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U.S. skaters grab gold in Ostrava

Russia continues to exert its dominance in pairs

Piper Gilles and Zach Donohue are among the competitors this week in Dresden.
Piper Gilles and Zach Donohue are among the competitors this week in Dresden. (Melani Hoyt / IDC)

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By Mickey Brown, special to icenetwork.com
(09/20/2008) - U.S. skaters captured two more gold medals while Russia asserted its usual dominance in pairs at this week's Junior Grand Prix (JGP) series event in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Americans Alexander Johnson and ice dancers Piper Gilles and Zach Donohue finished first in their respective disciplines, each garnering the first JGP medals of their careers. Reigning world junior silver medalists Lubov Iliushechkina and Nodari Maisuradze led a Russian sweep of the pairs medals, while previously unknown Yukiko Fujisawa of Japan lapped the ladies field.

Ladies

The 13-year-old Fujisawa's only previous international experience came at the obscure 2008 Skate Copenhagen, where she captured the novice title by a staggering 53 points. She found herself in second, behind Italy's Stefania Berton, by almost 2.5 points after the short program in Ostrava.

Her free skate, however, was the best of the day. Fujisawa opened with a clean triple Lutz-double toe combination and was given credit for landing five more triples over the course of the program, though not all cleanly. It was her spins, however, that set her apart from the field, as each of the seven she performed in her two programs was given a Level 4. Her free skate score of 97.93 gave her 148.25 points for the competition, 12 more than silver medalist Angela Maxwell.

Maxwell had to come all the way back from a seventh-place short program to land on the podium, the second time she has done so in the JGP Series in as many tries (she won bronze last year in Lake Placid). The reigning U.S. junior silver medalist was nearly seven points out of a medal spot after the short program, in which she scored 43.15 points, exactly two fewer than she tallied in her short program in Lake Placid.

"I struggled a lot on the jumps. My head wasn't on straight," Maxwell said. "I was nervous about competing in a JGP. I wanted to skate well so badly that it got to my head."

She redeemed herself with her Inuyasha free skate. The performance was highlighted by a triple toe-triple toe combo, an element that earned her a segment-high 9.75 points, as well as a triple loop and triple Salchow-double toe toward the end of the program. Her program components score (47.79) was two points higher than anyone else's.

"I tried focusing more on the positive aspects of my long rather than the negatives of the short," Maxwell said. "I went out there like I had nothing to lose."

Berton won the bronze, snapping a streak of three straight JGP appearances (four if you include the 2006 JGP Final) in which she finished off the podium. Her "Jalousie Tango" short program earned her 52.75 points, eight of which came on her opening triple toe-triple toe combination.

Her performance of her Pride and Prejudice free skate was better than it was three weeks ago at JGP France, where she scored 72.62 points as opposed to 82.15 this time around. Berton's presentation mark (45.80) was second only to that of Maxwell, but she lagged behind in the elements score, where her total of 37.35 was only sixth best in the segment. Four of her jumps received negative Grades of Execution (GOE).

Japan's Shoko Ishikawa finish third in the free skate and fourth overall. American Marissa Secundy, the novice champion at the 2008 AEGON Challenge Cup, placed sixth in her JGP debut.

Men

Johnson's short program, skated to "Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra" from the Ladies in Lavender soundtrack, put him up by 5.44 points, and he needed every bit of those to hang on to the gold, which he won by a razor-thin .11 points. His short program performance included a clean triple Lutz and triple flip-triple toe combination.

Johnson's closest competition, Russian Ivan Bariev, a JGP Final qualifier a year ago, landed those same jump elements, but he came up short on his double Axel, leaving him with some ground to make up in the free skate.

And he nearly did that, landing six triples and earning all Level 3s and 4s for his steps and spins in his free skate, for which he amassed 126.38 points. Bariev finished with 187.47 points to Johnson's 187.58, and he has now won the silver at all three of his JGP assignments.

Johnson's free skate, set to "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op 28" by Camille Saint-Saens and "Meditation" from Thais by Massenet, started out poorly as he opened his program with a single-double instead of the planned triple-triple combination.

"I said to myself, 'I can either have the worst skate of my life or the biggest comeback of my life.' I didn't want No. 1 to happen, so I went with option two," Johnson said.

He picked it up from there, landing five triples (two in combination) and performing three level-four spins en route to a segment score of 121.05. This is Johnson's first JGP medal; his previous best finish was a fourth last year in Bulgaria.

The bronze went to Japan's Akio Sasaki, who fell on the opening jump in his Robots free skate but recovered to land six triples to pull up from fifth.

American Keegan Messing was in third entering the free skate, but he fell on his first two jumps and dropped to fourth overall.

Pairs

It was a Russian sweep in pairs led by Iliushechkina and Maisuradze, who won the gold in their JGP debut. Sabina Imaikina and Andrei Novoselov took the silver while Ksenia Ozerova and Alexander Enbert claimed the bronze.

The top two teams distinguished themselves in the short program, with both landing beautiful throw triple loops and earning positive GOEs for all eight of their elements.

While Iliushechkina and Maisuradze easily won the free skate with a score of 84.79, their program was not without its problems. They received two deductions, one for a fall and another for a time violation. They again landed the throw triple loop, and their group 5 Axel lasso lift garnered a Level 3 and a 1.13 GOE.

Second place in the free skate went to 2007 JGP Final qualifiers Amanda Velenosi and Mark Fernandez. They dropped out of medal contention after an unfortunate short program, in which they received no credit for their lift.

The free skate was also a phase of redemption for Americans Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, who struggled through their Survivor short program, experiencing a fall on their double Lutz and receiving a Level 1 for their spiral sequence and forward inside death spiral. They came back strong in their Gladiator free skate, executing a group 5 Axel lasso lift that got a Level 4 and a 1.5 GOE and earning Level 4s for both of their spins. That effort put them in fourth, two points out of third.

"We skated against a lot of the same competition here as we did last year in Estonia (where she and Shnapir finished 10th in their JGP debut), and we beat a lot of them this time," Castelli said. "We've grown so much as team."

Neither Imaikina and Novoselov nor Ozerova and Enbert performed particularly well in the free skate, but their leads held up to land them on the podium. Imaikina fell on their throw, and she and Novoselov received no credit for their second lift, while Ozerova and Enbert had two falls.

Kloe Bautista and Galvani Hopson of the United States placed sixth.

Ice Dancing

The make-up of the U.S. Team in Ostrava was unusual, to say the least. On it were Gilles and Timothy McKernan, skating not with each other, as they had done from 2003-08, but with new partners -- Gilles with Donohue and McKernan with Shannon Wingle.

As it turned out, Gilles did something with Dononue this week that she and McKernan were never able to do: win gold at a JGP event (their best finish was third at JGP Mexico in 2006).

Gilles and Donohue made their debut this summer at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, and it was an auspicious one as they finished first in their compulsory and original dance groups and third in their free dance group -- behind only Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, both of whom have already won JGP gold medals this fall.

"We had a lot more confidence coming out of Lake Placid," Gilles said. "We didn't have anything to lose here. We're a new partnership, and it's a new experience for Zach, being his first international.

In Ostrava, Gilles and Donohue took a .33-point lead after the compulsory dance. Skating to swing pieces "Go Daddy Go" and "Flat Foot Floogie" in the original dance, the team experienced a couple stumbles, but those were trumped by the overall difficulty of the program, particularly the opening circular step sequence, for which they earned a 1.5 GOE and 7.90 points.

"It's a fast, fast, fast program. It never really slows down," Gilles said. "It has a 'slow' section, but it doesn't slow down for that piece at all."

Gilles and Donohue's free dance Saturday earned 77.03 points, almost 10 more than in Lake Placid. They soared through the first six elements of their program with nary a misstep, receiving Level 4s on all their lifts and their twizzle sequence. Their total score of 159.30 earned them a comfortable 10-point victory. Russians Marina Antipova and Artem Kudashev took the silver, their first JGP medal in three tries. They sat fifth after the compulsories but second-place original and free dances vaulted them to second overall. In the last two segments of the competition, they received Level 3s and 4s for all their elements except one.

The bronze went to Canadian junior silver medalists Karen Routhier and Eric Saucke-Lacelle, the first time they medaled at a JGP in four attempts. They held off hometown favorites Lucie Mysliveckova and Matej Novak, who, after medaling at their last two JGP events, surprisingly finished off the podium. The margin between the silver medal and fourth place was .27 points.

Wingle and McKernan saw their medal chances disappear early on. Wingle fell on the team's second compulsory dance pattern and pulled McKernan down with her. That miscue left them in 17th after that segment. They pulled up in the next two phases to place seventh.