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Italy crowns first- and second-time JGP gold medalists

Brezina, Bulanhagui, Chock and Zuerlein earn gold in Merano

Melissa Bulanhagui spins during her gold medal-winning free skate on Friday.
Melissa Bulanhagui spins during her gold medal-winning free skate on Friday. (Judi Owens)

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By Mickey Brown, special to icenetwork.com
(09/06/2008) - Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic cemented his status as the best junior-level men's figure skater in the world at the JGP Italy. American Melissa Bulanhagui won the ladies competition for her first career Junior Grand Prix gold medal, and ice dancers Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein, also of the United States, earned their second gold this weekend in Merano, Italy.

Ladies

Bulanhagui took a two-point lead with her Memoirs of a Geisha short program, in which her only mistake came on her triple flip-double toe combination. She landed a clean double Axel, and two of her spins were graded Level 4.

"This competition was a new experience for me. It was my first time leading after the short program," Bulanhagui said. "I told myself I couldn't get too excited because I had to stay efficient for the long."

While the bubbly Bulanhagui did land a triple Salchow, double Axel-double toe and double Axel in her "Slow Dancing in the Big City" free skate, overall, she struggled with her jumps in the segment, receiving negative Grades of Execution (GOE) on four of her jump elements. However, she made up for it in her presentation, as her program components score of 40.95 was second only to teammate Brittney Rizo's 42.24.

"In the long, I started out strong and lost myself in the middle of the program, but in the end, I got it all back together, and I thought I ended pretty strong," Bulanhagui said.

That is the second time Bulanhagui has medaled in the JGP Series. She won the silver in Romania in 2006.

Silver medalist Rumi Suizu of Japan had a mostly clean short program, one that included a triple toe-triple toe that received GOEs ranging from +1 to -2. Like Bulanhagui, her free skate left something to be desired as five of her jump elements in that segment were dinged with negative GOEs. She finished fourth in the free, but her total score of 121.97 was good enough to keep her on the second step on the podium. This is Suizu's fifth JGP medal and second silver, the first coming in Budapest in 2006.

Despite finishing only seventh in the free skate, Germany's Sarah Hecken jumped up from fourth after the short program to the bronze medal. Hecken sat .56 points behind Sweden's Joshi Helgesson and .68 points ahead of Russia's Ekaterina Kozireva heading into the free skate, but Helgesson and Kozireva finished 13th and 12th, respectively, in that segment, to fall out of contention. Save for one jump combination, Hecken, the gold medalist at last year's JGP Germany, performed a clean, albeit less demanding, free skate to earn her second JGP medal.

Rizo pulled up from sixth after the short program to finish fourth.

Men

What was a tight three-way competition after the short program turned into a laugher. Brezina trailed both American Curran Oi and Russian Nikita Mikhailov going into Saturday's free skate, but he overwhelmed the field in that segment, winning it by more than 22 points to earn his second JGP gold medal in as many weeks.

Oi landed a triple Axel and a triple Lutz in his Phantom of the Opera short program, propelling him to a segment score of 67.19 that put him in first place.

"It was new for me to be in first after the short program," Oi said. "I was excited to do the triple Axel again, which has been getting consistently better all summer."

Mikhailov landed a triple flip-triple toe combination in his short program, an element that earned him 10.25 points, while Brezina nailed the opening triple Axel in his "Sing Sing Sing" short program.

Brezina picked an excellent time to come up with a career-best free skate, which is skated to a Latin dance mix and a piece of music by the Danish percussion group Safri Duo. His protocol sheet from the program is a thing of beauty -- not a single negative GOE to be found anywhere. He landed seven clean triple jumps, including an opening triple Axel-double toe followed by a triple Lutz and a triple flip-triple toe. His spins and step sequence were all graded Level 3 and above.

The win clinches a spot for Brezina in December's Junior Grand Prix Final in Goyang City, South Korea, and moves him from outside the top 20 to No. 14 in this week's icenetwork.com World Figure Skater Rankings.

Oi battled through his On the Waterfront free skate, landing four triples -- a triple Lutz-double toe, triple loop, triple Lutz and triple Salchow-double toe-double toe -- but he led off the program with a pair of single Axels and fell on his triple flip-triple toe. His segment score of 98.19 gave him a competition mark of 165.38, earning him the silver, the second of his JGP career.

"I was disappointed with my long program because I have been skating it a lot better in practice," Oi said. "I have been feeling confident with my triple Axel and was planning to do two in my long, so I am upset that I did not manage to do either.

"I did learn a lot about dealing with the pressure of being one of the leaders after the short, and I am confident that I am going to be mentally stronger heading into my next event."

Skating in his first international competition, Russia's Alexander Nikolaev probably thought he was out of medal contention following the short program, after which he was eight points behind Mikhailov. He attempted seven triples in his free skate and landed at least four of them cleanly, including a triple Salchow-triple toe. He amassed 106.10 points for the free skate and 161.59 for the competition, good enough for the bronze medal.

American Danny O'Shea finished 13th in his JGP debut.

Ice Dancing

Chock and Zuerlein grabbed control of the dance competition from the beginning and didn't let go, taking a slight lead over Russians Ekaterina Riazanova and Jonathan Guerreiro in the compulsory dance and steadily widening it in the next two segments.

The Americans' "Minnie the Moocher" and "The Dancing Fool" original dance featured a Level-4 twizzle sequence, straight line lift and spin. They received just a single negative GOE from one judge on one element (their spin) in that segment.

In contrast, Riazanova and Guerriero received a deduction for a fall on the circular step sequence in their original dance, an error which, although it would not have made up the final difference, would have made things a lot more interesting heading into the free dance. As it stood, Chock and Zuerlein led by about three points going into that segment.

The Americans use Phantom of the Opera for their free dance, just as Oi does for his short program, and they performed it equally well. Both parts of their straight line lift into a rotational lift received a Level 4, although they did get nicked with a one-point deduction for an extended lift. Their twizzle sequence was also graded a Level 4. Their segment score of 74.42 gave them 156.52 points overall.

Chock said she thought she and Zuerlein performed solidly during the week, but that there are still lots of things they need to improve on before the U.S Figure Skating Championships in January. But Chock did enjoy the host city, Merano.

"This is the best place we've been to so far," she said. "The food is awesome. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming. It was a lot of fun."

Riazanova and Guerreiro experienced another fall in the free dance, this one coming during their straight line lift. They settled for the silver medal, their third on the JGP circuit.

The bronze went to Italians Lorenza Alessandrini and Simone Vaturi, who finished sixth in both of their JGP assignments last season. Americans Isabella Cannuscio and Ian Lorello placed fifth.