnish roots
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Mao Asada will square against former world champion Elizaveta Tuktamisheva and reigning world bronze medalist Anna Pogorilaya in Espoo this week. -Getty Images

Ladies and pairs will set the Finlandia Trophy competition in motion Thursday. Playing the role of a precursor to the world championships this season, the 2016 Finlandia Trophy is larger than usual, with many top skaters starting their season in Espoo.

The ladies event features a meeting of two world champions with the triple axel in their repertoire: Mao Asada of Japan and Elizaveta Tuktamisheva of Russia.

The two have practically taken charge of all the triple axels in ladies skating during the past decade. While Asada took a break during the 2014-15 season, it was Tuktamisheva who took over the the triple axel "scepter," and that jump helped her capture the 2015 world title.

However mind-boggling it would be to have a side-by-side comparison of both ladies' triple axels on the Metro Arena ice, it's not likely to happen this week.

After Wednesday's practice session, Asada said that even though the triple axel is important, she feels she doesn't need to do it at this competition.

Instead, the three-time world champion was eager to talk about her new programs. Interestingly, Asada's short program and free skate have the same music, "Ritual Fire Dance" played by Arthur Rubinstein. This unusual decision was made after a conversation with her choreographer, Lori Nichol.

"In the short program, my costume is black, and I express a black swan that turns into a mysterious lady with magical power, a witch. In the long program, that mysterious lady does a passionate dance, very intense and feminine, wearing a red costume," the 26-year-old Asada said. "I want to express a mature lady, something that I couldn't do in the past and what the younger skaters cannot do."

Tuktamisheva finished second at Nebelhorn Trophy two weeks ago, her first competition since last December, but didn't show the triple axel. Even though she does train the jump in practice, she said that she is being conservative and not taking too many risks.

The 19-year-old Tuktamisheva faces tough competition at Finlandia from her younger teammates. Also representing Russia are Anna Pogorilaya, the 2016 world bronze medalist, as well as two-time world junior silver medalist Serafima Sakhanovich. Another skater to watch is two-time Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond.

Hicks with new coach

The lone Team USA representative in the ladies event, Courtney Hicks begins her international season in Finland. The 2015 NHK Trophy silver medalist would have liked to have started her season earlier, but some oral maintenance got in the way: She recently had her wisdom teeth extracted. So far, she has only done her short program at a small competition near her home.

"As this is my first actual competition, I'd really just like to get the programs out there and skate a solid program," Hicks said. "It doesn't have to be. like. fantastic and perfect, but I want to get out there and show that things are working."

The Californian has been coached by Todd Sand since August. She said working Sand has already helped her improve her consistency.

"It's working really well, and now we are learning to know each others's styles a little better," Hicks said. "On the ice, I feel I'm more on a level and not (experiencing) so much ups and downs in practice. Overall, it's definitely improving and helping all areas of my skating."

Like a homecoming for Duhamel

The obvious favorites in the pairs competition are Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. The two-time world champions debuted their new programs at home in Canada at Souvenir Georges-Éthier in September. Under normal circumstances, their season would have continued with another event in Canada, but the chance to go to Finland was impossible for Duhamel to resist.

"Usually we do the Autumn Classic International, and it would have been at our home in Montreal this year," Duhamel said. "But as soon as I heard that Finlandia Trophy was going to have pairs this year, I said, 'I want to go.'"

There were two reasons for this. First, Finlandia Trophy hasn't included a pairs category since 2007. Second, Duhamel has Finnish ancestry on her mother's side. Her grandparents emigrated from Finland to Canada in the 1950s, and she has an aunt and many cousins in Finland.

"For the worlds in Helsinki in March, even my grandmother would like to come back to Finland for the first time in 15 years," Duhamel said.

Duhamel and Radford have been introducing new high-scoring elements the past couple of seasons, and this year is no exception. To maximize their points for the short program, the team is replacing the throw triple lutz with a more difficult throw.

"For us, the big new technical thing for this season is definitely the throw triple axel in the short program," Radford reveled. "Also, the music for the short is a rock song, and it's a completely different style, at least for me."

"We are able to do the triple axel quite consistently in practice, but realistically it needs mileage under pressure, so that in the bigger events, we are able to rely on it," Duhamel said.

Besides being a skater, Radford is a musician and composer. Also skating at Finlandia, fellow Canadian Patrick Chan will debut his new free skate set to music composed by Radford.

It will be an exciting premiere for both.

"Patrick only did a small preview of the program at the high performance camp in Canada a couple of months ago, where people got to hear the song for the first time," Radford said. "I'm excited and nervous about him, and I hope he has a really great skate here and shows it off the best way possible."

Get on that plane!

For reigning U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Daniel O'Shea, Finlandia Trophy is the first event of the season. The pair were the first Team USA members to arrive in Finland on Tuesday -- even though O'Shea forgot his passport at home, didn't print his boarding pass and mistook the gate number for his seat number. The rest of the details can be found in the blog he is keeping for icenetwork!

The other pair representing the U.S. is Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc. Even though the team has only trained together since May, this is already their fourth competition. DeLuc believes competing is the best way to train new programs.

"The more mileage you put on the programs, the better," LeDuc said. "We were both pair skaters before, so we were able to put all the elements together quite fast, and I think we had two programs done within three weeks."

The team placed fourth at Nebelhorn two weeks ago, and hardly managed to unpack their luggage at home before crossing the Atlantic Ocean again.

"We got home Sunday night, took Monday off to rest and on Tuesday we were training when U.S. Figure Skating called our coaches and said, 'You guys have Finlandia Trophy (next week),'" Cain said. "So it was like, get on the plane."

In the end, it turned out that their flight from Florida was delayed because of Hurricane Matthew. Now that they're here, the team is excited to compete again on short notice.

"We really want to get all the levels that we are trying for," Cain said. "We didn't get that at Nebelhorn, so we left a lot of points at the table."

Another new team to watch in paris is Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya and Harley Windsor, who just made history by becoming the first Australians to win a medal in the Junior Grand Prix Series, after taking the gold in Tallinn, Estonia, last week.

An interesting battle is expected between Kristina Astakhova and Alexei Rogonov of Russia, and Mari Vartmann and Ruben Blommaert of Germany, who placed seventh and eighth, respectively, at Europeans in January.

One event, two parts

With the 2017 World Championships being held in Helsinki, this year's Finlandia Trophy in the neighboring city of Espoo is being run by basically the same organization and being used as a test event. Even the volunteers are mostly going to be the same at both. 

That is also why Finlandia Trophy is put together in an unconventional way. The ladies and pairs will compete Thursday and Friday; once they're done, the men and ice dancers start their competition Saturday. This means that half of the skaters haven't arrived yet, and the other half will have the weekend off for sightseeing.

Or in the case of Duhamel, meeting up with her six Finnish cousins who are coming to watch her skate for the first time.

Or for Eric Radford, watching and listening from the stands how a teammate and friend interprets his composition.