Once at the arena, it was such a thrill to see all my friends again, catch up, do our usual chocolate and snack exchange and, naturally, watch the practices together. The first group of men took to the ice at 7 am sharp and somehow we managed to be there early enough not to miss a minute of it. And thanks to the loving support of coffee, we're all relatively alert which tends to work best when you're trying to watch skating and keep up with all the conversations all at the same time.
Seriously though, focusing on skating since the very beginning of the practice was not that hard as there were a lot of interesting skaters in the first group, including my pal Przemek Domanski
of Poland. It was fantastic seeing him on the Olympic ice after the unfortunate eye injury earlier in the season that made him miss the Nationals and subsequently the European Championships. Very glad that he was able to recover and get ready to take advantage of the Olympic qualification he earned for Poland at last year's World Championships in LA where he did so by qualifying for the LP. In fact, I recall we're sitting together after his SP performance watching the event unfold and hoping he would qualify. And it did happen. But back to Vancouver... Przemek had a good practice with many successful 3z-3l and 3f-3t attempts. I noticed his speed and ice coverage improved as well. He looked ready for the SOP.
Some of the other skaters in that group were: Abzal Rakimgaliev
(KAZ) who was very
impressive at last year's Four Continents Championships in that very venue but seemed to had lost the consistency, and his 3A, since; Song Chol Ri
of North Korea who apparently has a full set of triple jumps, yes - including the Axel - and it's such a shame he doesn't get to do any events outside the Olympics and Asian Winter Games. It's so frustrating when the politics get in the way of people's lives and talent. Florent Amodio
of France was also part of that group (got a little bit unfortunate in the draw and it was too bad he'd have to skate that early). He's quite a skater: beautiful edges, line and flow and a lot of charisma in a typical French way. I'm sure some would sum it up in one word only: "voids" (check out Figure Skating Universe if you don't know what I'm talking about). In addition to all of the above, he seems to be improving his consistency. I really liked his SP to the "Munich" soundtrack and it's well choreographed and sophisticated. Seeing him in practice that day, I knew he's do well in competition. The only criticism is the jump combination, 3S-3t, which is a little bit on the easier side, but I understand the 3S is a placeholder for the quad that will be put into the program later as it becomes more consistent. It's probably a very smart move on Florent and his coaching team's behalf.
I must say all the skater in later groups run together in my head right now so I'll just comment on some of them in random order.
The reigning Olympic champion, Evgeni Plushenko
of Russia, had
to skate relatively early as well as he was missing in action for the last three season and as a result, his placement in the ISU World Ranking dropped dramatically. But still, he got lucky to skate last out of the first two groups (2 x 5) that he drew with. I'm not going to lie here, I used to be a major Plushenko fan back in the "Plushenko vs Yagudin" times but then felt he started trying after Yagudin had retired. Was I happy to see him back? Yes and know. Yes, because he is one of the greatest of all time in my mind (sue me if you will) but at the same time I feared that after being away from competitive skating in such a long time and having dealt with various injuries, he'd be not ready to compete under the International Judging System yet still get scored as if he were based on reputation and former glory. On each account, it was great to see him back on the ice. He still has incredible command of the ice and goes out there like it's just a walk in the park, his confidence level is incredible. That morning, he did quite a few quad toes but many of them were not perfect (shaky landings, turnouts, etc.) and for Plushenko that's definitely what he's looking for. His 3A was much better but still had little speed out of it on majority of the landings. All other jumps were very solid. In the usual Plushenko way, he had left the ice even before his music even played. Stephane Lambiel
(SUI) was another skater returning to competition this season after being away for one full season. As cheesy as it sounds, he's always such a thrill to watch; one of those skaters I'd watch for hours just skating around in circles. Jumps, what jumps? But yeah, it's the Olympics so we need to think about those... Stephane landed quite a few quads over the course of the practice but they're all somehow lacked quality on the landings (touch downs and very low free leg most of the time) and he's not attempting 3A at all this season... His spins are still as gorgeous as ever, thought, and that SP to n"William Tell Overture" is a masterpiece (that circular step sequence!).Brian Joubert
(FRA) appeared to be struggling from the beginning of the session. Even his
signature quad was causing him some trouble. Even the ones he landed on one foot looked barely there and had no clean edge out of them. It's very disappointing to see but considering that awful foot injury he had to go through this season, it was hardly shocking. Such awful timing for Brian. He has the worst luck when it comes to the Olympics. Takahiko Kozuka
of Japan is one of the skaters I was looking forward to seeing live again the most. He has such lovely edge quality, basic skating and soft knees. His consistency seems to be OK as well. My biggest problem with him is that he's quit introverted in his presentation style and seem to be looking down to the ice quite a lot. That makes me sometimes feel like he's not even there when he's skating. Regardless, I'm a big fan of his SP this season, he does bluesy stuff quite well. Not really surprising as it plays well with his seamless movement and lightness to his skating. One to watch out for in the future, kids!Daisuke Takahshi
(JPN) is so incredible to watch live! And as crazy as it might sound, his
jumps look better this season than they used to prior to that awful knee injury that forced him out of the competition for the entire 2008/2009 season. It looks it was very smart of him to take a season off, have the surgery (instead of some 'patchwork' procedures others opted for aiming for a short term benefit) and give himself time to recover. Also, compared to Skate Canada last fall his skating looked very polished and controlled. His Tango SP is one of my two favourites of the season (anybody wants to guess what's the other one? Haha!) and I could watch it over and over again. Just WOW!Nobunari Oda
, also from Japan, seems to be sharing a lot with Kozuka as far as basic skating
is concerned, except maybe his edges that seem to be a little less perfect, so to speak. However, his jump ladings are so perfect 99% of the time I can't believe it. The running edge on the ladings he gets is spectacular, makes all his jumps look very effortless and light. On the other hand, his programs are nowhere near as complex as those of Kozuka, Takahashi, Lysacek, and all the other big cats, which is a shame as he undoubtedly is capable of much more than he's attempting choreography and transition wise.Patrick Chan
of Canada is another one of those who've been struggling with injuries. Patrick
had a very rocky comeback, only placing fifth at Skate Canada, which prior to the Olympics was his only international event. He looked much better at Canadian Championships in January but that's not really saying much, unfortunately. Same here, he was struggling in jumps in that session, hitting only one relatively clean 3A. But knowing Patrick, that didn't really mean much as he'd often be like that in the past too but then still land the jumps OK in competition. The thing that I found really worrisome was that after the injury Patrick's edge quality seemed to have decreased slightly. But at the same time, it's still almost as good as many other skaters' at their best.
As some of you know, I've always been criticizing those who could not comment on either Evan Lysacek
or Johnny Weir
(both USA) without mentioning the other. It look like I'm doing just that in a way as they're somehow the last two skaters I want to comment on! But that's probably as far as it goes, I'm not intending on drawing any parallels between their skating, personality, etc. so you can keep on reading. ;)Johnny
, in his signature practice costume including a thigh-high leg warmers had an amazing
practice. His 3As seemed to be back to their former quality, his glide was effortless again and he's been pulling all the jumps off like a machine. Good on you, Johnny. He even threw in a random quad attempt and it looked rotated and cleanly landed in real time. I do like his SP too, I mean the way he skates it, the program itself could use more complexity as far as choreography goes. But still, I'm loving Johnny this season and that practice didn't change anything in that department. Kudos to him for putting the puzzle back together after disastrous Nationals in 2009 and lackluster showing at the Rostelecom Cup in the Fall.
And last, my darling skater Evan
(thanks to Johnny for inspiring me on this with his reference to Evan as his "Darling Rival" LOL). Well, what can I say, he was his usual self, calm, focused and precise on each movement and totally committed to the program run through even though it's 'just' practice. I love, love, LOVE this program. It works so well for his body type and lines, everything just falls into place. Also, I can't tell you enough how much his edges and quality of movement have improved over the years, and even over the course of the Olympic season. Some serious work had been done there. And the jumps, they're all perfect with great speed in and out, tight in the air. The way he skated in that sessions, I started believing he'd not been able to put his foot wrong if he tried. But still, I was hoping for the best but expecting the worst. ;)
After the men's practice I headed downtown to see the cauldron. By the time I reached it it was
dark already and the view was exceptional and so inspiring. That's when it really hit me that after all those years of waiting and planning I was finally living my Olympic dream, even thought it's just a fan's dream...
In the evening, I stopped by a small bar in Gastown that was showing Pair's LP live with sound ON. Doesn't happen too often in Canadian bars, I guess I got lucky there. It was a lot of fun watching with a small group of strangers who had no idea what pairs skating was all about but still were surprisingly into it. I was happy to see Shen and Zhao
win the Olympic Gold that had been eluding them for such a long time. At the same time, just like the day before, I was much more impressed with Pang and Tong
and was very glad seeing them win the LP and place second overall.
My first full day in Vancouver, Monday, started with the ultimate "You know you're a figure skating fan when..." experience as I got up at 5 am to make it to the Men and Pairs' practice sessions at the Pacific Coliseum. Since I was based two hours away (by public transport) from the arena, I decided to take a cab to be there way beforehand to pick up the tickets from the box office and distribute them among my non-Canadian friends who were not able to purchase them on their own. I was really glad to have a chatty driver as the conversation really perked me up. Although, sometime along the way I had yet another "You know you are up to early when_____" moment when I mistook a greenhouse emission for the Olympic flame. Oops!