Gentle readers, I am behind on my blogging. It was the Skateapalooza that did me in: I spent so much time watching the Ondrej Nepela Memorial, Autumn Classic, Japan Open, and JGP Tallinn that I ran out of time to write. Fortunately, last weekend marked the end of what has become the first phase of figure skating's regular season: the last Junior Grand Prix event wrapped up in Dresden, Germany, and the Challenger Series will go on hiatus until after the senior-level Grand Prix. Longtime fans will point out that the figure skating season never used to start this early, and we have a point. When the ISU started streaming the JGP for free on YouTube, then archiving video of every skater, following the international junior circuit became worthwhile. The Challenger Series didn't even exist until two years ago - a development I'll get into in the intro to my first Challenger Series best-of post. The near-universal availability and high quality of the JGP streams means we all get to see promising skaters at the start of their careers, and it also gives national federations incentive to let young skaters develop psychologically as well as technically rather than hurling them into the fire pit of senior-level competition before they're ready. As a result, the best junior skaters routinely performed jumps on par with the Challenger Series seniors, and many showed off beautiful skating skills and mature interpretation as well. If you skipped the Junior Grand Prix because you didn't know it was going on, or you assumed the juniors wouldn't be worth watching, or 30 free skates at 5 AM is not your idea of a good time, here are 12 reasons to pay attention now that the series has ended.
I don't usually make lists in chronological order, but it made sense this time. Of the seven competitions in the JGP series, one didn't make the cut for my men's top 12, because JGP St. Gervais was a sloppy mess in the men's event. The skaters who performed well there did better in later events; the winner, Roman Savosin, earned a much higher score at his second event, and it was only good enough for 3rd there. I'm pretty sure most of the JGP St. Gervais men's competitors want to wipe it out of the record books, and I am going to graciously move on to week two.
Dmitri Aliev (Russia), JGP Ostrava Free Skate
Last season, Aliev established himself as the kind of skater who sets up a lead in the short program and then blows it in the free skate - which is exactly what he would do a couple of weeks later in Ljubljana. But in Ostrava, he looked like he'd broken the curse. Seeking redemption for a short program in which he'd landed all his jumps but lost control of a spin, Aliev nailed it in the free skate. He proved he could open with a pair of quadruple toe loops and maintain his stamina, a feat he celebrated with a fist pump after his final jumping pass. Aliev also showed that he's terrific at interpreting his music, using the rhythm to time his jumps and telling a story in his step sequence. It was the first men's performance of the JGP season that looked like it could hold its own on the senior level.
Vincent Zhou (USA), JGP Yokohama Short Program
Zhou showed up this season looking taller and more mature, and instantly making me wonder how that would translate on the ice. Where his hardest jumps are concerned, it might be an issue - a painful chest landing in his free skate in Tallinn took him out of the Junior Grand Prix Final - but as a performer, he's grown into a young man. Relieved from the pressure of the quad, Zhou performed exquisitely, earning high grades of execution for his jumps and straight level 4s for his spins and step sequence, on the way to the JGP season's first short program score above 80. The real revelation, however, was the other half of Zhou's score. He's clearly spent his summer honing his basic skating skills; he looked proud of his speed and edge quality in his spread eagle sequence. And he's figured out how to express himself artistically, channeling his introverted presence into a quiet intensity that reminds me of Jeremy Abbott.
Kazuki Tomono (Japan), JGP Yokohama Free Skate
The Japanese men's team is in rebuilding mode, great at the top but without much of a bench. Tomono looks like one of the best bets to fill out their roster in seasons to come. Last spring at Junior Worlds, he stood out as one of the most entertaining performers, and now, he has the jumps to match. He's clearly still working on controlling the landings of his quad salchow and triple Axel, but both were lovely in the air, earning him a terrific technical score that almost snagged him a medal after a disappointing short program. But the real reasons to watch Tomono are his style and showmanship. He has a gift for making music his own. I've seen a lot of athletes skate right through An American in Paris over the years, but Tomono picks up on its peaks and valleys, showing a range of emotion that's especially admirable for a young skater. Even if he never develops the power to enter the quad arms race at the top of the Japanese field, he has Future Fan Favorite written all over him.
Matyas Belohradsky (Czech Republic), JGP Saransk Short Program
The season of crowd-pleasers continued in Saransk with a breakout bronze-medal performance from Belohradsky. A couple of weeks earlier, he'd withered under the pressure of a home-country skate in Ostrava, but the enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience in Russia seemed to spur him forward. Belohradsky only competes a double Axel, but he proved that excellent execution can triumph over sloppy difficulty, scoring ahead of several ugly triple Axel attempts. He resembles coach Tomas Verner physically as well as stylistically, and he's inherited many of his mentor's best qualities, from his edge control to his crackling energy. But Belohradsky jumps with tighter rotation and cleaner form than Verner ever did. If Belohradsky keeps this up - and works out his consistency bugs - he'll be the next great Czech skater.
Andrew Torgashev (USA), JGP Saransk Free Skate
Torgashev arrived at his first Junior Grand Prix event with a big question mark over his head. After winning a National Junior title in 2015, he'd lost an entire season to injury while many other American teenagers had developed massive technical and artistic upgrades. Torgashev's silver medal in Saransk proved that he is still very much a factor. His quad toe loop was a little messy, but he stood up and got full rotation credit. The judges gave him plenty of points for his fast and difficult spins, too, with level 4s and high grades of execution on all of them. Torgashev hasn't yet shown that he's capable of a clean free skate - he fell in Saransk, and things got even hairier in Dresden a few weeks later - but even with errors, he's an expressive and captivating skater.
Ilia Skirda (Russia), JGP Ljubljana Free Skate
Skirda came into his first JGP season with some buzz surrounding him. A clean and sprightly free skate at Nationals, along with a 4th-place finish, had earned him some attention. I don't think anyone expected him to do this well this fast, though. He was a mess at JGP St. Gervais, but everyone else was a bigger mess, bringing him a silver medal at his international debut. In Ljubljana, however, he faced stiffer competition, and a pair of near-flawless performances showed that Skirda means serious business. His jump technique is terrific, but his greatest assets are his extraordinary fundamentals. He's fast and tireless, with gorgeous knee bend and core flexibility, all of which add up to some of the loveliest skating of the JGP series. Imagine what he'll achieve when he starts competing his triple Axel.
Alexei Krasnozhon (USA), JGP Ljubljana Free Skate
Yuzuru Hanyu will get his name in the history books for landing the first ratified quadruple loop, but Krasnozhon actually beat him to the punch by about a week. His landing was unsteady, his grade of execution low, but he completed four revolutions and stood up. Then, as if to make sure we all knew that his landings are normally much better than that, Krasnozhon performed two triple Axels with enormous speed, amplitude, and confidence, as if he hadn't gotten the memo that he's only skating juniors. What makes Krasnozhon endearing, though, is his quest to develop an artistic identity for himself. In Ljubljana, Krasnozhon made Rodeo his own, expressing a youthful sweetness that can't be manufactured. The best part of the video comes after he'd finished skating, in his reaction to his scores - too excited to contain himself, but also doing the math, reassuring himself that he was headed to the Final.
Graham Newberry (Great Britain), JGP Tallinn Short Program
You know what's more fun than a bunch of quads? Watching a young skater give the performance of his life. In his opening pose, Newberry looked like he knew he had this in the bag, and even before his perfect triple Axel, I believed him. Newberry might not have the speed or edge control of the top competitors, but his smile and style put most of them to shame. Newberry beat his prior personal best score by almost 10 points, earned the second-highest short program technical score of the meet, and generally recalibrated everyone's expectations. Plus, he put on a show. If there's a reason to wake up before dawn and watch a live stream, it's catching unexpected delights like this one.
Koshiro Shimada (Japan), JGP Tallinn Free Skate
In an era when most young Japanese men are trying to be the next Yuzuru, Shimada has achieved remarkable results by cultivating his own style instead. Still, Shimada shares one of Hanyu's greatest artistic strengths. It's rare to see such a young skater use his whole body to highlight the rise and fall of his music, and to give shape to its nuances. My favorite moment in this free skate came near the end, when Shimada punctuated a little boom of percussion with a fast, controlled dip into a spread eagle. Shimada's quad salchow attempt was a risk that didn't quite pay off, and he didn't even try a triple Axel at all in Tallinn, so he'll most likely spend another year in juniors while he refines those difficult jumps. But he has one of the most beautiful and reliable lutzes in men's skating, with a deep entry edge and tons of height. The two excellent lutzes here were a big factor in the career-best score he earned.
Alexander Samarin (Russia), JGP Tallinn Free Skate
Last season, Samarin looked like a bland, inconsistent jump machine who would never make it past juniors. Despite some brilliant moments - a gold medal at JGP Croatia, the second-best short program at Junior Worlds - he seemed to lack both stamina and charisma. Samarin and his coaches must have come to the same conclusion, because he completely reinvented himself over the summer and became one of the stars of the 2016 Junior Grand Prix. He won both of his JGP events, in Saransk and Tallinn, and it wasn't just the smooth, reliable technique of his triple Axel and quad toe loop that brought him gold. He's capable of unusual jumping passes as well as difficult ones; he shows off rare edge control in his triple lutz-half loop-triple flip combination. Samarin's most striking transformation, however, has been in his artistry. Rock music brings out his personality, and in his free skate in Tallinn, he found the grace and lyricism in the squealing guitars of a Scorpions ballad.
Conrad Orzel (Canada), JGP Dresden Free Skate
After I saw Orzel compete at Skate Detroit this summer, I sang his praises, and you all thought I was off my rocker. A few months later, he won silver at JGP Dresden with a free skate that made people other than me take notice. Sure, there were wobbles here and there, but Orzel also showed resourcefulness, saving several rocky landings that a less focused skater might have bailed on. Orzel also landed the only clean quadruple jump of the meet. As the program progressed, he shed his nerves and embodied his music, a blond samurai who'd just won a major battle. If he can keep up this momentum and confidence, Canada might have found its next men's skating star.
Jun Hwan Cha (South Korea), JGP Dresden Short Program
From a technical standpoint, Cha was better at his first JGP event, in Yokohama, where he earned the highest overall score of the series and landed a gorgeous quad salchow in his free skate. With that performance, Cha removed all doubt that he's the next big thing in men's skating. In Dresden, he missed that jump, and his technical elements were less neat and controlled in general. Nonetheless, Cha was by far more fun to watch in Dresden than in Yokohama. Between the two events, he apparently backed off on his jump training to focus on artistry and basic skills, and in the course of a month, he transformed from a cute but unpolished jumping bean into a young man with keen edges and a sharp sense of humor. His short program - to a song from A Chorus Line that should be the anthem for men's skaters everywhere - leaves him no time to breathe and minimal margin for error. Earlier in the season, Cha looked like he was just getting through it. In Dresden, he looked like he owned that choreography. And the arena. And possibly the world.