3:53 PM EDT, October 20, 2011
The summer season in Olympic sports has yet to end -- witness the Pan American Games, a multi-sports event of summer disciplines, which runs until Oct. 30 -- yet the winter sports season arrives this weekend.
The alpine ski World Cup has its traditional (for this millennium, at least) opening races, giant slaloms on the glacier in Soelden, Austria.
The first of six short track speedskating World Cups runs Friday through Sunday in Salt Lake City.
And figure skating's seven-event (including the final) Grand Prix series starts Friday with Skate America in Ontario, Calif.
South Korea's Yuna Kim, 2010 Olympic women's champion, announced Tuesday she is taking the season off (her only competition last year was worlds, where Kim won silver). Reigning men's Olympic champion Evan Lysacek has announced his intention to try for the 2014 Olympics after having sat out last season, but it remains uncertain whether he will compete this year.
That means Canada's Patrick Chan is, more than ever, the star of the show in the sport's Olympic track.
If only Chan could compete at every Grand Prix event, even at the risk of overexposing the same programs. The rules don't allow it, so he will make the first of two scheduled appearances in the series next week at Skate Canada.
Chan's resounding victory at the 2011 worlds, where he skated almost flawlessly (on 20 elements, just one negative grade of execution), established world best scores for the short and long programs and gave him a record winning margin.
That means he has become the overwhelming favorite for the 2014 Olympic title.
Being in that position with three years to go can be difficult. I asked Chan about it during a conference call earlier this week.
"I dont really like to see myself as overwhelming favorite," he said. "I'm really focused on myself. "
Yet he also allowed that such a focus was even more necessary after what happened at worlds.
"I try to improve myself because there was such a big gap in last year's points," he said. "Since I won worlds, I have been asked what my motivation is. It's myself. I just compete against myself."
I remember well the first time I saw Chan compete in person, at 2007 Skate America, where he was a 16-year-old with precocious grace on the ice. That style has grown ever more polished since, and last season he finally was able to add routinely successful quadruple jumps to his performances.
But I was a little disappointed to learn Chan had selected music that is becoming a skating cliche, Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," for his long program this season. If anyone has reached a level where he could try music no one else has used, it is Chan.
Overused music has become my white whale in three decades of covering skating, so I brought up the subject with Chan during the conference call. His answer made perfect sense -- even if I think he is selling himself short by picking a piece used relatively recently by Michelle Kwan and Evgeny Plushenko and many other skaters of far less ability.
"It's always hard to find something that skaters have not skated to," he said. " Not only do you have to pick something original but something you like, because you are going to be skating to it for a long time.
"I'm not really concerned about music that has been used before. If I do what I am supposed to do, I don't think people will necessarily remember who has skated to it before. Hopefully, they will be caught up in the moment.
"My concern is not about having original piece of music but skating with an original style and interpreting it with your own intentions and emotions."
I disagree with the idea that it is hard to find original music - I listen to classical music for hours each week, and there is a limitless amount that could be turned into skating programs.
But it also is true that new interpretations of familiar music, either with different physical abilities or artistic sensibilities, are the lifeblood of ballet, the discipline most closely associated with skating.
Almost all great dancers have been asked to prove their chops in the classic ballets. Their well-known music also has become a staple of figure skating programs, where choreography sadly has become an afterthought because of the judging system's overemphasis on execution of many meaningless technical requirements.
Although he still is just 20 years old, Chan has matured into a skater who can create a legacy of unforgettable performances, like Kim's at the Vancouver Olympics.
He did it last year with a short program to a version of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." The piece's time signature, 5/4, and syncopation make moving in harmony with it very difficult, even without adding jumps and spins.
Watching video of Chan doing it at worlds, I was struck by how much his movements hit the accented notes. Whether he fully understood that or simply followed the lead of choreographer Lori Nichol is irrelevant. The result was breathtaking.
Chan is using "Take Five" as his short program again this season. It will be interesting to see what further refinements he can add.
He credits Kathy Johnson, "kind of my artistic director," for getting him to recognize the nuances that can make a program special.
"She has made my realize what I am trying to project instead of just skating and going through movement," Chan said. "I am doing my movement and trying to evoke some kind of emotion and a story."
There is a seamlessless to Chan's skating that is rare. Watch his free skate to "Phantom of the Opera" last season, and you don't see individual elements as much as a unified whole.
Competing against the standard he set last year will be a tremendous challenge. Maintaining that level for three years will be even harder, especially since he would also like to add new quadruple jumps.
"My ultimate goal is to move skating forward," he said. "Part of it is bringing the level of technical difficulty up."
U.S. fans would be wise to feel some North American kinship to Chan.
Other than reigning ice dance world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who will win in a walkover at Skate America, and their brilliant understudies, world bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani, U.S. skaters don't seem likely to make world and Olympic medal podiums from now through 2014.
Other than Chan, the most intriguing skaters on the 2011 Grand Prix circuit are Russians: Artur Gachinski, 18, the surprise bronze medalist at 2011 worlds, and Adelina Sotnikova, 15, the reigning Russian senior champion and world junior champion who was unbeaten in five events last year.
In his second Grand Prix season -- he had a 7th and 6th in events a year ago - Gachinski needs to show his performance at worlds was no fluke. For Sotnikova, it is a senior Grand Prix debut anticipated since she first became Russian senior champion three years ago at age 12.
Neither, alas, is at Skate America.
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