What we learned from the first ISU Skating Awards

Hanyu Yuzuru's status as the hottest property in figure skating was underlined at the awards hosted by Tanith and Charlie White celebrating the best of the sport.

The first ISU Skating Awards, hosted virtually during this time of pandemic-related mayhem, were a huge success.

The 2019/20 season will always have an asterisk next to it, curtailed as it was before the World Championships due to COVID-19, but there was enough action to give the awards meaning and authority.

With few exceptions, the stars of the sport were nominated in six category shortlists decided equally by fans, media, and ISU members casting online votes from 1 December 2019 to 10 February 2020.

One category, the Lifetime Achievement Award, wasn't decided in an online vote, with that honour going to four-time world champion Kurt Browning.

Important figures off the ice were also recognised with Shae-Lynn Bourne named Best Choreographer.

But there's only one place to start...

Hanyu remains the sport's biggest draw

Yes, Nathan Chen may have carried all before him in 2019/20 just as he did the previous season.

But no one draws a crowd like Hanyu Yuzuru.

The double Olympic champion is still figure skating's main attraction and that tag was underlined by him being named Most Valuable Skater.

That decision was made by the six-person ISU jury comprising two-time world pairs champion Eric Radford, world champions Chen Lu, Todd Eldredge, and Ando Miki, five-time European champion Surya Bonaly, and Olympic ice dance gold medallist Tatiana Navka.

Hanyu's hardcore fanbase - aka the Fanyus - are like nothing else in the sport and can be found queuing up wherever he is competing.

If you want proof, check out what happened when he turned 25 during December's Grand Prix Final in Turin.

It wasn't the best of seasons for the man from Sendai, who was beaten by Chen in that Grand Prix Final before finishing second to Uno Shoma at the Japanese nationals.

But he did complete his 'Super Slam' of major international titles at the Four Continents having reverted to his gold medal-winning programmes from the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.

Hanyu has talked of his hopes of landing a quad Axel provided he can stay fit, something he has struggled to do in recent years.

Perhaps this pandemic-enforced break can enable him to look after his body, in particular the ankle which has bothered him on and off since a practice fall at the 2017 NHK Trophy.

That could give him the ammunition to close the gap on Chen and then who knows...

Hanyu admitted that he finds the pressure from his devoted fans "sometimes tough" although he tries to "respond to their expectation at a 120-percent level".

Yuzuru Hanyu on the ice after his free skate as the Pooh bears come raining down at the 2019 Grand Prix Final

His American rival simply does not have that hubbub around him, enabling him to be more focused on what he is doing.

During the online show, Chen said, "I am a figure skater and I love to figure skate, so that's ultimately my over-arcing focus. All the rest of it comes with skating and I understand that and I understand that it takes more responsibility and other attention to smaller details outside of skating.

"At the end of the day, I feel as though skating is the main key to all of that, and so that's where my focus is. I love it every single day and I look forward to being able to get back into competition."

While Chen is almost machine-like on the ice, Hanyu can feed off the crowd and - fitness provided - it would be foolish to write off the two-time Olympic gold medallist as he bids to get back on top once more.

Orser gives insight into his training methods

Hanyu and Chen's respective trainers, Brian Orser and Rafael Arutyunyan, were nominated for Coach of the Year but the award went to Eteri Tutberidze.

The Russian looks after Olympic champion Alina Zagitova and two-thirds of last season's dominant '3A' - Best Newcomer winner Alena Kostornaia, and Anna Shcherbakova - after Alexandra Trusova left to join Evgeni Plushenko in May.

While she was not available to speak to hosts Tanith and Charlie White on the live show, Orser spoke at length about how he and his team at the Toronto Cricket Club work with their skaters, and why he's so emotional during his charges' performances.

"For me, I want these athletes to be the best that they can be and to bring out the best that they have. That may result in a gold medal, that may result in a top 10, but to see that happen and to be part of that is important." Orser said.

'We can't do this on our own... we have this amazing team at our rink, as do all the other coaches. With Tracy Wilson and our group of coaches we're really fortunate to have, in my opinion, some of the best in the world. So everyday we live it. I'm on the ice with them, doing step sequences with them, I'm chasing them when it comes to those run-throughs. That's really what it takes and when you see me at the boards and I'm living the moment, that's because I've been living the moment for the last seven or eight months.

Evgenia Medvedeva left Tutberidze to join Orser soon after her silver medal behind Zagitova at PyeongChang, and some of the Canadian's comments were clearly informed by his experience with the two-time world champion.

He said, "The number one thing for us is you have to have a strong foundation - a strong foundation of skating and skating skills, balance and body awareness. Everything comes from the ice up so whether it's a quadruple Lutz or it's a beautiful transition through choreography, you have to start from the beginning. Even if you start with a top top skater, and they migrate to different training centres, we start at the beginning and we get the foundation going. A lot of them go, 'Wow, we never saw skating that way.' And then they can do the tricks, they can do the choreography."

"Figure skating will always continue to develop. It's up to the athletes, and us, to try to stay ahead of the curve. It's kind of nice to be in position to be able to help manage that and direct where that's going." - Brian Orser

Papadakis and Cizeron in a league of their own

Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron may have missed out on the big award, but they did take the Most Entertaining Program gong for their 1980s workout-inspired 'Fame' rhythm dance.

Olympic gold is the only honour to elude them thus far, with the French pair already four-time world champions.

Their highly original free dance to works by Icelandic ambient musician Olafur Arnalds also wowed fans in 2019/20 and Cizeron explained what helps keeps the duo at the top of their game.

He said, "We try to always skate with our hearts. That's one of the main things that we focus on - we always try to stay authentic to ourselves and bring things on the ice that come from our heart and our soul. And I think as long as we always do that, we will always be passionate about the ice and choreographing and skating together.

"Seeing other skaters like Yuzu and Nathan skate, even though it's not ice dance it inspires us so much to push the boundaries as well. To push the boundaries of the sport but also of the artistry as well."

Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron complete ice dance victory in the 2019 Grand Prix Final

Format tweaks for the future?

The event itself went pretty much according to plan, but there were clearly changes which could be made for future.

The award of Best Costume to ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates certainly raised some eyebrows in the Twittersphere.

While the designer of the outfits, Mathieu Caron, was mentioned and featured in a video during the live show, many including PyeongChang pairs bronze medallist and team gold medallist Meagan Duhamel felt he was worthy of greater acclaim.

With four separate competitions in figure skating, it was always going to be difficult to combine them in one set of awards.

But pairs definitely missed out with no partnership - not even Grand Prix Final winners and reigning world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong - making a single shortlist.

The concept of Most Valuable Skater may also need some refining.

In most sports, like basketball, the MVP award goes to the best or most influential player on the competition.

But with Chen the dominant skater of the past two years, Hanyu's award must be more of a reflection of his popularity and impact on the sport.

Indeed, the ISU describes the award as honouring "the Single Skater or Pair or Ice Dance Couple who best managed to increase the level of popularity of Figure Skating with their fan base, media attention and sponsor appreciation".

Is it fair that Chen goes away (virtually) empty-handed when he has won every major competition since PyeongChang?

And what happens next year when Kostornaia is no longer a newcomer?

Questions for another day, perhaps, but the ISU Skating Awards were met favourably by figure skating fans and seem here to stay.


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