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Jumps will be key for Meissner and Zhang

American women have tough task at GP Final

Kimmie Meissner's jumps earlier this season, like this one at Skate America, have been heavily scrutinized for being under-rotated.
Kimmie Meissner's jumps earlier this season, like this one at Skate America, have been heavily scrutinized for being under-rotated. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford and Liz Leamy, special to icenetwork.com
(12/12/2007) - U.S. champion Kimmie Meissner and 2007 world junior champ Caroline Zhang head to Turin, Italy, for the Grand Prix Final as underdogs to South Korea's Yu-Na Kim and Japan's Mao Asada, who sit first and second, respectively, in icenetwork.com's World Figure Skater Rankings. Still, both Americans have a chance to make the podium.

The deciding factor may be how cleanly the two execute their jumps, since technique is being looked at more closely this season.

The ISU adopted a new rule regarding jumps that are launched from incorrect take-off edges, which usually affects flips and Lutzes. Offenders are now categorized by an "e" on the protocol, and judges must assign a Grade of Execution (GOE) no greater than -1. Meissner, Zhang and Asada -- even men's world champion Brian Joubert -- have been cited. There is also scrutiny on whether or not triples are fully rotated.

"Last year, all of my jumps were clean; none of them were downgraded," Zhang, who won medals at Skate America and the Cup of China, said. "I was surprised I had so many [downgrades] this fall. I guess I need to work harder and try to get my jumps bigger."

"The rules and the callers are just tougher in general -- on footwork, jumps, everything," Meissner, who won Skate America and placed second at the Trophee Eric Bompard, said. "You have to step your game up a lot. It's hard to tell when a jump is under-rotated; at certain angles you can tell, and at others you can't."

Meissner's coach, Pam Gregory, assessed her pupil's triple-triple combinations at Skate America.

"Kimmie doesn't [under rotate] on a regular basis, only the loop if she is tired," she said. "With the toe [in combination], it depends if the first jump is strong enough. If it isn't, then her toe can be a little cheated."

Belbin and Agosto must tackle difficult field

On paper, four-time U.S. dance champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are the favorites in Turin, standing at number one on icenetwork.com's ranking and scoring wins at Skate America and Cup of China. But winning the gold won't be an easy task.

There is no compulsory dance event at the Grand Prix Final, which should help the Americans. But their free dance, to a selection of Chopin melodies, has scored less than that of two of their rivals: Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin and young Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who train alongside Belbin and Agosto at Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva's school in Canton, Mich.

At the Cup of China, the Americans defeated the Russians, but it was largely due to a heavily penalized technical mistake on Domnina and Shabalin's free dance spin that is unlikely to be repeated.

Belbin and Agosto's season-best free dance score, 98.41, is less than the 101.99 earned by Domnina and Shabalin at the Cup of Russia and the 100.18 scored by Virtue and Moir at the NHK Trophy. Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, who won their sixth consecutive French national title last week and beat the Canadians at the NHK Trophy the week before, will also vie for the crown in Turin.

Without a compulsory dance -- a particularly strong area for the Russians -- and with original dances marked similarly, it's likely to be a very tight battle.

McLaughlin and Brubaker already achieved one goal

In the pairs event, reigning European champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany will challenge Chinese teams Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang and Qing Pang and Jian Tong for the title. Young Americans Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, who won the 2007 world junior title, already met one of their goals by qualifying for the Final.

"We feel we're still coming in to the Grand Prix [looked upon] as a junior team," the 21-year-old Brubaker, who teamed with McLaughlin in February 2006, said earlier this season. "The objective is to work hard, make the Final and impress the judges."

McLaughlin and Brubaker won two silver medals this fall, having just added side-by-side triple Salchows to their programs. They will be the favorites at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Saint Paul, Minn., but at 15 (she was born September 25, 1992) McLaughlin is too young under ISU rules to compete at the '08 Worlds.

Several other prominent U.S. skaters, including Zhang, Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu, are also too young, which could force U.S. Figure Skating to name lower-ranked skaters to its worlds team.