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Weekend on ice

Grand Prix Finals at World Arena feature worlds best skaters

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American skater Sasha Cohen, competing this weekend at the World Arena.
  • American skater Sasha Cohen, competing this weekend at the World Arena.

You have to see it to believe it. Sequined teen-age divas buzz across the ice, demonstrating the flexibility of a bendy straw. Defying gravity, men catapult themselves into the air, complete four harrowing rotations and land perfectly balanced on a slim blade.

"There is nothing greater than a live figure-skating competition; the pulse of it is wonderful," said Gerri Walbert, publisher and editor of Blades On Ice, self-proclaimed as the sport's most comprehensive magazine.

For the rare opportunity to see the top Olympic-eligible athletes compete in the Grand Prix Final of Figure Skating, event organizers hope locals will fill the Colorado Springs World Arena Dec. 12 to 14. Flubs and spills will be infrequent as the roster includes only the most sparkling performers of the yet-to-be-completed Grand Prix Series.

The midseason scheduling also benefits spectators. With a holiday break just around the corner and the World Championships still months away, Walbert expects that "to claim the prize money ($468,000 total purse), gain the mental edge and create a buzz, the skaters won't be holding back in competition."

A new judging system called the "Code of Points," less familiar but seemingly more accountable, will rank the entries. Replacing the time-honored 6.0 scale, it rewards skaters for the execution of technical merit and artistry.

The nonscoring practice sessions can also entertain. Mental games between competitors, challenging elements, and animated exchanges between a skater and coach give fans a peek into the skaters' lives.

There are stirring plotlines to follow in each discipline. The singles events feature clear favorites, American Sasha Cohen and Russian Evgeny Plushenko, who have out-jumped, out-spun and out-stepped the competition. The media attention and fan interest that accompanies their stardom also brings the pressure of expectation. Their distant challengers will be hungry to seize any opportunity to eclipse them.

Cohen's programs combine effortless triples, rhythmic footwork, breathtaking spirals and quick-rotating spins featuring positions of flexibility with graceful choreography. Though less problematic this season, golden opportunities at World and Olympic Championships have escaped her when her concentration wanes.

Her main challengers in Colorado Springs will likely be of Japanese descent. Shizuka Arakawa and Fumie Suguri demonstrate notable artistry and triples but lack the American's presence. For Cohen, an impressive win here will signal to her key rival, World champ Michelle Kwan who opted out of the Grand Prix Series, that the young upstart is primed for a battle at Nationals and Worlds.

Since the Olympics, Plushenko has dominated the sport and shows no sign of relenting. A two-time World champion, his melodramatic choreography is forgiven by his stylish ability to land a jump -- double, triple, quadruple or a combination of all three in one pass.

Americans Timothy Goebel and Michael Weiss will arrive with high hopes of joining Plushenko on the podium. Goebel, a gritty jumper and two-time World silver medallist, still searches to balance his skating with heartfelt choreography. Weiss, on the other hand, has enough presence to compete with the world's best but lacks the jumping consistency. He often negates the value of his quadruple with a two-footed landing. The other disciplines are without a clear favorite.

The pairs event will likely feature an all-Russian and -Chinese cast, the two powerhouses in pairs skating. The main contenders are 2002 and 2003 World champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China and their runners-up each year, Russians Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin. Shen and Zhao skate with unbridled intensity -- particularly their high-flying throws. And while they have injected more passion into their skating, spinning in unison often eludes them, creating an awkward moment in an otherwise flawless program and an opening that Totmianina and Marinin have seized in the past. Element by element, the Russians' skating is meticulous and consistent, highlighted by their long limbs and galloping speed. Their chilly choreography, however, tends to leave audiences indifferent.

On the dance floor, the skating of European teams still appeals most to the judges. Retirements at the top last season leave the energetic Bulgarian ice dancers Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski and silky Russians Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov fighting to stand on the top step of the podium.

Because ice dance lacks the jumps that help spectators to gauge a skater's success, a careful eye is required to assess what the feet are doing without distraction of the skater's upper body. Difficulty comes with skating primarily on one foot rather than both, frequent changes in the skate blade's direction, and positions that challenge the skater's balance. All of this should be demonstrated while maintaining great speed and minimal distance between the skaters.

The bronze medal will be a North American showdown between the scrappy skating of Americans Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto vs. Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon of Canada.

capsule

ISA Grand Prix of Figure Skating

Colorado Springs World Arena, 3185 Venetucci Blvd.

Fri.- Sun., Dec. 12-14, 6:30 p.m. on Fri. and Sat., 2 p.m. on Sun.

Tickets $22.50 or $36.50 at the World Arena Box Office

Call 576-2626

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