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Russian, Chinese pairs suffer through to go 1-2

Scheduling snafus, ailments plague top teams; Denney, Coughlin win bronze

Russians Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov posted 195.07 points in their Skate America win.
Russians Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov posted 195.07 points in their Skate America win. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(10/20/2012) - Let's all say it together: Poor Max Trankov.

He is tired, having arrived in the Pacific Northwest from Moscow less than a week ago. He is aggrieved, not agreeing with the organizer's decisions on practice times. He is even sporting a lopsided haircut with long bangs that does its best to camouflage his handsome visage.

Luckily for him and for fans, he and partner Tatiana Volosozhar are also supremely elegant and exciting skaters, able to table any minor annoyances long enough to produce an intensely emotional free skate laden with technical difficulty and a unique style.

"We won our first Grand Prix this season. It was a goal, and we did it," Trankov said. "We are a little unhappy about our performances. We had mistakes in the short and fell on a throw in the free, but we have time. It is the beginning of the season."

The Russians, second in the world to German archrivals Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy the past two seasons, were sheer perfection at the start of their free to classical violin selections, opening with a stunning triple twist and triple Salchow-double toe combination.

They remained near-perfect until late in the program, when a bungled dismount cost them levels on a lift and Volosozhar took a tumble on a throw triple Salchow. Still, they scored 129.29 in the free to win gold by nearly 10 points at Skate America.

The win, and accompanying $18,000 prize money, did little to assuage moody Max.

"We were not prepared for the schedule. There is 11 hours' time difference and it's already early in the morning in Russia and its very late here," he said. "It is the first time in our lives we have had a practice at 6:00 p.m. (the day of the free skate) and it is strange. I think we must be stronger; we must be ready for things like this."

If only he had stopped there.

"We were in good shape before the competition for the free program, but we were so tired today," he said. "We asked our coach, Nina [Mozer], why, and she said we were not ready for the schedule. Nina always finds the schedules on the Internet, but for this competition, it was the last day [before] our travel day that it was [posted] on the Internet, and we had no time for preparation.

In Moscow [at Rostelecom Cup], we can go to the ice rink and prepare, go home, have rest, whatever we need," he said. "It is easier than here, and we will try to show our best."

China's Qing Pang and Jian Tong are happy; their glowing smiles and loving looks are welcome sights in the kiss and cry and mixed zone. But they are skating on wonky knees, Tong's back and neck hurt and, to top it off, he was running a fever.

Still, China's two-time world champions (2006 and '10) skated a polished and well-paced program to Edward Elgar's "Enigma" that opened with a solid sequence of two double Axels and a soaring triple twist, before they lost ground with a death spiral that failed to get down low enough to qualify for any points.

A loaded and successful second half featured all three lifts and both throws, and they earned 123.20 for second in the free. They took second overall with 185.16 points.

"Because of the injuries to our knees, we made some changes in the long program; we switched triple toes into doubles," Tong said. "This was also because I had a fever after the short. I was taking medication, and we were worried if I could compete or not."

The Beijing lovebirds, who have skated together nearly 20 years, were engaged in 2010 and plan to marry after competing at the 2014 Sochi Games, which will be their fourth Olympics. (They won a silver medal in 2010.)

"Actually, it feels more natural [performing together] after we got engaged, because every time I touch him, I feel him for real instead of making believe," Pang said.

"When I made a mistake yesterday (on the triple toe in the short), she didn't complain at all; she instead encouraged me a lot," Tong said. "And that's different."

U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, with solid triple toes and a Level 3 death spiral, defeated the Chinese in the technical score, but lower program components for their free to Phantom of the Opera, added to under-rotation calls assessed by the technical panel on their double Axel sequences, put them third overall with 178.22. Still, the Colorado Springs pair was delighted with their first-ever Grand Prix medal.

"We were very happy with how we skated today," Denney said. "It's always fun competing in America. Having that support from the crowd is really awesome. We're looking forward to growing and improving at every Grand Prix we go to."

The skaters are working with coach Dalilah Sappenfield and modern dance expert Kathy Johnson, coach of Canadian two-time world champion Patrick Chan, to improve their performance quality and on-ice connection.

"I think our components are moving in the right direction," Coughlin said. "We see teams that we aspire to compete with and see where we need to improve, especially with our short program, the newness of which is, I think, well documented.

"We are looking to refine and fine tune the little nuances and characters [in our programs], and when that happens, the components will come."

Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès of France had another stylish outing here, landing triple Salchows and toes and showing off their fine lines in their spins and lifts. They placed fourth in the free and fourth overall with 167.66 points.

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir had a personal-best skate to their intricate and sophisticated Tango free, choreographed by Julie Marcotte in Quebec.

The Boston pair, who placed fifth at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, carried the Tango theme throughout their performance, which featured solid triple toes and a big throw triple Salchow in addition to risky and exciting lifts. They earned 108.52 points in the free skate and ended up fifth with 164.19 total points.

"I thought the program went really well; we had a couple of errors on one of the jumping passes (side-by-side double Axels) and also a spin, but other than that it felt really good for our first time out internationally [this season]," Shnapir said. "We've really been working hard on the performance aspect of our programs and we're pretty satisfied with how we performed."

Castelli and Shnapir's training partners, Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff, showed off elegance and a huge throw triple loop in their free to Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, but Donlan fell on a double Axel. They placed sixth overall.

"The performance felt good, but the big-ticket items were not there today," Donlan said. "I think it was pretty disappointing; not as bad as yesterday's short, but not what we were hoping for."

"I actually had a moment out there when I was like, man, we're at Skate America," Speroff said. "I've been watching this since I was a little kid. We're never going to get our first Grand Prix back, and it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."