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Rochette's short program is a stylish hit

Russians unexpected leaders after pairs opener

Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov won the short program with 65.02 points.
Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov won the short program with 65.02 points. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(10/31/2008) - Joannie Rochette will likely never perform "Summertime" in the summertime, but the unusual classical interpretation of the blues classic appears to be the perfect choice for her new short program.

On Friday at the HomeSense Skate Canada International, the four-time Canadian champion, who ranked fifth at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships, was clearly the class of the women's field. Rochette brought the Ottawa fans to their feet with her sophisticated performance of a superbly-styled routine created by 2003 world ice dance champion Shae-Lynn Bourne.

Her score of 64.74 points was a new personal best, some 4.7 points better than the score she earned last season at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.

Japanese veteran Fumie Suguri is second with 57.92, while former world junior champ Caroline Zhang of the U.S. is third with 53.28.

Rochette, who won this event in 2006 and took bronze a year ago, opened with a soaring double Axel. Her triple flip was a little off balance, however, forcing her to do a double turn before tacking on a double toe loop to the end of her jump combination.

With exquisite spins and footwork, combined with her masterful interpretation, Rochette had the audience in the palm of her hand. She earned her highest component scores ever from the judging panel.

"I felt really relaxed out there. Even during the warm-up, I was supposed to smile more, be more calm. 'Calm' was one of my key words tonight so I'd be calm through [the program]," Rochette said.

"My first goal tonight was to improve my program component scores, my artistic marks. I think we achieved that. It's a personal best -- 28 points for that. My best before was 25, 26, so I'm really happy the judges saw a difference in me. It's real important in the first competition of the year to make an impact and give a new look for yourself," she added

Rochette had skated to a different version of "Summertime" as a show program, and people told her she looked much more relaxed and fluid than she did skating her competitive programs. That sparked an idea.

"We tried looking for something that reminds me of a show program so that I can be more loose and move more freely," Rochette said.

Friday's stylish performance proved the plan was a good one.

Zhang, skating to "La Bayadere," fell on her opening triple flip but salvaged points for a jump combination by improvising a triple loop-double toe loop on the very next element. The 15-year-old didn't make any other significant errors but was unhappy that she earned lower difficulty levels than planned on the combination spin and her footwork.

"I'm disappointed with how I skated. I don't think I expressed myself enough," said Zhang, fourth at the Grand Prix Final and U.S. championships last season.

Continuing her self-critique, she added, "I think I could have done a lot better on the flip."

Asked what she liked about her performance, Zhang said, "My spiral sequence, I guess. I think. I'm not really sure."

Zhang's teammates Bebe Liang, who was fifth-ranked nationally and 10th in the world in 2008, is fifth (49.92), while Alissa Czisny, who won the Nebelhorn Trophy last month, is sixth (49.66).

Liang fell on her triple flip. Czisny had both her triples -- a flip and Lutz -- downgraded to doubles by the technical panel as she lacked full rotation in the air.

Italy's Carolina Kostner, the world silver medalist, had a disastrous outing and is seventh (48.56) after falling on back crosscuts on the entry to her double Axel. She crashed again on the previously omitted double Axel, which she decided on the fly to insert at the end of her program.

The women will skate their finale Saturday evening.

Pairs
A somewhat unexpected result in the pairs event saw Russians Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov outscore U.S. champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker and Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison the world bronze medalists from Canada, by a rather healthy margin.

Kawaguchi and Smirnov, fourth at the 2008 worlds, offered a balletically-styled short program set to "The Swan" by Camille Saint-Saens. They executed all required elements without any major flaw to top the leaderboard with 65.02 points.

"I was satisfied with today's skate. There's still so many things to work on, but, for today, it was okay," said Kawaguchi

McLaughlin, 16, and Brubaker, 21, who pocketed silver last week at Skate America, improved on their performance last week, but he fought to hang on to the landing of his triple Salchow, while she hung on by her toenails landing a throw triple loop.

Still, the Americans score of 60.66 was an international personal best for them and kept them a fraction of a point ahead of the Canadians, with 60.14.

"It was a big step up from Skate America from a technical standpoint. We hit our jumps and throw, and our twist was pretty good, so I was pretty happy," McLaughlin said, noting she fell on her throw last week.

Brubaker offered, "We still have a lot to work on. We know that we're young. It's frustrating sometimes because you know the only way it gets better is through experience and mileage and the years and the run-throughs. But it's nice to see these little improvements, which makes you more hungry, getting a taste of what we're capable of doing and where we could be a couple years from now."

Asked how they have been able to handle competing in events back-to-back, Brubaker said, "Obviously we're a little tired, but we're doing a good job of pushing through."

Dubé and Davison encountered timing and rotation issues on their triple Lutz twist lift, and then gave up more points for their spiral sequence that was evaluated only as a Level 1 in difficulty. Dubé also lost control of her landing on the throw triple loop and was forced to step off the landing edge to stay upright.

The second U.S. pair, Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent, is fourth, some eight points behind the podium favorites, while teammates Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig were last among eight couples.

The pairs free skating final goes Saturday afternoon.