2019 NHK Trophy Pairs and Ladies Review: The Final Countdown

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you have successfully survived the Grand Prix, aka six consecutive weeks of self-induced torture that’s occasionally relieved by a great performance that makes you scream and cry like a crazy person. In all seriousness, I’m bummed that it’s over so quickly, but NHK Trophy is a great event to close out the series. Skating events in Japan are usually fun because many of the Japanese fans are so passionate about figure skating – you can always count on a good rainstorm of Winnie the Pooh plushies for Yuzuru – and the Japanese skating federation really puts effort into putting together a beautiful event. In addition to the legend himself, there was a great roster for pairs and ladies here, so let’s get started.

This was probably the most unpredictable pairs event on the Grand Prix this year because there were several dark horses in the race. Despite some surprising spills, the event turned out quite well and there was plenty of good skating to go around. I hope I don’t sound too harsh this time; as I started writing this, I realized there were lots of things I liked at this event but lots of things I wanted to change. My goal in writing these posts is simply to make suggestions so these skaters can improve, as well as to share my personal opinions. If I’m complaining about a program, it’s not because I hate the skater. If I say someone has bad posture, it’s because I noticed something they can improve and I want them to fix it. There’s a fine line between professional criticism and bullying, and I am trying my best to stay positive while sharing my hot takes.

Wenjing Sui/Cong Han:

Sui/Han are one of those teams that stand a little above everyone because they have an unparalleled level of class and finesse. There’s just something special about them and how they move as one on the ice. I expected them to win and I expected them to win by a landslide, and they did. They are so consistent, so strong, and so crazy talented.
However, if I’m being totally honest, they’ve set the bar so high with their previous programs that I’m not sure if this SP quite measures up. It feels like they tried to do a sexier version of their “Blues for Klook” program from the 2016-17 season. Sui/Han are gorgeous people and they have great chemistry on the ice, but I think their natural chemistry is flirty, playful, and sassy. They don’t have that sizzling, R-rated chemistry like Virtue/Moir Carmen, so I feel like this program was a bit of a stretch for them. And can someone snip the light flaps of fabric on his jacket? That said, they’re amazing skaters, they did a great job, and they ran away from the rest of the field by 10 points in the SP. I’m also really happy she put some of her hair down; it gives her The Sass. They’re sharp, they’re cool, and they delivered the program well. Enough said.
I love their free skate to “Rain in Your Black Eyes”. It showcases the power of their basic skating and their sharp, clean movements. If you gave this program to a less talented pair, it would end up feeling boring and empty, but Sui/Han sell it so well. At the same time, I wonder if the program has already peaked at Worlds. When you’ve delivered a program to such a level at a major competition, it’s hard to recreate that moment. Wenjing’s salchow looks more consistent than ever, but then she fell on the toe loop! I’m hoping that was just a fluke. I noticed something interesting about her throw jump landings today – she lands with her back almost perfectly straight. The balance needed to land a throw like that…respect, girl. I still think they’re the favorites for the GPF and World title, but Boikova/Kozlovskii put up some huge scores at Rostelecom Cup, so Sui/Han will have to skate with both eyes open.

Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro:
Kirsten and Michael had a real shot to get into the GPF here, and they didn’t waste it. Kirsten looked like ten million dollars in both programs. I still can’t get over her dress for the SP – she looks like a glittering disco queen, and her hairstyle is literally tempting me to grow mine out so I can curl it like that. I’m not sure if I like the darker hair or not; it’s hard to tell under these funny NHK Trophy lights, but she looks pretty. They lost some levels and there was a mistake on the spin, but they still scored a solid 71.
The free skate is still one of my favorite pair programs this season. The music is so emotional, and when they can pull it all together and deliver, it’s mesmerizing. And let me tell you, girl, they delivered! They landed all the jumps and had no real mistakes. To me, their performance had the most impact of the night. Excuse me, I gotta go get my tissues. The only thing they need to work on is the lifts. Kirsten’s air positions are beautiful and I give Mike credit for trying such difficult holds, but they still look shaky and it mildly scares me. Other than that, this competition was a huge success, and after all these years, I can finally say “KIRSTEN MOORE-TOWERS AND MICHAEL MARINARO, GRAND PRIX FINALISTS!”

Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov:
With a gold medal in hand from Internationaux de France, Mishina/Galliamov were on the fast track to the Grand Prix Final in their first senior season. Their elements are big, solid, and smooth; their technique reminds me of Boikova/Kozlovskii, another exceptionally talented Russian team. In comparison to the other Russian pairs, I feel like they still lack a bit of the performance quality you see from Boikova/Kozlovskii or even Tarasova/Morozov. As a Lara Fabian fan, I would love for them to put some more gusto into the SP. Guys, it’s “Je Suis Malade”. The song is saying you are dying because your lover has abandoned you. I can’t help thinking this program came a few years too early for them. I finally figured out why he’s skating with the black shirt and the white tie – it’s either a nod to the great Sergei Grinkov’s “Moonlight Sonata” costume (respectable), or Aleksandr went shopping with Nathan Chen at Penguin Suits R Us (hilarious). They got all level 4s but the botched salchow really hurt them. When you’re a team that relies on GOE rather than PCS to carry your score, any mistakes are more costly.
As for the free skate, I don’t mind it but I don’t feel inspired watching it. I don’t quite understand the story they’re trying to tell, and it feels a bit dated. However, programs only last for a season or two, and talent is permanent. They truly have some of the most beautiful elements in the field right now, and I’m always glad to see pairs coming from the Velikovs’ school. I think they will be a true force to be reckoned with in the next season or so. Plus, don’t they look like a young Black Widow and Hawkeye? We need to get them in some black catsuits ASAP!

Alisa Efimova/Alexander Korovin:
4th place in this field is the best result Efimova/Korovin could ask for, and I’m so happy for them. The SP is my favorite program they’ve done so far; she has so much intensity and power in her skating and really lives up to the music. He still feels a little bland to me, so I hope someone can work on his expression more, but I think he’s improving.
The free skate to “The Sound of Silence” requires a lot of star power and works best with clean skating. Well, we were blessed, because they skated it clean! Alisa had to fight for the jumps a little, but she stayed upright. I have to give major props to Alexander for nailing the lifts here. They’ve always been his trouble spot, but he had no problems this time and I was able to enjoy the performance without fear of her crashing down on his head any minute. The last minute of the music seems to overwhelm them a little, but overall, this was the strongest I’ve seen them in a while and I think they can be proud of this.

Riku Miura/Ryuichi Kihara:
Miura/Kihara were my favorite discovery of this event. Keep in mind, they’ve only been skating together for three months. This is their Grand Prix debut together, and they managed to beat two US national champions and a team that made the Grand Prix Final last year. Respect, respect. The first thing I thought when I looked at them was, “Oh hello, Sui/Han.” Her haircut and short program costume just exuded pure Goddess Wenjing energy. They really couldn’t have done much more here; the twist is a low level but the catch is clean, the side-by-side jumps were perfect, everything except twist was level 3 or 4, and there was only one visible mistake in the free skate (she fell on a throw jump). I really enjoyed both their programs – especially the free skate to Coldplay (confession: I’m a Shibs fan). They could work on the speed but for a brand-new team, I’m blown away. They didn’t even look nervous! Okay, I officially stan.

Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea:
Tarah and Danny haven’t been putting up the big scores yet, and with two spots for Worlds, Nationals approaching, and the other American pairs scoring well this season, they needed to throw down some good performances to put their names in the mix. Unfortunately, the SP did not go as planned. Their twist seems to be regressing – it was never a brilliant Savchenko/Massot twist, but they had cleaned up the catch so much! The mistakes on the jump and the throw buried them in this field. Artistically, I like the “Sweet Dreams” program but they need to give more sass and steam. Remember when Kirsten Moore-Towers created that sizzling SP to this song in the 2017-18 season? That’s the energy these two need.
The free skate went much better, with only one visible mistake on the throw jump. It’s the strongest performance I’ve seen from them this season, and it was great to see them come back stronger after a rough SP. I love Les Miserables more than any of you, so I was singing along the whole time. However, I’m not sure if these particular music cuts fit together in a pleasing, cohesive way. Put some “On My Own” at the end during the lifts and we would be in business – I could see Tarah totally pulling that off. There are so many great pieces of music in that show, but I feel like they went with the more overused pieces. And I really can’t get behind this team until Danny grows his hair back! It was a good effort to turn things around, but it’s going to be a fight to get on the World team.

Alexa Scimeca-Knierim/Chris Knierim:
After a rough season last year, the Knierims still seem to be working some things out. I’m not really a fan of this SP for them. I love Queen Bey and I love their skating, but it isn’t quite fitting together. I think they would’ve done better to pick a more modern Beyonce song like “Halo” or “Listen”. Heck, Alexa even has the sass for something fun like “Single Ladies”. However, I am not the judges and the judges seem to like this program. Even with a fall, they could’ve put up a big score here, but of all things to miss, they missed the death spiral! Guyssssssss…I like the free skate more; it suits their style better and feels natural on them. But what’s going on with the elements? The jumps were all over the place and the lift came down all wrong. Their elements are so flawless when they’re on – the twist is huge, the throws are Tatiana Volosozhar level, and the lifts are stunning. Of all the American pairs, I think they have the best quality elements, so if they skate clean, they will be rewarded with big GOEs. They have the second highest season’s best of all the US pairs, but they seriously need to turn this ship around before Nationals if they’re going to claim a spot at Worlds, ‘cause Denney/Frazier didn’t come here to play on the Grand Prix.

Nicole Della Monica/Matteo Guarise:
After Nicole’s injury in the summer, Della Monica/Guarise looked a bit shaky at Cup of China two weeks ago, and unfortunately it continued here. Ahhh, they were so close to a decent short program…and then the lift happened…or rather, didn’t happen. It’s a costly error, especially in the SP where everyone is stacked up closely. It’s an unpopular opinion, but I like this SP for them. I like the remix of “Crazy in Love” – I’m really into the songs on the soundtrack for “The Great Gatsby”, and they just look so good out there! Nicole looks beautiful in red and Matteo always looks like the grown-up version of an Italian bad boy from a teen romance flick (okay, I’ll confess, I just watched “The Lizzie McGuire Movie”). There are only two things I would change: (1) get her a slightly longer dress, and (2) change the opening choreography so the old ladies in the audience don’t faint. Guys, we get that you’re sexy, but hands-on-partner’s-boobs choreography always makes me a little uncomfortable.
The free skate is classic Della Monica/Guarise with a little twist. It feels like the big sister to their Olympic-season program “The Tree of Life”, and I like it. It’s just too bad they had trouble on all the jumping passes here. Here’s hoping they can deliver these programs well at Euros and Worlds, because I’d love to see them at their full potential.

NHK was truly the most competitive Grand Prix event in ladies’ skating I’ve seen in a long time. With reigning World Champion Alina Zagitova, reigning GPF champion Rika Kihira, and Russia’s latest rising star Alena Kostornaia, it was the most exciting ladies’ event on the whole Grand Prix for me, and I have a lot of thoughts.

Alena Kostornaia:
After this event, I can safely say the hype over Eteri Tutberidze’s holy trinity was legit. Her girls have been sweeping the gold medals on the Grand Prix, and Alena Kostornaia’s gold medal here was the last queen of hearts atop the house of cards. Of the three girls, I think Alena is the most complete package. She has such a lovely softness, but she also has solid, smooth, fluid jumps that deserve big GOE. I’m not sure I would’ve had her five points ahead of Kihira in the SP, but I enjoyed her performances a lot. I’m even starting to like her dress for the free skate! It reminds me of Mal’s outfits from the “Descendants” movies (okay, okay, I’ll stop with the Disney Channel references). Her performance in the free skate was fabulous. The more I watch this program, the more I like it. Once again, I might’ve had her a bit closer to Kihira, but she deserved this win fair and square and I’m happy for her. With these scores, she has a shot to win the GPF, especially if she lands all her triple axels cleanly. It’s going to be an interesting fight.

Rika Kihira:
This was a very solid event for Rika. I will never love her SP music, but I have nothing but respect for any girl who can land a triple axel like that. I would’ve had her score closer to Kostornaia’s, maybe around 81. As much as I loved the brilliant purple dress she had for this program, I’m leaning towards the new red one! The color is stunning on her and she looks sultry but classy. I like the free skate quite a bit; even with all the music cuts, it still feels cohesive. She skated the heck out of it and seeing her happy makes me happy. This girl is truly a force of nature! However, I demand the return of the exquisite jade dress. This grayish one is beautiful too, but I miss the bright color.

Alina Zagitova:
With silver from Internationaux de France, Alina was looking for another medal here to get into the GPF, and she just made it. The short program was not a great start for her; the missed combo jump was very costly and she ended up in 4th behind Karen Chen. I don’t care for the SP music, but I admire how much heart she puts into it. Give her a little “Je Suis Malade” and she would rule the world. I was worried that she might struggle in the free skate too, but she powered through that program like a true champ. The Cleopatra free skate isn’t a choreographic masterpiece, but she skated it well and I like the choreography better than her “Carmen” program from last year. I don’t think Alina’s jump technique has really gotten worse, as some people were saying; I just think any flaws are more obvious now because she has grown. Her artistry has definitely improved, especially in the short program. It’s hard to believe it’s been less than two years since she burst onto the scene as a cute little bean in a red tutu. Also, can I just say Alina looks so gorgeous in both these costumes? She’s always been a lovely girl, but she has grown into such a beautiful young woman – I can’t believe she’s only 17 like me! I’m so happy she made it to the GPF again and I hope she can continue her career as long as she wants to.

Yuhana Yokoi:
I was pleasantly surprised by Yuhana Yokoi. I enjoyed her skating at Cup of China, but I liked her even better here. She just has a nice quality to her skating and she vaguely reminds me of Kanako Murakami – maybe it’s the “Phantom of the Opera” music? Her free skate was almost clean and I could really just relax while watching her. It’s always exciting to me to see the lesser-known Japanese ladies to get their moment in the sun and take charge like Yuhana did. Well done.

Mako Yamashita:
This competition was a great improvement for Yamashita. I’ve said it before: I’m not a fan of this SP – it sounds like she and Kihira were having a contest for picking the most trilly, high-pitched music. The “Scent of a Woman” program is well-choreographed and I adore the music itself, but it feels a bit mature for her – I could see Mao Asada slaying this though. That said, Mako skated both programs much cleaner than I’ve seen it in over a year, and it seemed like a little victory for her after all these rough performances. In this field, 5th place was a huge feat. Bravo!

Sofia Samodurova:
Sofia has been one of my underdog faves ever since she burst on the scene at 2018 Skate America. While I admire the talent of Eteri Tutberidze’s trio, there’s really nothing like Sofia’s it-factor on the ice. She’s sassy, fun, and intense, like Elizaveta Tuktamysheva’s little sister. Unfortunately, she didn’t get Liza’s big, powerful jumps. I’m really not a fan of how the judges are holding down her scores. Calling some underrotations are understandable because her jumps are rather Miyahara-esque, but these PCS and GOEs are so low. I think they’re trying to clear the way for the wave of Russian babies, but Sofia shouldn’t be getting punished just because her compatriots are skating well. I do like her “Moulin Rouge” program because she really gets into the character, but I still prefer last year’s “Burlesque” program because it allowed her to just have fun out there. The main selling point in Sofia’s skating is her charm, so let her be charming! No matter what, I love her and will cheer for her as long as she’s still skating.

Eunsoo Lim:
After Skate America, Eunsoo decided to switch back to her old SP to “Somewhere in Time”. I think it’s a smart move – her flamenco SP had a lot of potential, but she wasn’t serving enough face to make it work. Now both programs seem to be working for her. With that beauty, she belongs in a k-pop girl group, like Red Velvet. I know there’s a tiny diva somewhere inside her – we saw it in her “Chicago” program last year. Someone just needs to bring it out. In the SP, she got underrotation calls on both jumps in the combo, which hurt her score quite a bit. I’m hoping someone can work with her on getting those jumps all the way around, because if she can stick them clean, she’ll be a dark horse. The free skate was just messy here; sometimes you have a day where the jumps just Don’t Happen, plain and simple. Anyways, she’s a beautiful skater and has good costumes, so I’m hoping she’s just saving her good performances for later in the season.

Starr Andrews:
Starr’s SP wins points in my heart for the music choice alone. It takes guts to skate to Christina Aguilera and do it justice (Tarasova/Morozov, babes, I ain’t looking at you). It would’ve been perfect if not for the popped loop – it’s so unfortunate how one mistake can drop you that far, but at least she got a solid, rotated triple-triple out there. I hate to admit it, but I feel a little underwhelmed by her “Salome” free skate. Come on, girl, where’s that iconic diva power you’re known for? I love her as a performer, but I’m not sure if this program shows off all her fabulousness. The missed jumps didn’t help, but I just can’t get into this program like I was hoping. On a good note: I like both her dresses!

Karen Chen:
It was a rough comeback for Karen at Skate America, and this event was a mixed bag. Both of her programs this season are beautiful, and her dresses belong in an art gallery. She’s still struggling with that triple-triple, so it was smarter to go for a clean triple-double here. She racked up the GOEs while the other girls tripped behind her and finished third in the short program – very respectable and a huge improvement from her previous competitions! I can’t say much for the free skate – it was not good and I’m not going to lie and say it was. I hope she gets back on track eventually because she’s a lovely skater with gorgeous spins and spirals. I can’t help thinking it’s time to get her a new coach. With all due respect to Tammy Gambill, I think Karen needs a change or at least a jump coach. Maybe Raf could help? He helped Mariah get her jumps, so I wonder if he could help Karen too. Just a thought.

Kailani Craine:
Kailani is such a fun, relaxing skater to watch. Her Latin SP had me dancing in my seat, and her dress was so cute! Never mind that she didn’t get a triple triple, I liked it and I appreciate that she skated to something cool. In the free skate, she gave me serious Kaetlyn Osmond “Black Swan” and Wakaba Higuchi “Skyfall” vibes. She had two underrotations and two unclear edges called, but I’d say that free skate was a big step forward and she did a good job.

Mae Berenice Meite:
Come what may, come what may, I’ll stan Mae Berenice Meite until my dying day. She is a true boss on the ice and I always enjoy her performances. The SP wasn’t clean, but the program is fun and kept me awake while watching at a bizarre hour. My inner Duhamel/Radford fangirl rose from the grave when I found out Mae’s FS was “Hometown Glory”, and she improved it so much since her last event. Her jumps are big and hard to control, but when she lands them, they’re killer. Although it didn’t change her final standing, she went from 11th in the SP to 7th in the FS and I hope she keeps moving up this season, one step at a time!

Megan Wessenberg:
It was great that Megan got a Grand Prix assignment after another skater withdrew. I enjoyed her a lot at Skate America last year and I like her swagger. She didn’t have her best skates here, but she’s a fun performer and I like her.

Throughout the season, I’ve been giving a weekly shoutout to someone in the figure skating community who brings positivity and love to the sport. I had originally chosen a very good skating interviewer for this week, but in light of recent events, there has been a change of plans.
I first fell in love with Jason Brown as a starry-eyed 11-year-old watching his “Riverdance” program on TV. I do not usually watch much men’s skating, although I respect what they do, but Jason captivated me from the moment I first saw him. This weekend, he had a shot at making the GPF, but a few mistakes bumped him out of contention. Following the event, a prominent former skater made some extremely rude comments towards him on Instagram. This behavior is unacceptable towards anyone, but especially towards someone as sweet and kind-hearted as Jason. In all his years on the competitive circuit, Jason has showed nothing but good sportsmanship and respect to his competitors, no matter if he ends the day adorned with a gold medal or sitting far from the podium. After competitions, he travels to the Ronald McDonald Children’s Hospitals around the world to donate the toys thrown on the ice to children battling life-threatening illnesses. Even after a bad skate, he maintains a positive attitude and a hopeful heart for the next competition. He may not have the technical arsenal of Nathan Chen or Yuzuru Hanyu, but he makes every moment count on the ice. Each movement is graceful, fluid, and thoughtful, and he doesn’t miss a single nuance of the music. His style is so versatile – he can do solemn and lyrical like “The Piano” and “Schindler’s List”, edgy and sultry like “Love is a B*tch” and this year’s SP “I Can’t Go On Without You”, fun and playful like “Canned Heat” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling”, or even innovative and off-the-wall like “The Room Where It Happens” from the hip-hop musical Hamilton. I was blessed to meet him in 2015, and in my five minutes with him, I can tell you he was the most loving person I have ever met. His presence is literally the sun personified, and that’s why I’ve chosen him as my positive person of the week. I feel terrible that this skater chose to make such disgusting comments, but as Taylor Swift once wrote, “People throw rocks at things that shine.” Jason, you did everything you could and we are proud of you. Go get ‘em at Nationals!

There’s no skating event next weekend, but I might just post something anyways, so stay tuned. Until next time, happy skating, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

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