Just when it looked like the field was reeling him in, Patrick Chan has raised his game and distanced himself from the pack. Breaking three of his own world records on his way to winning in Paris, Chan silenced the critics and left the audiences standing in appreciation and awe. Of course with the Olympics still over two months away, the questions are being asked; Is he ready too soon? Has he peaked too early?
I personally believe there is nothing better for building confidence than knowing what perfect feels like, especially in back-to-back skates. This is something that has eluded Chan in the past. He has had a history of building a lead in the short and hanging on in the long, and of moments of brilliance followed by untimely baubles and stumbles. Now he knows what clean feels like and that he has the mind for it.
What we saw in Paris from Chan was consistency and that, combined with his explosive power, was in a word - impressive. Impressive to watch. Intimidating for his competition, who now know that the game has just changed and they need to step up.
In this season's scores, Chan's total in Paris has out-pointed the field by almost 30. Heading into the Grand Prix Final next week in Japan, all eyes are on Chan. He takes on the season's top finishers and the phenomenal Japanese men; three of whom have qualified in the spots behind Chan and are hoping to gain some help with some home field advantage.
A similar situation is unfolding in the pairs this season with the Russian team of Tatiana Volososhar and Maxim Trankov. What Chan did in Paris, they did in both of their competitions. They literally did not put a foot wrong in any program in either competition. The nine judges give a score for each element in the program (jumps, spins, steps, lifts) based on the quality of the element. The scores they give range from minus- 3 to plus- 3. Ninteen elements in two programs and they did not receive one minus, on any element, from any judge. All plus- 2 and plus- 3 with a sprinkling of ones. That just doesn't happen early in the season in the pairs event, where the programs are filled with high risk elements, the margin of error is great, and it takes a season for the teams to fully meld with the nuances of the choreography, the hidden technical difficulties and with each other.
This season the Russians set and now own the three world records for highest short, free and total scores. This is a team with a clear focus. Until the Vancouver Olympics, Russia held the longest unbroken gold medal streak in the Winter Games. Russia had won every Pairs gold medal since 1964, until 2010 when Russian pairs not only didn't win gold, they failed to reach the podium. We did an interview with Tatiana and Max on TSN following those Vancouver games when they were a newly formed pair. Max spoke about Vancouver, but not about plans of redemption in the pairs event. He talked about how inspired and emotional he was watching Canadians Virtue and Moir in the ice dance event. He spoke about being in the Olympic arena when Scott and Tessa won gold and the whole country celebrated with them and he said "we want the same." It is a mission that seems inevitable.
The chance of competing at a home games has also brought out inspired performances from the Russian women, and so the Grand Prix final will look a lot like the Russian nationals in the ladies event. Four teenagers aged 17, two 15 year olds and a 14 year old have qualified for the final. We have watched Russia produce a series of young talented superstars but they tend to come and go and have not been able to translate early season success into success at the big events.
In the ladies qualifying, the competition entered and the depth of the field, played into who made the final. Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada and American champion Ashley Wagner have qualified, while great skaters like Akiko Suzuki and Carolina Kostner are left out of the final. I believe that the podium in Sochi will look very different from the one at the final, as a number of the world's best and brightest will not be at the ladies event in Japan.
As always at this time of year, the rivalry intensifies in the dance event where we will see this season's first head-to-head match-up of Olympic Champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and World Champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Meryl and Charlie have the advantage in the points early in the season, but it is a game of inches with both teams capable on any given day. Unique this season in the ice dance event is the hotly contested battle for bronze. Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje are among the four teams in the hunt. What is intriguing is how much these teams have improved, and while ice dance has been sensational at the top for a number of years, the teams chasing the champions are bringing the sport of Ice Dance to a new level as a whole.