Golden Skate

Veteran Voronov takes first Grand Prix gold

Sergei Voronov

Russia’s Sergei Voronov earns new personal bests at 2017 NHK Trophy.

The men’s event at 2017 NHK Trophy was marred by the sudden withdrawal of crowd-favorite Yuzuru Hanyu, who took a bad fall during practice before the short program. The event culminated with the three most experienced skaters in the competition on the podium: Russia’s Sergei Voronov, USA’s Adam Rippon, and Israel’s Alexei Bychenko, respectively.

Hanyu suffered a lateral ligament tear in his right foot during training on Friday, breaking the hearts of many in the audience who adore the reigning Olympic and world champion.

Voronov scored highly performing to “Sarabande Suite” with an opening quad toeloop-triple toeloop combination, followed with a remarkable triple Axel and quad toeloop. The 30-year-old Russian finished with 271.12 points and 181.06 in the long program for his first career gold medal in an ISU Grand Prix event, a resume that dates back to the 2006 Skate America.

“I have done everything I can,” said Voronov, who won the silver medal at the NHK Trophy in 2014. “In today’s performance, I put everything out there. In my training, there’s been ups and downs. There are hardly any mistakes, so I am very satisfied. Russians don’t take pride in how we win, what matters is that we won. In Russian complex, a veteran is usually someone who is well-respected. In my career, this is a moment where I am flourishing. I believe that loving the sport is the secret.”

“I know everyone here in Osaka was rooting for me, and it felt like I was skating at home,” Voronov said. “For any athlete, when they get an injury, I hope they get well. It’s most unfortunate I didn’t get to compete with him here. We all hope for a fast recovery.”

For silver medalist Adam Rippon of the U.S., the placing was icing on the cake. Not only was Saturday his 28th birthday, but 10 months ago, Rippon was laying in bed with a broken foot unsure of what the rest of his career would hold. The skater sat in fourth place after his short program to an upbeat remix of “Let me Think About It.”

“I was sitting at the practices and everyone was skating to some sad song,” Rippon said of his short program. “I’m glad I could be a little different. I told (choreographer) Jeff (Buttle) I wanted to skate to this song, and he said you have to be kidding me. I was serious and never heard from him. I was like, ‘he hates it.’ Then I went to Toronto, and he had the piece of music I wanted. At the end of the day, when we came to a decision of what program I was going to skate, he (coach Rafael Arutyunyan) thought this program was who I really was. It’s so funny I never thought I would have a 60-year-old Russian coach tell me to skate to club music.”

In his free skate to music by The Cinematic Orchestra and Coldplay, Rippon underrotated his opening quad Lutz, but otherwise landed a total of eight clean triple jumps. The skater also impressed with level four spins and footwork, finishing second in the long (177.04) and overall (261.99).

“There’s room for improvement,” Rippon said. “I am really happy, been training really well. The time away has showed me what I really love about skating. My main focus is to clean up what wasn’t great here. I am just taking it one day at a time, focused and on the right path.”

Israel’s Alexei Bychenko, who stood in second after the short, slipped to third overall (252.07) after his free skate (166.55) to Pagliacci. It was the second career Grand Prix medal for the skater, joining a bronze from last season’s Rostelecom Cup, and he improved on his fourth place finish at the NHK Trophy a year ago. The 2016 European silver medalist landed a brilliant quad toeloop-triple toeloop combination and quad toeloop in the free skate, but doubled a loop and struggled on a triple Axel.

“It was not my best today, I made a few big mistakes, like popping a jump, and I almost fell on another jump,” acknowledge the skater who formerly competed for Ukraine. “But I started the season late and for my second competition, it was not so bad. It was a good experience and we know what we have to work on.”

“The technical side was really good but shaken,” said Bychenko of his short program to the Jewish folk song to ‘Hava Nagila.’ “It’s all about what you are doing and how you feel about yourself. I want to show to the audience around the world, at the Olympic Games, our national dance. That’s really important to me.”

USA’s Jason Brown was fourth with 245.95 points (160.59 in the long), slipping from the bronze medal position after struggling on three jump passes.

“I will figure out the ways to grow from this experience,” Brown said. “I was a little jittery today. I am normally more comfortable on the ice, much more solid. I don’t know why I missed a few elements, but I tried to tack on a few. I tried my best and gave it my all.”

“Not only the quad was giving me trouble in warmup, other elements were as well,” added the former U.S. champion. “In the moment, I had to pick what is the best strategy and which element to take out. The biggest thing is consistency, training the quad and practicing the little different scenarios. We do a lot of different competition scenarios at home, so we’ll continue to do that. I really try to stay on my A-game when it comes to adverse situations.”

The Japanese fans adore Brown, and he added has studied the language since he was in school and wants to be fluent by the time he is 40. When leaving the ice after both programs, he shouted gracious Japanese phrases to the audience and even wrote a “Get Well Soon” note to Hanyu in Japanese characters that he displayed in the kiss and cry area.

“I had the best time performing out there,” Brown said. “I know I can be better, so that’s definitely frustrating. It’s still early in the season. Competing in Japan with Yuzuru is one of the most unique experiences any athlete can have. When it comes down to the skating part, I take the ice to compete, but I could definitely feel something was missing. He’s such a part of this event even if he’s not able to compete.”

Canada’s Keegan Messing came in fifth with 235.80 points. Messing also has Japanese ties, saying his great-great grandfather was the first Japanese immigrant into Canada and his grandmother is full-blooded Japanese. Although his family traveled from Alaska to Regina for Skate Canada, they did not have time to come to Osaka as Messing was a last-minute replacement for Patrick Chan.

“I received the call (last) Thursday night,” said Messing, who formerly represented the U.S. “I was pretty ecstatic, and I even trained Saturday, and I never train Saturdays. Since I’m from Alaska, I usually have the longest time change of anybody, but this time I have one of the shortest.”

“I don’t think I would have reached this point in my skating career without Canada,” added the 25-year-old. “They have given me tenfold of support of my skating, and I don’t think I would be anywhere close without Canada.”

Deniss Vasiljevs of Latvia placed sixth with 234.80 points, climbing from eighth to fifth after the short program.

“I think with good work passion and patience,” Vasiljevs responded when asked how he will jump to the next level. “Those are the main things I have to have, and add experience. I don’t know if I can count myself as a good skater. At the moment, I think I am average. I need to keep it up, keep training and working hard.”

Canada’s Nam Nguyen was in 10th place after struggling in the short program.

“Somedays I have really good training days and some not as strong,” Nguyen said. “Coming into this event I felt really strong and consistent, really good in the warm up. I rushed things a bit when I fell on that toe, I was like, ‘what is happening?'”

Japanese skaters Kazuki Tomono and Hiroaki Sato placed seventh and 11th, ending a run of dominance. In fact, Japanese men had won 11 of the last 12 gold medals at the NHK Trophy, with the exception of Brian Joubert’s title in 2009. Voronov is the first Russian man to win the event since Ilia Klimkin in 2002.

Coming up, Bychenko will have a short time to rest before he competes in the Internationeaux de France next weekend in Grenoble. Voronov and Rippon will continue their rivalry in Lake Placid the following week at Skate America.

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