And it begins. The Olympic season unofficially kicked off this past weekend in Salt Lake City with the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic and in Bergamo with Lombardia Trophy. And what a cast of characters we had at those two events! I also don't think I've ever had this much to say about the very first competition(s) of the season! Here’s part 1 of my look at the big stories from the weekend.
Uno and Chen win with different strategies
They are two of the favorites for the Olympic podium - and they were competing on different continents, showcasing different strategies for the season. Both of them, however, used their first competition to debut a new jump (#nbd). For World silver medalist Shoma Uno, it was firing on all cylinders; for U.S. champion Nathan Chen, it was constructing his own season’s architecture.
Uno left nothing on the table at Lombardia Trophy - two quads in the short and five in the free skate, including the new quad salchow. And barring the introduction of the quad lutz, that will more or less be the program difficulty he will have this season. Chen was testing the waters at U.S. Classic - one quad in the short and three (planned) in the free, though he doubled his quad toe. Both of them are absolutely looking to PyeongChang as the place to peak, but they are taking two very distinct approaches to their season. Watch for how these strategies change and play out during the season.
For Chen, his free skate layout gives hints at what may be to come later this season. The program could potentially be 4Lo, 4Lz, 4F3T, 4Lz2T, 4F, 4T, 4S, 3A2T2Lo, or really, any combination of those that would make it a 7-quad program. It’s probably the reason he’s taking it easier in his first competition, and will likely be adding more quads in as he gets more comfortable with the season. It’s also notable that with his new quad loop, Chen became the first person to land five different quads in their career.
It’s also worthy to note their respective music choices. In a preseason where music choices have become scrutinized left and right (frankly because skating observers couldn’t wait for the season to start!), Uno took an approach with two familiar pieces - Four Seasons for the short and Turandot for the free. Chen, likely in an effort to continue to push himself as an artist, chose two unfamiliar pieces - a song called Nemesis for the short and the soundtrack from Mao’s Last Dancer with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for the free. Both programs are yet another step in the right direction for Chen as an all-around skater.
And largely because of the familiarity of the music (and because Uno has been skating his programs in exhibitions in the summer), Uno’s performances felt more polished, whereas Chen’s performances felt more raw. These differences are, no doubt, part of the same script the two are trying to write - Uno firing on all cylinders and Chen constructing his own season’s architecture.
Whatever the strategy, though, Chen and Uno are slated for their first head-to-head at Japan Open in early October. Fireworks guaranteed.
Zagitova and Honda brilliant in senior debut
One of the things I was looking forward to most is the senior debut of the reigning World junior gold and silver medalists in the ladies’ event. No disappointment there - Alina Zagitova picked up exactly where she left off, winning Lombardia Trophy with Olympic podium-worthy scores. Marin Honda was just a jump from flawless in her win at U.S. Classic. Both of them made very strong cases for themselves for an Olympic spot in their very first senior season, and that’s saying something considering the depth of competition in Russia and Japan.
Music-wise, both skaters opted for music that is very familiar to skating audiences - Swan Lake and Don Quixote (same free skate as last season) for Zagitova, and Smile and Turandot (yes, another Turandot) for Honda. For Honda, though, her Smile short program is a stand-in - she scrapped her La Cumparsita short and will be getting a new program in the next few weeks.
Consistency will be key for both of them this season. Given the right trajectory and right circumstances, these are skaters who could very well contend for an Olympic medal in five months.
A word on comparing competitions
A lot of us want to quantitatively compare events. After all, you want to know how skaters are stacking up against each other when the best of the best don't compete at the same events until at least the Grand Prix Final. But even with the IJS bringing more consistent objectivity to the sport, there's no doubt that the human element comes into play.
And so comparing skaters' scores across competitions can lead to misleading conclusions about how those skaters would do relative to each other at the same event. It results from a number of factors - range of skating ability, density of top skaters, how well the skaters skate as a group, and skate order, to name a few. Even though it's not the 6.0 system anymore, judges' scores (particularly in the realm of components) will no doubt be influenced by the skaters they just judged. That is to say, just because skater A gets a 180 at competition X doesn't mean that skater A would get the same score at another competition with the same program. It's availability bias - there's really not much of a human way around it.
So why am I ok with this? Well, because skaters competing at the same competition will be judged by the same panel of judges (not two different panels with two different sets of context). Figure skating will not be figure skating without some subjectivity. We all have to live with it.