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Eight U.S. skaters in Grand Prix Final

Can Team USA silence their competitors?

Team U.S.A.'s Evan Lysacek.
Team U.S.A.'s Evan Lysacek. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Klaus Reinhold Kany, special to icenetwork.com
(12/13/2007) - For the first time in its 12 year history, the Grand Prix Final will not take place in one of the six countries which hold a Grand Prix event every year. Instead, the ISU decided to give it to Italy and to the Olympic Palavela rink of the 2006 Torino Games. The best six skaters or couples of the six Grand Prix events of this season (USA, Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan) qualified for this final. Eight of the 32 skaters are from the USA.

None of the reigning world champions will compete in Torino. Miki Ando of Japan made too many mistakes at her home competition, and is only the second substitute. French skater Brian Joubert had to cancel his home Grand Prix due to illness, but meanwhile recovered and won French Nationals for the sixth time. Shen and Zhao of China, and Bulgarian ice dancers Denkova and Staviski decided this summer not to compete this season. The lack of the four world champions opened the way for new talents.

Ladies

Three reigning Junior World Champions from the U.S. earned a spot in the final: Caroline Zhang and Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker. Zhang was third at Skate America, and second at the Cup of China. She made waves this season with her phenomenal spins and style. Joining her in the final for the first time, is the 2006 World Champion Kimmie Meissner from Newark, Delaware. She won gold at Skate America, and silver at the Trophee Eric Bompard in France. She has matured since last season, but sometimes has to be careful to land clean Lutzes and flips. The favorite for the ladies competition, however, might be Yu-Na Kim from South Korea, who won both her Grand Prix assignments with big distances to the rest of the field. Her biggest rival might be Mao Asada of Japan who trains in Lake Arrowhead. The second Japanese lady Yukari Nakano seems not to be as strong. Last but not least in the final is Italy's Carolina Kostner, who tends to make mistakes if the pressure from her home crowd becomes too boisterous. Sarah Meier of Switzerland is the first substitute and is on site, in case somebody gets sick or injured.

Pairs

Reigning World Junior Champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker from Colorado Springs, won two silver medals; one in China and one at the NHK Trophy in Japan. This is quite astonishing because this is only their second year as a team. They still have to skate many miles together to form a perfect unison, but could impress the judges nevertheless. The favorites are Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang of China, who won their Grand Prix in France and Russia with impressive elements. More artistic and more innovative, but not consistent on the solo jumps, were the reigning European champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany. If they skate clean, they might win as well. Another team with a good chance of earning a medal are the Chinese couple of Qing Pang and Jian Tong, the 2006 world champions. Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison of Canada also have an interesting style, but they are not expected to win. The same is true for Russia's Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov. The first substitutes are Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov, also of Russia.

Men

The men's competition might be the highlight of the whole final, because at least four of the six skaters have won important medals and titles. There will be another tough battle between the top-two Americans, Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek. At the Cup of China, Weir, who trains now in Wayne, N.J., beat Lysacek with a difference of only two points; he also won the Cup of Russia. "But he has some minor foot problems", coach Galina Smievskaia said in Torino. Lysacek, who trains in Los Angeles, was second at Skate America where he was bested by Japanese skater Daisuke Takahashi. Takahashi might be a favorite if he masters his jumps. But don't count out the 2005 and 2006 World Champion Stéphane Lambiel of Switzerland. He did not start off too well at the beginning of the season, but became the Swiss champion again last weekend. The two remaining skaters in the men's competition are Patrick Chan of Canada, who was second at last year's Junior World and won the Paris Grand Prix. And Belgium's Kevin van der Perren, bronze medalist at last season's Europeans. First substitute is the reigning Junior World Champion Stephen Carriere from Boston.

Ice Dancing

Ice dance competitions are much more open in the new ISU judging system, than in the old one. There will be no compulsory dance in Torino, only an original and a free dance. This might be an advantage for U.S. skaters Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. They gold-medaled in their two Grand Prix event, Skate America and the Cup of China. "Since our Grand Prix, we polished our programs and made them more difficult", Agosto said after the first practice. Their rivals are French dancers Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder who won gold in their home country, and in Japan; they are especially strong in their compulsory routines. The third candidates for gold are Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia, second in China and first in their home country. A young team from Canada will also fight for medals: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, won Skate Canada and were second in Japan. The second Russian team of Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski might impress judges and spectators with their free dance. The only outsiders are the second French dancer team of Nathalia Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat. They withdrew from French Nationals last weekend in order to save energy for the final because Bourzat has to undergo a meniscus operation next week. First substitutes are Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy.