Takahito Mura takes gold in men’s; Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford win first ever Grand Prix event

KELOWNA, B.C. – A seismic shift happened in men’s figure skating yesterday at the Skate Canada International Grand Prix.

A transformed Takahito Mura of Japan came out in the men’s final, and threw down such a powerful gauntlet that surely, Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu must be watching.

Mura broke down in tears in the kiss and cry (that’s what that corral is for) after his marks popped up: 173.24 for the free – a mark he thought he’d never attain – and 255.81 overall. Then he had to wait for two-time European champion Javier Fernandez of Spain to skate, but Fernandez left marks on the table, looking as if he was playing to catch up.

And Mura won. By almost 11 points.

With Daisuke Takahashi retired, Japan still has its Hanyus and its mighty Tatsuki Machidas, but now count Mura in the mix. Japanese nationals will be as hard fought as ever.

Mura had always looked like a bit of a hammer-thrower in the past to be sure, thundering through his jumps with power and thud. But he came out in the free skate dressed elegantly, as the Phantom of the Opera – a completely different look for him altogether. And he’d worked during last summer with Ilia Kulik, who helped him with the technique on his jumps and also with basic skating skills. And who had sweeter technique than Kulik, who would land his jumps with unparalleled softness of the knee? Mura is landing his jumps with a new softness of the knee.

His father/coach Takashi Mura (who skated singles and pairs at the world level in the early 1980s) said his son now rotates his jumps more completely, allowing him to land more correctly with the knee.

“I really thought it would take more time to reach 170,” Mura said after his performance. “I was really very surprised. It’s the result of a lot of hard work.  I have learned that hard work will translate into high scores.”

Now he knows that there are folk who will expect more of him. “There will be a lot of pressure for the next competition,” he said. Father Mura says he cannot rest on his laurels, there is more work to be done, and the Japanese nationals will sort out the Japanese men.

And it’s not just about the jumps for Mura. “It has taken me a long time to get to this point,” he said. “It took me a long time to figure out how to express myself and what Takahito Mura is about.” He admitted that Phantom of the Opera may have been overdone in the past, but although it was difficult to find his own Phantom, he has.

Fernandez had an off day, lost marks on all of the three quads he planned, (he fell out of a quad Salchow) and finished second with 158.51 for the free and 244.87 overall. Max Aaron, a former U.S. champion, took one step to regaining his confidence and his U.S. title back by finishing third.

Andrei Rogozine finished ninth overall after two-footing and under-rotating his quad, while Canadian bronze medalist Liam Firus got angry with himself for his short program the day before, and came out strongly enough to get a partial standing ovation. He finished ahead of Rogozine in the free, but was 11th overall.

In winning the pairs gold medal, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford won their first Grand Prix title (after three silvers) and are the first Canadian pair to win a Grand Prix since 2007. They scored a season’s best of 210.74 points and feel there are many other opportunities to improve.

Duhamel stepped out of a throw quad Salchow, but they kept up their goal of accomplishing it at every event this season. The Chinese team of Sui Wenjing and Cong Han – using the choreography of Canadian David Wilson – landed a deft quad twist and finished second with 184.64 points, about 26 points behind the Canadians.

Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov took the bronze medal at their first senior Grand Prix, the first time they have ever skated in Canada.

Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro landed in sixth place with 158.82 points. Brittany Jones and Joshua Reagan skated to a personal best in the free program for an overall score of 146.77 and finished in seventh place.

Gilles Twins Skating a Frozen Path to Success

By: Amy Rosewater

Piper Gilles recalls many childhood moments with her mother, Bonnie, dressing up her and her twin sister, Alexe, in princess costumes and toting them to Disney on ice shows.

Not surprisingly, the Gilles twins, now 22, went on to become skaters.

Alexe indeed has become a skating princess, and Piper, is a competitive ice dancer, and their mom couldn’t be more proud.

This weekend, Piper will be competing as an ice dancer in Skate Canada International with Paul Poirier, while Alexe, a former competitive singles skater, will be skating in the role of Disney’s trendiest princess, Elsa, from the hit movie, “Frozen.”

“My mom used to dress us up all the time,” Piper said with a laugh. “I think she had the most fun at the shows. Now it’s so fun to be in the stands and watch my sister in the show. It is so cute to see all these girls dressed up to see her skate.”

Piper got a chance to see Alexe perform in the “Disney on Ice’ Princesses and Heroes Tour,” earlier this month. Piper had just skated to a silver medal at the Skate Canada Autumn Classic in Barrie, Ont. Then she and her mother and Alex Johnson, a skater who is a longtime friend of Piper’s and Alexe’s, hopped in the car and drove about four hours to Detroit.

“We wanted to see her perform in her opening show,” Piper said. “It was great. When we got there everyone was in the spirit. You got cotton candy and you would see crowns and Elsa braids. Everyone was singing the songs.”

They ended up going to the show two nights, and Piper left with an added appreciation of what he sister is doing. Yes, the show is fun and the kids are enjoying seeing their favorite princess come to life on the ice, but life on the tour is not easy.

Alexe is performing difficult routines, some include double Axels and triple toe loops, and they do them while wearing heavy costumes and elaborate wigs. Alexe said her braid is attached to her dress with a magnet. Often the skaters perform in multiple shows a day and are in and out of cities.

“It’s fun though to see a different side of skating,” Piper said. “It’s very character-based and it’s fun to see some of the skaters skating and lip-synching and things like that.”

Alexe said her role as Elsa is “pretty magical,” and loves meeting with children who are starry-eyed when they see her in full Disney regalia.

“Competitive skating is so much more stressful,” Alexe said. “This is more of a personal reward … hearing little kids in awe of you instead of being judged.”

Alexe, who won the 2008 U.S. junior title and later competed as a singles skater for Canada, had been coaching in Colorado Springs when she heard about tryouts for the Disney tour.

She began rehearsing with the tour in Florida in July and started touring with “Frozen on Ice.” Then Disney made a separate segment with “Frozen” numbers in its “Princesses and Heroes Tour” and Alexe was traveling back and forth for a while between the two shows.

This weekend, Alexe is in Cincinnati and will be checking online to find out results from her sister’s performances at Skate Canada in Kelowna, British Columbia.

As twins, the two have always been close, so the great distances between them lately has been difficult. Bonnie Gilles has been traveling quite a bit to see both of her daughters skate. She was in Atlanta for several Disney shows and then at Piper’s competitions. She is in Kelowna this weekend.

“I love watching the Disney shows,” Bonnie said. “And Elsa is the role of a lifetime. She wanted the role and was lucky to get it.”

“I think my mom went to the show like seven times in Atlanta,” Piper said with a laugh. “She knows all the songs, when the fireworks come. I had to tell her not to tell me anything so there would be some surprise.”

Before Piper had teamed up with Poirier in 2011, she, too, had considered performing in shows such as Disney on Ice.

“I had quit (competitive) skating for a year and was looking at show skating but I wasn’t ready to be done,” Piper said.

She is glad to be still competing. Although an ankle injury disrupted his training last season and she and Poirier finished fourth at Canadian nationals — one spot shy of making the Olympic team in Sochi — they placed eighth at the worlds championships and have high hopes for this season. This weekend, Piper will be focused on the Paso Doble for her short dance and are skating to a free dance with big-band music.

The two likely won’t be able to see each other over the holidays because of their travel and training schedules. But they will be thinking of each other and rooting for each other.

“It will be the first time we won’t be together for Christmas and won’t feel like Christmas without her,” Piper said. “Maybe we will just put Frozen on repeat all throughout the holiday.”



By Debbi Wilkes

Craig Buntin, Skate Canada International’s Athlete Ambassador, was 10 years old and had never been on a pair of skates when his family moved from Vancouver to Kelowna.

He soon discovered that skating was BIG in Kelowna. The entire community and particularly all his classmates seemed to live and breathe hockey. Of course, like every child, he wanted to belong and suddenly, learning to skate went to the top of his priority list. He’d never stepped on the ice but he was hungry to discover what made skating so great in the eyes of his new friends.

His Mom joined him up at the local Memorial Arena where the Kelowna Figure Skating Club operated.

Next he needed hockey skates. Off to Canadian Tire.

That first CanSkate lesson showed Craig that he was different. First of all he was several years older than everyone else, older and bigger, but he recognized that he was also keener and more motivated. If he was going to learn to skate, he had to do it fast. And by the end of the first week he was already skating backwards and doing simple jumps to test his daring despite being in hockey skates.

He realizes now that he fell in love with skating the second his blades hit the ice.

Part of this was due to the attitude of his first coach, Karen Bond, a patient and caring teacher whose love for the sport was contagious. (To this day if Craig is in Kelowna, he’ll make a trip to the rink to visit with Karen.)

As a result, Craig soon recognized that it was figure skating rather than hockey that was so exciting. That meant another trip to Canadian Tire to select figure skates … but they were all white! That necessitated visits to every shoemaker in town to see if those white skates could be dyed black. Everybody said, “No!” probably because his skates were likely made of plastic rather than leather. No dye would take. Finally one shoemaker agreed to see what he could do.

“I think he used black spray paint” says Craig, “but I didn’t care, my skates looked great.”

With his new black figure skates, Craig was on his way. The adjustment to those new skates, however, wasn’t as easy as he thought and he found himself tripping over his toe picks a lot, something that he admits now taught him quickly how to balance and control his speed and edges. It was either learn to balance or end up face first on the ice.

It wasn’t long before the first coaching bill arrived too, the moment when both Craig and his Mom realized that skating was an expensive sport. As a single parent, Craig’s Mom knew this could be a disappointing moment for her enthusiastic son and sat Craig down for a family meeting to discuss what this meant for the future of his involvement in the sport.

Deep down she wanted him to continue with skating recognizing that the sport teaches great skills beyond the athletics, building character and teaching determination.

At 10 years of age and after just one week of lessons, Craig already knew what he wanted to do and immediately announced to his Mom, “I’m going to the Olympics.”

If the Olympics were really his goal, his Mom agreed to support him … on one condition. He had to work hard. This was a defining moment in young Craig’s life.

The rest, they say, is history. Craig’s mother never had to remind him about their deal.

The hard work she described did indeed take him to the Olympic Games in 2006 in Turino, Italy. It also took him to the top of the national podium where he and his partner, Valerie Marcoux, won three consecutive Canadian Pair titles from 2004 to 2006; to four World Championships with Val and to two with partner Meagan Duhamel.

Craig was proud of his Kelowna roots and continued to represent the Kelowna Skating Club all the way to the national championships. Even after he changed his affiliation, the club was always there for support offering words of encouragement and inspiration.

Looking back on his career, Craig identifies sport as a guiding light in his life. It was skating that taught him all the important lessons and helped in developing all aspects of his personality, teaching him about winning and losing gracefully, setting goals, and supporting everyone involved, even your competitors. It also released his creativity to the point where he now believes there is a sense of artistry in everything.

Craig was 18 when Skate Canada International was held in Kamloops in 1998. He remembers sitting in the stands watching the event, wanting to be out there on the ice and being inspired by the competition. He also remembers thinking back to when he was starting out, 10 years old, an age in skating considered too old to realistically make the Olympic Games.

But like all great champions, he refused to let anyone else write his story, believing that wherever you’re competing, you’re closer to your dream than you think.

Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje lead after short dance at Skate Canada International

KELOWNA, B.C. – Halloween night at Skate Canada International. Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje came dressed to the nines, in full splendid costume, and won the short dance by almost nine points.

There was no trick or treat about it. For almost every element they received bonuses of +2 and regrettably, lost a point for an extended lift. But their Paso Doble otherwise took flight, along with some healthy component marks as Weaver embodied a vermillion cape, and Poje the decorated toreador, sported jewel-encrusted epaulets and colourful embroidery up the yang yang. A work of art those costumes were.

They’ve come to the table with elements that are almost all new. “This is a time to push the boundaries and push ourselves and come up with new stuff,” Poje said. “And we’ve done that.”

They’ve renovated lifts. As Poje says: “We’ve put a backsplash on it.”

They’ve coming into this season battle-tested and ready for anything. “We’ve been through everything it seems,” Weaver said. “But that just makes us more confident in our partnership, in that we can rely on each other when we need to. What really matters is that the injury taught us so much about efficiency and really enjoying ourselves.”

The best part: there is still room for Weaver and Poje to maximize their levels. They fell short of a world title last March by only .02 points.

The 2011 world junior champions Ksenia Monko and Kirill Khaliavin of Russia are in second place while Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are in third, with only six solid weeks of training behind them. Hubbell underwent surgery for a torn labrum that hampered her last season, but complications ensued. They did not put out the programs on Friday that they had hoped, but it’s a start.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, eighth in the world last year, let slip a chance to finish in the top three when Poirier fumbled a twizzle that featured an outstretched leg. Close to the boards, he couldn’t pull the leg in front of him and it went awry. They got only a level one for that.

The charming Elisabeth Paradis and Francois-Xavier Ouellette, fourth at their first Grand Prix, Skate America, last week, are sitting in eighth place, with a miscue on a twizzle.

Russian women finished first and third in the women’s short program, with 16-year-old Anna Pogorilaya winning the event (with mistakes) and a revived Alena Leonova, 23, finishing third with an endearing version of Charlie Chaplin. She wanted to do it, she said, because men and pair skaters had done such things – but no women. It was a delight.

Ashley Wagner, a two-time U.S. champion is in second place, skating to “Spartacus.”

Pogorilaya chalked up technical points as if they were going out of style with her triple Lutz – triple toe loop, although she stumbled out of a double Axel. Wagner had higher component marks, about 3 ½ points more of them and with 63.86 points, was only 1.42 points behind Pogorilaya.

Leonova is third with 62.54. She, too, had higher component marks than Pogorilaya.

Leonova says she pays no attention to the multitudes of talented Russian skaters much younger than she is. She continues to skate, she says, because she loves it. It was tough for her to miss the Sochi Olympics, but she vows to continue to the 2018 Games in South Korea.

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford win short program in Kelowna

KELOWNA, B.C. – It didn’t take long. As soon as Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford took their final pose, the crowd stood up, cheering, weaving Canadian flags.

Duhamel and Radford won the short program at the Skate Canada International with a season’s best of 72.70 points, about 7 ½ points more than Chinese skaters Sui Wenjing and Han (Mr. Personality) Cong.

(A note to put things in perspective: some elements this year – the lift and the death spiral – are worth less than they were last year.  Duhamel and Radford’s previous best score from last year was in the 76-point range so their effort here puts them in the range of that previous lofty score at the end of last season.)

The Canadians skated to “Un peu plus haut” and the wave of feeling that they created in the rink was the real triumph. Their goal, they said, was to feel happy with the way the skated, and hang the score. Mission accomplished.

In third place is the young Russian team of Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov with 64.14 points and a triple twist that defied gravity.

Radford admitted he’d never felt so calm going into a competition. Last year, their first event of the year was Skate Canada. It was indescribably tense. “Last year it felt like a big deal,” he said. “We knew we had to be good. We knew we had to make a splash with our first competition. But this time, it felt more like we want to give a good performance, like with Stars on Ice. When we concentrate on that, our focus is more on ourselves and not what it all means.”

It works.

Still, they didn’t take for granted their competition. The Chinese team had finished ahead of them last year. “They are there to give us our push to make sure we give our best,” Duhamel said “At the same time, we had our focus primarily on ourselves.”

On landing the triple Lutz jump, Duhamel almost struck the wall, but it didn’t faze her. Without Patrick Chan and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir around to take most of the focus at the Skate Canada events, Duhamel and Radford have now stepped forward in prominence. They are taking full responsibility for that position.

“For the last four years, we were always the ones with the outside chance of having a bronze medal somewhere,” Radford said. “And now I think we’ve done a good job of stepping into that limelight, especially with that quad. It’s exciting for us to have a little bit more focus on us and especially on pairs in Canada. “

Speaking of other pairs, there were two other Canadian teams, trying to show off new partnerships with varying success. Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro were making their first appearance in a competition and finished sixth of eight, failing to receive any points for a death spiral.  Marinaro said he bobbled when he put his toe pick for the rotation. It was a pity, because they say, it’s their strongest element.

They’ve been together about five months. Moore-Towers’ face fell when she saw their mark: 53.79.

Their training mates, Brittany Jones and Josh Reagan are in seventh place with 49.80 points and say they were pleased with what they did.

In the men’s event, Javier Fernandez of Spain is leading with 86.18 after he doubled a triple Axel, but his Black Betty routine was a crowd pleaser and well received. Takahito Mura of Japan intended to do a quad-triple, but didn’t land the quad strongly enough to tack it onto the end. He had the presence of mind to put the triple toe loop on the end of a triple Lutz and finished with 82.57 points in second.

In third place is Konstantin Menshov, the oldest competitor at age 31. He landed two quads, but doubled his triple Axel for 81.70 points.

Andrei Rogozine heard only last Monday that he had the assignment for Skate Canada. It pumped him up. He took out a quad attempt, juggled his elements around, landed them all and finished ninth with 70.95 points. Canadian bronze medalist Liam Firus fell on a triple Axel and is 10th of 11 with 64.94 points.