O’Brien and Merriman capture Australia’s first Ice Dance medal

Ice dancers Danielle O’Brien and Gregory Merriman have continued their record breaking season, winning Australia’s first international medal after taking bronze in Torun, Poland at the Mentor Nesquik Cup overnight.

Australian Ice Dance Cahmpions, Danielle O'Brien and Greg Merriman bag Australia's first ever international Ice Dance medal in Poland.

Australian Ice Dance Champions, Danielle O’Brien and Greg Merriman bag Australia’s first Ice Dance medal in Poland.

Up against the higher ranked Ukraine winners, Siobhan Heekin-Canedy and Dmitriy Dun and Japanese silver medallists Cathy and Chris Reed, the Australian champions finished their engaging circus-themed free dance for a personal best overall score of 128.42, and also achieved the International Skating Union (ISU) minimum entry score for World Championships for the final dance.

“Finally making the podium and being a part of the medal presentations was just amazing,” Danielle O’Brien said. “I nearly made a mistake on one of the spins, but covered it and we are really happy with our performance. We are very proud, but we still have the Short Dance score to achieve and only one event left to do it.”

The pressure on the Sydney couple is mounting as they approach their last opportunity at the Four Continents Championships next month in Japan to reach the required 29.00 minimum score in the Short Dance, before the 2013 World Championships in late March.

“Scoring 28.50 in the Short Dance was so close. We were happy to be in third position at that point, but would trade the place for last if was 29 points,” Danielle told her father from Poland.

Bronze medal for O'Brien and Merriman. Photo: Kylie Yacopetti

Bronze medal for O’Brien and Merriman. Photo: Kylie Yacopetti

The Olympic Winter Institute of Australia scholarship holders have been based in Detroit with top coaches Pasquale Camerlengo, Anjelika Krylova and Massimo Scali since late 2011 in a bid to achieve their Olympic dream.

Their string of history-making achievements for Australian Ice Dancing this year include breaking into the top 20 at the 2012 World Championships, winning their sixth straight national title, moving onto the podium in Poland after two narrow 4th place misses and posting personal bests.

Other world-class ice dancers, such as the 12th placed Chinese team at World’s in 2012, are in the same predicament as they struggle to make the unusually high target scores prior to the 2013 World Championships. Compounding the problem for national federations, and indeed the ISU, is that the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships are an Olympic qualifying event. In Ice Dance, 19 entries – by country – will be determined with only five remaining entries decided at a further Olympic qualifying event in Germany this September, but only if the skaters make the minimum ISU scores.

“We wouldn’t keep going if we didn’t think we were now world-class,” explained Greg. “Training with Pasquale, Anjelika and all our training partners [which include World Bronze medallists and European Champions Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat from France] is motivating us every single day. Of course it’s hard work, but we are focussed on always improving our technique. Competing in so many events this season has been good for our performance skills and we can feel the difference it has made because we are more prepared and step up a notch at every event.”

With the prospect of a smaller field competing at the 2013 World Championships, the opportunity for skaters in Ladies, Men, Dance and Pair events to qualify Olympic spots for their country, has, in some cases, been removed, or at best – shortened the odds for those skaters who are able to compete for those positions in smaller fields. In effect, this does not trouble the top ranked countries, but is a serious concern for lower ranked countries.

The ISU brought in minimum score qualification rules in mid-2012 after a Congress decision to drop preliminary qualifying rounds at World Championships, but allowed scores from the 2011 International season to be counted. For European figure skaters, that decision is an undoubted advantage given the proximity of neighbouring countries, the higher number of ‘B-Grade’ international competitions in Europe and lower costs to attend events.

The qualifying scores for the ISU European and Four Continent Championships are lower, more achievable yet minimise the number of skaters who are not yet capable of the higher technical components in this high-skill sport.

As athletes scrambled to enter multiple competitions, the increased numbers have its benefits. But at what cost? When a skater repeatedly fails to make a minimum score, the motivation to remain in the sport, in any capacity, diminishes – along with their bank accounts.

Small skating federations, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore and more, which have little, limited or no reasonable funding for athletes, administration and judges, will continue to struggle to provide programs to reach ever-higher standards as set by the ISU before sliding further into the ‘have-nots’, no matter how many seminars the ISU rolls out.

What does affect Championship organisers is the cost of hotel rooms and securing ice for too many competitors. The financial burden on local organising committees is believed to be the prime reason for introducing minimum scores, which force skaters out of ISU Championship events. Apart from the invitation only Grand Prix series, championships are the only events where athletes have paid accommodation.

The World minimum entry requirements for Ice Dance was set so high that Olympic Ice Dance Champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were unable to achieve the 29 point Short Dance score at the prestigious Skate Canada Grand Prix last October, even though they won the event.

As this season progressed, scores for Ice Dance have increased across the board, which indicates a few scenarios – the athletes have improved at a staggering pace from September to mid January, or the minimum score was set too high and the Technical Controllers, Technical Specialists and judges have adjusted how the scores are awarded, or a combination of both.

That Australia’s Danielle O’Brien and Greg Merriman’s 28.50 technical score from Poland this weekend would be in contention with Virtue and Moir’s 27.72 from Skate Canada last October, begs, at the very least, a question over the integrity of the points system that was brought in for 2006 following the judging scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.

No two judging panels are identical, but the value for each technical element is constant.  And what of the future for Ice Dance?

Only nine ice dance couples are entered in the Canadian national championships, and this is the country which fielded the 2012 World Champions (and current Olympic Champions), 4th and 15th place.

The well-read Ice Dance.com website commented on the low entry numbers.

I think it’s unfortunate that the senior roster at Canadians this year is so small. Only 9 teams?! I don’t think the field has been that small since 2000. It’s hard to believe when Canadians have been so strong in dance lately. But I suppose it reflects the way that the assignments fall. With room and budget enough to send only the top 5-7 teams out on the international circuit, it’s hard to expect the teams who fall below that to keep plugging along in a very expensive sport once they have university and other pursuits on their plates as well,” the website reported.

The last time Australia was represented in ice dance at the Winter Olympics was in 1988.

By Belinda Noonan

Photo: Robin Ritsoss – September 2012. From Ice Dance.com

2 Responses to O’Brien and Merriman capture Australia’s first Ice Dance medal

  1. gf

    Congratulations for winning bronze. I really hope that the technical specialists and controllers at four continents will be kind to you. You deserve to go to worlds and the Olympics. Will definitely try and find to find an online stream of four continents 😀

  2. Darrell & Lynn Leeson

    Congratulations Danielle & Greg. You have certainly worked hard over a very long time. I know how proud Sean & Mary are. Keep it going & best wishes for future success.
    Darrell Leeson (Dad’s old boss at Marrickville)

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