World's best juniors square off in Bulgaria

Many medal chances for top U.S. junior skaters in Sofia

2008 U.S. national champion Mirai Nagasu, will sit out junior worlds due to a lingering ankle injury.
2008 U.S. national champion Mirai Nagasu, will sit out junior worlds due to a lingering ankle injury. (Michelle Harvath)


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By Klaus-Reinhold Kany, special to
(02/25/2008) - In the last two years, U.S. Figure Skating has been by far the most successful federation worldwide at the junior level. Therefore, a lot is expected of the Americans at the 2008 World Junior Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, Feb. 26 - Mar. 1. More than 200 skaters and couples have been entered to compete in the Winter Sport Hall on the outskirts of the city. The prize money starts with $10,000 U.S. for a title in singles and $15,000 for a couple.


Last year, the United States swept the podium at the junior worlds with Caroline Zhang, Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner finishing 1-2-3. Zhang and Nagasu are back this year, because they are still too young to compete at senior worlds. They both have sensational spins and are hot medal candidates. The third American lady, Rachael Flatt, competing in her first junior worlds, is also a serious contender for the podium.

Nagasu should be the gold-medal favorite, because she has probably had the most successful season of the three so far. She won her two Junior Grand Prix starts, took gold at the Junior Grand Prix Final and topped that all off by winning the senior ladies title at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. But at her first practice in Sofia, she had some problems with her Lutz, which was no surprise after the long flight.

Zhang is a slightly more elegant skater, and she certainly has had some success of her own this season. She skated at the senior level internationally for the first time, even earning a berth in the Grand Prix Final with a bronze medal at Skate America and silver at the Cup of China. She has had trouble, however, with her jumps, some of which have been downgraded for being under-rotated or for taking off on the wrong edge. She was a pre-tournament favorite for gold at the U.S. Championships but settled for a fourth-place finish.

Flatt, who won a gold and silver in her two Junior Grand Prix this season, has a more mature style and can do triple-triple combinations. She finished second behind Nagasu at the JGP Final and the U.S. Championships, where she actually won the free skate.

Several ladies from other countries will also contend for medals. Yuki Nishino, the bronze medalist at the JGP Final, could be next in a long line of successful Japanese ladies. Her countrywoman, Rumi Suizu, beat her at the Japanese Junior Championships, though, and hopes to improve on her fifth-place finish last year. Jenni Vähämaa of Finland was fourth last year and wants to break into the top three, as do Elena Glebova of Estonia and Sarah Hecken of Germany.


There are a few serious medal contenders from several countries in the men's competition, but the favorite is an American again -- Adam Rippon from Hackensack, N.J. After joining forces with coach Nikolai Morozov at the start of the 2007-08 season, he has really taken off. Despite not having a triple Axel yet, he won a silver and a gold during the Junior Grand Prix Series and added another gold from the JGP Final, where he won by nearly 16 points.

Brandon Mroz of the U.S. is another medal candidate. He won two Junior Grand Prix golds this year but finished second behind Rippon at both the JPG Final and in the junior division at the U.S. championships. His advantage might be the triple Axel and his strong conditioning from practicing in Colorado Springs, Colo., at an altitude of 5,000 feet. During his first practice in Bulgaria, his triple Axel-double toe loop combination was excellent. The third American, Tommy Steenberg, is also very talented, but he has rarely mastered two good programs in one competition.

Kevin Reynolds of Canada is also in contention for a medal because of his jumping ability. He will try to repeat the sensational combination he executed at the Canadian championships in January. With a quad Salchow-triple toe loop-triple loop, he set a new world record by getting 18.33 points, the highest score for one single element in the young history of the ISU judging system.

The two Russians, Ivan Bariev and Artem Borodulin, are also contenders. Borodulin beat Rippon at the JGP Bulgaria in October but broke his ankle soon afterwards. Other contenders include Sweden's Adrian Schultheiss, who was sixth at the 2008 European Championships in January, and the Czech Republic's Michal Brezina, who beat new European champion Tomas Verner for the gold medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy last September.


At the JGP Final in December, the Russians swept the medals in pairs. But the winners, Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov, can not compete in Sofia because Larionov tested positive for forbidden diet pills in November. Their training mates, Ksenia Krasilnikova and Konstantin Bezmaternikh, who were third last year, will now assume the role of gold-medal favorite in Sofia.

The two other Russian teams and the Americans will fight for medals as well. Ekaterina Sheremetieva and Mikhail Kuznetsov pieced together a good season so far, highlighted by their bronze medal at the JGP Final. This will be the first international competition for the third Russian pair, Lubov Iliushechkina and Nodari Maisuradze, but they have more triple elements than their rivals.

Looking to challenge the Russian pairs are the new U.S. junior champions, Jessica Rose Paetsch and Jon Nuss. Paetsch said after her arrival, "The flight from Colorado Springs via London and Munich to Sofia was really long. I could sleep only three hours in the plane. But until Tuesday, it will be OK."

Americans Bianca Butler and Joseph Jacobson and Canadians Amanda Velenosi and Mark Fernandez will also vie for the podium. The two relatively new Chinese teams showed impressive throws in practice, but their overall package seemed a bit weaker than the top teams.

Ice Dancing

Last year, both of the top U.S. couples -- Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell -- had bad luck at world juniors. The Hubbells, a brother-and-sister duo, fell on the compulsory dance; Samuelson and Bates had to give up during the competition. But this year, both teams from Ann Arbor, Mich., are back to win medals.

Samuelson and Bates were second at the Junior Grand Prix Final after winning gold in both of their JGP appearances. Then, they finished fourth in the senior division at the U.S. championships. The Hubbells missed the Junior Grand Prix Series due to injury, but they won the U.S. junior title in January.

The favorites for gold, however, are from Russia. Maria Monko and Ilia Tkachenko had an excellent fall season and won the Junior Grand Prix Final. Kristina Gorshkova and Vitali Butikov have also skated well this year, and they beat Monko and Tkachenko at Russian junior nationals.

The last major podium contenders are Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier of Canada. They won two Junior Grand Prix golds this year and finished fourth at the JGP Final. They also took fourth place in the senior level at the Canadian championships.