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U.S. skaters score three golds at JGP Mexico

Dobbs, Dornbush and the Hubbells climb podium

JGP ladies champion Amanda Dobbs receives some last-second advice from her coach before heading out onto the ice.
JGP ladies champion Amanda Dobbs receives some last-second advice from her coach before heading out onto the ice. (Janis Engel)

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By Becca Staed, special to icenetwork.com
(09/14/2008) - The JGP Mexico crowned new champions in the ladies and men's competitions. Making her Junior Grand Prix Series debut, American Amanda Dobbs earned the ladies top spot, while teammate Richard Dornbush earned his first JGP gold medal in his second try. The Russians solidified their status as a pairs powerhouse, sweeping the top three spots in Mexico City. Finally, U.S. sibling team Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell reinstated themselves as one of the top junior ice dancing teams in the world, earning their third JGP gold medal since 2006.

Ladies

Dobbs led by a very slight margin with her "Warsaw Concerto" short program, in which her only gaffe was taking off on the wrong edge on her double Lutz. She landed a clean triple toe-double toe and double Axel, and three of her spins were graded Level 4.

"I've been practicing really well and doing clean skates," said Dobbs. "I enjoyed being out there. The crowd was really good."

Dobbs, who earned her JGP placement by finishing fifth in the junior ladies event at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, was not going to settle for anything but gold in Mexico. She opened her elegant free skate, set to Bach's "Toccata and Fugue" performed by Vanessa Mae, with a Level 4 flying spin, followed by a solid triple toe-double toe-double loop combination. She had difficulty with her next two elements, putting a hand down on her double Axel and falling on her triple Salchow.

She displayed excellent stamina and skill, though, as she nailed six final jumps -- a double flip, double Axel-double toe, triple toe and a triple Salchow-double toe. Her last two spins were also graded Level 4. Her solid free skate garnered 88.98 points. Her overall score of 139.44 bested teammate and reigning U.S. junior champion Alexe Gilles by 2.98.

"It felt unreal," said Dobbs of her two stellar performances. "It felt like a dream come true, and it finally happened."

Dobbs started gaining confidence in March, when she placed third in junior ladies at the AEGON Challenge Cup. This week, she admitted that skating with Gilles gave her an added boost that she needed to perform her best.

"It was really awesome," Dobbs said. "[Gilles] pushed me to skate really well. I enjoyed every moment I got to skate with her."

After a mostly clean short program that included a triple Lutz and no less than Level 3 spins and step sequences, silver medalist Gilles ran into some difficulty on her free skate. Three of her jumps -- a triple flip, triple loop and triple Salchow in combination -- were downgraded, something she said she did not feel on the ice.

"I was just trying to get the triple [toe]-triple [toe], get good program component marks and to be in the moment," Gilles said. "I had three downgraded jumps, and normally, I don't do that. In the moment, it didn't feel like that, but it will just make me better."

Nonetheless, she finished second in the free skate with 86.55 points, and her total score of 136.46 was more than enough to keep her in second on the podium. This was Gilles' third appearance in the JGP Series and second silver medal, the first coming in Lake Placid in 2007.

The bronze medalist was Korean Min-Jung Kwak, who, despite receiving a -2 Grade of Execution (GOE) on her opening triple Lutz, finished fourth in the short program with 46.97 points behind the Americans Dobbs and Gilles and Canadian Cecylia Witkowski. Kwak, however, moved up to third place in the free skate with 70.45 points. Her program was highlighted by an early triple toe loop-double Axel sequence, which she followed with a triple Salchow. Her 117.22-point overall score was enough to earn her first JGP medal.

Men

Dornbush, the 2008 U.S. junior men's pewter medalist, began his weekend in Mexico with a solid short program that earned him a safe lead of 5.05 points over Elladj Baldé of Canada. Dornbush proceeded to blow away the field in Saturday's free skate, winning that segment by more than 14 points to earn his first JGP and second international gold medal.

Dornbush nailed all of his jumps, including a triple flip-triple toe combination and a triple Lutz, and received a Level 4 on all of his spins in his "La Virgen De La Macarena" short program, giving him a personal-best segment score of 67.24.

Baldé ran into some difficulty in his short program on his opening triple flip-triple toe combination, for which he received a negative GOE. American Andrew Gonzales, the 2008 U.S. junior men's bronze medalist, nailed his opening triple toe-triple toe combination in his Sweeney Todd short program, but his next jump -- a triple Lutz -- was downgraded. He trailed Baldé by a little more than three points and entered the free skate competition in third place.

Though Mexico City sits just above 7,000 feet, Dornbush said the altitude had little effect on his ability to perform well this week, something he believes helped keep him ahead of the pack in the end.

"Towards the end, the rest of the competitors were not able to perform their abilities," Dornbush said. "I have been doing extra run-throughs. Also, I got here early."

Dornbush arrived a week before the event, so he solidified the old saying, "The early bird gets the worm."

The American put on a packed free skate, set to selections from the motion picture soundtrack Backdraft by Hans Zimmer. The beginning of his free skate was downright shaky -- he put a hand down on his opening triple flip and fell on his subsequent triple Axel. Those early blunders did not nick his confidence but, in fact, powered his momentum. He went on to fire off five triple jumps, including his signature triple Lutz-triple toe followed by a triple flip in sequence and a triple loop. All of his spins were again graded Level 4.

His 119.46-point free skate propelled him to a commanding overall mark of 186.70 -- 24.54 points above the rest of field.

"I felt pretty strong coming into my free skate," Dornbush said. "I have been training really hard all summer. So, I was happy to be able to put out what I did."

Baldé fell on both his opening double flip-triple toe and his triple Axel, and the possibility of catching Dornbush faded away. Though he placed third in the free skate, he was able to hold on to the silver medal.

Gonzales said he lacked focus at the beginning of his free skate to "Meadowland." He double-footed two of his opening jumps -- a triple flip-double toe and triple Lutz-double toe -- and downgraded his double loop to a single. His segment score of 99.06 gave him a competition mark of 158.00, moving him just off the podium into fourth place.

"It was a little bit of a lack of concentration [at the beginning]," Gonzales said, "but then I got it back and was able to finish the rest strong. I felt I did a great job. I met my expectations. I just want to get my triple jumps consistent and keep moving forward."

Making his second JGP appearance was China's Gongming Cheng, who placed sixth in 2007 at the JGP Great Britain in Sheffield. Cheng sat in fifth after the short program but trailed Spaniard Javier Fernandez by only 0.24 points. He attempted six triples in his free skate and landed at least four of them cleanly to finish second in that segment. His 105.20-point free skate gave him 159.53 for the competition, which thrust him into third place overall and onto the JGP medal podium for the first time.

Pairs

Russia swept the podium with ease in the pairs event, with Ksenia Krasilnikova and Konstantin Bezmaternikh, Ekaterina Sheremetieva and Mikhail Kuznetsov and Anastasia Martiusheva and Alexei Rogonov claiming the gold, silver and bronze, respectively.

Competition was tight at the top as the three Russian couples flip-flopped among spots one, two and three. Just 1.06 points separated the first- and third-place teams in the end. Krasilnikova and Bezmaternikh were ahead of Martiusheva and Rogonov by the slimmest of margins after the short program, leading 50.90 to 50.12, with Sheremetieva and Kuznetsov at their heels with 49.89.

Sheremetieva and Kuznetsov fell in their free skate but managed to win the segment by 0.11 points. Krasilnikova and Bezmaternikh also slipped up in their program but managed to hold onto the overall lead, earning a total of 132.84 points and the duo's third JGP gold medal. For Sheremetieva and Kuznetsov, the silver medal was their fourth JGP podium finish overall. Martiusheva and Rogonov comfortably held on to third place and the first JGP medal of their careers.

The American pairs had less success at the event, but it was all three teams' JGP debuts. Molly Aaron and Daniyel Cohen, Brynn Carman and Chris Knierim and Brittany Chase and Andrew Speroff finished ninth, 10th and 11th in the short program.

Aaron and Cohen, who have been together only four months, skated a good short program but had difficulty on several key elements, including their opening double Lutz twist lift and their side-by-side double Lutzes and flying camel spins. Both Carman and Knierim and Chase and Speroff had trouble with their jumps as well. Despite the outcome, they all managed to keep a positive outlook.

"We had great short with solid lifts and a strong skate," said Carman, "but we made a mistake to a wonderful skate. We had a disappointing end. We were so close."

Fortunately, all three teams managed to better themselves in the free skate. The most significant improvement was seen from Chase and Speroff, who jetted from 11th to seventh overall after finishing fifth in the free skate with a 73.98-point performance, giving them a competition mark of 112.82. The team began their free skate set to "Adagio in G Minor" with a solid double Lutz twist lift followed by a throw double loop. They also received a Level 4 on their Group 5 and Group 3 lifts. All of their spins and step sequences received a Level 3.

Aaron and Cohen also finished with 112.82 overall, but since Chase and Speroff had slightly better marks in the free skate (Aaron and Cohen earned 73.03 in the free skate), they finished in eighth place.

"Each time we put this program out it gets better," Aaron said. "We're skating our program better for only being together four months. Overall, we're happy with today."

Carman and Knierim finished ninth with a competition score of 112.61.

Ice Dancing

The Hubbells seized control of the dance competition from day one and held strong, running away with the gold medal by more than 17 points over Canadians Kharis Ralph and Asher Hill.

The Americans' original dance was nearly flawless, featuring a Level 4 straight line lift and spin. They received one deduction -- the only team to do so in that segment -- for an extended lift.

Ralph and Hill, the 2008 Canadian junior champions, displayed a Level 4 rotating lift, synchronized twizzles and spins. The team, however, received a negative GOE for their twizzles, an error that cost them in their technical element score that had a slightly higher start value than the Hubbells. But the Canadians could not outdo the American siblings' display of confidence and expression, earning only 20.78 points to the Hubbells' 24.41 program component score. Therefore, the Americans had more than a 10-point lead going into the free dance.

With plenty of junior-level experience and the title of 2006 JGP Final and 2008 U.S. junior champions under their belt, the Hubbells' free dance was an easy sell. They received a Level 4 on their opening synchronized twizzles, straight line lift and serpentine lift. Their combination spin was also graded a Level 4. Their segment score of 80.34 gave them 167.57 points overall.

Madison said she thought she and Keiffer skated well for this point in the season but still have some improvement to make before the 2009 U.S. Championships in January, where they plan to make their senior-level debut.

"We felt strong on the free dance," Keiffer added, "but we still have things to tweak for the season, and we look forward to improving other performances."

Ralph and Hill put on a solid performance in the free dance but could not surpass the American brother-and-sister team, receiving the silver medal, their second on the JGP circuit this year. (The team also finished second at the JGP France in Courchevel in August.)

Americans Sara Bailey and Kyle Herring were in third place after the compulsory dance, but their small lead allowed Russians Valeria Zenkova and Valerie Sinitsin, the eventual bronze medlaists, to slide ahead in the next two events. Bailey and Herring took fourth place, besting their seventh place finish at the 2007 JGP Lake Placid.

"We are really excited with how we skated," said Herring. "We felt like we put out three solid skates and had fun. We improved a lot since this time last year and hope to continue to do well throughout this season."