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Sarah Explains the Finer Sports

Figure skating with sarcasm, statistics, and rapturous adoration.

Olympics Mania: Women's Gymnastics All-Around Highlights

I wrote this up as I watched the main feed of the live stream so I don't get any further behind on my Olympics coverage. I've given up on covering men's gymnastics at all, and I'm going to save sports other than gymnastics (such as my weird judo obsession) for post-event wrap-ups. I'm in the process of watching every single performance from Women's Team Finals, so expect a long, out of order post on that soon.

For now, though, it's the first rotation, and we're vaulting! Three Amanars in a row, all of them fabulous. Rebeca Andrade was so perfect in the air, she looked like she'd been hanging out with the Americans, and she controlled a wobbly landing with a little hop to the left. Aly Raisman's landing was her best of the Olympics, with only a tiny step to the right. Simone Biles's was actually her worst Amanar so far, with some toe crossing and a huge step forward at the end, but she still got more amplitude than should be physically possible. Wang Yan's Tsukahara looked tiny in comparison, especially since she stepped out of bounds. Aliya Mustafina, on the other hand, threw the prettiest vault of the first rotation, a graceful and nearly stuck DTY that was almost a convincing argument for doing an easier vault ridiculously well. Seda Tutkhalian's DTY was fine, too, although after Mustafina's, it was all too easy to nitpick her form in the air.

The feed stopped showing random shots of athletes milling around the pit just in time for Shang Chunsong's life-changing balance beam routine, which included a walkover to sheep jump that made Courtney Kupets Carter lose all her chill. Shang's only moment of weakness was a little hop on her landing, but since her dismount was a triple full, it's hard to complain. 

From there, attention shifted to Asuka Teramoto, whose confidence was clearly riding high after Team Japan's surprise fourth-place finish on Tuesday. She seemed to be taking bigger risks on her releases: not different content than before, just making them bigger and more powerful. Elisabeth Seitz blew her out of the water, though, bars-wise. She's only 5'3" but looks about six feet tall while she swings, reaching into perfect handstands every time. Seitz's score was lower than in quals or Team Finals, but I was so solidly in "she did a pretty" mode that I have no idea where those two tenths went. Nonetheless, she slotted fourth after the first rotation, losing only to the trio of Amanars.

On to the second rotation. Ellie Downie's DTY was almost as beautiful in the air as Mustafina's and even more solidly stuck. Somehow, her score was lower.

Aly on bars was Aly on bars. No giant mistakes, just some low handstands and late swings. Biles, on the other hand, did her best to channel Ashton Locklear, making the most of her body extensions and launching so high into her dismount that she'd finished rotating before she'd passed the high bar on the way down. My only fashion comment in this blog post: Simone's silver eyeliner is stunning.

Mustafina got flaily and off her timing on bars once or twice, but just-okay Mustafina on bars is like a just-okay bowl of pho: satisfying and full of cool little things you don't expect. 15.666, the bars score of the Beast. Once again, Tutkhalian looked lackluster in comparison, or maybe more admirable, because a less resourceful gymnast would have fallen off the bars on at least two of those releases. 

Andrade's bars routine was start-to-finish terrifying, and yet somehow, she hit it, other than a giant to save a missed connection. She was very serious about earning redemption for Team Brazil. 

On floor, Shang Chunsong stuck her triple full to punch front and showed a ton of personality to boot. A janky wolf turn at the end broke the spell, but the judges forgave her with a huge and well-deserved 14.600. We got to see Lieke Wevers' floor routine, because the international feed has good taste. Her gym!twizzles were a little short but fun to watch. She did a couple of pirouettes while taking her bows because she hadn't already spun around enough. 

For now, Biles was three hundredths of a point behind Mustafina, and the commentators were pretending there was some suspense here. 

Rotation 3! Simone on beam! We should expand our definition of artistry to include "I will destroy you" as a theme, because Biles had full-on warrior face throughout, in the best way. She made her 2.5 wolf turn look graceful, and her tuck to wolf jump was almost more exciting than her dismount. Mustafina did her best to destroy right back, but she seemed to get too into her head. At first, it was just a couple of balance checks, but she freaked out toward the end and missed her aerial sequence entirely. It was the first big miss among the top contenders, and it broke my heart.

Speaking of warrior women, Ellie Black was solid on beam and terrific on floor, earning not only personal redemption but some justice for the Dominion of Canada. Her form was far from perfect, but all the important skills were right there, with both power and confidence.

The Russian beam implosion intensified with Seda Tukhtalian. At first, it looked like she'd recovered mentally from an awkward but admirable save at the end of her acrobatic series, but she overrotated her dismount and went flying back onto her butt. Afterward, she looked like she couldn't decide whether to punch Mustafina or cry. The beam gremlins attacked Rebeca Andrade, too: she had to make a couple of dramatic saves and had a weird balk on a leap. She stayed on the beam, though, and she found her groove at the end, finishing with a bunch of clean connections and a solid dismount.

Aly Raisman murdered the beam gremlins with the force of her steely gaze. Her standing front tuck covered most of the length of the beam. Other than a hop on the dismount, she was damn near perfect. Wow, and all the more wow because the three athletes before her had such trouble. I thought she would break 15 points, and so did the commentary team, but it was only a 14.866. What? Whatever.

Shang Chunsong only has a Yurchenko full on vault. Between that and her emerging sass on floor, I wish China would let its gymnasts go to the USA for college. 

Final rotation! Boy, is Wang Yan an engaging performer on floor. Nice triple full to punch front, and she stuck her double pike at the end. They chacked her hit balance beam routine, which is a shame, because she did a terrific job of making up for her bars disaster. Proving that China does have some chops on bars, Shang Chunsong was fantastic there. I don't think she put a hand wrong.

Mustafina was cool and graceful on floor, but not quite perfect enough. She took big steps backward out of her tumbling, and she kept hopping out of her turns. Far from a disappointment, though, because it was practically ballet. Tutkhalian, on the other hand, butt-planted out of bounds on her second tumbling pass, pitched forward on her final pass, and made me cry a little.

The commentators were trying to convince us that Giulia Steingruber and Ellie Black were in this, which was cute. Steingruber showed great extension and swing on bars, but lots of form issues, too. She cowboyed badly on her dismount, like she was so nervous at the prospect of medaling that she couldn't keep her legs under control.

I got really excited for Ellie Downie's balance beam, and then she landed her dismount on her hands and knees. The beam gremlins had struck again.

Rebeca Andrade's floor routine might have been the most joyful 90 seconds of the afternoon. Unlike her competitors, who mostly looked like they were about to snap from the pressure, Andrade seemed to forget about the standings entirely and take pleasure in the moment. That relaxation showed not only in her smile as she danced, but in the highest, cleanest tumbling that she's performed all week. She was magic, and she did her country proud.

Aly Raisman won her silver medal on floor, doing more than she needed to prove she was second only to Simone. Her double Arabian was so high, I needed the commentators to confirm it wasn't a triple. Her power is so controlled. Raisman's success seemed to fuel Biles, who poured way more into her floor routine than she needed to win. She was perfect because she wanted to be, and that made analysis pointless. The judges agreed, handing her a 15.933. Watching a Simone Biles floor routine is like watching a great performance of Shakespeare: you know how it's going to end, you know there's nothing better in the world, and it's emotional anyway, because it's always a surprise how good it is.

Mustafina hung onto bronze, and the rest of the top five were a happy surprise: Shang in fourth and Ellie Black in fifth. Three North Americans in the top five - is this ice dance? Maybe the beam gremlins had a plan all along, and the plan was to remind us that, even if the podium is exactly what we expected, there are a million ways to get there.

© 2016 SportsBlog.com. All rights reserved. Interactive One Millennial
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Olympics Mania: Women's Gymnastics Qualifying Round

Yesterday, I tried to write a detailed, thoughtful post about the men's gymnastics qualifiers. This is my first Olympics as a blogger, and I have now learned that there is way too much going on for detailed and thoughtful. Besides, none of this is figure skating, so how technical can I realistically get? Instead, I'll update more frequently with reactions to the various events I watch. First up are the five long rounds of women's gymnastics qualifiers, all of which I watched either live or live-ish (i.e. on slight delay so I could eat, shower, and squeeze some Day Job in). 

The one thing I did note usefully in the aborted men's gym think piece was that I watch everything on live stream, which means the official Olympic feeds with the charmingly laconic Australian commentators. NBC is, like, 25% commercials, 25% fluff, 25% sports I don't care about, and 15% Al Trautwig saying inappropriate things about women. Primetime Olympics coverage is not designed for hardcore sports nerds like me, and so I plug an HDMI cable into my TV and watch the stuff that's available online because NBC, for all its B.S. elsewhere, does recognize there's an audience for long, minimally edited full-event coverage.

Also, they've hired Tanith Belbin to moderate the daily gymnastics recap show, because they appreciate my patronage on some level. Thanks for that, at least, NBC. Now fire Al Trautwig and give his job to Johnny Weir, and we can actually be friends.

Anyway. I watched a lot of gymnastics yesterday, and it was beautiful. And as for that declaration that I'd go through this quickly? Look up "prolepsis" in the dictionary, because apparently I have a lot of feelings.

I don't remember much from the first round, because it was early in the morning. China was its usual steady presence, but none of their routines stood out to me in particular. They were fine rather than amazing on uneven bars and balance beam, where they usually shine. Team Belgium was epically Happy to Be Here. The athletes who woke me up were individual competitors at opposite ends of their careers. Tutya Yilmaz, of Turkey, put many bigger names to shame with a poised balance beam routine full of creative choreography and challenging connections. In the end, her relatively modest difficulty score and a very forward landing brought her score down a bit, but a 14.500 for a little-known gymnast is no small accomplishment. 

Also in Mixed Group 7 was Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan, the 41-year-old living legend who has a son older than most of her competitors and can out-vault most teenagers. When she scored north of 15 points for her first vault, it felt like all of Twitter was shouting "Chuso!!!!" at once. She's not the most graceful vaulter, but she has a talent for making difficult and even scary vaults look effortless and smooth. She even competed on balance beam, just for fun. She qualified for the vault final, where she has a real shot at a medal; if she takes bronze, she'll be able to retire with an Olympic medal in every color. Or maybe she won't retire, and we'll get to see her do this again when she's 45. 

The headliners of Subdivision 2 were Team Russia, who showed a lot of cracks in the infrastructure, most notably when Aliya Mustafina took a breathtakingly painful spill from the balance beam. Mustafina was terrific on the uneven bars, however, understated and down to business, with perfect form and skills so neat and clean that they looked less impressive than they really were. Russia's other bars star, Daria Spiridonova, has even more elegant lines, like a ballerina dancing on her hands. But the real Russian revelation was Seda Tutkhalyan, a little fireplug of raw power whose consistency and athleticism brought her a higher all-around score than Mustafina's and an overall fourth seed going into AA finals. Her TV-friendly personality shone bright in the floor exercise, although she made more mistakes there than on any other apparatus. 

Italy was such a disaster that I can't even begin. I'm not a giant fan of Italian gymnastics, so I'm not shedding tears about their failure to qualify to Team Finals. 

Among the individual competitors in Subdivision 2, there were some disappointments and one major delight. 2015 European All-Around Champion Giulia Steingruber, of Switzerland, should have been a highlight, but she looked like a bundle of nerves. Also too nervous to perform her best was Hungary's adorable Zsofia Kovacs, who didn't qualify to the All-Around Final. But both fared far better than another athlete whose gymnastics I enjoy, Catalina Escobar Gomez of Colombia, who had to be carried off the podium after injuring her ankle during her floor exercise in a moment almost as gruesome as the worst of Saturday's men's qualifiers. The official feed also bored me with several so-so gymnasts with charming backstories - I tried to care about Armenia's Dr. Houry Gebeshian, but nah - and especially with too much coverage of Kylie Rei Dickson, who engendered controversy when she carpetbagged her way into representing Belarus. But it's hard to be much of a villain when you're so easily beaten; Dickson finished second to last in the all-around standings but got exactly what she seemed to want, which was undeserved international attention.

The one true bright spot among the individual competitors in Subdivision 2 was Catalina Ponor. After dismal results throughout the season, Romania failed to qualify a full Olympic gymnastics team for the first time in decades, and controversy ensued when Romania selected the 28-year-old Ponor, who only competes two events, as their sole representative. But Ponor did Romania proud, qualifying for event finals on both balance beam and floor exercise. Her beam routine was particularly magical, especially her back dive to handstand. (Google identifies this skill as an Omelianchik; I'm glad it has a name, but I'm just going to call it damn.) Ponor's regal presence rose above the overall awkwardness of Subdivision 2 and took much of the sting out of a rough morning of gymnastics.

Things picked way up in Subdivision 3, with three scrappy mid-list countries pulling together enough points to qualify to the Team Final. There was only one Mixed Group in this subdivision, and it was an exciting mess. The star among the individual competitors was one of the world's best vaulters, India's Dipa Karmakar. With so many athletes from unlikely countries failing to live up to their fluff pieces, it was great to see Karmakar qualify to the vault final with a solid, if slightly scary, Produnova. Another terrific vaulter, Vietnam's Phan Thi Ha Thanh, had to water down her difficulty due to injury, and I was sad to see her fall below the threshold for the event final. Ana Sofia Gomez, the Guatemalan flag bearer in the Opening Ceremonies, missed out on the All-Around finals after putting her hands down on her beam dismount, then draining all of her floor exercise energy with a cool triple twist.

If any team was stealth awesome in qualifications, it was Germany. As a group, they have terrific form and power on bars, and their steadiness on that apparatus brought them two spots in the event final, for Elisabeth Seitz and Sophie Scheder. My favorite German bar routine, however, was Kim Bui's; she's the rare gymnast who really performs on bars, and her body lines are gorgeous. They had to finish on balance beam, and instead of crumbling under the pressure, the Germans turned out a series of strong beam routines. More than anything, it was their calm under pressure that advanced them to the Team Finals.

While Germany beasted things out more than expected, Great Britain were a little underwhelming. They especially faltered on bars, which I'd expected to be one of the team highlights. Ellie Downie's heroism overshadowed the actual gymnastics, although it was indeed pretty cool that she came back from a scary fall on her neck during floor exercise to complete her vault and become her country's only qualifier to the All-Around Finals. Their brightest bright spot, the floor routine that qualified Amy Tinkler to event finals, didn't even get shown on the main feed, I don't think. Claudia Fragapane, on the other hand, got air time when she had to anchor the team after Downie's injury, and her floor exercise was my favorite routine by a British gymnast, kind of a mess form-wise but full of explosive and innovative moves. In a result that epitomizes Great Britain's session-long almost-ness, Fragapane came one slot short of qualifying for the All-Around Finals and tied Erika Fasana's floor exercise score with a 14.333 but lost the tiebreaker that would have advanced her to event finals. Nonetheless, the British women did enough overall to compete for a team medal and prove that this mess was just a warm-up.

The true revelation of the subdivision was Team Brazil, who parlayed their home court advantage into a surprisingly high fifth-place qualification to Team Finals. Even more amazingly, their two youngest gymnasts, Rebeca Andrade and Flavia Saraiva, are their two qualifiers to the All-Around Finals. Andrade got there without qualifying on a single apparatus final, although if she'd paired her monster Amanar with another vault, she very well might have. Instead, Andrade was clean and self-assured everywhere, the definition of an all-around gymnast, and she's now seeded third in the AA Final, just behind the two Americans. Saraiva was less consistent but gave the most memorable performance among the Brazilians, a balance beam routine that justified the crowd's roaring ovation with both difficulty and personality. Her final acrobatic series down the length of the beam was one of the most effortless, beautiful moves of the day. One of my friends texted me to ask who Saraiva was and why she'd never heard of her before, which is a sure sign of a star in the making.

Lots of good stuff happened in Subdivision 4, and it all got overshadowed by the juggernaut that was Team USA. So let's pause to recognize the women who would have looked a zillion times better if they'd been in any other qualifying group. Jessica Lopez, who represents Venezuela, got the highest all-around score of any solo competitor, solid everywhere and tremendous on uneven bars. Like Ponor, she competes with maturity and personal style, and she proved she's good enough to post terrific scores even with a rough landing here or there. Her qualification to the bars final knocked out China's Fan Yilin, which is the kind of Olympics upset that, okay, this is your nerd friend telling you it's awesome. 

For whatever reason, the feed insisted on showing a ton of New Zealand's just-okay Courtney McGregor, when what I wanted to see was as much Netherlands as possible. Underdogs from the start, they squeaked into 8th place among the teams, just fabulous enough to proceed to the Team Final. The undisputed star among the Dutch ladies was Eythora Thorsdottir, who qualified a remarkable eighth in the all-around. Ironically, her worst score came on her signature event, floor exercise, where she's such an intense and nuanced performer you'd think she was trying out for So You Think You Can Dance. Also amazing were the Wevers twins, especially Sanne, whose beam routine was a marvel of strategy and control. She qualified for event finals with incredible moves like a triple turn, a connected series of tumbling moves that seemed to flip-flop back and forth across the beam, and especially a sequence of three different turns that looked like she was doing ice dance twizzles. Far be it from me to wish for an American implosion on beam, but if it means both Wevers and Saraiva get medals, screw patriotism.

On the other hand? 'MERICA.

I mean, seriously. The US women qualified in first place on every apparatus. Every woman on the team qualified for at least one event final. Gabby Douglas, with the third-highest AA score of the entire day, can't compete all-around because of the stupid two-per-country rule. (If the rule didn't exist, a Team USA podium sweep would be all but a foregone conclusion.) NBC can shut up about the Americans being weak on bars, because Madison Kocian posted the highest score of the day, and Douglas the third-highest. Kocian's bar routine is like one long connection; it's hard to see where one skill ends and the next begins, an extraordinary achievement that even Mustafina couldn't match. Oh, and the Americans' combined team score beat second-place China's by just shy of 10 points. That's a difference so huge, it's almost as if the Americans performed an extra routine. 

Aly Raisman wasn't quite as exceptional as at Nationals or Trials, and she looked almost over-powered on both bars and balance beam. She was her usual superhuman, high-flying self on floor, though. Her crowning moment, however, was her massive Amanar vault, straight down the middle and nearly stuck. Throughout, it felt like Raisman was holding back, saving her best moments for Team Finals and the all-around. The amazing thing is, a restrained Raisman is still two full points better than any other country's best gymnast. 

Meanwhile, Laurie Hernandez on balance beam is such delightful perfection that wow, I am really not getting the Hernandez/Wevers/Saraiva podium I want, am I? Sigh.

And then there was Simone Biles. The number of tweets on my Twitter feed that consisted entirely of all-caps SIMONE followed by strings of exclamation points, well, I could just leave it there and move on. But that wouldn't give credit to how high and far she soared in both of her vaults, scoring north of 16 points for each. Before the replays revealed a tiny hop to the left, I could have sworn she'd stuck the landing on her second vault. Her beam routine felt kind of business-as-usual for me, but since it was her final rotation, it worked the crowd into a frenzy. Biles's greatest moment was on floor exercise, smiling and shimmying to a medley of Brazilian music, and doing more difficult tumbling than most gymnasts could dream of. She is the queen of gymnastics. Long may she reign.

After the Americans' hour of total domination, Subdivision 5 felt like an afterthought, at least to me as a viewer. It certainly was in terms of the individual competitors, all of whom saw their Olympics end after the qualifying round. But for the three national teams trying to qualify through to the Team Final, it was a nail-biter to the end of the last rotation. With France, Canada, and Japan all extreme long shots for a medal in the first place, it was more of a battle to see who would fill out the lower ranks, but to the athletes on those teams, this was clearly everything. France was immediately out of it, with major errors on every apparatus. Canada, on the other hand, fought mightily, although it looked bleak from the start, when they had to count a fall on beam. By the time Brittany Rogers fell on bars, it was all over, and the image of the Canadian team hugging and crying was one of the most heartbreaking of these Olympics so far. Nonetheless, the Canadians gave some brilliant performances. First-year senior Shallon Olsen, who made a name for herself by winning vault at the Pacific Rim Championships earlier this season, solidified her status as a vaulter to watch out for by beating out a number of bigger names for a spot in the event final. And Isabela Onyshko squeaked into the balance beam final with a routine that showcased both her charisma and her technical skill. 

Team Japan was the only group to turn it out in Subdivision 5, and I couldn't have been happier for them. They started out with a fabulous vault rotation that seemed to give them confidence for the rest of the evening, then overachieved just as much on bars, with pint-sized Asuka Teramoto nearly breaking 15 points with her clean lines and massive technical upgrades. Then, Mai Murakami gave herself a belated birthday present with a trip to the floor exercise event finals, combining enormous tumbling passes with fun choreography that wouldn't have been out of place in the NCAA. The greatest moment, however, was Yuki Uchiyama's reaction after her clean beam routine, jumping and shrieking like she'd just won gold. It was a joyful reminder that Olympic success means different things to different athletes. Uchiyama's beam score was only 37th best overall, but she and her teammates were on top of the world. I'd originally used a photo of Simone Biles as this post's cover image, but I switched it to Uchiyama after writing this paragraph, because more than any other athlete I watched yesterday, she epitomized Olympic glory and achievement.


© 2016 SportsBlog.com. All rights reserved. Interactive One Millennial

Summer Skating: Glacier Falls Summer Classic Highlights

I'd hoped IceNetwork would upload the full event video of the Glacier Falls Summer Classic sooner so I could do a proper recap. But the Olympics start tomorrow, and I have a whole other post's worth of new skating programs to write about. Plus, there's free live stream this weekend of the Championnats Québécois d'Été, a regional competition in Canada that boasts an ice dance line-up almost as formidable as some we'll see during the Grand Prix, and I suspect some fan videos of the top competitors at the Asian Open will turn up, too. It's barely August, and there's already more figure skating to watch and analyze than I have time for. So I'll have to get cracking on these Glacier Falls fan videos. Fortunately, a variety of dedicated spies sat in the bleachers last weekend, producing among them an excellent highlight reel of one of the highest-profile North American club competitions of the summer.

Senior Men

Jason Brown's short program isn't new in the strictest sense: he skated it at the Team Challenge Cup back in the spring. The choreography has been substantially cleaned up since then, though, and it looks like a different piece now that he's been practicing it for a few months. I'm a little disappointed in his program music this year because everything is so sad and serious; I'm sure he's trying to demonstrate his maturity to the judges, but his goofy showmanship is what sets him apart. Nonetheless, this is pretty darn awesome, and it's hard to imagine any other men's skater performing it. He earned upwards of 95 points for this short program, and part of that is surely score inflation. (Bless judge #2, who gave him straight 10's for all his components.) But his astronomical components scores also reflect how difficult of a program this is just to get through. The reason he has time for all those beautiful moves that display his edges and flexibility? He whips through a rococo step sequence like it's a set of back crossovers, all the while making the frenzied motions look lyrical and controlled. He also exits his triple Axel into a back outside spiral, which he curves into his combination spin, all without a change of foot. If his quad were competition-ready, this would easily cross the 100-point threshold. Even with only triple jumps, if he skates this well at international meets, he'll take home some serious hardware later in the season.

Brown wasn't the only men's skater to hold off on the quads at Glacier Falls. In fact, only one man in the entire event landed a clean quad, Australia's Brendan Kerry, and his quad toe was a bright spot in an overall meltdown of a free skate. Tim Dolensky gave his quad salchow a shot again in both programs; the good news is that he's consistently getting credit for rotating it, and the bad news is that he's consistently landing it on his butt. Vincent Zhou, on the other hand, left his hardest jumps out of his performances at Glacier Falls, concentrating instead on presenting his more mature and intricate choreography. He's a more elegant skater now that he's returned to Tammy Gambill for training, but his technical consistency worries me. His triple Axel, a reliable jump for him last season, is shaky now, and he had serious trouble with popped jumps in his free skate. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Zhou's new short program more than any other I'd seen from him. He hasn't quite found his James Bond mojo yet, but he clearly likes the music and relates to it. In a country where even the second-tier men's skaters can recover from errors with high components scores, that's a crucial step forward for Zhou.

Speaking of American men's skaters whose performance quality often makes up for technical problems, Glacier Falls gave us a first look at Grant Hochstein's new free skate. I'm thrilled that he's skating to Il Pagliacci, a great opera that doesn't get enough love from figure skaters, and Hochstein brings the right combination of theatricality and playfulness. It's simultaneously his kind of music -sensitive and dramatic - and a different side of his personality than he gave us last season. Although his performance at Glacier Falls was full of jump errors, including a popped quad attempt at the beginning and a freak fall on what should have been an easy triple lutz, they're not the kind of technical mistakes that make me worry for fall. It looks like Hochstein's purpose at Glacier Falls was not to win a medal but to get rough drafts of his programs in front of judges and an audience. This program does need some fine-tuning, especially in the transitions, but it's a memorable routine that plays to his strengths.

Junior Ladies

Add yet another spirited young Texan to the list of middle-schoolers on the verge of saving American ladies' skating. Ashley Lin's high, centered triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination brought her the highest short program score at the event. She had trouble in her free skate, mostly because someone had the bonkers idea to have her compete a triple flip-half loop-triple salchow in the second half of her program, which led to falls and downgrades. Lin is only thirteen, so she has time to refine those difficult elements. I hope that in the process, she keeps on smiling, because she lights up the rink. If she and Kaitlyn Nguyen both make it through puberty unscathed, theirs could be the next epic American rivalry.

For now, Starr Andrews has a couple of years more experience than Lin or Nguyen, and a truckload of artistry to show for it. Her triple-triple combination isn't as explosive as theirs, and unlike the judges, I'm not entirely convinced that she rotated the second jump. Still, Andrews' musical expression and star quality put even most senior ladies to shame. She's also the best American spinner since Alissa Czisny. 

Senior Ladies

Much has been made of Caroline Zhang's return to the ice after a series of hip surgeries, but her performance at Glacier Falls makes me fear that this is going to be a disappointing final act for her. As expected, she's lost much of the flexibility that made her spins so stunning early in her career, and she can't be faulted for the cautiousness of those elements. But the jump issues that plagued her in her youth haven't resolved themselves: she popped several jumps and struggles to maintain a clear edge on her lutz. I admire her for going for a triple loop-triple loop combination, especially so late in the program, but she doesn't get full rotation on the second jump. Most worryingly, her performance quality hasn't really progressed; she doesn't show much sign of relating to her music or telling the story embedded in it. That ought to be her biggest advantage over her teenage competitors, but instead, even the juniors are overshadowing her in terms of style and emotion. [Correction: Zhang underwent only one surgery, but one with a particularly long and painful recovery process. It's impressive that she's returned to skating and is able to perform at this level already!]

Despite placing second in a fairly deep field, Paige Rydberg didn't get much attention at Glacier Falls. While many of her competitors wobbled through new choreography like baby deer, Rydberg looked confident. Her posture and speed make her a pleasure to watch, and they raise her components scores as well. Artistically, she's a bit of an ice queen, although Evita is a good fit; if she can relax and find her inner Madonna, she could grow into this program. She looks like she has enough rotational power to upgrade her opening triple flip-double toe loop to a triple-triple, and she's going to need it if she wants to get noticed. The most striking thing here, though, is how well Rydberg maintained her technical consistency, as she has a history of skating great short programs but blowing it in the free skate. Here, she recovered mentally from a doubled flip and nailed the difficult jumping passes late in her program, a sign of maturity that will serve her well.

The undisputed star of the Glacier Falls ladies' event was Mariah Bell. Last season looked like a career-ending disaster for her, but she's clearly used the spring and summer to regroup. The fans on the message boards went bananas for her Chicago short program, and it is indeed adorable, although if she's going to go all-in on a Fosse number, I'd like to see more sharpness in her upper body movements. I preferred her graceful free skate, which gives her lots of opportunities to show off her edges and flexibility. Bell also re-established herself at Glacier Falls as one of the most technically adept American ladies, opening with a textbook triple lutz-triple toe loop and getting full rotation credit for her triple flip-half loop-triple salchow despite a very rough landing. She could spend the autumn flying under the radar at senior B events, then emerge as a big threat at Nationals. She'll certainly have the audience in the palm of her hand wherever she goes this season.

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