Juniors

Photo: Robin Ritoss

Though it was not known at the time, the 2020 World Junior Championships wound up being the final event on the 2019-2020 figure skating calendar.

A total of 172 skaters from 43 ISU member nations contested the Championships in Tallinn, Estonia: 36 men, 48 ladies, 16 pairs, and 29 ice dance teams. Of the 12 medals up for grabs, Russian skaters pocketed eight. The U.S. went home with ice dance gold and ladies bronze, while Japan earned silver in men and Georgia mined silver in ice dance.


No competition was more anticipated than the ladies, with two talented young stars — Russia’s Kamila Valieva and Alysa Liu of the U.S. — the focus of the spotlight and all the media attention.

Valieva — who had not lost a competition all season — and Liu had gone head to head at the Junior Grand Prix Final last December, with the Russian prodigy coming out on top. Many expected the showdown for gold in Tallinn would once again come down to these two rivals.

However, that expectation began to unravel in the short program, with Valieva winning the segment and Liu sitting in a distant fourth, 7.40 points out of the lead. Liu, who was visibly surprised when her score was announced, was hit with an under-rotation on the back end of her opening combination (triple Axel-triple toe) and earned lower Grade of Execution (GOE) scores across the board. South Korea’s Haein Lee sat in second, ahead of Daria Usacheva of Russia.

Valieva’s “Girl on the Ball” short program was itself a work of art, which was reflected in her Program Component Scores. The 13-year-old earned positive GOEs for her jumps (triple loop, double Axel, and a triple Lutz-triple toe combination), Level 4 spins and the step sequence. She closed out the segment with a personal best score of 74.92. 

Skating second last in the free, Valieva opened her routine to “Exogenesis Symphony Part 3” by Muse, with a step out on the first quad toe, but immediately landed a second in combination with a double toe. Midway through the program, she executed two back-to-back triple jump combinations and closed it out with a triple Lutz and two Level 4 spins. With a personal best score of 152.38 for her efforts — a new World Junior record — and racked up 227.30 points in total. In the end, it would be a runaway victory for the Kazan native by a 19.56-point margin.

She became the eighth Russian lady to win the World Junior title in 12 years (Elena Radionova and Alexandra Trusova each won the event twice). “No matter what condition I was in, I had to do everything I did in training, even if not everything worked in the practices,” Valieva said.

Usacheva, the final skater of the competition, also delivered a strong performance, and her inherent sense of musicality was on display as she sailed through her “Je suis malade” long program. The 13-year-old, who does not have a quad or a triple Axel in her repertoire, executed six triple jumps and earned Level 4s for the spins and step sequence. Her only error was an edge call on a triple flip late in the program. She was awarded 139.29 points for the segment — a personal best score — and captured the silver medal with a total tally of 207.74.

“I was happy to skate clean, but I can do better. All the jumps I can do better,” Usacheva said. “It was a huge experience. The atmosphere and the scale of the event ia like at the Grand Prix Final, but the significance of the competition feels bigger. I really enjoyed skating here.”

When asked if attending her first major press conference was more nerve wracking than competing, Usacheva replied “the press conference because I want to speak English.”

Liu’s long program did not get off to a great start. She opened the routine, set to “Illumination” by Jennifer Thomas, by under- rotating the triple Axel in combination with a double toe, followed by a fall on an under- rotated quad Lutz. However, the American teenager was instantly back on her feet and seconds later landed a clean triple Axel. She went on to execute six clean triple jumps and earned Level 4s for the spins and the step sequence. The 14-year-old scored 137.31 for the free and, with a combined total of 204.83 points, moved up to capture the bronze medal.

“I am very excited to be here and I am very happy with my placement. I kind of left what happened in the short behind — it already happened and I could not undo it, so I just focused on my free skate,” the reigning U.S. champion explained. “The season is over for me. I don’t have any more competitions.”

When asked if there are any skaters she looks up to, Liu cited the senior Russian ladies that dominated every competition last season. “I definitely look up to a few people in seniors. Probably Anna Shcherbakova, Alena Kostornaia, and Alexandra Trusova. They are the top three.”

Russia’s third entry, Maiia Khromykh, pulled up one spot after the short to finish fourth with 198.24 points; Lee dropped from second to fifth (194.01) and her teammate Seoyeong Wi finished sixth (193.30).

The U.S., Russia, and South Korea each earned three berths at the 2021 World Junior Championships. Canada’s Alison Schumacher finished ninth, which guaranteed her nation two spots next year. None of the ladies medalists in Tallinn will be age eligible to compete at the senior level until the 2021-2022 season.

HIT AND MISS

The men’s competition was an up and down affair, with many bringing their A games to the short program but failing to duplicate that effort in the free skate. Though all of the final top four managed to stay vertical in the long program, 12 skaters racked up a combined total of 20 falls.

To have any hope of placing top 10 in the junior men’s field at this competition, a triple Axel was a must-have element. All but 12 of the 34 men who contested the short program came armed with that jump. Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama and Andrei Mozalev of Russia had gone head-to-head just weeks before at the Youth Olympic Games — a showdown from which Kagiyama emerged the victor. With silver medals from the Games and the Junior Grand Prix Final (where he was beaten by Japan’s Shun Sato), Mozalev was determined to not have those results repeated in Tallinn.

The short program turned into an exciting battle between the two, with Kagiyama winning the segment over Mozalev and Andrew Torgashev of the U.S. The biggest surprise of the first day of the competition was Aleksandr Selevko of Estonia, who finished fourth in the short program. It was a tight race heading into the free, with the top five men separated by a margin of 6.52 points.

Mozalev opened his routine, set to “Lost n Blue,” “My Own Paradise” and “In This Shirt,” with a solid quad toe-triple toe combination that set the pace for the rest of the program. A second quad toe, two triple Axels, and four more triple jumping passes — the only clean free skate of the day — earned the 17-year-old a personal best score of 160.78 for the free skate. With 245.09 points in total, he captured the coveted title in his first and only appearance at the Championships. “I wanted to show clean skating and prove that I belong in the top three,” said Mozalev, who won by a margin of 13.34 points. “It has been a hard season with many competitions, but I was much better prepared than the previous season.”

It was not the day Kagiyama had dreamed about. He fell on an under-rotated quad toe at the beginning of his long program, set to the “Tucker” soundtrack; the first triple Axel in a three- jump combination was also deemed under-rotated; the triple Lutz received an edge call, and at the end of the routine he singled a second intended triple Axel. Kagiyama’s performance earned 145.93 points —fifth best of the day— but on the strength of his short program score he finished second overall with a combined total of 231.75. “In the six-minute warm-
up, I felt like my body and
my mind were not exactly connected,” the 2020 Four Continents bronze medalist said. “I was a bit nervous and that affected my performance and caused the mistakes.

“I don’t know if it was the ideal perform- ance, but I was motivated by Yuzuru Hanyu’s short program at the Sochi Winter Games. It was his first Olympics and he was probably nervous, but he performed calmly and nailed all his jumps and spins. I was confident about my quad toe all season, but when I missed the first one (in Tallinn) I held back a little.”

Petr Gumennik of Russia had fallen off the radar last season. The talented 18-year- old from St. Petersburg had a growth spurt that added many inches to his height, which caused him to lose his sense of timing when it came to the jumps. Sitting in ninth after the short, he laid down his best free skate performance of the season, reeling off a series of jumps that included a quad toe- double toe combination, a triple Axel and five more triple jumps in his program set to “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Gumennik made a quantum leap up the standings to land in second in the free and finished third overall with 231.12 points. It was a vast improvement on his 10th place standing a year earlier. “I am glad that I skated almost clean. My training and my warm-up did not go so well, but in the performance I managed the jumps and I am pleased with how I fought through it,” said the 2018 Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalist. “It helped that I had the experience from last year and the international competitions, but I think I am lacking consistency. I need to learn harder jumps and do them in the program to raise the technical base value, and I need to work on the second mark.”

This was the final junior competition for all three medalists, who will move into the senior ranks next season.

Italy’s Daniel Grassl had hoped to close out his final year as a junior with a medal, but it was not to be. Sixth after the short, the bronze medalist from the 2019 campaign ranked third in the free but finished fourth overall with 229.38 points. The most impressive performance of the day came from Maxim Naumov of the U.S., who brought the audience to its feet in a standing ovation. The 18-year-old sat in 10th after the short but climbed to fifth with 225.10 points overall. He was the only skater of the day to earn positive GOEs across the board with no minus signs in sight. Torgashev could not find his rhythm in the free and with four falls, he dropped to eighth with 208.95 points.

It was a disappointing competition for the two Canadians in the field. Joseph Phan landed in 12th ahead of Stephen Gogolev, who finished 17th. Under normal circumstances, Gogolev would have been a heavy favorite to take the title, but he had struggled all season following two major growth spurts that occurred within a matter of months.

Russia, Japan and the U.S. were the only nations to earn three spots in the men’s event at the 2021 World Junior Championships.

AMERICAN GOLD

Before the competition had even begun, it was a given that the battle for the ice dance crown would be between Georgia’s Maria Kazakova and Georgy Reviya and Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik of the U.S.

The Georgian duo’s victory over the American team at the Junior Grand Prix Final had set the stage for a showdown at the last competitive match-up of the season. And, in the end, a mere 0.99 of a point was the difference between gold and silver.

After narrowly missing the podium a year ago, Nguyen and Kolesnik headed into the 2020 World Junior Championships with one goal in mind: to bring home the gold. However, their campaign did not get off to a roaring start with a third-place finish in the rhythm dance. Though they completed two Level 4 elements in their “Aladdin” routine, the second “Tea Time

Foxtrot” sequence garnered just a Level 2. Nguyen and Kolesnik were disappointed about leaving valuable points on the table, but were even more determined to deliver their best in the free dance. “It hurts to be in third place. We’re going to attack the free dance and be better than everybody thinks,” Kolesnik said at the post-event press conference.
And deliver they did. The last skaters of the night, Nguyen and Kolesnik laid down a captivating performance of their free dance set to Sergei Rakhmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No. 2,” executing difficult twizzles, lifts, and a complex circular step sequence.

The duo earned Level 4s for all the elements and their score of 108.91 points for the segment (a personal best) ranked first in the free dance. It took a minute for the combined result to flash overhead, but when it finally came up, Nguyen and Kolesnik had won the title with an overall score of 177.18. Together with their coaches, they celebrated with their own happy dance in the kiss and cry. “The result from the Junior Grand Prix Final really motivated and pushed us because all our competitors are very strong,” said Nguyen of their second-place finish in Torino last December. “It feels amazing right now. I’ve dreamed about this moment for so long and to know that our work finally paid off feels great. We are so happy, we are elated, we are just overjoyed.”

“Honestly, it’s the biggest moment of my life happening right now,” Kolesnik added. For Kazakova and Reviya it was one historic step after another last season. The duo made history when they won the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final, the first skaters in any discipline from their nation to claim a major international title. They added to that historic run when they danced onto the second step of the World Junior podium in Tallinn.
Kazakova and Reviya sat in second after the rhythm dance, just 0.05 of a point shy of the lead. But they had a weapon in the form of a brilliantly crafted free dance that, if skated to the best of their ability, was reason enough to make everyone nervous.

The program, “In the End” by Tommee Profitt, Fleuri & Junge Youth, was a cleverly woven story with innovative lifts, difficult transitions, and an intricate footwork sequence. The duo earned Level 4s for all elements other than the combination spin, which was graded a Level 2. In the end, that element made the difference between first and second place in the final standings. With 106.21 points for the free dance and 176.19 in total, Kazakova and Reviya captured the silver medal. It was the first podium finish for the team in three appearances at the Championships.

“We skated well and we gave it our all. We did everything that depends on us.The most important thing is that people enjoyed how we skated,” said Reviya. “The audience was very supportive. A big thank you to the spectators who came to watch. We’ll move on; the most important things are still to come.
“I am very glad that Maria and I did not let down the people that believed in us and helped us. We are very proud to have achieved this result for Georgia. This is a huge achievement for us, for our country, our federation and for everyone who was part of it.”

Russia’s Elizaveta Shanaeva and Devid Naryzhnyy sat in first after the rhythm dance but were unable to sustain the lead following their tentative performance to “River” by Bishop Briggs. The duo scored 105.14 points for the free dance, third best of the day, and a combined score of 175.17 dropped them down to third overall.

“We really like it in Tallinn. This was an incredible experience for us,” said Naryzhnyy. “We are newcomers. This is our first season at this high level and therefore everything is new to us. Not everything worked out perfectly, but we tried our best.”

“We wanted to show the maximum as most likely there won’t be any other competitions this season, and we wanted to skate our very best,” Shanaeva added.

Russia’s Arina Ushakova and Maxim Nekrasov, the 2018 World Junior bronze medalists, finished fourth with 169.18 points, followed by their teammates Diana Davis and Gleb Smolkin (165.22). Loïcia Demougeot and Théo Le Mercier of France rounded out the top six with 162.52 points.

HISTORY REPEATED

For the fifth time in the annals of the World Junior Championships — and for the third consecutive year — a trio of Russian teams swept the pairs podium. That nation previously claimed all three steps in 1985 and 1986 under the Soviet Union banner, and again in 2018 and 2019.

Apollinariia Panfilova and Dmitry Rylov, second in 2019 and the
 only returning medalists,
 did not win a single competition last season. It was a different story a year later, with the team from Perm winning every event it entered, closing out the golden run by leading the podium sweep in Tallinn. It was their sixth consecutive victory of the 2019-2020 campaign.

With a lead of just 3.27 points heading into the free skate, Panfilova and Rylov needed a solid performance to stay ahead of their rivals. Skating last, they opened their routine to “The Third Person” soundtrack with a huge triple twist that earned a +5 Grade of Execution (GOE) from every judge.

Their Program Component Scores — which would rival many senior teams — put Panfilova and Rylov far ahead of the rest of the field and pushed their tally in the free to 122.25 points, just shy of their season’s best. The duo captured the title with a combined total of 195.96 and a 21.11-point margin of victory.

“It was not our best performance, but we did what we could do. Our preparation was not ideal, like basically throughout the season, but maybe it was for the better. The more difficult your preparation is, the more valuable is the medal,” said Panfilova, 17. “We just focused on ourselves. We are our main competitors. If we watch the other teams during the warm-ups, I don’t think anything good will come out of it.”

When asked if there was more pressure coming in as the top-ranked team, Panfilova said, “It is not harder to compete when you are the favorite or when you come as the number three team from Russian nationals to this competition. The responsibility is the same.”

“This victory is very important to us,” added Rylov, 18. “We won all the junior competitions this season and we wanted to end the season with the gold medal.”

It was a tight race between the other two Russian teams. Kseniia Akhanteva, 17, and Valerii Kolesov, 19, the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final bronze medalists, edged Iuliia Artemeva and Mikhail Nazarychev by just 0.18 of a point to finish second in the short.

The free skate, set to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd, was a struggle for Akhanteva, who fell on both side-by-side jumps (triple Salchow and triple toe) — which were also deemed under-rotated — and stumbled out of the throw triple loop. However, strong spins and a well-executed death spiral helped save the day. The team scored 104.41 points for the segment and held on to second place with a 174.85 overall total.
“Our long program did not work out. We made serious mistakes, and not just one mistake. It helped us that we had a good short program,” said Kolesov, adding “it was nice to win a medal at Junior Worlds on our first try.”

Performing to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Artemeva and Nazarychev also experienced technical problems. Both were unsteady on the landings of the opening triple toes and it went downhill from there. Artemeva fell on the double Axel attempt and both throw jumps. The performance ranked fourth best of the night with 100.92 points, but the duo held on to win the bronze with a combined total of 171.18. “After the performance we had mixed feelings,” Nazarychev admitted. “I waited for our score and then for the score of the next team before I knew we were on the podium. It was an important competition and an experience for us. ”

It was a disappointing finish for Germany’s Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel. The duo was on the verge of causing a podium upset when, on the final element of the program — a combination spin — Kunkel put his foot down on the ice. They received no points for the element and that error left them in fourth with 167.15 points in total. Cleo Hamon and Denys Strekalin of France finished sixth with 156.35, a fraction of a point ahead of the American team of Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy (156.26).

(Originally published in the IFS June 2020 issue)