Halley’s Comet swings by this part of the galaxy every 75 years or so, and high-level figure-skating competitions land in Southern California just about as often. So it was a big deal for local skate fans when Honda Center in Anaheim was selected as the site of this past weekend’s Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, a gathering of many of the world’s best skaters competing in the sport’s four major disciplines: ladies’ singles, men’s singles, pair skating and ice dancing.
While some of the top skaters held to form and won medals, there were also several unexpected results. Madison Chock — a native of Redondo Beach, who missed much of the current season while recovering from an ankle injury she suffered at the outset of last year’s Winter Olympics — teamed with Evan Bates to outscore their rivals and training partners (and current U.S. champs) Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue to take the gold in ice dance on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 10. Two of the United States’ top ladies skaters, Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell, scored high enough to rank in first and third places, respectively, and expressive stylist Ting Cui was within striking distance in seventh place, after the ladies’ short program on Thursday, Feb. 7, but all three lost their shots at medaling following disappointing free skates on Friday.
Four Continents is awarded to a different city around the globe every year and was last held in the United States in 2012, in Colorado Springs. In the two decades since the international competition was initiated in 1999, the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships had never been conducted in California until the opening ceremony and short programs by the men’s and ladies’ skaters began at Honda Center on Thursday, Feb. 7. The previous competition on this level in the Southland occurred in 2009, when the World Figure Skating Championships were held for a week in March at Staples Center. Meanwhile, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships have been presented in Southern California just twice in the past century — in Long Beach in 1963 and at Staples Center in 2002. The closest most local skating aficionados can get to seeing live figure skating is the annual Stars on Ice revue, an exhibition that largely focuses on American skaters. Stars on Ice can be fun, but its generally lighthearted performances seldom come close to the exacting difficulty and intensity of serious figure-skating competitions such as the Winter Olympics, Four Continents, and the national and world championships.
Many of the skaters at Four Continents had just taken part in their individual countries’ national championships and are poised to compete in next month’s World Figure Skating Championships, which will be held in Saitama, Japan. Several notable skaters didn’t participate in this year’s Four Continents. Thirteen-year-old Alysa Liu outdistanced fellow ladies skaters Tennell and Bell at the U.S. national championships last month in Detroit, but she was too young to qualify for Four Continents. U.S. men’s skater and current world champion Nathan Chen skipped Four Continents this year so he could devote himself to his studies at Yale. Chen’s absence left the door open for Japanese skater Shoma Uno, who set a new ISU best score of 197.36 in winning the gold, followed by China’s Jin Boyang, who came in second, and 18-year-old U.S. skater Vincent Zhou, who led after Thursday’s short program but had to settle for a bronze medal on Saturday night.
Four Continents — whose name refers to Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania — was started as a counterpart to the annual European Figure Skating Championships, and this year’s edition featured many of the planet’s best non-European skaters. Not only did Four Continents represent a rare chance for locals to see highly ranked skaters from Japan, China and South Korea, it also included such athletes as Brazil’s Isadora Williams and Mexico’s Andrea Montesinos Cantu — skaters from warm-weather countries with limited figure-skating facilities who are rarely if ever spotlighted on American network broadcasts.
Even though Four Continents is a skating equivalent to the Super Bowl, the mood at Honda Center felt more festive than tense. There were large contingents of fans who flew in from China, Japan and Canada, yet spectators were rarely partisan and instead cheered freely for skaters from other countries. There was no hint of the drunken, violent aggression that often occurs in the stands at more overtly macho games like football and hockey. Many fans brandished flags from their home countries or handmade posters of their favorite competitors. Children and their moms danced in the aisles during breaks as DJ Romeo spun a corny but energetic mix of dance-pop tunes, such as The Village People’s “YMCA.” Many of the skaters, wearing the jackets of their national teams, wandered around the concourse after their routines, chatting with fans and signing autographs.
Figure skating is a strange sport. The skaters’ spins and jumps require incredible athletic ability and, unlike hockey players, figure skaters don’t wear padding and are protected by only a thin layer of the sheerest fabrics when they slam into the ice. Both men’s and ladies skaters are dolled up in makeup and stylishly pretty outfits and are judged just as much for their artistic ability — an often nebulous, subjective quality that can vary widely in judges’ interpretations — as they are for their athletic prowess. At times, when a skater is paired with the right music, figure skating resembles an expressive art form such as ballet. At other times, skating can seem like a cheap carny sideshow as these talented athlete-artists are forced to perform to corny music on an extremely treacherous and slippery surface that can turn quickly turn ambitious artistry into humiliating (and physically dangerous) pratfalls.
But it’s the physical aspect of skating on an icy surface that also gives figure skating its unique sense of movement. Skaters easily reach speeds that ballet dancers can only dream about, and they glide with a smoothness that can’t be replicated on a dance floor. Figure skating’s inherent duality — Is it a sport? Is it an art form? — is reflected in the styles of the skaters themselves. Many are superior athletes who have little sense of artistry, while others possess poetic grace but struggle to pull off the hardest jumps. The best skaters tend to combine the best of both worlds.
With two rounds of skating in each of the four disciplines spread out over four days and nights in Anaheim, there was a lot to cover, so the focus here is on the ladies, pairs and ice-dance free skates with an emphasis not just on the winners but also on the skaters who missed the podium yet still displayed unusual abilities, inventive choreography, good musical taste and/or a stunning fashion sense — the kinds of things that can’t be easily quantified by a judge’s numerical score. This story is just as much about the milieu and pageantry in Anaheim as it is about parsing scores to the exact decimal point.
The ladies' free skate on Friday night was a nearly four-hour affair that winnowed down 22 skaters to three medalists. The skaters were divided into four groups, with the highest-ranked skaters performing in the last two groups. But even the skaters in the first two groups had their own distinctive charms, and some of the lesser-known skaters delivered memorable performances and flashes of inspiration that were overlooked on the cable broadcasts and more statistics-focused newspaper accounts.
Chinese skater Hongyi Chen showed tantalizing glimpses of an appealing presence as she floated by in a rosy red dress to the percussive ersatz exoticism and flamenco guitar of Jesse Cook’s “Baghdad.” Sporting a blond bob and a dark-blue dress while skating to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, Canada’s Larkyn Austman was similarly engaging, a good jumper who fell out of one jump and slowed down a bit near the end of her free skate, which, like the other long programs, clocked in at just over four minutes. Fellow Canadian Véronik Mallet, in a black cocktail-style dress with her arms sheathed in sheer black material, was also a good jumper but had better speed and a little flair. Mallet singled one of her jumps, her spins were unremarkable and she wasn’t especially artistic, but she skated with a likable panache. She also had to overcome the burden of trying to maintain her energy while skating to Adele’s treacly and maudlin “Turning Tables.” The right song can make such a difference.
Five-time Australian national champion Kailani Craine skated to Janis Siegel’s jazzy, swinging version of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” which was a good, energetic choice for her. Decked out in what might have been the prettiest dress of the entire competition — a dazzling strapless outfit whose bright, light aqua-blue color looked electric against the luminescent white ice — Craine started inauspiciously, stepping out of her first two jumps and later tumbling to the ice. But she recovered well despite slowing down in the second half of her routine before finishing with a nice closing spin.
South Korean skater Yelim Kim was dressed in a comparatively demure pistachio-green outfit as she glided serenely to Jules Massenet’s fittingly titled, violin-streaked reverie “Meditation,” from the 1894 opera Thaïs. Kim’s jumps and spins were strong but also artistic, and she imbued them with a lyrical eloquence. On paper, 16-year-old U.S. skater Ting Cui had a terrible performance. Adorned in a white dress, she stepped out of an early sequence and ended up falling three times. But Cui also exuded a supremely masterful elegance, weaving and twining her arms together with a poetic grace and moving across the rink with energy and speed to excerpts from London Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle. The scores say she had a poor free skate, but Cui’s nuanced artistry indicated that she has enormous potential.
Japan’s Mai Mihara was the third skater in a row to demonstrate unusual artistry along with the required athletic elements. Skating to selections from Ennio Morricone’s The Mission, including Hayley Westenra’s reverential intonation of “Gabriel’s Oboe,” Mihara looked angelic in a pale lavender dress encrusted with silver and purple sequins. Her jumps were strong, and her steps and spins were entrancingly lovely. Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva was daring from the outset of her program, falling during a bold attempt at a quad Salchow, in a bid to become the first ladies skater to pull off the difficult jump in a senior competition. Dashing across the ice in a bright-red long-sleeve dress to Ensemble Nuevo Tango’s version of Astor Piazzolla’s “Otoño Porteño,” the pixie-ish Tursynbaeva seemed undeterred by her early fall, finishing with good speed and some astonishing spins. Like many of the competition’s skaters, South Korea’s Eunsoo Lim trains in Lakewood with coach Rafael Arutunian. The 15-year-old vamped it up in a black, semi-sheer, sleeveless dress, skating as Roxie Hart to music from Kander & Ebb’s Chicago. She had good jumps and showed some pizzazz, although her execution was flawed.
A hailstorm of flowers and teddy bears from ardent fans rained down on the ice following Japanese skater Rika Kihira’s interpretation of Jennifer Thomas’ florid, piano-driven “A Beautiful Storm.” The adulation was well deserved as Kihira nailed a triple axel early in her program, followed by a breathtaking series of fast jumps, amazing spins and difficult steps. She only had a slight, meaningless wobble at the very end just as she settled into her final pose. Kihira tied everything together with both strength and poise as she embodied Thomas’ dramatic upwelling of piano and orchestra.
Kihira stood out even further from the other competitors in a gorgeous dark navy-blue dress with matching semi-sheer long sleeves that were finished off most adorably with white gloves. Lightning-like streaks of silver sequins sizzled across her chest and down her arms. The crowd hurled so many stuffed animals to the ice that several teddy bears’ eyes popped out like buttons and lingered dangerously on the ice throughout the free skate by the next skater, the United States’ Mariah Bell (the buttons eventually were removed from the ice).
Skating to Ludovico Einaudi’s “Piano” and “Experience,” Bell, 22, had some good early speed but also fell on a jump in her flawed free skate. She’s a strong jumper with a certain amount of loveliness to her skating, if not the fully expressive artistry of Cui, Kim or Kihira. Despite placing third with an adept performance in Thursday’s short program, Bell — who also trains in Lakewood — ended up in sixth place following her free skate.
Her U.S. teammate Bradie Tennell was in an even better position after the short program, leading all the ladies. Early in her long program on Friday night, she sneered with a fierce intensity, her nostrils flaring like a horse impatient to get out of the starting gate. Tennell’s specialty is her jumping ability, but the 21-year-old native of Illinois fell on an early jump in a free-skate performance that ultimately knocked her off the podium. During last year’s Winter Olympics, Tennell proved again that she’s innately more athletic than artistic, but it appears that her coaches and choreographers are trying to add more artistry to her routines. At Four Continents, she skated to Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and her regal, eggplant-colored dress conferred on her a hint of delicateness that she almost grudgingly revealed. Despite her flaws in execution, Tennell was generally strong, finishing with good speed and an impressive spin at the end.
Eighteen-year-old Japanese skater Kaori Sakamoto was the final competitor of the evening. Skating to Michael Nyman’s soundtrack to The Piano in a sleeveless gown whose white top blended into an ashy gray-black skirt, Sakamoto was having a good program with solid skating until she singled a jump near the end. It was enough to keep her just off the podium, as she finished fourth, behind Mai Mihara. Elizabet Tursynbaeva was second, and Rika Kihira ended up almost 14 points ahead in first place.
Saturday afternoon, Honda Center’s dual Zambonis cleared the ice for the death-defying acrobatics of the pairs teams’ free skate. In contrast to the ice-dance duos, who are generally more balletic and rooted to the ice, the pairs skaters perform much higher lifts and riskier, close-quarter spins that — if not timed perfectly — can result in serious injuries. The eight pairs teams were divided into two groups. Former U.S. roller skaters Haven Denney, 23, and Brandon Frazier, 26, had some nice lifts in a pleasant routine that was marred by spins that weren’t always in unison. Their teammates Tarah Kayne, 25, and Danny O’Shea, 28, performed to Tchaikovsky’s music from Swan Lake. Flying through the air in a glittery white sequined dress with a feathery hem, Kayne fell twice, but a black-clad O’Shea employed inventive lifts, and the pair combined power and grace despite the mistakes.
Canada’s Evelyn Walsh & Trennt Michaud had a disappointing free skate to Abel Korzeniowski’s score to the 2013 film Romeo and Juliet. Walsh wore a lavender top that darkened into a purple skirt, which matched Michaud’s shirt with long, sheer sleeves. Walsh touched down on the ice and also fell, and their lifts were tentative, including one lift they aborted before it even got off the ground. They recovered well at times, their skates digging smoothly into the ice with the sound of chalk on a chalkboard, but by the end of their disjointed performance, their skating had slowed markedly.
Unlike the other women skaters, who wore dresses and tights, the United States’ Ashley Cain donned a gray-and-black unitard-style outfit, as did her partner, Timothy LeDuc. They also skated to music by Korzeniowski, to the soundtrack to the 2011 film W.E., and they were much more in harmony. Cain had to fight to save a couple of her landings, but LeDuc was a forceful presence even if his lifts weren’t quite as creative as some of the other pairs’. With their willowy limbs and free-flowing ease, Cain and LeDuc made a memorable impression.
Cheng Peng and her partner, Yang Jin — both from Harbin, China — skated to a syrupy version of “La Vie en Rose.” Even though Peng fell out of a jump early in the routine, they were an assured pairs team who closed with an interesting lift. Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers, 26, and Michael Marinaro, 27, pumped out a lot of energy in a fun, enjoyable program as they skated to a medley of Pink Floyd oldies. Moore-Towers looked alluring in a sultry black-and-flesh-colored dress with sheer black sleeves, and she and Marinaro skated with considerable élan despite momentarily getting stuck on one awkward lift.
That glitch might have made all the difference between a silver medal and a gold medal, as the Canadian pairs team finished second to China’s Wenjing Sui & Cong Han by the narrowest of margins — coming up just short by only .06 of a point. Skating to Ezio Bosso’s slow piano interlude “Rain, in Your Black Eyes,” Han began their routine in a stirring fashion by inverting Sui with an upside-down lift that electrified the crowd. Even though Sui fell once, Han exhibited incredible power, and the pair’s choreography was on another level, leading to another flurry of toys and flowers cast out onto the ice by the rapturous crowd. Han’s last lift of the day came when he casually hoisted Sui onto the podium for the pairs medal ceremony.
The last competition at Four Continents on a rainy, windy Sunday afternoon was the ice-dance free skate. In many ways, ice dance is the most beautiful and overtly artistic of all the figure-skating disciplines. The emphasis isn’t on jumping; instead, ice dance is all about movement and choreography and how well the partners align their bodies with each other. Ice dancers rarely fall, but every step sequence and spin is closely scrutinized by the panel of judges, who have the difficult task of quantifying the teams’ widely varying dance styles.
Skating to Mireille Mathieu’s candied pop chanson “Une histoire d’amour,” Misato Komatsubara, 26, swept around the ice in a pink, flowing dress. (Many of the ice dancers wear longer skirts and dresses than the ladies singles and pairs skaters.) The Tokyo native skated on behalf of Japan with her husband, Tim Koleto, a man of many countries. Koleto, 27, was born in Kalispell, Montana, and in the past he has competed (with different partners) as part of the South Korean and Norwegian figure-skating teams. The couple were suitably romantic together, as she remained poised and glamorous as he carried her around the rink with several creative and extended lifts.
Matilda Friend and William Badaoui danced in a completely different style. Performing to Lady Gaga’s “Million Reasons,” the Australian team were more athletic than artistic. Their step sequences were relatively simple, and the judges didn’t find their free skate as technically demanding as the other skaters’. But Badaoui elevated his upside-down partner with a thrilling lift and other long holds, and Friend — looking winsome in a light-pink princess dress — was an energetic fireball who radiated plenty of charisma.
Chinese ice dancers Wanqi Ning & Chao Wang were styled as ice and fire, respectively, as they soared through Beth Hart’s smoldering torch ballad “Fire on the Floor.” Wang had red flames sprouting from his black shirt, and Ning’s faux-backless dress was embellished with silver and blue sequined streaks of ice. Her right arm was covered with a matching sheer sleeve, while her left arm was bare. Although Wang slowed near the end, he elevated Ning with several sensual lifts.
Another Australian ice-dance duo, Chantelle Kerry and Andrew Dodds, impressed with a sexy, unusual program in which he spirited her around the rink with a dramatic romanticism. Setting the Australian record for an ice-dance score, Dodds was in close unison with Kerry, who looked refined in a glittery silvery bodice accented with a dark-blue skirt. China’s Shiyue Wang and Xinyu Liu also gave good drama as they whirled around the ice to the unwinding piano-pop curlicues of Elizaveta’s “Meant.” Liu physically exalted Wang with a galvanizing lift early in their routine, and they also slinked around the ice with intuitive unison. At one point, Liu flipped Wang over, spun her and then brandished her triumphantly like a figurehead on the bow of a ship.
Another Chinese team, Hong Chen and Zhuoming Sun, also distracted with a few lovely spins and lifts as they drifted along to Michel Legrand’s “I Will Wait for You,” from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But their step sequences, choreography and unison were only average, especially compared with the other ice dancers. U.S. team Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker instilled a feeling of romantic grandeur as they flew over the ice to the funereal, organ-steeped solemnity of The Irrepressibles’ “In This Shirt.” Hawayek, captivating in a black long-sleeve dress that devolved into a lovely gray and white skirt, matched Baker with perfect unison and exciting side-by-side spins. They finished in fifth place, yet their passionate chemistry lingered in the memory long after the medal ceremony.
Canadian ice dancers Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sørensen amped up the crowd further when they performed a torrid free skate to The Doors’ “Spanish Caravan” and flamenco excerpts by Marcin Patrzalek. With her dark-brown hair pinned back with a red rose, Fournier Beaudry was a convincing flamenco dancer as she whipped up the folds of her long red skirt to entice Sørensen into action. The choreography by their coaches, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, perfectly suited the music, and the skaters’ spins and holds together were positively dreamy and lavishly romantic.
As impressive as Fournier Beaudy and Sørensen were, they finished in just sixth place after the free skate. That result was a testament to the consistently high level of skating achieved by the skaters in the last two ice-dance groups. For much of the last hour of the competition, each sensual dance was followed by an even more exciting performance. In a sleeveless long white gown with a sheer skirt, Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver, 29, flew around the rink with a dovelike grace. Partner Andrew Poje guided her and propelled her with a seemingly effortless aplomb that transcended the saccharine strains of “S.O.S d’un terrien en détresse,” the unremarkable French ballad they danced to.
Their Canadian teammates Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were also saddled with a cloying ballad, Don McLean’s “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” but their unison was consistently seamless as they spun and slid together on the ice as if joined at the hip. Nonetheless, U.S. ice dancers Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue were well positioned to earn a gold medal after placing first in rhythm dance (formerly known as the short dance) on Friday afternoon. Just last month, Hubbell and Donohue took first place at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, and they were silver medalists last year at the world championships. Their free skate on Sunday afternoon, to excerpts from the soundtrack of the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet, was exceptional, with Hubbell looking subtly glamorous instead of garishly flashy in a subdued gray dress. Her interactions with an attentive, attuned Donohue were similarly quietly bewitching rather than garishly showy, and the duo looked like possible winners — except the judges downgraded one of their lifts.
Not much was expected of their U.S. rivals Madison Chock & Evan Bates, even though they are former national champs and world silver medalists. Redondo Beach native Chock and Ann Arbor’s Bates managed to come in second following the rhythm dance, but they were also at a serious disadvantage after missing part of the 2018-19 season while she recovered from surgery on her right ankle. Skating to a medley of “Fever” by Michael Bublé and “Burning Love” by Elvis Presley, Chock and Bates sparked the crowd by skating with an unrestrained joy that was contagious. Bates’ unwavering power gave Chock the room to exult freely and revel in her surprising recovery. By the time the dust had settled and all the flowers and stuffed animals were plucked from the ice, Chock & Bates had emerged in first place, followed by Weaver & Poje in second place. Gilles & Poirier ended up third, less than a full point ahead of Hubbell & Donohue.
The victory by Bates and South Bay home girl Chock was another reminder that Southern California is actually a major base for figure skating. Such celebrated skaters as Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen and Mirai Nagasu were born and raised locally, and many national and international skaters live or train in the area. For four days, prosaic Anaheim was at the center of the skating world, transformed into a glittery, bejeweled winter wonderland. There was a palpable sadness once it was all over as the skaters and coaches packed up their skates and got ready to move their traveling circus in the direction of Saitama, Japan, for next month’s world championships. Hardcore fans of all ages lingered in the drizzling rain in Honda Center’s parking lot afterward, knowing that it could be decades before another such comet of stellar, silvery skaters touches down locally again.