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Weir vs. Hanyu among thrilling Finlandia matchups

History meets future as compelling skaters compete in Espoo

Spain's Javier Fernandez, surrounded by a group of Finnish synchronized skaters.
Spain's Javier Fernandez, surrounded by a group of Finnish synchronized skaters. (Jyrki Pirkkalainen)

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By Jyrki Pirkkalainen, special to icenetwork.com
(10/04/2012) - There will be no "Battle of the Ice Dancing Carmens" in Finland this weekend after all.

Defending Olympic, world and Finlandia Trophy champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir had to withdraw from their season opener just hours before their scheduled flight to Helsinki, Finland; Moir has a slight muscle strain in his neck. The Canadians want to be in top form at Skate Canada later this month, so they decided not to risk aggravating things this early in the season.

Finnish fans will now miss out on the premiere of Virtue and Moir's Carmen free dance, but Italy's Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte are good enough surrogates. Their free dance is called "Carmen & Jose," and they will face a tight contest against Russia's Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev. The Russians were the stronger of the two at the 2012 European Championships, winning the silver medal, while the Italians edged them out at the 2012 World Championships. Besides, both teams changed coaches after last season: Cappellini and Lanotte have been training with Igor Shpilband in Novi, Mich., and Bobrova and Soloviev with Alexander Zhulin in Moscow.

Not too far behind in the rankings are Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (USA), who were able to make the top 10 at the world championships in their first season together. Discreetly deviating from the Carmen trend, the Detroit-based duo is going for Flamenco music selections, including "Malaguena," for their free dance.

Men's

The men's competition will be headlined by two men who admittedly are each other's fans, said to be similar in style, are both world bronze medalists and are now competing against each other for the first time. Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir is making his comeback after sitting out two whole seasons and living the life of a TV celebrity, while Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu is set to establish his position at the world's top at just 17 years of age.

Even during his two years off the ice, when Weir lost interest in watching figure skating, he did follow Hanyu's skating, and even designed a costume for him. This weekend, they will meet on competitive ice at the Barona Arena in Espoo, facing tough rivalry from Hanyu's training mate, Javier Fernandez of Spain. Also in the mix is 2011 U.S. silver medalist Ricky Dornbush, who had a less-than-stellar last season because of skating boot problems. The 21-year-old from Riverside, Calif., is said to have gotten his confidence back once the problem had been discovered.

Weir has had his share of boot problems too. He didn't change from the pair he used at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 until this summer, but the new pair needed some fixing before they felt comfortable. Weir said that his quad jump was doing very well before the boot change, and he has been trying to get it back since he finally got the boots fixed a month and a half ago; he is excited to try the quad in both the short program and free skate at Finlandia.

Ladies

The home crowd certainly wants Kiira Korpi to skate away with gold. The 24-year-old Finn had ups and downs last season, having to skip most competitions due to injuries, but managing to win the silver medal at the European championships. Still, Korpi hasn't yet reached the newly introduced ISU minimum technical score required for the 2013 World Championships (despite being currently as high as fifth in ISU world rankings!), so she has some serious points-hunting to do in her coming events. With fellow countrywoman Laura Lepistö having retired, Korpi is now alone holding the Finnish flag high.

Mirai Nagasu from Arcadia, Calif., might have her word to say, though. The 19-year-old has not been quite able to regain her Olympic season form that brought her a fourth-place finish in Vancouver, but this weekend she can show that the skills and the impressive spins are still there.

Competing for the first time internationally in seniors, Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia is also ready for a big splash. Having barely reached 14 years of age and known for a massive set of tricks, the current world junior champion might upset her older compatriots.

Synchronized skating

This year, Finlandia Trophy also includes a short program competition for synchronized skating, the home country's strongest discipline. This is the first time that single skating, ice dance and synchronized skating are combined under one international ISU competition.

When the synchronized skating teams take the ice on Friday evening, the volume level in the rink will most likely double, as close-knit teenagers in team uniforms in groups of 16 are able to produce some noise both on, and especially off, the ice!

The top three Finnish teams (Marigold IceUnity, Rockettes and Team Unique) belong to the world elite, but only two are allowed to represent a country at a world championships, resulting in a fierce internal battle for the two spots year after year.

This time, there is no pairs event at Finlandia Trophy. Traditionally a smallish event -- most often with only three disciplines, limited number of entries and no closing exhibition -- Finlandia Trophy is now looking for growth. This year, the event moved to a larger rink in Espoo, but it is still close to Helsinki, features a new look with a water based theme and other art and design elements, and tries to attract audience and sponsors with adjacent events on the side. The Finnish Figure Skating Association aims to develop Finlandia Trophy in the long term and even reach Grand Prix status.

The competive events start on Friday, with the men's short program, the opening ceremony -- featuring 150 skaters and gymnasts on the ice -- and the synchronized skating short program competition.