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U.S. looks strong for Junior Grand Prix

The 14-year-old Mirai Nagasu will make her Junior Grand Prix debut in Lake Placid.
The 14-year-old Mirai Nagasu will make her Junior Grand Prix debut in Lake Placid. (AP Photos)

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By Lynn Rutherford
(08/20/2007) - Last season, American skaters took home four titles from the Junior Grand Prix Final, the first time a country has swept all four golds since the series began a decade ago. The total U.S. haul was nine out of 12 medals. This fall, they may repeat that success.

The Junior Grand Prix (JGP) Series, made up of eight international competitions for junior-level figure skaters from around the globe, kicks off Aug. 30-Sept. 2 in Lake Placid, N.Y., at the historic Olympic Center, site of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games.

A strong U.S. team, including three of the four reigning U.S. junior champions, will compete in the series. They hope to qualify for the 2007 Junior Grand Prix Final in Gdansk, Poland on Dec. 6-9, where the top eight point-earners in each discipline will do battle for the overall title.

Invitations to the events are highly coveted, and only a few U.S. skaters have been awarded two competitions. The remainder of the spots will be filled according to how well athletes perform at their initial assignment.

Last season, Americans won everything in sight. Here's a look at how the U.S. team stacks up this year.

Ladies: U.S. skaters are heavy favorites

Two of skating's brightest young stars, Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt, make their JGP debuts this September.

The 14-year-old Nagasu -- who won the U.S. junior ladies title last January and placed second to fellow American Caroline Zhang at the 2007 World Junior Championships -- will kick things off in Lake Placid, debuting two new programs and facing an international panel of judges for only the second time. She is joined by two other strong Americans: Alexe Gilles, who placed fifth in junior ladies at the 2007 U.S. Championships, and reigning U.S. novice ladies champion Angela Maxwell.

"Junior Worlds was a whole new experience for me," said Nagasu, who lives in Arcadia, Calif. "I was proud of how I did there and I can't wait until I get more international experience. I know the competition will be tough, but I'm only concerned about doing my personal best."

Flatt, 15, withdrew from last fall's JGP with an injured back. The skater, who trains in Colorado Springs, Colo., returned to action at the 2007 State Farm U.S. Championships, placing an impressive fifth in senior ladies and will compete at JGP Austria in Vienna on Sept. 13-16.

"Rachael's technique is more refined and she's grown more mature," her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, said. "She's ready to step up artistically and make an impact. She knows she needs the triple-triple combinations in her arsenal, and she's been training the triple Axel."

Both skaters are known for their well-choreographed routines and consistent triple jumps, and Flatt often performs the difficult triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination in both her short and long programs.

While the U.S. ladies are solid favorites, challenges may come from Japanese skaters new to the international scene, including Japanese novice champion Yuki Nishino. In addition, Finland's Jenni Vähämaa, who placed fourth at the 2007 World Juniors, may be a contender if she can add a few more triple jumps to her programs.

Ice dancing: Ann Arbor teams ready to rock

The United States also boasts the two top ice dancing teams, both of whom train under Iouri Tchesnitchenko and Iaroslava Netchaeva in Ann Arbor, Mich.: U.S. junior champs Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, and U.S. junior silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell, who won the JGP Final last season. Expected to finish first and second at the 2007 World Juniors, both teams suffered untimely falls and are anxious to get their international careers back on track.

Samuelson and Bates, who will represent the United States in Lake Placid, missed valuable training time when Samuelson fell during their free dance at the World Junior Championships in March, and Bates stepped on the back of her left hand. After surgery and weeks of intensive therapy, Samuelson returned to the ice but spent another month in a plastic cast that limited her hand and finger movement.

"Emily's recovery went well, but it took a long time," Tchesnitchenko said. "Now they are definitely ready for Lake Placid. This season both of the couples (Samuelson and Bates and the Hubbells) will perform all new material, including brand new lifts."

While Bates likes their chances for victory in Lake Placid, he's taking nothing for granted.

"You just never know which teams will show up for these events," the 18-year-old skater said. "You could be beaten by skaters you never heard of before."

The brother-and-sister Hubbells are slated to compete at JGP Croatia on Sept. 27-30.

One of the biggest challenges to the Americans may come from World Junior silver medalists Grethe Grünberg & Kristian Rand of Estonia, who placed fifth at the 2006 JGP Final. Ironically, the Estonians recently moved from their home in Tallinn to train near the Ann Arbor couples in Canton, Mich., under Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, coaches of four-time U.S. ice dancing champions Tanith Belbin & Benjamin Agosto.

Canadians Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier, who won several events at the recent Lake Placid Ice Dance Competition, and Kristina Gorshkova and Vitali Butikov of Russia are also expected to shine this fall.

Men: Deep U.S. team will challenge

U.S. junior champ Eliot Halverson and Brandon Mroz, who placed fourth at the 2007 World Juniors, lead the U.S. men's contingent. Neither skater is competing in Lake Placid, but JGP veterans Austin Kanallakan and Tommy Steenberg, as well as 2007 U.S. novice champ Armin Mahbanoozadeh, will be on hand. All are capable of bringing home a medal, and one could even win gold.

The 16-year-old Halverson will see action at the Romania JGP, held Sept. 6-9. His coach, Ted Engelking, who trains the skater in Saint Paul, Minn., said Halverson has a few new tricks up his sleeve.

"Eliot is doing great work," Engelking said. "He has two new programs, and the big news is he has been landing beautiful triple Axels. I don't know if he'll do the Axel in Romania, but he's improved on every level -- his edges, his style, his spins -- since last season."

Mroz takes the ice at JGP Austria, where he plans to perform the triple Axel in both of his programs. The 16 year old, who trains in Colorado Springs under Zakrajsek, was impressive in his summer competitions, landing up to eight triples in his free skate programs.

"For any junior man of 16, doing the triple Axel is a milestone," Zakrajsek said. "All (recent) World Junior champions have done it, and Brandon wants to make his mark this fall to set him up for the U.S. Championships and World Juniors later this season."

The Americans will contend with several strong challengers, including Takahito Mura of Japan, who placed fourth at the 2006 JGP Final. A superb jumper, he can land the triple Axel-triple toe loop combination in his programs.

It is uncertain which Russian men will compete in the series, but Artem Borodulin -- whose choreography is done by Tatiana Tarasova, a creator of Alexei Yagudin's most memorable programs -- was seventh at the 2006 JGP Final and could be competitive this season. In addition, Artur Gachinski, a 14-year-old protégée of Alexei Mishin, renowned coach of Evgeni Plushenko, is also expected to compete this fall.

Pairs: Difficult elements will tell the tale

Unlike the three other disciplines, pairs will compete in just four of the eight JGP events, due to the relative lack of young teams in many ISU member nations.

World and U.S. junior champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker have moved up to senior events this fall, but U.S. junior silver medalists Bianca Butler and Joseph Jacobsen, as well as U.S. junior bronze medalists Jessica Rose Paetsch and Jon Nuss, who were third at the 2006 JGP Final, will be on hand in Lake Placid.

"We have two new programs this season, and we've added some new features to our lifts," the 20-year-old Nuss said. "We've been working for the past year to add the (side-by-side) double Axels to our programs. If we do them in Lake Placid, they will really set us up."

Butler and Jacobsen, who are trained by three-time U.S. champions Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, have an elegant style reminiscent of their coaches' many lovely programs. They, too, hope to gain consistent double Axels in competition this fall.

The U.S. teams may face their strongest challenge in Lake Placid from Canadian junior champions Carolyn MacCuish and Andrew Evans, who placed eighth at World Juniors last season.

Two teams from Russia, Vera Bazarova & Yuri Larionov and Ksenia Krasilnikova & Konstantin Bezmaternikh, who placed second and third, respectively, at the 2007 World Juniors, are expected to compete on the JGP and may dominate their events. The key for all the pairs will be landing their side-by-side jumps, as well as the triple throws and double or triple twist lifts.

Sylvia Yu contributed to this story