Sunday, January 27, 2008

Young champion should be exception to stupid rule - Emily Carlson


On her very first jump in her long program, Mirai Nagasu tumbles to the ground.
Gasps fill the Xcel Center in St. Paul.
But the 14 year old wasn't disappointed with her fall - she was angry.
She went on to land the next seven triple jumps, and became the second youngest United States figure skating champion ever.
Nagasu is just 34 days older than Tara Lipinski when she won the title in 1997.
Because she is just 14, she cannot compete in the World Championships next month in Sweden. The International Skating Union says to compete at Worlds, skaters had to be 15 by July 1, 2007.
Mirai won't be 15 until next April.
The rule is supposed to keep the young "kids" out of the lime light and all the intense pressure until they are a but older and "ready." In reality, it's a stupid skating rule.
As a real rule, skaters peak when they are teens, sometimes young teens. Oksana Baiul was 16 when she won Olympic gold in 1994, Tara Lipinski was 15 in 1998, and Sarah Hughes 16 in 2006.
This year, 14 year-old Mirai has been traveling the world, competing in International Junior events, skipping school and making money. Not typical "kiddie" behavior.
Mirai could be a her peak right now. So why not let her skate at Worlds?
Mirai isn't the only one left in the dust. Second place Rachel Flatt is 20 days shy of the age requirement, and fourth place finisher Caroline Zhang is just 14 as well.
Meaning the USFSA could end up sending 3rd place Ashley Wagner, 5th place BeBe Liang, and if they stick to placement, 6th place Katrina Hacker, who has little to no international experience. According to sanctions, they could pass her over for 7th place Kimmie Missner, who fell three times in her long program.
If we can't send our top little skaters to Worlds because of their age, and their older, but not as competitive counterparts don't skate well, they could cost the US dearly.
If the placement from the top two skaters from a country is below 13 - say a seventh and an eighth place finish - that country can only send two skaters to the next Worlds.
Smart rule, right?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Nagasu makes smashing debut - Emily Carlson


The 2007 U.S. junior champ earned a 70.23 to place first, and defending champion Kimmie Meissner fell on her opening jump and finished fourth.

By RACHEL BLOUNT, Star Tribune

The night before her senior-level debut, Mirai Nagasu couldn't sleep. Even her mother scolded her, reminding the 14-year-old skater how much rest she would need before the women's short program at the national championships.

Nagasu lay in bed visualizing what Thursday night would feel like. But even in her sweetest dreams, she couldn't imagine just how magical her performance would be. In a '60s-styled hot-pink dress, the southern Californian romped through a program overflowing with charm and bubbly personality, overwhelming the crowd -- and her competition -- at Xcel Energy Center.

Nagasu earned 70.23 points, a personal best by a large margin. Ashley Wagner, also making her senior debut at nationals, and Rachael Flatt, another of skating's young stars, were second and third with scores of 65.15 and 62.91. Defending champion Kimmie Meissner fell on her opening jump and placed fourth; world junior champion Caroline Zhang had two jumps downgraded and was seventh.

"I'm pretty excited," said Nagasu, the 2007 U.S. junior champ. "It was just fun out there, pure fun. That's what I'm here to do. I just want to continue to do it."

Nagasu skated to "I Got Rhythm," and she said during training that she was inspired by dancer Gene Kelly. She channeled his verve with her opening triple lutz-triple toe jump combination followed quickly by a triple flip. Her spine-defying layback spin and two other spins all earned the highest levels of difficulty.

She received a standing ovation from a crowd of approximately 9,000 and took a deep bow. Flatt followed immediately with another George Gershwin number, "It Ain't Necessarily So," and another captivating performance. Wagner got a standing ovation for her athletic "Henry VIII" program, highlighted by her huge jumps.

All three of the top skaters landed triple-triple combinations. Meissner tumbled on her opening triple flip and turned a planned triple-triple combination into a triple-double. She earned a score of 57.58 and said she was generally happy with her performance.

"The flip was a silly mistake," Meissner said. "I thought, 'Kimmie, that's not right. There's no falling in figure skating.' I nailed the lutz, and everything was cool."

Zhang received her lowest technical mark of the season and finished with 53.49 points. Zhang, 14, has struggled with tougher judging standards for jumps and had a triple lutz and a triple toe loop downgraded because she did not complete three full revolutions.

"I thought it was OK," said Zhang, who expressed surprise that the lutz was downgraded. "It could have been a lot better. I think my jumps could have been better. I just wasn't skating very well."

Two local competitors, Molly Oberstar of Duluth and Angie Lien of Superior, Wis., skated clean programs to great applause. Oberstar finished 11th and Lien was 13th. Oberstar said as she left the ice that skating in her home-state nationals was the most fun she had had in her life.

Meissner said that in her free skate Saturday, performed to the dramatic opera theme "Nessun Dorma," she will try to stay more focused through the entire program. So will Nagasu, who is determined not to wilt.

"To be first is really exciting," she said. "I'm not going to let any pressure bother me [Saturday]."

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Partnership takes off - Emily Carlson


Mark Ladwig and Amanda Evora clicked quickly as a team, and the U.S. pairs tandem sees long-term potential.

By RACHEL BLOUNT, Star Tribune

Every great relationship revolves around that defining moment, that instant when you know you've found your match. For Mark Ladwig, it happened as soon as Amanda Evora agreed to try out with him.

The first time they skated together, Evora told Ladwig to launch her into a throw triple loop. That was all it took for the guy from Moorhead, Minn. Any woman willing to try such a daring trick with a total stranger had just the kind of spark he was looking for in a pairs teammate.

Since that day in 2002, Ladwig, 27, has made his other perfect partner his wife, settled into an unlikely skating haven in Florida and earned four top-10 finishes with Evora at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. In tonight's short program at Xcel Energy Center, the two hope to take their first step toward going global. With making the world championship team their primary goal, Ladwig and Evora will also try for their first U.S. championships medal.

"We've been right on the edge,'' said Ladwig who still calls the Red River Valley Figure Skating Club his home. "The podium is a goal for us, but making the world team is the biggest goal. We've trained very hard and very consistently, and we are prepared.''

Like many partners, Ladwig and Evora aren't exactly alike. He listens to country music; she prefers anything but. He lived in Moorhead until he was 19, while she's a native Texan. She's classically trained and had to work to get into the groove of their "Stray Cat Strut'' short program, which wasn't a problem for her more pop-oriented partner.

They mirror each other in their appetite for work and in their respect for their craft and for each other. Ladwig works as a restaurant server, skating teacher, skate sharpener and Zamboni driver at Florida's Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, where the pair has trained since 2003. Evora does office work at the rink and gives lessons in between her classes at the University of South Florida.

All that fits around their skating. After performing their playful, crowd-pleasing short program at a Tuesday practice session at Xcel, Ladwig and Evora gritted their teeth and skated sprints up and down the ice.

"Most of the success we've had is because we share that work ethic,'' Evora said. "We're a pair in every sense. We have similar goals and a similar approach to going after them.''

Ladwig played hockey as a kid in Moorhead, where his father, John, is a doctor and his mother, Carol, is a member of the school board. He shifted to figure skating at age 12 with little success in the singles ranks. "Once in Peoria, I was first in the short program as a novice boy and pretty much died of shock,'' he said. "That was the only time I did well.''

Until he decided two can be better than one. Ladwig already had begun skating pairs and had three partners before his former coach, Ron Ludington, helped him find his match. Ladwig had been skating in a Radio City Music Hall ice show before volunteering at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics; afterward, he drove across the country and tried out with a number of potential teammates.

Ludington had mentioned him to Florida coach Kerry Leitch, who suggested Ladwig give Evora a whirl. He did, literally, and was impressed with her nerve and steely attitude. They have made the national championships in each of their six years together, finishing fifth in 2005, seventh in 2006 and fourth last year.

"She is very gutsy, very tough mentally, and I could see that right away,'' Ladwig said. "She also has a very feminine presentation, and that's a great combination. We were able to have success pretty quickly.''

The pair had one of its best seasons in international competition this year, with a third-place finish at the Nebelhorn Trophy and a fourth at Skate America. Ladwig also is in a new comfort zone after marrying junior-high sweetheart Janet Beverly of North Dakota in 2006. An interior designer who just happens to be named after figure skater Janet Lynn, she and Ladwig recently bought their first house in Parrish, Fla.

She will be part of the substantial rooting section in St. Paul. Among the few missing are Evora's sister, who just had a baby, and Ladwig's brother, who serves on USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf.

If all goes as they hope, Ladwig and Evora's season will be extended through the world championships in March. They expect their association to run far longer, now that they've found the perfect fit.

"[Leitch] said when we first became a pair that it takes five years to become a pair team,'' Ladwig said. "Then after that, you start developing into a good team. We're just at the beginning of a great partnership.''

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Back on home ice - Emily Carlson


Skate boots made at the Riedell Skate Company in Red Wing.

Some of the skates gliding across the ice this week are having a homecoming of sorts, as products of a highly specialized Minnesota company.

By Kim Ode, Star Tribune

RED WING, Minn. - We'd love to tell you how a skate boot is made. But we'd lose you somewhere around Step 112, and there still would be 38 steps left in a top-quality skate's path from cowhide to center ice.

That intricacy is why a custom-fit boot from the Riedell Skates factory can run upwards of $700. That's why the TV cameras know to zoom in when a distraught skater storms off the ice pointing to her feet, or why commentators speak solemnly about boot-lacing rituals.

In any sport, good gear can mean success or failure. But quality takes on a particular intensity when the task is to accelerate up to 30 miles per hour across a sheet of ice before launching yourself into the air, then corkscrewing until gravity pulls you back onto the rink by way of a sliver of steel, the jolt of your return absorbed and supported by your skate boot.

Or not.

Skate boots have evolved since Paul and Sophie Riedell founded Riedell Shoes Inc. in 1945. They were pairs skaters -- Paul was inducted into both the ice- and roller-skating Halls of Fame. But Paul also worked for Red Wing Shoes, rising from machinist to an assistant plant manager, all the while experimenting with building a more comfortable ice skate that would give skaters' toes more room, and thus more maneuverability.

Today, his grandsons Bob, Dan, Scott and Paul Riegelman run the company, and the ice-skating pond their grandfather tended has become a parking lot for the more than 100 employees. Over the years, the family-run outfit has made skates for some of the best on blades, including four-time World Champion Kurt Browning and three-time U.S. Champion Johnny Weir. Dan Riegelman, the company's vice president, said he expects more than 30 skaters to perform in Riedell skates during this week's U.S. championships.

But there also are the skates they've built for the occasional performing chimpanzee, bear or movie star: Riedell skates adorned funny feet in the 2007 Will Ferrell figure-skating comedy, "Blades of Glory." And the most innovative role ever played by a Riedell skate was as Tom Hanks' inventive dental tool in "Castaway."

Designing for triple jumps

A top-quality skate boot begins with a cow.

Dan Johnson, Riedell's director of manufacturing, smoothed an animal-shaped piece of leather, explaining how a hide varies in thickness and elasticity. For instance, shoe tongues are cut from the belly, across the stretch. At $4 a square foot for top-grade leather, pattern cutting is an art, trying to get the most pieces from the right places. "You make it or break it in the cutting room," Johnson said.

From there, the pieces of leather begin a weeklong journey through many pairs of hands and into the maws of incredibly specialized machines, many of which have photos of family vacations or kids in hockey uniforms taped to their sides. Little bursts of hot vapor rise from spots around the assembly room. At various stages, a boot needs to be heated or softened before it's eased into its next shape -- a step that's grown more challenging as boots have grown stiffer.

The push-the-envelope athleticism of today's skaters is driving a demand for more rigid boots, Johnson said. "It's one of the biggest changes in the past 45 years," he said. "If you're doing quads, you need more support. You try to give the boots some flex forward, but they need to be stiff side-to-side -- otherwise, skaters will blow out their ankles."

Layers of reinforcement are built up like plywood. Glue, align, press, stitch. Bevel an edge to ease a seam. Steam the leather so it folds around the heel. Johnson is always on the lookout for new materials, such as the fibrous fabric backing the eyelets that's so strong it's used in road construction.

Each layer adds weight to a boot, and while there's a tipping point, skaters in fact want their skates to weigh a certain amount. And we mean certain in the most literal sense: Skaters want their skates to be 4.5 to 5.5 percent of their body weight, because centrifugal forces help them spin in the air.

One at a time

Custom boots are all of this, and more. More measurements, more layers, more time, more money. Lee Olson is Riedell's custom shoemaker, making new patterns from measurements provided to the company by skaters. Local athletes may visit the factory, but most measurements are mailed in from around the world.

Using reinforcing layers, Olson can build up an arch, curve around a toe, or make allowances for an especially protruding ankle bone. "A little can make a big difference," he said. He cuts each piece by hand, working at a butcher block in a quiet sanctum of the factory. He's been with Riedell for 35 years, working his way up to the custom level. "You can't go to school for it," he said. He documents each step so a skate boot can be made again to the same specifications, a necessity given that a competitive skater can go through a pair a year.

Riedell's top custom boot is $680 -- and that's just the price of the boot. A top-level blade can cost again as much and is attached to the boot later by a blade specialist working with the skater.

And while Olson builds boots that have won world championships, he doesn't skate himself.

Rolling into the future

Ice-skating actually is in the midst of a downturn, Riegelman said, ticking off reasons ranging from overexposure on TV to judging scandals. But no worries. Derby roller-skating is growing in popularity nationwide. Even the legendary roller-skating scene at Venice Beach, Calif., is reviving, which is good news for Riedell, whose skate boots can be fit with either ice blades or roller wheels.

The company even brought back an old "Riedell" logo for its roller skates, because it had the retro look that derby skaters favor.

There used to be about 2,000 shoe factories in the United States, Riegelman said. That number is down to fewer than 50. In Red Wing, pop. 16,000, there are two.

Monday, January 21, 2008

U.S. Figure Skating Championships: Locals to watch - Emily Carlson


Rohene Ward, from Minneapolis, Minn., leaps in the air during his routine in the men's short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Louis, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2006.
© AP Photo - Eric Gay

THE FIELD
Nine skaters with local ties will be competing in the championships. Seven currently live in the area:

Senior women
• Angie Lien of Superior, Wis.

• Molly Oberstar of Duluth

Senior men
• Eliot Halverson of St. Paul

• Rohene Ward of Minneapolis

Junior women
• Kirsten Olson of Savage

Junior men
• Alex Johnson of Minnetonka

Novice women
• Samiera Abou-Nasr of Woodbury

Pairs
• Moorhead native Mark Ladwig and partner Amanda Evora, who live in Florida, will compete in the senior pairs. Oakdale native Michael Chau and partner Tracy Tanovich, who also live and train in Florida, will skate in junior pairs.

HOW THEY GOT HERE
Most of the local skaters qualified through the Upper Great Lakes Regional and the Midwestern Sectional. Oberstar and Johnson won their events at the sectional; Ward and Olson placed second; and Lien and Halverson placed fourth. Abou-Nasr qualified by placing second at the Pacific Coast Sectional. Chau/Tanovich earned their spot by winning their events at the Eastern Sectional. Evora and Ladwig, who finished fourth at Skate America and fourth at the 2007 U.S. championships, received a bye.

DID YOU KNOW?
• Halverson is competing at the senior level for the first time after winning the U.S. novice title in 2006 and the U.S. junior championship in 2007.

• Lien turned 27 on Jan. 16 and is the oldest competitor in the women's field. This is her fifth nationals.

• In his first season competing at the junior level, Johnson won his event at the Midwestern Sectional by 33 points.

• Oberstar is reprising both of her programs from last year, a short program to a guitar version of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and a free skate set to a gypsy medley.

• Olson has placed in the top 10 in both of her previous appearances at nationals. She was ninth last year in the junior division and fifth as a novice in 2005.

• Ward's programs include a quadruple toe loop, which he has landed in competition. He can spin and jump in both directions.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Nationals huge draw in St. Paul - Emily Carlson


Johnny Weir is one of the athletes scheduled to compete at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

The figure skating nationals appear to be a huge draw for St. Paul, which could reap nearly $30 million during the weeklong event.

By JEAN HOPFENSPERGER AND KEVIN GILES, Star Tribune staff writers

The U.S. Figure Skating Championships begin Sunday and run through Jan. 27, with senior competition beginning on Wednesday. Single tickets and event packages are available. For more information, go to www.saintpaul2008.com

Lindsey Goff doesn't just admire figure skating, she lives it, and she won't be missing a minute of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that start Sunday in St. Paul.
"This is a huge honor to have this big of a competition in St. Paul because they are the best figure skaters in the country," said Goff, 21, who teaches figure skating in Roseville and once performed in the nationals herself. "It's just so cool to perform for other people, feed off the crowd's energy, show them what you've worked for."

In a weeklong event that could set attendance records at the Xcel Energy Center, the championships will feature 250 top national skaters, attract an estimated 125,000 spectators, sell 7,000 nights in hotels, and bring as much as $30 million to St. Paul businesses. More than 600 volunteers, working from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., will do everything from taking tickets to helping 300 sports reporters. NBC will broadcast live coverage of the finals next weekend.

One reason for a big turnout might be the presence of several national figure skating celebrities. Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton plan to attend, as do former champions Todd Eldredge, Kristi Yamaguchi, Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia.

Nine of the contestants come from Minnesota. They include Eliot Halverson of St. Paul, Molly Oberstar of Duluth and Rohene Ward of Minneapolis. The skaters will compete at novice, junior or senior levels for 12 national titles awarded in ladies' singles, men's singles, pairs and ice dance.

Goff, who performs with the University of Minnesota figure skating team and has competed in synchronized events in the nationals, said Ward is one of her favorites. She plans to watch every competition and will volunteer as an "ice monitor" during practice sessions.

"It's cool because you get to sit close to the ice and see the skaters up close and personal," she said Friday.

Nancy Meyer, who belongs to a club in Burnsville, is another Minnesota figure skating addict.

"When you're watching skating on TV, you only see part of the picture,'' she said. "You don't get to see them warming up, having their coaches give them that last-minute talk ... (Plus) You get to see Dick Button doing commentaries, you get to see the 'kiss and cry' area with nobody in it."

Winners of the St. Paul event will advance to the world figure skating championships in Sweden in March. "These are the people most likely to compete in the 2010 Olympics," said Elizabeth Harty, of the Twin City Figure Skating Association and a co-chair of next week's event.

Sponsors predict considerable economic benefits to downtown St. Paul. Cities that recently have hosted the championships have found it generated $25 million to $30 million in revenues, said Kathy O'Connor, spokeswoman for the Xcel Energy Center. At least 7,000 nights in hotels in St. Paul and Bloomington were booked by Thursday, she said.

The championships proved a bonanza last year in Spokane, Wash., which sold a record 154,893 tickets and drew spectators from Canada, said Pam Scott of the city's Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. Ticket sales beat the previous record set in 2002 in Los Angeles, where 125,345 tickets were sold, she said.

While Xcel officials weren't disclosing actual ticket sales, other indications of the event's popularity were beginning to appear downtown.

The St. Paul Hotel, which is two blocks from the Xcel Center, is sold out for the last four days of the skating championships, said David Miller, the hotel's general manager. Miller said that "a good majority" of the hotel's 255 rooms were rented by people who will attend the championships.

The figure skating championships, coupled with the Republican National Convention this summer, will put St. Paul in the national spotlight, said Sue Gonsior, communications director for Capital City Partnership, a promoter of downtown St. Paul.

"It fills up hotel rooms and fills our street with visitors during off hours," she said. "I hear a lot of talk about it. People are excited that it's in St. Paul."

Meanwhile, hundreds of ordinary Minnesotans will contribute in ways that put them close to the competitors. A lucky group of young Twin Cities skaters will do the "sweeps'' during the events, picking up the stuffed bears and flowers tossed in appreciation onto the ice. Another group of young adults will join in the awards presentation ceremonies.

Goff and other local skaters have been appearing at rinks throughout the Twin Cities to promote the championships, show off a few moves and give impromptu lessons. Up to 2,000 people have come to some of these sessions, which she said is more proof of the popularity of "the beautiful sport" of figure skating and should ensure good attendance at the championships.

"I definitely think if they come watch any of the events it would be impossible to not be inspired," she said.

The competition starts Sunday, with the younger competitors. The most seasoned skaters begin competing Wednesday, with their national finals over the weekend.

"It's elegant and graceful," said Goff, who compares figure skaters with ballerinas and dancers. "But very athletic."

Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553 Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554

FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS
The U.S. Figure Skating Championships begin Sunday and run through Jan. 27, with senior competition beginning on Wednesday. Single tickets and event packages are still available.

Online: www.saintpaul2008.com

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hughes will miss Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul - Emily Carlson


Emily Hughes at the HomeSense Skate Canada International in Quebec in November.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Emily Hughes will miss next week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minn., because of a hip injury.

The injury has prevented Hughes from training. She said Monday she hopes to resume "serious training" in four to six weeks.

"This injury is just really bad timing," said Hughes, who finished second to former world champion Kimmie Meissner at last year's national championships. "I'm extremely disappointed to have to miss the U.S. Championships. This is a competition I've been looking forward to all season."

Hughes, the younger sister of Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes, was seventh at the Turin Olympics and has been in the top 10 at the last two world championships. A full-time student at Harvard, she finished fourth in both of her Grand Prix assignments this year.

The U.S. Figure Skating Championships are Jan. 23-27.