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Tremendous talent treks into Paris for Bompard

Strong ladies field headlines exciting clashes at 2012 Trophée Eric Bompard

Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia (left) and Team USA's Ashley Wagner lead strong Russian and American squads into Paris this week.
Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia (left) and Team USA's Ashley Wagner lead strong Russian and American squads into Paris this week. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(11/14/2012) - The fifth stage of the Grand Prix Series is now ready to start in Paris.

The United States is sending one of its strongest teams ever in the men's and ladies competitions, with Ashley Wagner and Christina Gao -- who finished first and second, respectively, at Skate America last month, and Jeremy Abbott, the current U.S. gold medalist. They will face strong opposition, but gold could be around the corner for them. It would seem appropriate, since no U.S. skater or team has won the gold in Paris since Johnny Weir in 2004.

Men's: Abbott's turn?

American skaters have often been successful in Paris. Michael Weiss won in 2002 and Weir won in 2004. Adam Rippon and Brandon Mroz both won a bronze medal in 2009 and 2010, respectively. This year might be Abbott's turn.

Now known as one of the ultimate components masters on the skating planet, Abbott has found a new talent in choreographing and carving programs. His could well become some of the brightest jewels skating has produced, if he manages to skate them consistently.

Nan Song, from China, seems to have enjoyed his 2011 showing in Paris. He finished second then and is coming back this year. Song had to withdraw from Cup of China two weeks ago after he collided with Rippon, and he will be aiming to catch up here.

Two other guys will want to catch up: Brian Joubert and Florent Amodio, the "home boys." Joubert also withdrew from Cup of China (due to stomach pain), and Amodio had to settle for fourth place at Skate Canada. Joubert now trains near Paris and about once a week at the Bercy arena, and his free skate was carved for him by former ice dance world gold medalists Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski.

"This is a winning program," Joubert claimed right from the start of the season, and many observers agreed with his statement. His fans will now be pushing to see him skate it perfectly, which he has never done in public so far.

Veteran Tomáš Verner, from Czech Republic, will also be looking to prove that he is still in the run for a victory after his disappointing seventh place at Skate Canada.

Quite unfortunately, U.S. Figure Skating announced that Weir has withdrawn. Weir's comeback to the ice promised to be a hit in Paris, where he managed to gather a flock of fans right from his first skate at the Trophée Eric Bompard, back in 2004. Interestingly, the Bercy arena can also be called home by Lady Gaga herself (Weir's short program is set to Lady Gaga's "Poker Face"), as she performs regularly in the same arena. Sadly, neither star will be in Bercy this week.

Ice Dance: A Skate Canada remake?

How do you recognize a "first-seeded" skater? You do it just like in tennis: by watching those champions who will meet only at the Grand Prix Final. This is the case this year with three world ice dancing teams: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir from Canada, Meryl Davis and Charlie White from the U.S. and Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat from France.

For the first time this year, these three teams have shared equally between the six stages of the Grand Prix Series. Péchalat and Bourzat will come back to Paris to win again, after the gold medal they won at Cup of China. Amazingly enough, the ice dance competition might look like a remake of Skate Canada. As a matter of fact, all the other ice dancing teams present in Paris will have also skated at Skate Canada, with the notable exception of Ekaterina Pushkash and Jonathan Guerreiro from Russia. It will be interesting to see what the last three weeks will have brought in terms of program maturity and rankings.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donahue might be the team to watch in Paris. No one in France will have forgotten their promising debut on the international scene at worlds, last March in Nice. No one will have forgotten that long blonde-haired girl and that tall guy in black with so much charisma. Both skaters love Paris; hopefully, the city will project its lights on them.

Pairs: No Bolero in Paris

Take the podium at Skate Canada, take the silver and bronze medalists from Cup of China, add two French pairs and you get a good idea of the field in the pairs event -- except for one problem. Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, the four-time world gold medalists from Germany, had managed to alternate Grand Prix events with Russians Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, and this year was supposed to be the Germans' turn to skate in Paris.

Instead, Savchenko and Szolkowy pulled out of the competition due to injury: Savchenko has been dealing with a severe sinus infection.

No one could imagine how those two could have been defeated, but now the gold is up for grabs. Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford were in Paris last year. They struggled so much during their free skate then -- "we missed our simplest elements!" Radford had commented afterward -- that they will be eager to build better memories from Paris this time.

Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov will be seeking a second medal after Cup of China, just like Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (the two Russian pairs finished second and third, respectively).

Savchenko and Szolkowy's tribute to Maurice Ravel's Bolero (their free skate) would have been special in Paris; after all, Ravel used to live in the small village of Montfort l'Amaury, less than one hour away from Paris.

Ladies: Will they do it again?

Wagner and Gao created a sensation in Kent, Wash., one month ago by taking gold and silver at Skate America. Can they repeat the feat in Paris?

Wagner came to Paris as a teenager years ago. She has now become one of the world's very best and will be welcomed like the new ice princess in Paris (Paris loves ice princesses!)

Besides the U.S. "dream team," Russia has sent three of its up-and-coming rising stars in Paris: Polina Korobeynikova, Julia Lipnistskaia and Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, who took the Bercy arena by storm last year. The competition between them will be quite an event in itself.

Jenna McCorkell should not be counted out, however, as she arrives fresh from the first two victories of her skating career on the international scene: one at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial, and one at Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria.

Maé-Bérénice Méité, from France, is also on the rise. She trains every day in the Paris arena, so she will count on strong support from her home crowd.

Competition should be fierce -- and beautiful -- in Paris this week. Stay tuned!