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By Hiro Yoshida

After a few seasons of struggles and missed opportunities, things finally clicked for Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov this year.

Their Olympic season was cut short at Russian Nationals in December 2017 when the duo had to withdraw after the short dance due to Katsalapov’s injury. Although it was disappointing, the hiatus gave them time to prepare for this season and rediscover their passion for the sport.

“It meant a lot of changes in our lives, in our jobs and in our relationships together with our coaches because we didn’t want to give up,” Katsalapov said. “It would be really easy to give up. We never do that. We have a really great team of coaches right now and they believe in us and we trust them a lot.

“When my leg was starting to get better after the injury at nationals, immediately we went on the ice and started to think about our new programmes,” Katsalapov continued. “We started to learn the Tango Romantica. We found something new in our job. We fell in love again with what we do. It’s the thing that is moving us forward right now.”

As well as a tango themed rhythm dance, Sinitsina and Katsalapov worked on a new free dance to “Suite in D Air” by Johann Sebastian Bach and “Praeludium and Allegro (In the Style of Pugnani)” by Fritz Kreisler

“The free dance was ready before the vacation,” Katsalapov said. “We usually have vacation in June so before it we had the skeleton of the free dance.”

It was the second season in a row that they skated to classical music for their free. In 2017/2018 they used “Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 18” by Sergei Rachmaninoff and coach Alexander Zhulin decided that they would opt for a routine in a similar vein.

“He said he wanted us to breathe, to be calm during the programme,” Katsalapov said. “He wanted us to make it smooth through these four minutes with all the elements.”

“We like classical music,” Katsalapov added. “We put our souls in it when we skate.”

Their newfound motivation translated into results once the season began. Sinitsina and Katsalapov took silver at their Grand Prix events in Canada and France. They secured a berth to the Grand Prix Final for the first time as a team and they bagged second place in Vancouver, Canada. Two weeks later they won their first Russian national title and travelled to the European Championships in Minsk, Belarus as heavy favourites to come away with a medal. However, things did not go according to plan. During the twizzle sequence in the rhythm dance, first Katsalapov and then Sinitsina fell. It left them nine points adrift of the medals and, despite coming third in the free dance, they ended up in fourth overall.

“We won nationals this year for the first time,” Katsalapov said. “It’s not pressure, but an honour to represent your flag as the first couple of your country. We were really excited. We’d been working a lot even before Europeans. It was a stupid mistake. Of course, we wanted to skate better and cleaner and after that it motivated us even more. We were working day and night before Saitama.”

Their efforts bore fruit at the World Championships in Japan. By placing second in both the rhythm and free dances, they captured the silver medal. Despite stepping onto the World podium for the first time, the Russians have set their sights higher.

“In professional sports there is only one medal and that is gold,” Katsalapov said. “We are not going to be excited and happy for a long time because we want to do better and go on top.

“We are not that kind of athletes who are just satisfying with being at a huge competition like World Championships. We want more. We want to be on top. We want to feel power in ourselves and we know that we are good skaters. It’s not only about being here. We want to compete. We want to fight to the end. That’s what we are loving the most.”

Five years ago, at the end of the 2014 World Championships in the same arena, Sinitsina and Katsalapov had been in very different positions. They competed at those Worlds on separate teams – Sinitsina with Ruslan Zhiganshin and Katsalapov with Elena Ilinykh. Shortly before the competition began, teammates Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviev were forced to withdraw due to injury. The pressure was first of all on the remaining two teams to keep three spots for Russia for the following year’s Worlds.

“I remember that it was pretty hard to know that we came as three couples and competed with only two,” Sinitsina recalled. “We had to try and get three spots for the next year and that’s all I remember. There were many emotions.”

There was additional expectation on Ilinykh and Katsalapov who had won bronze at the Sochi Olympics. With the gold and silver medallists absent, the title appeared to be theirs for the taking. However, disaster struck in the short dance and even though they rallied in the free they finished off the podium by less than one point.

“It was a pretty hard time I can say,” Katsalapov said. “I remember that me and Lena could win that Worlds. We had this mistake on the twizzles in the short dance. After that we had a pretty strong skate in the free dance.”

For Katsalapov, it was a turning point. He made the decision to end his partnership with Ilinykh after Worlds concluded.

“After that I realised my life is going to change soon because I want to,” Katsalapov said. “I wasn’t afraid of anything. I just was open to everything new. I only was afraid to hurt my partner’s feelings. I wanted to move forward on my own path. I could speak a lot, but I just don’t want to do it now. If you ask me in five years, I will tell you everything.”

With less than three years left until Beijing 2022, Sinitsina and Katsalapov will be building towards the next Olympics over the coming seasons.

“This is the first season of the Olympic cycle and we started it pretty good,” Katsalapov said “We ended this season pretty good. We feel really happy right now. We already started to think about what we will do next year, and our coach Alexander already was throwing out some ideas about the music for the free dance. We are already charged for next year. Of course, we are thinking for all of these four years. We are charging ourselves for the Olympic Games. Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. We are just living the moment right now and doing our best day after day.

The Russians now find themselves in a good place after by far their most successful season together as a team.

“I’m the happiest man on the planet because we have been through a lot of things together and we made it together,” Katsalapov said. “I am really proud of what we do together and what Vika is doing by her own – how she looks at me, how she thinks. She is a very smart girl and she is very talented. She’s very motivated. She knows what she wants in sport and in life. This means a lot to me.”

Having finished almost 11 points adrift of this year’s world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, Sinitsina and Katsalapov will prepare for the upcoming season with a view to closing gap on their French rivals while also being aware that those who finished behind them in Saitama will be hot on their heels.

“We are going to work,” Katsalapov said. “I am not only talking about the French team. I am talking about everyone. You saw the points after the short programme. Everybody is really close, so this is really interesting right now. We will work a lot. We will do a lot of run throughs. We will try to plan everything we do before the season starts to be ready for everything.”

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By Hiro Yoshida

This season has seen Kévin Aymoz make huge strides on the world stage, but the Frenchman is more focused on how he makes those who watch him skate feel.

After making his season debut at the Autumn Classic International in September 2018, he travelled back to Canada in October 2018 for the first of his two Grand Prix assignments at Skate Canada in Laval, Quebec where he finished seventh. The following month he fared better at his hometown Grand Prix, the Internationaux de France, in Grenoble where he came fifth.

He comfortably claimed his second French national title just a few weeks later. Even though he was pleased to be on the top step of the podium after coming second in 2017, the win in itself was not the main goal for him.

“For me it was a training competition to prepare for the European Championships,” Aymoz said. “I won and I am national champion of this one, but it wasn’t stressful for me thinking I need to win.

“I was not thinking about the result. I was here to train the programme.”

January 2019 saw Aymoz participate in his second European Championships in Minsk, Belarus. In 2017, he only managed to place 15th, but this time round he finished fourth in both the short and free and missed out on the bronze medal by just 0.74 points.

On the strength of his success at Europeans, he was selected go to his first World Championships in Saitama, Japan. He scored a personal best of 88.24 in the short to put himself in seventh place going into the free. Errors on a quadruple toe loop and a triple Axel dropped him down to 11th overall, but he was upbeat about his experiences at both Europeans and Worlds this season.

“I don’t know if this gives me more confidence, but the results say I was the fourth best European guy and the 11th best guy in the world,” he said. “When I was really young and looked at the TV, I said I want to skate at this competition. It’s really cool to be there.”

In 2017, Aymoz parted ways with his coaching team in France and connected with John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana. He has been working with them ever since.

“I met John Zimmerman at the World Team Trophy and the federation said it’s going to be really cool if I go make my new short programme with John and Silvia,” he recalled. “After the two weeks with John and Silvia, I felt a really strong connection between the three of us and I said to the federation I am staying because I feel really great. I found what I lost in France.”

Aymoz had to move up to the senior ranks for the 2017/2018 Olympic season after a fine seventh place finish at the 2017 World Junior Championships. He initially struggled with the demands of competing with more experienced rivals in his first season as a senior skater.

“Last season I had no choice, but to go to seniors,” he said. “I wasn’t really ready to compete.”

Despite having the most successful season of his career so far, it has not been all plain sailing for the Frenchman.

“I had a really bad season outside of skating,” Aymoz admitted. “A lot of things happened to me and I was really lost. John and Silvia were there, and we worked a lot on ice to help me to push away my problems. I think through that I became stronger and every competition was a fight and every competition was a good memory and good result.”

Working with Zimmerman and Fontana has entailed spending a lot of time at their base in Florida and culturally it was an adjustment for Aymoz, although a number of his teammates now also train at the same rink with him.

“When I am in France, I walk everywhere. I can walk. In the U.S., I need a car to move around.

“It’s totally different from France, but I really enjoy it. I have some friends – John and Silvia, Morgan (Ciprès) and Vanessa (James) and Mae (Méité).

“I stayed five months in the U.S. to prepare for Europeans and Worlds and I feel it’s long, but at the end of April I will go back home for two or three weeks to see family and friends in France and after I go back to work.”

Aymoz previously competed in baton twirling at the highest level (he became French national champion in 2016) which has enabled him to bring a fresh perspective to his skating. He has wowed audiences by incorporating acrobatic elements into his routines, including an aerial into a step sequence.

“It helped me on the ice to find a move like nobody else had and to make a difference with other skaters because if everyone does an element, the choreography will be all the same,” he said. “I try to make a difference and that’s why I do a lot of stuff outside of skating.”

His modern music choices have also made people pay attention to his skating. This past season he opted for “Horns” by Lick Twist and Bryce Fox and “In This Shirt” by The Irrepressibles. Aymoz picked the latter piece of music after a suggestion from his coaches of a different song by the same artist triggered a memory.

“I remembered at this moment I know a music from this guy that I heard six years ago, and the moment of my life was exactly what the lyrics were saying.

“I cried a little bit and I had chills on my arms at the end of the song.

“I said it’s time to skate to this one.”

Aymoz believes it is essential for a skater to have an emotional connection with their skating music.

“We know the elements are not going to change whatever the music is. It’s the same element. A Lutz is a Lutz, a flip is a flip, a spin is a spin. But for me the music is really important because the song will follow me all the season – the good day, the bad day, the rainy day, the sunny day. We need a song we can listen to 365 days.”

While he looks ahead to next season, Aymoz still maintains that personal progression and expression is more important than any result or title.

“My dream is not to be the champion and have gold medals. The gold medal is the bonus. My dream is to go on the ice and skate and when I say goodbye I can say I am proud of myself and I was happy to skate and feel at one with the audience and the judges.”

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By Hiro Yoshida

Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson have captured the imaginations of skating fans and judges alike this season with their performances. The British duo make their third appearance at a World Championships in Saitama, Japan next week and are all set to step onto their biggest stage yet.

At the beginning of their third season as a team, Fear and Gibson competed at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Bratislava, Slovakia and the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany last September. They finished fourth and fifth respectively at these events. They made their Grand Prix debut at Skate America in Everett, Washington the following month where they came fifth. For their second Grand Prix assignment, they skated at the NHK Trophy in Hiroshima, Japan and recorded new personal bests for their free dance (113.29) and total score (177.20) to place fourth. They were ranked second in the free.

They regained their British title in December after finishing second in 2017 and were selected to represent Great Britain at the 2019 European Championships in Minsk, Belarus which took place in January this year. After posting a personal best in their flamenco tango rhythm dance (69.77), they earned sixth place in the free to put themselves in sixth place overall with another personal best total score of 182.05.

“This year has really been a jump forward for us,” Gibson said. “Each competition has gotten a little bit better and we’ve received good scores and skated well.”

“It’s really exciting and our goal was top 10 and to have achieved that by quite a bit is beyond our expectations,” Fear said about their Europeans result. “We’re happy to have broken 180. That was definitely a goal of ours which seemed quite far off in the distance, but it’s amazing to have done that.”

Their improvement in the standings is due in large part to their choice of theme for their free this season. A disco number with music from Donna Summer and Earth, Wind and Fire has proved to be a big hit wherever they have skated and has contributed to a boost in confidence in the routine.

“When we first choreographed the free dance, we had a lot of the big name skaters saying ‘Oh we really love your programme’ and that was really exciting for us to hear that kind of feedback instantly,” Gibson said.

“We just skate and we don’t really know what people think about it,” Fear said.

“We knew it was a little bit different as well, but then we went to our first event and our short dance wasn’t what we wanted in terms of points and it was like that at both of first two events,” Gibson recalled. “Our free dance started to gain more points as each one went on, so we knew it was a good programme. Then at Skate America our short dance was good and the free dance was pretty well skated. Even though we had a big error in the programme, we still got a good score.”

“There’s a lot of people that love the programme and are excited to watch so there’s that energy around it and we just hope to deliver for them every time,” Fear said.

Until they teamed up at the end of 2015, Gibson had been a singles skater, but had come to the realisation that his pathway internationally was limited. Fear had been in a partnership with Jacob Payne that had just ended and the skaters found themselves in the right place at the right time to come together. The fact that Gibson had zero experience in ice dance did prove to be challenging in the beginning.

“The reason I switched is that I want to go to the Olympics, like many skaters, and I realised I wasn’t the most consistent skater,” Gibson said. “My strength was more in the creative side and the performance side. I guess I was persuaded by a few of our judges in the federation to give it a try for many years and I kept saying ‘No, no, no. I’m happy in singles.’ To make it in men’s now you need so many quads. Everything would be so difficult to qualify, so I took their advice. I gave it a shot and we got together.”

“I was just finishing my partnership with Jacob, my partner in juniors,” Fear recalled. “He decided to stop skating and obviously I wanted to continue because I love it so much and our federation suggested we try out. But really I think it was just the timing that was perfect because there aren’t that many men that are available in the UK. I was just lucky to have ended the partnership at the right time when Lewis was switching before someone grabbed him.

“We had to get to know each other and in the try-out we had a coach guide us through it because Lewis didn’t know any dance holds and we didn’t know what to do,” Fear continued. “Once we were left alone to skate together, we realised our personalities fit very well and that we have a great working relationship.”

Initially Fear and Gibson divided their training between the Alexandra Palace ice rink in London, United Kingdom and Montreal, Canada. Fear had previously been coached by Romain Haguenauer who moved to Montreal to work with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in 2014.

“I’ve known Romain since I was 10 years old which not many people know,” Fear said. “I had a solo dance career back in the day. He did my choreography for a few seasons of solo dance until I found my partner. That’s how the connection was made initially. We were really lucky to have the base in London at Alexandra Palace as well and to have that team work together. We travelled back and forth, but it was always that sense of a team. Then I started university at McGill in Montreal so that’s why we made the permanent move there, but we’re still lucky to be able to have London as a base too.

“We’re really thankful for Romain and the team in Montreal to take us on as well when we were literally at zero,” Gibson added.

“We were really bad,” Fear admitted. “We have videos of our first day there and it’s really embarrassing.

“We’re really happy that they had trust and patience with us because it took a while, but now we’re just really loving being there and we love our training mates.”

“Even now we laugh because we can’t do some of the basic things that just appear so simple,” Gibson said.

“We don’t have that foundation together really because we had to accelerate to start competing,” Fear said. “Lewis knows three compulsory dances. We’re really thankful for our team in Montreal and in the UK as well.”

“Killian position I hate,” Gibson said. “I would say in general it’s skating in hold so close together with someone is difficult and I think it is underappreciated when you watch how hard it is to skate so close to someone.

“I would have to say that’s the hardest thing. This year with a lot of the elements more side by side I felt more of a freedom in the programme and I enjoy it. I think that maybe helps translate in the free dance as well.”

Haguenauer choreographed both of their programmes this season and the Britons appreciate the level of collaboration and input they have.

“He’s really great to work with and he listens to our ideas,” Gibson said. “It’s back and forth and we come up with a finished piece.”

“He’s obviously the mastermind behind the choreography, but he really allows us to play around with ideas,” Fear said. “Lewis is very creative with choreography to make it based on what we all have in mind.”

“When we bring a crazy idea like disco to him he says ‘Let’s try it,’” Gibson said.

“It’s great to have somebody say, ‘Let’s go for it’ instead of ‘Oh it’s a little risky’ because it was a risk and we’re just happy it paid off,” Fear said.

The presence of three-time World champions and Olympic silver medallists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and a whole host of other top ice dance teams in the same training environment has been beneficial to Fear and Gibson as one of the newer partnerships at the Gadbois rink.

“We see them most days and we’re always in awe of them,” Fear said of Papadakis and Cizeron. “They’re really great role models as well because they are going in defending the title for these many years and they handle it with such grace. They come up with new creative projects every year. It’s amazing to watch.”

“It’s really nice to have some new teams in Montreal for a fresh perspective and fresh energy as well,” Gibson said. “The energy was already fantastic. They are all very kind people and really supportive. They just make the team even stronger.

“It’s great for us to learn from the teams that have such experience every day.”

The World Championships in Saitama will be their second trip to Japan this season after having already competed in Hiroshima at the NHK Trophy. They are looking forward to seeing a different side to the country this time around.

“It was a huge incentive for nationals to try and be the team that was sent to Worlds because we just wanted to go back to Japan,” Fear said.

“When we went to Hiroshima, it was great to get a sense of a laidback Japan and the smaller city and the more rural side when we went onto an island (Miyajima),” Gibson said. “That was really great to see, and I think that will be a contrast to Tokyo.”

Whatever happens next week in Japan, Fear and Gibson believe they have definitely found their groove and are already looking ahead to next season to building on all they have accomplished.

“I think our approach is just to work hard and to hopefully have that translate into results,” Fear said.

“I know that this season we have definitely started to find our style that we can skate together and that works and translates with the audience and the judges and in our scores,” Gibson said. “Hopefully next year when we go into choreography we can take that strength and get something special for next year as well.”

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By Hiro Yoshida

A newfound stability in their lives has seen Nicole Della Monica (29) and Matteo Guarise (30) reap the rewards on the ice. Having already achieved their main objective for this season, the Italian pair are looking forward to competing again next week at the World Championships in Saitama, Japan.

Their season got under way on home ice in September 2018 at the Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, Italy where they took bronze. Six weeks later they travelled to Helsinki, Finland for their first Grand Prix assignment of the season and came away with a silver medal, their highest finish in seven seasons of competing on the Grand Prix circuit. As if to prove that was no fluke, two weeks later they also picked up a silver at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, Russia. These results booked them a place at the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver, Canada and it was the first time a pair from Italy qualified for the event.

Before the season had begun, Della Monica and Guarise had set their sights on accomplishing qualification for the Grand Prix Final as their primary mission.

“For us it was important because we made history for Italian skating,” Della Monica said. “This was our main goal for this season.”

In December, they placed fifth in their Grand Prix Final debut and the following week won their fourth Italian national title in a row.

At their seventh consecutive European Championships in Minsk, Belarus in January of this year, Della Monica and Guarise got off to the best possible start by skating a clean short programme and found themselves in third place ahead of the free skating. A couple of small errors during the free cost them dearly and saw them drop down to fourth overall and miss out on a bronze medal by 0.14 points.

Despite coming so close, the Italians were philosophical about losing a place on the podium by such a slight margin. Their main takeaway from Europeans was that they had skated two relatively clean performances and could be satisfied with that no matter what results followed.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Guarise said. “I said to Nicole this morning maybe if we got the medal we would not be thinking about our next competition. I think it is good motivation for us.”

“I always say that the best moment for a skater is the bow because you don’t think about the result yet,” Guarise continued. “It’s not the kiss and cry. It’s the bow. When you see a skater happy at the bow, it means they are happy with their performance.”

The improvement in their results began in the 2017-2018 season when they won their first Grand Prix medal (a bronze at Internationaux de France) and finished fifth at the World Championships in Milan, Italy.

“I think it was the first season that we were more consistent,” Della Monica said. “We’ve been more consistent and always there with the points and the results were not so bad and finally you saw at the World Championships. We knew it was possible, but we didn’t expect so much.”

For the Italians, a change in the financial support that they have received over the last two seasons has enabled them to improve their performance in competition.

“Because we did not have so much money there were things we could and could not do,” Guarise explained. “We had to share an apartment because of money. She has a boyfriend and I have a girlfriend, but we were living in the same apartment.

“We were sharing 24 hours together and sometimes not even wife and husband share so much time together,” Della Monica said.

In June of last year, they signed up with the Gruppo Sportivo Fiamme Oro, the sports section of the Italian State Police, and now receive a salary to help with their training.

“It’s a real job, but we are not going there to be policemen yet,” Della Monica said. “When we finish skating we can choose. If we stay with the police, we will have a job for life.”

Soon after they joined, there was an initial period of study that had to be undertaken that meant adjustments to their on-ice training had to be made.

“For six months it’s school – an academy,” Guarise said. “We did exams on the 9th and 10th of January. We had to do everything that policemen do. We had to learn how to shoot.”

“It was not for the entire six months because of course we had to practice,” Della Monica said. “It was one week here, one week there. During the summer it was not so easy to practice because sometimes we had to go there.

“It’s a good thing for us. Right now we have more stability, money and it’s actually like a club. It’s a club, but it’s also a job.”

When they enrolled in the State Police, they found themselves working with Federica Faiella, a former World and European medallist in ice dance with Massimo Scali, who has worked in the force since her retirement.

“Our big, big boss said to her, ‘Oh, you were skating. You were a good skater. Just be the boss of Nicole and Matteo.’”

“They don’t know anything about figure skating so for her it’s a good thing,” Della Monica added.

“She came with us to nationals,” Guarise said. “It was almost ten years out of figure skating for her and people were saying, ‘What are you doing here?’

“We are the first national champions in our sport from the State Police,” Guarise said. “We are working to make figure skating bigger in the police.”

Another big shift from last season for the Italians is that they are now the undisputed top team in their country after having had a close and friendly rivalry with Valentina Marchei and Ondrej Hotarek for the last Olympic cycle. They believe the key to success is having healthy competition to spur you on to greater heights.

“I have this mind-set that without them we would not be here,” Guarise said. “They helped us and we helped them to grow because at first we were only looking at them. We were going to competitions and for the results we didn’t care about anybody else. It was just us and them. Who is first? Who is best?”

“That is what motivated both of the pairs to be better and better and finally we had two pairs in the top 10 at Olympics and two pairs in the top 10 at Worlds,” Della Monica concurred.

“What I said to Matteo Rizzo and Daniel Grassl was that I’m very happy you are just fighting with each other because you will see in a couple of years if you are both strong and you want to be first, you will be first in Europe,” Guarise said. “I told them that because for me it was the same.”

This will be the Italians’ eighth World Championship appearance as a pair. While the pressure of competing at the highest level in the sport and the nerves that accompany that have not changed, they have become better at handling themselves in those situations. The realisation that there is more to life than skating has been an essential part of their maturing as athletes.

“It’s like people who go to the office,” Guarise said. “For me it’s the same, but I do what I love. It is the best thing. For me it’s not heavy.

“I don’t feel I am old. I feel I am old when I see a 13 or 14 year old.”

“Every year we see new faces and I say I don’t know why,” Della Monica laughed. “Am I too old?”

“Figure skating has always been my life because I started when I was six and he started with roller skating when he was four and we’ve been doing this for all our lives,” Della Monica explained. “When you realise there is something more important I think you are more relaxed. You enjoy even more what you do.”

“The tension is there all the time for sure,” Guarise said. “Nineteen years of international competitions and still before going on the ice, I am sorry for saying, I poop myself.”

“When you accept this, I think you can survive,” Della Monica said. “You can go through this because when you are tense and you don’t want to meet it then it’s the worst thing you can do. But when you say yes I am tense, but I need to find a way through this anyway then it’s fine.”

This season has also seen them make a name for themselves with their “Rocky” exhibition number that has entertained figure skating fans across the world.

“You don’t usually put so much attention to exhibitions because it’s the last thing you think about,” Della Monica said. “This season we decided to do something that people can remember. We did this with Luca Lanotte and he is so proud of this exhibition because every competition they ask us to do it, even at the Grand Prix Final.”

Five years after competing at the 2014 World Championships in Saitama, Della Monica and Guarise are excited to be heading back to Japan and appreciate the support they get from Japanese skating fans. They believe the sporting behaviour of Japanese fans has had an influence on fans from other countries, including Italy.

“Actually I love Japan,” Della Monica said. There is a Japanese fan and she brought me this matcha latte because I love matcha.”

“I like fishing,” Guarise said. “Japan is number one in the fishing world – Shimano and Daiwa. I would like to have a factory tour.”

“You don’t find in any other sport where people go with seven or eight flags,” Guarise said. “I think the Japanese teach a lot to other countries, at least to Italians. There are Italians fans who cheer for us, but they cheer for our friends and they cheer for Japan. They have different flags, but they learn from somebody. Who? I think from the Japanese.”

While many pairs retired following the PyeongChang Olympics, Della Monica and Guarise are looking ahead to Beijing in just under three years’ time. They believe they have the potential to move up the rankings over the next few seasons.

“What I think in general what we need is to skate good competitions from now on because the judges when they see us they are not sure,” Guarise said. “When you are sure one hundred percent that it will be good, judges already start with a different mind-set.

“In skating you can always improve.”

“We still have a lot to improve,” Della Monica agreed. “What I think the main thing that everybody is saying to us it’s the speed. With speed we look surer and more confident about what we do.

“I think we need to find something that is only ours. Like the French, they do the last lift in the free programme and that’s the French lift. We need to find something that says this is Della Monica and Guarise.”

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Anaheim, California played host to the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships for the first time with Japan topping the medal table.

Shoma Uno picked up his first ISU championships win, but did not make things easy for himself. A couple of errors saw the 2018 Olympic silver medallist down in fourth place after the short programme. However, he rallied in the free skating and delivered a strong routine to vault himself to the title with a new personal best free score of 197.36.

Last year’s champion Boyang Jin had to be content with silver this time round, while overnight leader Vincent Zhou dropped down to third overall.

A dramatic ladies event saw the top three after the short crumble in the free and it was left to Rika Kihira to charge from fifth place to steal the victory. She remains unbeaten so far this season.

Elizabet Tursynbaeva also advanced from sixth after the short to take silver, Kazakhstan’s first ever Four Continents medal in the ladies event. After a lowly eighth place in the short, Mai Mihara surged in the free to pip teammate Kaori Sakamoto for the bronze.

After being away from competition following the 2018 Olympics, Wenjing Sui and Cong Han returned to the ice in Anaheim and won their fifth Four Continents title. It was a very narrow victory over Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro who had been leading the Chinese after the short. Cheng Peng and Yang Jin rounded out the podium.

In only their second event of the season, Madison Chock and Evan Bates snatched their first Four Continents gold medal after rhythm dance leaders Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue had a stationary lift called a base level in the free dance which knocked them off the podium altogether. Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje edged out compatriots Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier for silver even though they finished lower in the free.

Detailed results for the 2019 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships can be found here.

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The European Figure Skating Championships came to Minsk, Belarus for the first time in its history and the competition is one that will be remembered for a long time due to some record breaking feats.

The big talking point of the men’s event was whether Javier Fernandez could close out his stellar career with a seventh consecutive victory. The European Championships were to be his only full competition of the season and his first since taking bronze at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. The Spaniard got off to an inauspicious start when he placed third in the short programme. A step out of a triple Axel and an under rotation call on a quadruple Salchow meant he had to play catch up. His free skating, while not error-free, was enough to lift him up from third to first and give him that coveted seventh European title in a row, the first male skater to do since Austria’s Karl Schäfer in 1935.

Alexander Samarin from Russia picked up his first European medal by coming second in both segments of the event to end up with silver. Italy’s Matteo Rizzo rocketed up from 10th after the short to win bronze, his country’s first medal in the men’s category for a decade.

The ladies title went to Russia for the sixth time in a row, but not to the skater who was expected to win. In her debut season as a senior, Sofia Samodurova had medalled at both of her Grand Prix assignments and qualified for the Grand Prix Final. Although she had only finished sixth at Russian Nationals, all of the medallists at the event were ineligible for European selection due to their age. In Minsk, Samodurova posted a new personal best of 72.88 for her short to put her in second place at the halfway point of the competition. She backed that up with another personal best of 140.96 in the free to give herself a career high total of 213.84 and the gold medal.

Despite an under rotation call on a triple loop in the short, Alina Zagitova had been in the lead in the free. However, an error-strewn free dropped the Olympic champion to second place. Viveca Lindfors jumped up from fourth after the short to claim bronze. It was Finland’s first European medal since 2012.

After missing the podium completely last year in Moscow, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres kept their unbeaten streak this season alive and became the first pair from France to win Europeans since 1932. The 2018 World bronze medallists were nearly foot perfect in both portions of the competition and were rewarded with a new set of personal bests for their short (76.55), free (149.11) and total (225.66).

The triple toe loop jump caused problems for Russia’s Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov in both the short and the free and left them unable to achieve a third consecutive European title. Their compatriots Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii won bronze in their European debut.

The championships finished with another milestone when Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron became the first ice dance team to win five European titles in a row. The 2018 Olympic silver medallists were head and shoulders above the rest of the field and set new world record scores in the rhythm dance (84.79) and the free dance (133.19).

Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin had their highest finish at Europeans with the Russians taking the silver medal. Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri stood on the European podium for the first time when they received bronze.

Detailed results for the 2019 European Figure Skating Championships can be found here.

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By Hiro Yoshida

This week sees Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron go for a potentially record-breaking fifth consecutive European title in Minsk, Belarus. It would be a feat never achieved by any ice dance team in the history of the championships, but for the French ice dance is about more than medals or points.

Following their victory at the 2018 World Championships in Milan, Italy, Papadakis and Cizeron took an extended break after what had been an emotionally exhausting Olympic journey. It afforded them an opportunity to decide how they wanted to approach the upcoming season and what direction they wanted to take their skating.

“I understand now why a lot of people take a year off because it is hard,” Papadakis said. “The thing is that doing the Olympics you put in so much energy and focus on this one event that when it’s over you feel a little lost. ‘Oh my God. There is something after this event?’ You don’t think about what’s after at all. Everything that happens after is very tiring. We still decided not to take a year off. We don’t regret that decision. We’re really happy to be doing competitions and with our programmes right now. What helped a lot was of course to rest a lot, but to also start working with a lot of new and different people. We needed to add something new to our routine, to the way we worked and to rethink a lot of things. Fresh air.”

They ultimately spent several weeks off the ice and began preparations for this season unsure of what would be their opening competition. They chose to work again with Christopher Dean on their rhythm dance as they had with their short dance for the Olympics. The tango routine using “Oblivion” and “Primavera Porteña” by Astor Piazzolla came together quickly.

“For us it’s always a pleasure to work with him,” Papadakis said. “We went to Colorado for a couple of days to work with him and I think the first draft was made in one day. We almost kept everything as it is. We worked on all the movements a lot, but the whole construction of the programme almost stayed the same.”

For their free dance, they unconventionally opted to collaborate with 2006 Olympic silver medallist Stephane Lambiel to two tracks, “Duet” and “Sunday Afternoon”, by American singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata. It was a definitive departure from their previous programmes and a risk as to whether it would be viable.

“I think this year was the right year to try something different and use those pieces from her album,” Cizeron said. “We weren’t sure at first that it would work on the ice, but it turned out to work really well and I think the guitar and the folk aspect of the song really brings something new to our body of programmes.

“It’s light and then there’s kind of a crescendo until the end and it kind of goes with the electric guitars so it becomes more intense. It’s pretty hard because you have to keep energy for the end and make it really dynamic. It’s a good challenge. It’s also a little bit of a different structure than our previous programmes. We’re always slow-fast-slow. This one is more like a crescendo. It’s really interesting to play with that.”

Papadakis and Cizeron were due to unveil their new programmes at the NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan in early November, but had to withdraw due to injury.

“I’ve always had issues with my back,” Cizeron said. “It was kind of at the peak of pain, but it’s under control now. It shouldn’t be a problem in the future I hope.”

Despite having no chance to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, they did show up at the Internationaux de France in Grenoble at the end of November. They were anxious about how their programmes would be perceived, but were pleased with the reactions of both the judges and spectators.

“Of course we had this little stress that it was the first time, but it went well,” Papadakis said. “We both love our programmes so much. We were pretty confident about showing them to the public. We knew that if we liked them so much it didn’t really matter.”

The duo received world record scores for their rhythm dance (84.13), free dance (132.65) and overall total (216.78) in claiming their home Grand Prix title.

“We were really happy with the scores obviously and we were really happy that the public seemed to like it,” Cizeron said. “We tried to go in a slightly different way this year. There’s still a lot of work. We know that. I think it was just a confirmation that we are on a good path, a good way and we are excited to see how it develops in the year and to improve all of aspects of it.”

In December, the Olympic silver medallists took a fifth French title and closed the year out with two appearances in Javier Fernandez’s “Revolutionice” show in Madrid, Spain.

“We are happy for Javi and Spain that the show is so popular and skating is getting so popular,” Papadakis said. “It’s really beautiful.”

After a low key start to the season, Papadakis and Cizeron are now ready to take on the best European teams in Minsk this week. This will be their second time competing at the competition venue as they took part in the 2012 World Junior Championships that were held here as well.

“It hasn’t been that busy a beginning of the season for us because we only did one Grand Prix out of the three that we usually do,” Cizeron said. “Our training is going as planned and we’re excited to perform at the European Championships for the sixth time this year.

“The arena in Minsk – it’s really special,” he added. “Europeans is always a special rendezvous. It’s always a special experience and we are looking forward to it.”

Whatever happens this week in Minsk, Papadakis and Cizeron still feel that even with all the titles and accolades they have amassed in their careers so far they are far from being done with the sport.

“We always keep the same passion and the same love of the sport and the same will to learn and get better,” Cizeron said. “That’s always the flame that makes us go train every day. There are some medal goals like at the Olympics, at Worlds and records that give you an idea of where you are at, but it’s not what really makes you want to keep going. I think we want to keep going because we are still young and we have a lot to explore in the sport.”

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By Hiro Yoshida

The last six months has seen Jason Brown (24) embark on the biggest change of his skating career. As he heads to the United States National Championships in Detroit, Michigan, he explains why what happens this week does not matter so much to him in the grand scheme of things.

There was a great deal of surprise in May last year when Brown announced he was parting ways with his long-time coach Kori Ade to move from Colorado to Toronto, Canada to train with Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson. Ade had been Brown’s coach since the age of five and Brown never envisaged himself with another coach until he came to the conclusion that his skating required a new direction.

“My whole life I thought I’m going to start with Kori and end with Kori,” Brown said. “I never even saw myself with a different coach because that is how much I loved and respected Kori.”

The catalyst for the change came after a disappointing 2017/2018 season where Brown was unable to make the Olympic team following his sixth place at U.S. Nationals. He was crushed by the outcome at the time.

“Honestly, it was the most heart-breaking experience that I’ve gone through and it wasn’t even just that experience,” Brown reflected. “It was the whole aftermath afterwards. When I took a little time away from the sport, I realised I needed to make a change. I knew that I had more to give in the sport and I knew that I wasn’t done and that I hadn’t reached my peak.”

He was named to the American team for the 2018 Four Continents Championships in Taipei, Taiwan. He claimed the bronze medal there, his first time medalling at a senior-level International Skating Union Championship. Although it was some consolation, he was still struggling emotionally. U.S. Figure Skating also selected him as first alternate on their team for the 2018 World Championships in Milan, Italy, but he knew he was not in a position to fulfil that role.

“I just said, ‘I’m going to bow out of being that first alternate because right now I need to step away,’” Brown recalled. “I needed to take a break because in that situation it was too much to handle for me.

“I had enough of the emotional rollercoaster. What was so good about that situation was I finally felt that I took ownership of my skating. I finally took the step that I chose. As much as I wanted to compete in Italy, and I wanted to be there for the fans, I knew in that moment that I needed to take a break.”

The tight bond between them made sitting down with Ade and informing her of his decision all the more daunting. Brown was relieved to find that Ade understood where he was coming from and he received her blessing.

“Kori and I are so close and she’s like a mom and a coach and a mentor all wrapped in one and I respect and look up to her so much,” Brown said. “I knew I needed this fresh new start. She couldn’t be more supportive in that sense, but it’s still difficult. She’s always going to be family.

“Change is never easy and that initial conversation and making that change was difficult.”

Brown began looking for a new coaching team and eventually settled on Orser and Wilson who had a proven track record with champions such as Yuna Kim, Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernandez.

“I knew I couldn’t go back and do what I had been doing the last four years. I knew I needed a new start. I needed a fresh pair of eyes on me and so I started the trial process of going to different coaches. It wasn’t easy, but I feel really fortunate that I found that home in Toronto.”

In retrospect, Brown now believes that he can use the disappointment that he experienced last season as motivation for the future and feels that his coaching change was the first step on the path to renewing his confidence.

“That was the start to putting that past behind me of what happened that year and moving forward. That being said, my experiences from last season have fuelled me to push harder and to persevere and be resilient. Because of those hardships and because of that struggle it’s made me a stronger person and really helped. Although I feel I have been able to close that chapter and move forward, I’ve taken what I’ve learned and the pain and struggle that I’ve faced, and it’s still being applied and driving me and it’s lighting that fire within.”

The change of environment has been tough for Brown, but he thinks he has adapted well to his new surroundings and coaches. He has thrown himself fully into learning a fresh way of doing things.

“I love the team at the Cricket Club,” Brown said. “I’m working really hard every day to improve my technique and improve my skating skills, improve my maturity on the ice, but it’s different and it’s challenging and every day I am trying to integrate something else. Every day I am trying to figure out how to apply the techniques they are giving me and master that.

“I don’t do a little bit of mine and a little bit of theirs. I just fully dive in. I was just committed to that and obviously I’ve struggled a bit at the beginning of the season trying to make those changes and integrate them into the programmes, but it’s slowly each step of the way becoming more of my new normal.”

His relationship with his coaches now is also naturally very different to what it was with Ade.

“I’m coming to Brian as an adult and he is looking and treating me as an adult,” he said. “It’s this very professional relationship and that’s something that is very new to me because I talked about my problems with Kori. There was this relationship and this connection. Knowing me for five months, you don’t have the same connection or understanding yet.”

Working with a team of coaches is also a first for Brown and he is relishing the opportunity to work with lots of different people. He also believes it has given him the chance to take ownership of his own skating.

“Tracy and Brian are the co-leaders and they have a really awesome team under them,” Brown said. “They do a really good job at balancing that out and it’s neat to build that professional relationship with a bunch of different coaches that they all really trust and figuring my way through there. It builds a lot of independence.”

The way his lessons have been structured at the Cricket Club has also been somewhat of a revelation for Brown.

“There are two main sessions a day on the elite sessions and all the elite skaters are on the ice at the same time and all the coaches are there,” he explained. “Some days you’ll have a 40 minute lesson with a coach or a 20 minute lesson or sometimes five minutes. They’re all watching everyone and everyone’s addressing what’s going around them. If Tracy sees something that I’m doing, she’ll pull me over and work through it for five or 10 minutes. Then Brian might pull me over when he sees something. It’s not as set up.

“They all have the same technique and the same mentality when it comes to coaching so that’s helpful.”

One of the main reasons Brown made the move to Toronto was because of the strong technical reputation of the Cricket Club coaches. However, in working with Orser and Wilson on an aspect of skating that he has found challenging throughout his career, he has also rediscovered his love for the sport.

“I did really trust the fact that they were such a technically strong team and they’re very confident in their technique. That being said, it’s a place where they value the artistry as well. Tracy is on me every single day about my skating skills and about the performance.

“Obviously I’m paying more attention to the technique right now because it is so new. We worked a lot in the beginning on my spins, but I don’t train the spins very much any more. It’s really focused on the jumps and integrating them into the programme, as well as the overall programme itself and training that.

“I think in past years I’ve unfortunately allowed myself to lose part of the performance because I was trying too hard on the technical and I love performing. I love that part of the sport and I started losing that and losing that love of performing because all I was ever doing was focusing on something I was struggling with instead of struggling with that, but also loving the other side of it. Brian and Tracy really blend both together and let me shine in both outlets.”

Deconstructing his jumping technique has had an effect on Brown’s consistency in the short term. After attempting quadruple toe loop for years in competition, he is now training quadruple Salchow. All of his jumps with this new technique are a work in progress though.”

“I just have worked so hard on quad toe the past couple of years that undoing all the changes and mastering the new technique has just been more difficult,” Brown said. “Even jumps that I was landing all the time I have struggled through. It took me six weeks to do the triple Axel. I could land it my way and every time I was trying to do what they wanted. It was six weeks before I could start landing it. It was another month after that when it started becoming a little more consistent. I’m still getting used to it. It’s just taking time with the (quad) Salchow because it wasn’t a jump I worked on as much as toe. I was able to get a little further along with it at the moment with all the changes because it wasn’t set in a way.

“It’s just not as far along that journey of change that I’m ready for. It’s just going to take time.”

Shortly after he arrived in Toronto, Brown was joined by another skater at the Cricket Club who was looking to reinvent herself. Olympic silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva and Brown became fast friends as they both adapted to their new surroundings.

“What’s so great about this year is that we have each other to go through it with,” Brown said. “We’re both figuring out and finding our way and trying our best to manage the newness around us and all the change. It’s really difficult, but it’s amazing to have each other to constantly be able to talk to because we both understand what each other are going through and the struggle when you have had one way for so long and you make such a drastic change. I am here for her and I am always going to be supporting her and I am so proud of her fight. I get it. I think that’s the biggest thing. She knows I can relate and we’re on the same page.”

As well as the friendship with Medvedeva, Brown has also received encouragement from his family which has made the transition easier.

“My parents live in Chicago, so Toronto is technically much closer so on that side it’s good. They could not be more supportive.

“They’ve been on this journey with me. They were there last season and they were there with me through all my struggles. They’ve been with me since my move and they’ve seen me grow and continue to see that growth. They’re really excited and happy.”

For the new season, Brown got two new programmes. In the short programme, he is skating to “Love Is A Bitch” by Two Feet. The free skating to a medley of Simon & Garfunkel songs was something that was suggested to him by his coaches. He was initially dubious about the choice, but has now completely embraced it.

They brought it to me. I was not on board, but I said, ‘I trust you guys.’ They said, ‘If you don’t like it, we can scrap the programme’, but I said, ‘I’m going to be open.’ We started choreography and I do really love the programme now. It’s a different style for me and it’s a different way that they piece together the music that I have never experienced before. It has constantly been adapting as the season has gone on. I am putting more little Jason nuances into the programme.”

It was a tough start to the new season for Brown. At the Autumn Classic International in Oakville, Ontario in September, he ended up fourth. The following month he placed sixth at Skate Canada in Laval, Quebec. It was the first time in his senior-level career that he had failed to make the podium at either of his two season opening competitions.

However, things began looking up for him in November when he won the short at the Internationaux de France in Grenoble, France and produced a solid free to come second overall. Last month, he won the Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia. It was his first international victory since 2016.

Brown’s next competition will be the U.S. Championships this week. While he would be thrilled to win a second national title, his goals this season are not results based.

“There’s two things that I am so focused on. This year it’s about continuing to master the technique and building the groundwork for making the 2022 Olympics. In all honesty, my focus isn’t on the U.S. Championships. Do I want to do well? Yes. Do I want to go to Worlds? Absolutely. But in the long run if I don’t, I have more time to just continue to build that groundwork. I hope I can do it all and continue to integrate things as the season goes on, but it’s the first year I am not solely focused on that outcome because I am so determined on that 2022 goal. It’s so much more important this year that I build a base for myself and I build confidence. The results reflect the growth that I am making, but they’re not the defining moments right now.”

At the age of 24, Brown is now one of the elder statesmen of the field at the U.S. Championships which somewhat bemuses him.

“It’s so weird because I don’t know how it happened,” Brown said. “Suddenly I am one of the oldest at the rink and it’s really strange, but I’ve been someone who has been a little bit of a late bloomer and a little bit late to the game.”

Whatever happens this week in Detroit, Brown is sure that he has still untapped potential left and that being a little bit older than his rivals is not going to stop him chasing his dreams.

“I think the biggest thing is that you never know what the future holds, and you never know what path you’re going to be headed down. What happens along the way you just can’t predict, and I think the biggest thing I hope people do, whether they are skaters or fans, is to follow their hearts. If you know you have more to give, if you know there is more you want to do or something you want to achieve, don’t be afraid to go after that. No matter how old you are, it’s not about other people.

“I know inside that I have a lot more left technically that I still can do. It’s just figuring out and putting the right pieces together to figuring out that right technique that works for me that I’m still on a quest to find because I know I am capable of more.”

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By Hiro Yoshida

Since winning the World Junior title in 2016, Daniel Samohin’s career has been full of highs and lows. With his first major test of 2019 coming up at this week’s European Championships in Minsk, Belarus, he is looking to finally fulfil the promise he showed in the junior ranks.

The Israeli skater admits that it was a challenging few seasons handling expectation after taking gold at Junior Worlds and it has taken him a while to mature.

“I’ve never been that tired in my life,” Samohin said about the aftermath of his victory in Debrecen, Hungary. “After that I think I had more expectations. Even though I didn’t feel like it got to me, it did mentally and in the back of my head. That’s why it was harder for me to do certain competitions.

“I was still at that age where everything was changing. Now I am starting to feel my body a little bit more. I’m still not to my 100 percent, but I think I will get there.”

It has not been all bad for the 20 year old as he was selected to represent Israel at last year’s Olympics in PyeongChang. The experience was an affirming one for him in which he finished in a respectable 13th place overall and earned a career best free skating score of 170.75 and combined total of 251.44.

“The Olympics was really cool,” Samohin said. “The Olympic environment was so positive the whole time I was there. There was not one day where I was feeling negative or tired. The whole time I was there I was, ‘Alright, I got this. I’m ready. I can do it.’ Everybody was so happy there because we had all made it to the Olympics!”

Following PyeongChang, Samohin was buoyed by his showing and was gearing up to compete at the World Championships in Milan, Italy the following month. However, an old injury resurfaced mere days before he departed for the competition. At Skate America in 2017 he dislocated his left shoulder after falling on a quadruple Salchow in the free skate. A reoccurrence of that injury put his debut participation at Worlds in doubt, but ultimately he decided to compete.

“Practicing for Worlds last year I was really ready,” Samohin recalled. “I would have been able to do two quads and an Axel in the short and I would have been able to do three quads in the long, but again the circumstances.”

Despite falling twice in the short programme, he advanced to the free and ended the event in 20th place overall.

“I was kind of shocked that I made it,” Samohin said. “I think my skate in the free was a little better. My emotions were getting much better during that time so I think my components helped me out a little bit.”

The ongoing issue with his shoulder has made him more conscious of protecting himself physically while he skates. However, the injury has not made him any more fearful.

“Especially because of my shoulder and all the past injuries, I have to be sure of where I fall. Even though I am a little more careful now, I think it’s okay.

“I’m not scared of falling or hurting myself. That’s a part of sport. You have to know what you are getting into. Just being aware of where I am and how I fall now is definitely more an issue for me to understand.”

For this season, Samohin choreographed both his programmes almost entirely by himself. For his short, he picked “Senza Parole” by Il Divo. His free is to “Once Upon A Time In Mexico” by Robert Rodrigues, a piece of music he used previously the 2014/2015 season.

“The footwork Nikolai Morozov did, but we couldn’t finish the programmes and I didn’t have time so I ended up finishing both my long and my short. The reason we decided to do ‘Once Upon A Time In Mexico’ was I did it a long time ago and I was younger. Everybody liked that programme.

“Nobody really used it for a while again so I thought it would be cool to bring it back in a more mature way. When I was younger, I was messing around, but now it’s a manlier type of programme which I’m excited about.

“Transitions wise it is totally different. The beginning is different. The jumps are a little bit different as well. It’s a different layout – trying to do two triple Axels in the second half which is much harder. The music is the same.”

Samohin began his competitive season at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Bratislava, Slovakia where he came sixth. He was sixth again at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany. He set a new personal best short score of 84.90 at Skate Canada in Laval, Quebec on his way to an eighth place finish. His second Grand Prix assignment saw him come 10th at the Internationaux de France in Grenoble, France. In December, his last international competition of the season was the Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia where he was fourth. The following week he travelled to Israel to compete at his national championships. He captured his second senior title.

He believes he has become a more confident skater this season and is not letting errors in his routines phase him any more as has happened in the past.

“I think this year I’ve become more mature and calm with skating even with mistakes,” Samohin said. “I’m not really scared of messing up now. I just really have to get myself together for the moments that matter.”

Samohin is part of Generation Quad and relishes any opportunity to compete against the top guns, such as World champion Nathan Chen. At the same time, he enjoys the sense of camaraderie amongst all the skaters.

“I think competition is important,” he said. “You have to have competition. I grew up with Nathan and we used to skate in Lake Arrowhead a long time ago. Sometimes he was a little higher and I lower or we were the same. It was always up and down, but it’s fun.

“I’m really good friends with all the guys – the Russian team, America and Canada. We’re pretty supportive.”

This will be the fifth consecutive appearance at Europeans for the Israeli. His primary mission in Minsk will be to advance to the free which is something he has not been able to accomplish for the past two years.

“This year hopefully I’ll do better than that,” he laughed. “As we go forward for European and Worlds, I do want to skate two clean programmes with two quads in the short and three quads in the long. We’ll see maybe even four. It depends on my body and how I get it ready. It’s hard, but it’s a part of it.

“At Europeans, I definitely want to be top five. I want to be able to shoot up there. Of course there’s a lot of good guys, but if I skate clean and do my job correctly I think I’ll be able to do that.”

How Samohin fares at Europeans will likely determine whether he will be making the trip to Saitama, Japan for Worlds in March. An extra motivating factor for him will be that he has never skated in Japan before.

“I’ve really wanted to go to Japan and I’ve never had the chance so hopefully Worlds will be my first time. I’ve seen the arenas in Japan and how the people are. It looks amazing.”

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By Hiro Yoshida

Russian ladies have dominated on the European stage in recent times with very few skaters on the continent able to challenge them. However, Alexia Paganini (17) might be the one to give them a run for their money.

Paganini, who was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, briefly competed for the United States before switching in 2017 to Switzerland, the country of her father’s birth. She promptly picked up an Olympic berth for PyeongChang 2018 by coming third at the 2017 Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany. Later in the season she claimed her first Swiss national title and was selected to represent Switzerland at the European Championships in Moscow, Russia in January 2018. Her initial experience of competing on such a large stage was daunting, but it helped her to cope with the pressure of the Olympics and World Championships that followed.

“Europeans for me was a wake up call,” Paganini said. “My first practices on the big rink were very scary for me. At Europeans you have a lot of practice days before so after a while I got more and more used to it.

“Once I was comfortable at Europeans, I was comfortable also in other competitions.”

Paganini finished a creditable seventh in Moscow, the highest finish for a Swiss skater at Europeans since Sarah Meier won gold in 2011. The following month she travelled as part of the Swiss Olympic team to PyeongChang where she came 21st overall. The Olympics brought her to another level.

“I learned how to prepare myself the best way I could. That was what I had to work on because when I was preparing myself for competitions before – how do you prepare yourself for the Olympics? Who knows? That was the biggest thing that I learned – how to control my emotions mentally. I think that also comes with experience. I had to do so many competitions to be able to learn that.”

The build-up to the Olympics saw her focus on her training and continue her schooling through online courses.

“I honestly lost a lot of friends before the Olympics because I was only talking to my friends at the rink,” Paganini said. “A couple of people from my old school said, ‘I see why you’re not in school now. That’s why you left.’ Other than that, not so much changed. I thought more would change.”

She completed her season with a 21st place at Worlds in Milan, Italy. During the off-season, she worked on two new programmes for this season with choreographer Nikolai Morozov. Her short programme is to “Yo Soy Maria” by Astor Piazzolla which was chosen for her by Morozov.

“For the short, we just wanted a strong piece of music. We were looking at a bunch of songs and we thought this was the best.”

Paganini opted for the “La La Land” film soundtrack for her free skating. It was a choice she had been considering for a while.

“I was skating to it a lot and I already knew I wanted to skate to it. After the season was over around May probably, we just decided to use ‘La La Land’ for the free.”

She made her Grand Prix debut this season at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, Russia and surprised a number of people with how she skated, including herself.

“This will sound bad, but I was preparing myself for last place,” Paganini admitted. “It worked out better for me because I didn’t care how many points I got. It was just a case of doing the best I can.”

She came third in the short with a score of 63.43 and fifth in the free with 119.07 to give herself a total of 182.50 points and three new personal bests for fourth place overall. Even though she finished off the podium, the result was beyond her wildest dreams.

“I think everyone was asking why is she so happy right now? She’s in fourth and she could have gotten third. I actually realised afterwards that it was three points, a couple of levels and one under rotation and I could have been third. But honestly why should I be upset? I got a personal best by so many points. I can’t really ask for much more.

“You feel it when people are supporting you. You get an adrenalin rush off it. It’s more fun than when not so many people really pay attention to what you do. You kind of skate for yourself. In Russia in the second warm-up I really felt that this was a competition. This is it.”

After the withdrawal of Carolina Kostner, she picked up a second assignment at Internationaux de France in Grenoble, France. Her own expectations and everyone else’s were slightly higher than before Rostelecom Cup which put pressure on her that she had not felt before.

“I think going into Russia was easier for me because no one really expected much from me,” she said. “I think people started to know me. That’s where I started feeling responsibility a little bit towards the public. Before this I didn’t really feel so much from the public.”

Paganini became serious about skating around the time of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Unsurprisingly, she was inspired by the two main protagonists of the ladies competition – Yuna Kim and Mao Asada. And her favourite programme by her idols?

“Yuna’s James Bond short. I really liked that one. For Mao, it would be her short programme from Worlds in Japan (2014).”

After adding a second Swiss title already this season, she will next compete at Europeans in Minsk, Belarus and then Worlds in Saitama, Japan. Her objectives for the events are modest.

“For Europeans and Worlds, it’s mostly to earn world ranking points and to earn Grand Prixs for next season. That’s the main goal. Hopefully top 10 at Europeans again and then Worlds I hadn’t really though that much about. Probably do better in the free skate than last year. I’m not really focused on Worlds that much yet.”

She also wants to keep upping the technical ante to make herself as competitive as she can. She has targeted key areas that she needs to work on.

“I need to build consistency. I need to make sure I get Level 4s on everything. I need to get harder triples. I need to do two triple-triples.

“I guess just to do everything possible to get the most amount of points.”

Beyond this season, the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China are on her mind with a view to improving on her placement in PyeongChang.

“Hopefully I make it there,” Paganini said. “I want to be more competitive with the other girls, so I can end up higher. I guess just me being more competitive than last time.

“Next time I compete there I really want to make an impact.”

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