Hello From Hartford, Part 2

by Michelle Wojdyla, Special to U.S. Figure Skating Online

(10/24/06) - Michelle Wojdyla is back for U.S. Figure Skating Online to provide a behind-the-scenes look at her time at 2006 Skate America ... from leaving home, to first practice, all the way to Sunday's exhibition. Remember, this isn't news, it's supposed to be fun, and Michelle's opinions are always her own.

Mexico's Michelle Cantu is making her Grand Prix debut.

7:39 a.m.
Had a bit of a slow start this morning. Can't use jet lag as an excuse. Slept pretty well except at 1:35 a.m. when I woke up suddenly convinced I was late for practice and annoyed that none of the three alarms I set worked. It actually took me a few minutes to realize that I hadn't even been asleep long.

Over at the arena, the first group of pairs had finished their run-throughs and were using the open time to work on elements. Both Polish teams and one of the Russians were still on the ice. This Skate America seems unusual in that I haven't seen so many of the skaters. In this group, I've only seen Dorota Zagorska and Mariusz Siudek in previous events. In the next, I haven't seen Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay, although Anabelle competed with her previous partner, Patrice Archetto, at Spokane's Skate America. I remember the local newspaper had a giant photo of them on the front page.

My photo spot for today is on the narrow end of the rink between what will be the kiss and cry and I think Japanese TV's broadcast booth. The rink board is cut very low and so the camera on the crane can move around to get the best angles. As of now, however, the crane wasn't ready, so I was OK to sit there.

Anabelle and Cody were wearing what looked like competition outfits rather than the basic black that most of the skaters wear. That makes me happy. When I'm looking through all the practice photos, I can easily tell which ones are the Canadians. Plus I loved the color and texture of Anabelle's dress.

I was watching pairs practice for a while and couldn't figure out who this one team was. They were talking to coach Doug Ladret, and it just didn't click that the team was Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent. I blame it on the early hour—and her hair being blonder than I remember.

Throw jumps were the big item for today. It wasn't the best session overall, though, with many falls and pops. Fingers crossed they will land them when it counts. Overhead lifts looked very, very solid.

9:29 a.m.
Dance is next, but the first group is down two teams. Kristin Fraser and Igor Lukanin had their names announced, but they were not there and are not listed on the start order. Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat were in the arena, just not on the ice. The French team sat in the stands and watched the whole practice. Before it was time for their music in the rotation, they came down to the area next to me and ran through the first part of the program—on the floor. Almost immediately, I received a text message from one of the volunteers working transportation. She asked if Nathalie & Fabian's skates had arrived yet. Now their run-through on carpet makes sense. Fabian's sporting a beard, but I still do a double take and think he's Gwendal Peizerat.

Natalia Mikhailova and Arkadi Sergeev are another team I had not seen before today. They are not wearing their competition outfits but rather Team Russia black outfits with Russian flags and their country's name on the back. Spiffy.

World champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski carry themselves with the confidence that comes with the top title and years of experience. They command the ice—and your attention. They chose to run through their free dance, which is based on the seven deadly sins. (Skaters could choose either their OD or FD to skate to.)

Group 2 had all four teams. Allie Hann-McCurdy and Michael Coreno had an interesting take on their outfits. The lace pattern on her dress matched the printed pattern on his shirt. Nice touch without being too matchy-matchy. They are coached by World champion (and recent nominee to the Skate Canada Hall of Fame) Victor Kraatz.

The other dance team I had not seen in competition before was Israeli siblings Alexandra and Roman Zaretski. Sasha was warming up in the area next to me and was kicking her leg behind her back nearly Biellmann spin high. Wow. On the ice, they ran through their dramatic OD.

Japan's Nozomi Watanabe and Akiyuki Kido were dressed in layers of purple, aqua, yellow, and light green. It was a lot of chiffon for the small dancers. I tried to watch the dance but lost some of the power in the flowing fabric. They had their own cheering section with teammate Nobunari Oda watching from the boards.

Chantal Lefebvre and Arseni Markov (“the team with the hair” according to someone watching next to me) create a very dramatic and striking presence on the ice. Their free dance looked very rough and unpolished, but it may have just been an off day.

The third dance group included all three Americans and British siblings Sinead and John Kerr. Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov ran through their “Adam and Eve” free dance that they performed at Campbell's the other week. The remaining three teams did their original dance. For a nice change, Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre went with blue outfits for the tango instead of the traditional red and black. Sinead Kerr's low-back dress gave a peek-a-boo to her tattoo.

12:14 p.m. – Men's practice
All 12 of the men came to practice. The first group drew most of the media attention, with three Americans and two Japanese skaters as well as Kevin van der Perren. Despite the buzz at the session—or maybe as a result of it—it was a very sloppy 40 minutes. I can't remember the last time I saw so many people laying on the ice. Costumes were literally wet with slush.

Kevin showed off his upper body and sculpted arms in a sleeveless tank and leggings that were practically tights. He did a big triple Axel-triple toe-triple loop combination early in the session but started badly spotting his jumps and fell or popped time after time after time. He was visibly and understandably frustrated, and that appeared to make the spotting worse. It was a vicious cycle.

Yasuhari Nanri had the fall that I couldn't help but notice, as he wound up lying on the ice for what seemed like a long time. I couldn't tell if he was hurt or frustrated, but after he got up and skated by me, he just looked very, very wet.

Teammate Nobunari Oda had one of the stronger outings, landing with that deep, soft knee. His expression didn't change much throughout the session, but he seemed to be on top of everything he tried.

Evan Lysacek debuted his new short program to the same music Michelle Kwan used a few years ago. I wondered if it was the exact same cut, because the fade out of the music at the end reminded me of the time deduction Michelle got at the Dortmund World Championships. And no, not everything is about Michelle Kwan, but that music ending actually had personal meaning.

I was photographing Dortmund for U.S. Figure Skating, and when Michelle got the deduction and there was talk about protests and much more media interest than usual, Laura Fawcett (who was writing the articles in Dortmund) had to put on her media hat and pretty much directed me to her chair and her laptop and told me to write the ladies short program article. Fond memories of Germany. Not the most fond (that would be the dinner my friend Ginger and I had at an Italian restaurant where no one spoke English, but the food was amazing.)

Ahem. Back to the men …

Kurt Browning was watching practice, and I did get to chat with him a bit before he had to concentrate on the action on the ice. When he left to talk to other skaters, I could occasionally hear snippets of conversation (the ESPN booth was being built a level up behind me.) After all these years of covering skating, much of it seems second nature. Once in a while, however, I step back and realize that I am dealing with someone who is absolutely the best in the world. In one's day-to-day life, how often to you run across someone who is The Best? It's very inspiring and humbling.

Scott Smith doesn't wear black, and I didn't see his run-through. Doesn't he look like he's saying "Please like my white shirt?"

Ryan Bradley made his Skate America debut, skating over the advertisement embedded in the ice for the Hartford Airport that shares his last name. Skating fans are used to seeing the giant smile and twinkling eyes of this charismatic young man. Today, however, Ryan looked focused and all business. His coach, Tom Zakrajsek, chose to set up next to where I was sitting, which actually made me a bit uncomfortable, like I was invading their zone. Yes, I was there first, but I'm not the one on display at a major international competition. I guess if it were a big problem, they would have moved or asked me to.

Ryan chose to do his free skate, and it is to a selection of Latin music. My rhythm knowledge is not as strong as it should be, but I'm guessing we had a mambo in there, and I'm basing that on Cheryl Burke and Emmitt Smith's number on “Dancing with the Stars” last night. Ryan didn't have the spark he usually does, which a colleague had mentioned to me. I had to reply that Ryan always comes alive with a crowd, and the fans in attendance today were rather few in number. I bet we see a different Ryan in competition.

I don't mean to leave Scott Smith out of my comments on this practice, but I missed his run-through because I was talking to someone and not looking at the ice. I'm sorry, Scott. You even wore a white shirt instead of all black. I should be ashamed.

3:48 p.m. Ladies practice
I thought I was invading the personal space of Ryan Bradley, but that's nothing compared to what Miki Ando faced. One of the Japanese photographers literally crouched over her coach, Nikoli Morozov, camera in hand, to get the very up close and personal shot of Miki when she was at the boards talking to Nikoli. Hello, zoom lens?

When Mao and Mai Asada came out from backstage to scope out the arena during the men's practice, a horde of photographers jumped in front of them and stuck cameras in their faces. The girls smiled and seemed very accommodating. This was directly behind me, I'm facing the ice, and it was crowding my personal space. I think this means in the next life I should not come back as a world class Japanese figure skater. Because, you know, that's going to happen.

The first group of ladies also included Michelle Cantu of Mexico, making her Grand Prix debut. Last year Laura and Luke Munana's appearance at Skate America in Atlantic City marked the first time a Mexican skater competed in the Grand Prix. Michelle took the ice for practice looking positively thrilled to be here. She looked strong and steady, and in the opening part of the practice session, was nailing her jumps while the other ladies were struggling.

It seems like just last week I was watching Mai, Mao and Miki practice. Oh wait… Well, honestly, this afternoon pretty much looked the same.

The final practice group was USA-Finland-Italy-Switzerland. The beautiful Kiira Korpi was another lady I hadn't seen compete, although I did catch her in the only practice session I attended in Calgary for 2006 Worlds. (Kiira's face reminded me that Izzy really needs to deposit Denny's check on “Grey's Anatomy.” But I digress.)

Valentina Marchei was also someone I never had the chance to see before. She had a practice dress that reflected the colors of the Italian flag. Nice. Sarah Meier spent much of the session trying to nail a triple-triple in front of me and didn't have much success.

Katy Taylor and Emily Hughes were flying around the rink. My main impression of Katy was the power and speed she takes across the ice. That girl can get from one end of the rink to the other in no time. Emily ran through her short program to “Carmen.” She added some gold trim accents to her previously all black practice outfit. Just had to mention that. And she always looks like she is having the time of her life. I wish I could bottle that kind of enthusiasm.