Gold squares off against Russians in Belarus

Brown takes on Chinese jumper; Sui and Han go for hat trick

U.S. junior champion Gracie Gold is among the gold-medal contenders in Minsk.
U.S. junior champion Gracie Gold is among the gold-medal contenders in Minsk. (Jay Adeff)


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By Klaus-Reinhold Kany and Lynn Rutherford, special to
(02/27/2012) - At the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif., last month, Gracie Gold's coach, Alexander Ouriashev, said, "Bring it on."

"She has better-quality jumps than the Russian girls," Ouriashev said, looking ahead to the 2012 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. "A little bit worse spins than Julia Lipnitskaia, for example, or Adelina Sotnikova."

Gold, who won the U.S. junior title by hitting two triple-triple combinations, had a more quiet confidence.

"I'd be excited to compete against them," the 16-year-old said. "I think it would be a great competition. I've watched their performances; they are very talented. I think I can compete with them. When we get to that, I'll think more about it."

The time has arrived. In Minsk, Belarus, this week, Gold and her U.S. teammates, Vanessa Lam and Christina Gao, are set to face off against Lipnitskaia, who showed solid jumps and her trademark flexibility in winning the Junior Grand Prix Final in Quebec City in December; the elegant powerhouse Sotnikova, a senior Grand Prix Final alternate and the defending world junior champion; and Polina Shelepen, a two-time Junior Grand Prix Final runner-up.

Russia isn't the only country sending strong ladies entrants. China's Zijun Li, who won silver at both of her Junior Grand Prix events this fall, and two Japanese ladies, Satoka Miyahara and Risa Shoji, could also challenge.

But most eyes will be on the formidable Russians and Gold. Although the 16-year-old from Chicago won the Junior Grand Prix in Estonia last fall, this will be just her second international competition, and she would do extremely well to medal here.

Gao -- who trains in Toronto under Brian Orser -- arrives in Minsk armed with a triple flip-triple toe combination, the element that has led her to three straight fifth-place finishes at the U.S. championships. Lam, a Californian, placed ninth in the senior division at the most recent U.S. championships and fifth at the Junior Grand Prix Final.

Jason Brown, the 2010 U.S. junior champion who placed ninth at the 2012 U.S. Championships, leads the U.S. men's charge against China's Han Yan, who has two weapons the dynamic Brown so far lacks: a triple Axel and quadruple toe loop. Brown's superior artistry and intricate choreography helped him defeat Yan at the Junior Grand Prix Final, where Yan was suffering from a severe cold.

"Going to Belarus has been my goal this whole year," Brown, 17, said. "I feel confident about where I am from the [Junior] Grand Prix Series, so I hope that just carries over."

Brown has yet to try a triple Axel in competition, but with coach Kori Ade, he's continuing to work on getting the jump consistent.

"I keep pushing it every day and training it, and it's hard," he said.

Joshua Farris, who won bronze behind Brown and Yan at the Junior Grand Prix Final, has impressive jumps, including the triple Axel, but faltered a bit at the U.S. championships, where he placed a disappointing 16th. The third member of the U.S. team, Timothy Dolensky, won the U.S. junior silver medal in January.

Kazakhstan's Denis Ten, a Frank Carroll student who has competed on the senior circuit for several seasons, is another threat for gold. Ten is coming off a sixth-place finish at the 2012 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, where he showed a fine quadruple toe loop. Two Russians, Artur Dmitriev and Zhan Bush; two Japanese, Keiji Tanaka and Ryuju Hino; and Canadian Liam Firus could also be in the mix.

Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, winners of the Four Continents Championships earlier this month, are overwhelming favorites in the pairs event. The daring duo includes both quad twist and throw quad Salchow in the free skate and should easily bring their third world junior title home to China.

Colorado Springs' Dalilah Sappenfield trains all three U.S. contenders, including U.S. junior champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier. Since only two U.S. pairs finished in the top 12 at this event last season, the athletic Denney and Frazier -- who have fewer world rankings points than their teammates -- will lace up their boots and compete in the qualifying round.

U.S. junior silver medalists Britney Simpson and Matthew Blackmer, third at the Junior Grand Prix Final, could also challenge for a medal here. Kylie Duarte and Colin Grafton, third in U.S. juniors, have skated together for nine seasons and hope that experience helps them make a solid showing.

The U.S. pairs will face strong competition from Canadian junior champions Katherine Bobak and Ian Beharry, second to the Chinese in Quebec City, and three Russian pairs, including junior champions Vasilisa Davankova and Andrei Deputat (formerly of the Ukraine); junior silver medalists Ekaterina Petaikina and Maxim Kurdyukov, fourth at the Junior Grand Prix Final; and Kamilla Gainetdinova and Ivan Bich, talented jumpers who landed side-by-side triple Lutzes in the free skate at the Russian championships.

The ice dancing event is shaping up to be a battle between the Russian teams who swept the podium at the Junior Grand Prix Final. The favorites are Junior Grand Prix champions Victoria Sinitsina and Ruslan Zhiganshin, who were four points ahead of the field in Quebec City. Anna Yanovskaia and Sergei Mozgov, winners of the recent Winter Youth Olympic Games, were second, and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin were third.

U.S. junior champions Alexandra Aldridge and Daniel Eaton, fourth at the Junior Grand Prix Final, hope their entertaining free dance to Lord of the Dance lifts them to the podium.

"We're going to bump up our training and try to get ourselves to peak at junior worlds," said Eaton, who with his partner trains at the Detroit Skating Club. "We're going to train as hard as we can with our coaches and go for a medal."

U.S. silver medalists Laura Bonacorsi and Travis Mager, who train under Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov in Aston, Pa., plan to improve on their 11th- place finish at the 2011 World Junior Championships. They will be joined by siblings Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons, who, at ages 14 and 16, are one of the younger teams in the field. The Wheaton Skating Academy students took fourth place at the Winter Youth Olympics.

Other couples to watch include Karolina Prochazkova and Michal Ceska of the Czech Republic, and Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France.

Minsk madness: Although there have been a few Junior Grand Prix events in Belarus, this event is the first ISU championships organized in the country ... Minsk, the country's capital, is a city of about 1.8 million people. The "Minsk Arena," site of the event, is only 2 years old and has a capacity of 14,000 seats ... Entered in the event are 202 skaters from 52 countries. On Monday and Tuesday, the four qualification rounds will take place ... Between 5,000 and 8,000 daily spectators are expected for the main events. The gala exhibition on Sunday is sold out.