7 things we learned from an unusual figure skating Grand Prix Series

With four events held, two cancelled and one still hanging in the balance, it’s been the most unprecedented of seasons for the ISU’s Grand Prix of Figure Skating. Here’s what we’ve learned.

By Nick McCarvel

Some skaters added to their Grand Prix hardware haul this season. Others didn’t have the chance to compete at all.

It was a strange and challenging figure skating season over the last two months, and normally it would climax at the Grand Prix Final, initially scheduled for December in Beijing. But that event won’t take place in 2020, with officials still holding out hope to put it on early next year.

While Skate America, Cup of China and Grand Prix stops in Russia and Japan went ahead, cancellations due to COVID-19 concerns hit both Canada and France, halting some of the biggest names in the sport in their chance to compete.

Inspiring moments were aplenty, but uncertainty remains as the season turns the corner for 2021. Last week, however, officials for the pending world championships in Sweden in March announced their confidence in being able to hold the event, which has Olympic qualification impacts.

Here, seven things we learned from the season that was, which included wins for world champions Nathan Chen and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, a return to the ice for Vancouver 2010 bronze medallist Takahashi Daisuke, a senior debut triumph for Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic Games gold medallist Kagiyama Yuma and much, much more.

Men: Chen, Kolyada, Jin and Kagiyama are champs

A two-time world champ and bronze medallist in the team event at PyeongChang 2018, Chen, now 21, continued his winning ways with a fourth consecutive Skate America title, outscoring compatriot Vincent Zhou by 24 points to win his 10th Grand Prix gold. Armed with the quads fans have come to expect from him, Chen looked in mid-season form despite two minor mistakes in his free skate.

“I think all the skaters are just really happy that we were given an opportunity to compete,” Chen told Olympic Channel after his triumph. “A place to be able to feel safe about what we’re doing and be able to show off some of the work... (that) is something we’re all really happy about.”

Each Grand Prix closely resembled a national championship, with a big-jumping Jin Boyang winning against a solely Chinese field at Cup of China and Kagiyama, in his first-ever senior Grand Prix event, emerging atop a field of Japanese competitors.

It was a resurgent Mikhail Kolyada who won at Rostelecom Cup, the Russian bouncing back from an illness that set him out for last season and now under the experienced eye of coach Alexei Mishin. The Olympic team event silver medallist won his first Grand Prix gold since 2017, coming from third in the short program to first with a stirring performance in the free skate.

Most notably, perhaps, is the emergence of Youth Olympic Games champion and a breakout name from last year's Four Continents, the 17-year-old Kagiyama, who was confident and crisp in his runaway win over the men's field at NHK Trophy. Kagiyama hit five quads across two programs, winning by some 50 points over silver medallist Tomono Kazuki.

Ladies: Tuktamysheva surprises; Bell and Sakamoto get first golds

It’s not all about the teenage skaters in Russia after all, as the 23-year-old Tuktamysheva, the 2015 world champ, proved at Rostelecom Cup. Tuktamysheva landed three triple Axels across her two programs to secure the win, holding off Alena Kostornaia, the reigning European champ.

Alexandra Trusova, Kostornaia’s training partner under Olympic champ Evgeni Plushenko, had a disastrous free skate in Moscow, but showed her commitment to keep putting out quads, and marked improvement in her artistry in the short program. Neither Anna Shcherbakova (illness) or Olympic silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva (back) competed.

In the U.S., Mariah Bell won her first-ever Grand Prix gold, just slipping past Bradie Tennell, the 2018 U.S. national champ. 16-year-old Audrey Shin won bronze on her senior Grand Prix debut, emerging as a new name-to-know in U.S. skating.

After an inconsistent year last season, Sakamoto Kaori, the two-time Japanese national champ, was the most complete skater by a long way in the ladies’ event in Osaka for NHK Trophy, winning both the short and long programs to record a nearly 30-point win.

Higuchi Wakaba, landing a triple Axel, placed second.

In China, Chen Hongyi was victorious.

Pairs: Boikova/Kozlovskii win in Russia; Peng/Jin too

Few moments stick out from the season as much as Dmitrii Kozlovskii’s impassioned celebration at the end of his near-perfect free skate with partner Aleksandra Boikova, the Russians cementing their status as the team to beat in that country in pairs. Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov won silver.

Peng Cheng and Jin Yang benefitted from the absence of two-time world champs Sui Wenjing and Han Cong in China, winning their second Grand Prix title.

At Skate America, the U.S. pairs scene continues to be a topsy turvy race to the top: New duo Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Brandon Frazier won, while Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson were second. The two teams are training partners in Southern California.

Dance: Hubbell/Donohue, Sinitsina/Katsalapov headline winners

While American teams look to have an impact internationally in pairs, they’ve gone from strength to strength in ice dance, with Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue winning their third consecutive title at Skate America.

Chief rivals Madison Chock and Evan Bates opted to sit Skate America out, saying they did not feel fully ready to compete because of interrupted training time due to COVID safety precautions.

In Russia, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov continued their winning ways, the duo having beaten Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron at Europeans in January, handing the French team its first loss since PyeongChang. Sinitsina and Katsalapov voiced their want to continue to strengthen their skating after a series of injuries during the off-season.

Three-time Chinese champs Wang Shiyue and Liu Xinyu continued to show their improvement from training with the Montreal-based team (that also includes the top Americans as well as Papadakis/Cizeron), winning at Cup of China.

And while he didn’t walk away as a winner, Takahashi and ice dance partner Muramoto Kana showed that they have plenty of presence on the ice in their first major international competition, placing third at NHK Trophy. Takahashi had previously retired from singles in 2014, making a comeback in that discipline in 2018 and then switching to dance in the lead-up to this season.

Komatsubara Misato and Tim Koleto won their first Grand Prix in Osaka.

Missing in action: Uno, Brown, Papadakis/Cizeron and more

While skaters like Chen voiced their appreciation to be able to compete, athletes set for Skate Canada and the Grand Prix of France were equally disappointed, both events being called off due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

The cancellations meant the likes of Uno Shoma, Kihira Rika, Jason Brown, Papadakis and Cizeron, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, Miyahara Satoko, Cha Junhwan, Kevin Aymoz and many other big names went without a competition for the traditional fall season.

Canada’s Nam Nguyen, a two-time national champ, told Olympic Channel he both understood the decision and was equally disappointed.

"We knew there was a possibility that it would be cancelled," he said. "It’s obviously for everyone’s best interest and safety. That’s the first priority. I’m glad that they made the right decision and cancelled the event."

Two-time Olympic champion Hanyu Yuzuru had opted out of the Grand Prix out of caution for his own health and those of others. The Japanese superstar is currently registered to compete at Japan's national championships, set for 23-27 December.

New kids on the block: Teens continue to impress

It was last season that Kostornaia, Shcherbakova and Trusova swept the Grand Prix golds as three first-time seniors. While this year didn’t allow for a similar result, youngsters still impressed at every turn, including Kagiyama becoming the first man to win on his senior Grand Prix debut since Han Yan at Cup of China in 2013.

While Shin was satisfied with her bronze in Las Vegas and Kagiyama with his win in Osaka, others to make a splash included:

  • Reigning world junior bronze medallist Petr Gumennik placing third at Rostelecom Cup
  • Polina Panfilova and Dmitry Rylov, the reigning world junior and YOG champs, also third in Moscow
  • Japanese teens Honda Lucas Tsuyoshi and Matsuike Rino claimed respective bronzes in singles

What’s next: Eye on national events

Focus now shifts to national events for most skaters, whether or not they competed in a Grand Prix this season. Hanyu made headlines last week when he confirmed his intention to skate at Japanese nationals in December.

Russia will also hold its nationals later in December, with all eyes on the ladies event and the loaded field that’s expected. Both the U.S. and Canada are scheduled to hold their national events in mid-January.

The challenge remains for everyone, however: How do they bring their best level when they’ve lacked competitions this season? How do stay motivated in training when they’re not sure when/how they’ll compete next.

When Sochi 2014 ice dancing gold medallist Meryl Davis said that it would be a season unlike any other – she was right.

Her advice remains sage as the sport looks to the second half of the season: “Figure skating is a sport that requires structure and rigidity, so with this season taking everything into account, I think that the priority just has to be the health and wellness of the figure skating community,” she said. “There’s going to have to be a new flexibility with this particular season... being ready for things to change.”


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