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Grand Prix Series heads north to Canada

Home country's Rochette leads deep ladies field

Joannie Rochette says she's more prepared for this year than she's ever been.
Joannie Rochette says she's more prepared for this year than she's ever been. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(10/30/2008) - Fresh off the podium at Skate America, Evan Lysacek, Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker have arrived in Ottawa looking to pocket a second medal in as many weeks.

The U.S. men's and pair champions, along with Canada's Shawn Sawyer, fifth last week in Everett, Wash., are the only competitors being tested with back-to-back competitions this week at the HomeSense Skate Canada International.

After being out-skated by Japan's young star Takahiko Kozuka and settling for the bronze last week, Lysacek will be looking to fend off another young challenger this week -- Canada's Patrick Chan, 17. Last season, Chan qualified for the Grand Prix Final in his second year in senior company, scored an upset at the Canadian championships over eventual world champion Jeffrey Buttle and ended his campaign with a ninth-place showing in his senior world championship debut.

Buttle and Switzerland's Stéphane Lambiel were originally on the Skate Canada roster, but they both shocked the skating world with surprise retirement announcements just before the Grand Prix season began. That leaves Lysacek, Chan and Russian Sergei Voronov as the top contenders in the second of six events in the ISU Grand Prix Series.

"It was very interesting," Chan said of the Skate America result. "It helped me build confidence. Going in, I was expecting Evan or Johnny [Weir], either of them to win. I didn't really pay much attention to Kozuka, but wow -- he ended up winning.

"Psychologically, I just think, 'If he can do it, I can do it -- anyone can do it.' It's definitely one of the motivating factors. I'm really excited. It gets the adrenaline rushing. I'm looking forward to getting on the ice," Chan added on Thursday, the official practice day.

The U.S athletes are declining to interview until after the competition begins Friday.

When it was suggested that, as the undisputed top dog in Canada now, he was out from under the protective umbrella that Buttle's presence provided, Chan grinned and said, "I've got rain in my face now."

"Really, it's just more responsibility ... I just want to try to do what Jeff did, what made everyone happy. He represented Canada really well. I want to do the same thing," added the affable teen who splits his training time between Toronto and Orlando, Fla., where his primary coach, Don Laws, resides.

Voronov finished seventh at the 2008 worlds, two spots ahead of Chan, while Lysacek, a two-time world bronze medalist, missed the event due to injury. Voronov is coached by 1994 Olympic champion Alexei Urmanov.

Last week at Skate America, pairs duo McLaughlin, 16, and Brubaker, 21, snatched the silver, finishing a respectable eight points behind the world champions from Germany, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. At Skate Canada, they will be looking to challenge the world bronze medalists from Canada, Jessica Dubé, 21, and Bryce Davison, 22, who also made their mark on the international scene at a relatively young age. Both couples were Grand Prix Finalists last season, although the American youngsters had to withdraw due to an injury to Brubaker. Because McLaughlin was age-ineligible for senior worlds, the team's season ended with its victory at the U.S. championships.

Russia's representatives, Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, should also factor into the medal mix after finishing fourth at the 2008 worlds and fifth at the Grand Prix Final.

Davison described the up-and-coming Americans as "an incredible pair team -- fast, explosive and really nice people too.

"Last year was the first time we saw them. They were a surprise. It was incredible to see such dynamic skating from such a young team. We didn't realize when we were younger, that's what we were doing too. When you see another team do it, it's really something special," said Davison, who was third behind the American duo at the NHK Trophy last year.

Because virtually all of their elite competitors execute triple twist lifts, Dubé and Davison have worked hard in the offseason to get their own triple twist ready for primetime.

"We have a lot of work to do on it still, but, with it, we'll have no technical weakness. Last year, we saw doing a double twist as a technical weakness," Davison admitted.

He reported that in summer training, the risky move was "really big, with an easy catch," but they stopped practicing it for five weeks in September to avoid aggravating small knee and back injuries that "every skater goes through."

Dubé and Davison resumed practicing the triple twist two weeks ago and intend to launch it -- literally -- this week.

Four-time Canadian champion Joannie Rochette is the host country's best bet to land on the women's podium this week, but it won't be easy. Italy's Carolina Kostner, the world silver medalist; Japanese veteran Fumie Suguri; a talented trio of Americans; and Rochette give the ladies the deepest field of the event.

The U.S. team includes 2005 Skate Canada winner Alissa Czisny, who won the Nebelhorn Trophy last month; former world junior champ Caroline Zhang, fourth at the Grand Prix Final and U.S. Nationals last season; and Bebe Liang, who was fifth nationally and 10th in the world in 2008.

"It's a strong event. They're good competitors, but I think I'm on top of my game too. I'm feeling great going into the competition," said Rochette, who took bronze at Skate Canada a year ago and ranked fifth at the 2008 World Championships.

Rochette, whose programs had been set by David Wilson for most of her career, worked with two new choreographers to mold this season's programs. Shae-Lynn Bourne created her short program to a classical version of "Summertime," while Lori Nichol styled the long to "Concierto de Aranjuez."

They concentrated on adding more difficult entries and interesting exits to her jumps, increasing upper body movement and fluidity, reducing the use of crosscuts and featuring more edge work.

"It's the first year that I don't think of one element in particular. I just think of the whole package. I've been training good at home. Everything's been going very, very well. I don't think I've been that ready before," Rochette said.

While the women's event is too unpredictable to call, the ice dance competition is not. The smart money is on Meryl Davis and Charlie White to take gold.

With their Michigan training mates and world silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir out of the picture (Virtue is recovering from surgery to her lower legs), Davis and White, both 21, are expected to out-distance the field. They ranked sixth in the world last season and are a part of the young ice dance crowd expected to challenge for the Olympic podium in 2010.

Canadians will want to keep their eyes on an even younger duo out of Toronto. Vanessa Crone, 18, and Paul Poirier, who turns 17 next week, finished their 2008 competitive season with a silver medal at the world junior championships after winning two golds on the junior Grand Prix circuit. They also finished fourth at the Canadian championships.