**I just moved apartments and sadly do not yet have cable or Internet at my new place. This will make a timely commentary on Skate America tricky but I am going to try to get everything set up asap!
You guys, the skating competitions that happen before the Grand Prix starts are like preseason football to me. Pretty much meaningless. Today's the day the senior season truly kicks off in my book. 2011 Hilton Hhonors Skate America (the worst name for a skating competition in the history of ever...I mean...how do you pronounce "hhonors??" Is the first or second h silent or do you say the letter "h" and then honors? SO DUMB) starts today in Ontario, California. WOO. I will post a schedule later but here is a look at some of the competitors I am looking out for...which is...most of them.
Why to Watch: Wow, this is quite a pairs lineup. There are the returning world champions, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany. I don't expect them to be anything other than excellent at this competition, since they haven't truly shown weakness (in any area other than taste) since the Olympic season two years ago. We'll also see Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang of China, who missed last season while Hao dealt with injuries. It will be interesting to see if they are still competitive with the world's top teams.
Russia's Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov are coming off of two Grand Prix silver medals last season and a fifth place worlds finish. I don't quite place them on the same level as Savchenko and Szolkowy just yet, and they will have to make fewer mistakes this season in order to start moving up to the next tier.
Keep an Eye Out For: US Figure Skating will be watching with baited breath to see if the international judges love new pair Caydee Denney and John Coughlin as much as the federation would like them to. A medal is not out of the question for Denney and Coughlin but I think the team will have to capitalize on others' errors in order to get on the podium. For these two, I think they have a nice style and they mesh well as a couple, but keep an eye on their technical content and grades of execution. The American pairs need to be more solid in order to compete with the top teams.
Americans Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker are less likely to medal, but it's important that they show growth since their success at Nationals last season.
Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch were surprise Grand Prix darlings last season until the Grand Prix Final. They are a medal threat here as well but, again, just not at the same level as teams like the Zhangs and Savchenko and Szolkowy.And don't count out Germany's Maylin Hausch and Daniel Wende, bronze medalists on last season's Grand Prix.
Why to Watch: This is all about Meryl Davis and Charlie White. It's our first chance to see their new programs this season. Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France will be hoping to close that teeniest of gaps that still exists between them and the top teams in the world, but I think Davis and White have a handle on this one.
Keep an Eye Out For: It's also the very first Grand Prix for new American couple Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue.
Why to Watch: I haven't been covering the glut of articles regarding Alissa Czisny's new triple/triple combinations; I learned my lesson last season after Rachael Flatt would hype combos she would never go on to attempt. That being said, it really is time for Czisny to up the technical ante. Even lightweights are doing at least a triple toe/triple toe these days. If she wants to keep up with the young guns, she'll try something here.
The real story I'll be watching out for is whether Carolina Kostner still looks good and can continue her success on the Grand Prix circuit. With no Miki Ando and no Yu-na Kim, last year's world bronze medalist may be a contender for gold this time around.
Keep an Eye Out For: America's Caroline Zhang, who is trying yet again to become relevant once more. Is this the year it happens? And it's notable that it's USA's Joelle Forte's very first Grand Prix event. Also, keep an eye on Sweden's Joshi Helgesson and Viktoria Helgesson. And never to be ignored is Russia's Ksenia Makarova.
Finally, Japan's Haruka Imai got overshadowed by Kanako Murakami last season, but here's her chance to strike first. Not a particularly formidable lineup, Imai has a chance for a medal here.
Why to Watch: Well, certainly you won't be watching for Evan Lysacek, who dropped out. But there are plenty of folks whose quads you want to keep an eye on, like France's Florent Amodio and Czech Republic's Michal Brezina. Japan's Takahiko Kozuka may be the true favorite here but there's plenty of competition.
Keep an Eye Out For: Japan's Daisuke Murakami, who has yet to snag a Grand Prix medal. And don't forget the Americans, Grand Prix bronze medalist Armin Mahbanoozadeh, national silver medalist Richard Dornbush, and Lysacek fill-in, Douglas Razzano. Actually, you shouldn't overlook anyone in this men's field. Since the entry lists are smaller these days, the competition is really full of quality skaters all around.
Predictions (Why do I bother? Glutton for Punishment!)
1) Savchenko and Szolkowy (Germany)
2) Bazarova and Larionov (Russia)
3) Zhang and Zhang (China)
1) Davis and White (USA)
2) Pechalat and Bourzat (France)
3) Nellie Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi (Germany)
1) Alissa Czisny (USA)
2) Carolina Kostner (Italy)
3) Ksenia Makarova (Russia)
1) Takahiko Kozuka (Japan)
2) Florent Amodio (France)
3) Michal Brezina (Czech Republic)