Halloween masks, crazy hats and ear-splitting screams will be on the menu when athletes from the top six figure skating nations gather in Tokyo this week for the World Team Trophy, the season’s final, and most raucous, international competition.
|Madison Chock and Evan Bates compete in the ice dance short dance during the ISU World Team Trophy at Yoyogi National Gymnasium on April 11, 2013 in Tokyo.
Individual medals were awarded at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships in Shanghai last month, but team gold is still on the line. A U.S. contingent of two women (Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold), two men (Jason Brown, Max Aaron), an ice dance team (Madison Chock and Evan Bates) and a pair (Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim) will compete against teams from Russia, Canada, Japan, China and France.
Team USA has fared well at WTT, bringing home gold in 2009 and 2013. In 2012, the only other time the event was held, U.S. skaters won silver.
Bates, captain of the U.S. squad, thinks his team has a great chance to not only win, but to raise the decimal level in Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium a few notches when they cheer each other on.
“The women on our team are pretty rowdy,” said Bates, who competed on the winning 2013 team. “Jason Brown really needs to be our mascot. He just has endless energy. He can scream with the best of them.”
“And then there’s Captain Bates. He’s going to be keeping us all in line,” added Chock, who rarely misses a chance to tweak her partner.
WTT is a favorite event in Japan, where figure skating reigns supreme and 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu enjoys rock star status. A capacity crowd of about 12,000 is expected, and many fans will be just as boisterous as the skaters.
“The audience does the wave,” Chock said. “When have you seen audiences do the wave at a figure skating competition?”
“No matter how you skate, Japanese fans make you feel like you are the best,” Scimeca said. “It’s exciting to perform in a country that loves the sport so much.”
The format in Tokyo is the same as was used in the Olympic figure skating team event in Sochi last year, where U.S. skaters won bronze behind Russia and Canada. Each single skater and pair team will perform a short program and free skate, with ice dancers performing their short and free dances. Skaters from the teams gather in one large “kiss-and-cry” area to watch their teammates’ performances and sit together to await marks. The area’s nickname was coined decades ago, because there are a lot of kisses when marks are good and the occasional tear when they aren’t.
No one expects any tears at WTT, where the atmosphere will be a bit lighter than it was in Shanghai last month. Skaters’ luggage, though, may be heavier; many are packing special outfits to wear while cheering.
“It’s a secret, we’re not revealing any of the garb,” Chock said. “There will be lots of dressing up, lots of chanting.”
Scimeca and Knierim, who won the U.S. pair title in January and placed seventh at the world championships, will compete at WTT for the first time.
“I went to a Halloween store that’s open year-round and bought a lot of fun stuff, enough to share with the team,” Scimeca said. “Of course, there are normal competition nerves, but we’re more excited than nervous.”
Like Bates, Scimeca is counting on Brown, the U.S. men’s champion, to lead the cheers.
“Jason is just so enthusiastic,” she said. “There’s going to be a big competition to see if anyone can scream louder than he does.”
It’s not all fun and games. There’s a lot of pride on the line: scores earned at WTT count toward skaters’ season-best marks.
There is also cold, hard cash. The six teams compete for shares of $1,000,000, made available by the Japan Skating Federation. The prize money is the largest amount offered at an ISU event. The winning team is awarded $200,000; second place is worth $170,000; third gets $160,000, and so on down the line.
|Team USA skaters celebrate winning the trophy during the ISU World Team Trophy at Yoyogi National Gymnasium on April 13, 2013 in Tokyo.
Plus, it’s a chance to compete against top rivals one more time. Chock and Bates will square off against Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, who defeated them for gold in Shanghai by about three points, as well as Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who won bronze in Shanghai.
“Every time we get on the ice, it counts,” Bates said. “We’ve trained hard these last two weeks since Shanghai. We’re not taking this lightly. Any time you get a chance to represent your country, it’s a big deal. And of course it’s a chance to build camaraderie with your teammates.”
Gold and Wagner, who placed fourth and fifth, respectively, in Shanghai, will take on Russia’s world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, as well as her teammate Elena Radionova, the bronze medalist in Shanghai. World silver medalist Satoko Miyahara will compete for Japan.
Hanyu, of course, will anchor the Japanese team, and Americans Brown and Aaron must also contend with Canada’s 16-year-old champion Nam Nguyen, who placed fifth in Shanghai, as well as a pair of strong-jumping if erratic Russians, Maxim Kovtun and Sergei Voronov.
For Scimeca and Knierim, it’s another chance to prove they belong in the top echelon of pairs, alongside with Canadian world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford; Chinese world silver medalists Wenjing Sui and Cong Han; and Russian European champions Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov.
“The top two teams in the world are going to be there, and obviously we want to (place) in the top three,” Knierim said. “We want to show we can keep up with the top teams. I think we showed that at worlds, but we didn’t show it as well as we can.”
After the team returns from Tokyo, many will take brief vacations before returning to their training sites to prepare next season’s programs.
“We’re going to do exactly what we did after Sochi (2014 Olympic Winter Games): limit our show engagements and just train hard, get our programs done early, and get as much feedback as we can,” said Bates, who with Chock trains in Novi, Michigan, under Igor Shpilband. “(U.S. Figure Skating’s) Champs Camp is in late August, and it will be here before you know it.”
When Scimeca and Knierim return from Tokyo, they have time scheduled with Montreal-based choreographer Julie Marcotte to create programs for next season.
“We’re getting one-and-a-half new programs,” Scimeca said. “We’re enhancing our short (set to “El Tango de Roxanne”) and getting a new free.”