Kwan, Weir Win the Fans' Vote at Marshalls Challenge

by Libby Morgan, Special to U.S. Figure Skating Online

Michelle Kwan
Photo by Michelle Wojdyla

Event Photos

(12/11/05) - They're used to facing tough judges. But Sunday, at the Marshalls U.S. Figure Skating Challenge at the Agganis Arena in Boston, eight of America's top skaters faced their largest judging panel ever—their fans.

The show, which was broadcast live on ABC, offered skating fans—both in the arena and at home—their  first-ever chance to determine the outcome of a competition. Without the pressure of points and “real” judges, it also gave the skaters a bit of break from the stress of preparing for the State Farm U.S. Championships and the Olympic Winter Games.

After a first round of performances narrowed the mens' and ladies fields from four to two, Michelle Kwan and Johnny Weir came out on top.

Dick Button, Peggy Fleming and Peter Carruthers served as an “unofficial” panel of ABC judges. After each voting period, they critiqued each skater's performance and chose their favorite. But the judges that mattered today were the people in the other seats in the arena and the viewers on their couches at home. Television viewers called, text messaged or went online to vote for their favorite skater, and people in the arena voted with seat-side controllers. The crowd in Agganis Arena numbered 4,150, and a total of 104,418 votes were cast throughout the show.

The event marked Kwan's debut competition of the season, so the excitement was especially high.

The five-time World and nine-time U.S. champion is still recovering from a hip injury she suffered in early October and only began jumping again two weeks ago. Kwan's injury and recovery clearly affected her performance, as she stumbled on a couple of jumps in both of her programs. But fans clearly relished the opportunity to see Kwan on the ice again.

“I just wanted to get the chance to skate in front of an audience and get used to the lights,” she said. “From not spinning, not jumping, not doing anything, to going out there and performing, that was a big step for me.”

2005 Smart Ones Skate America champion Alissa Czisny opened the ladies round with a graceful performance to “Someone Like You” from the musical Jekyll & Hyde. Czisny took a tumble on her second jump, an attempted triple loop, but her spin sequences were particularly impressive.

Next on the ice was 2005 World Junior bronze medalist Emily Hughes, whose upbeat performance to Gloria Estefan got the crowd clapping.

Two-time World silver medalist Sasha Cohen performed to Barbara Streisand's “Don't Rain on My Parade.” Her jumps, a triple toe loop and a triple Salchow, were solid, and the fluidity, technique and execution of her spins and spirals ultimately won her the unanimous vote of the unofficial ABC panel.

Kwan was last on the ice in the first round, with a performance to “Totentanz” that was a preview of her short program. It was obvious that Kwan was the event's main draw, but two weeks of jumps have clearly not been enough to get Kwan back into top form. She slightly two-footed a triple Lutz- double toe combo and finished with a single flip. Kwan was the only ladies skater to include a combination jump in her program.

 Despite Kwan's stumbles, it was the first time the audience had seen her skate all season, and they overwhelmingly chose her as their favorite in the first round, with 47 percent of the vote. Cohen advanced to the second round with 33 percent. Hughes and Czisny followed with 11 and nine.

In the second round, Cohen executed another flawless performance in a shortened version of her free skate to “Romeo and Juliet.” Her two jumps, a triple toe loop and double Axel, seemed effortless, and her ending—a dramatic fall on the ice—captured the emotion and intensity she demonstrated in an amazing day of skating.

The music for Kwan's second performance, “You Raise Me Up,” seemed a particularly inspiring choice as Kwan continues to struggle with recovery from her hip injury. Kwan again had difficulty with the execution of her jumps, in one case attempting a triple toe loop but landing a poor double.

But it seemed that all Kwan needed to do was just be there. She beat out Cohen 59 percent to 41 percent.

Cohen didn't seem too disappointed with her second-place performance, even though she won the praise of the ABC judge panel.

“I really had a great time out there," she said. "It was really fun. I enjoyed the different format. And it gave me a chance to show a more light-sided side of myself. Even though Michelle won the total vote, I was just really happy with how I skated. And the feedback that I got from the judges, just made me feel really good. So that was enough for me.”

Johnny Weir skates to "What a Wonderful World"
Photo by Michelle Wojdyla

On the men's side, Michael Weiss got things started with a crowd-clapping performance to a George Michael medely. Weiss left the arena audience impressed—and maybe just a little bit scared—by his signature “tornado” move, a back flip with a full twist. Taking full advantage of the flexibility of this exhibition performance, Weiss added another back flip at the end of the program for good measure.

Matt Savoie, who placed fourth at the 2005 Championships, followed with an operatic performance to “Solo Amore” by Duetto, and Timothy Goebel performed a fun jazz piece to “Sing, Sing, Sing” from “Swing Kids.” Goebel did the first men's combination jump of the day, with a triple flip-triple toe as his first jump.

Current U.S. champion Johnny Weir ended the first round skating to the Righteous Brothers' “Unchained Melody.” His program started out a little rough, as he put his hand down on the first jump, a triple Lutz, but he quickly recovered. As he slid across the ice on his knees at the end of the program, leaning backwards onto the ice, the crowd's cheers foreshadowed their final choice. Weir won the first round with 32 percent of the vote, and Weiss came in second, with 27 percent. Savoie and Goebel followed with 21 and 20 percent, respectively.

Savoie's smooth and subtle performance won him the unanimous praise of the unofficial panel of ABC judges. But it was Weir and Weiss that would go on.

In the second round, Weiss skated a version of the short program he will perform at the upcoming U.S. Championships to Verdi's “La Donne e Mobile.” Even though the program was more serious than his first one, Weiss didn't let the rare chance to add in something fun—another back flip—go to waste.

Weir skated the very first exhibition performance he did as a novice skater, to “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. On Saturday, Weir joked that the routine had no choreography, but that didn't matter Sunday. With elegance, style and smooth transitions, as well as some unusual spins, Weir won a solid 64 percent of the vote in the final round, to Weiss' 36 percent. Weir was also the pick of the judges.

Weir seemed a little surprised with the results.

 “I still don't think of myself as being popular,” he said. “I'm definitely not on the same scale as Sasha, or Michelle, or Kurt Browning. But it's really, really satisfying to know that people support me, and they push me forward, and it shows today. I mean I fell down and I still won the first round.”

For the fans in the audience, being a judge for a day was just as fun.

“It's nice for the younger skaters to have a voice, since they know what the judges are looking for,” said Kathy Perrone, who attended the event with her younger daughter. Perrone is the president of the South Shore Skating Club

“We all sit in a group and we critique,” said her daughter, Olivia, a skater. “And we think, how can someone win if they miss something? Now we actually get to punch in the numbers.”

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