Figure skating: Team Israel set for China Grand Prix

Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky, Israel's leading Ice Dance couple, will head the Israeli delegation to the International Skating Union Cup of China Grand Prix competition in Beijing this weekend. The competition, which begins Thursday and ends Sunday, also features Roman Serov and the up-and-coming sibling duo of Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky. Beijing is third in the Grand Prix series, which ranks only behind the European and World Championships and the upcoming Winter Olympics in terms as importance. In each of the six tourneys, up to 12 of the world's top skaters are invited to compete in each of four events, Ladies, Mens, Pairs and Ice Dancing, with the top six in each category qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, which will be held this year in Tokyo from December 16-18. At last year's Grand Prix Final, Chait and Sakhnovsky, who are currently ranked sixth in the world, finished fourth, less than a point behind Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski of Bulgaria. Their career highlight was a bronze medal in the 2002 World Championships. Roman Serov, who was invited to his first G.P. competition last year representing Israel (he finished fourth at Skate America) has been invited to take part in two of the events this year and is looking to improve his standing. Until 2002 he skated for Russia and was ranked as their number four skater. After moving to Israel, he had to sit out an entire year of competition during his eligibility changeover. In the World Championships this past year, he finished 19th. Current World No. 1 Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland, along with Emanuel Sandhu of Canada (7) and Andrei Griazev of Russia (11), who competed two years ago at Skate Israel, look to provide some high flying skating competition. After an excellent fourth place finish in the Junior World Championships this past February in Canada, Alexandra, 17, and Roman, 21, Zaretsky have replaced the retired Natalia Gudina and Alexei Beletsky as the number two Ice Dance duet for Israel. They now enthusiastically face the new season with a legitimate shot at making the Winter Olympic squad, although it will take a near spectacular effort on their part, as the Olympic Committee of Israel sets even higher standards than the International Olympic Committee. A place is already assured the Zareskys, by the IOC, owing to the combined World Championship finish this year of both the Chait/Sakhnovsky and the Gudina/Beletsky duos. If that place is not exercised by Israel, it would be handed to another country. In China, the Ice Dance will feature very stiff competition including World No. 1s Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomorov of Russia; Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali of Italy, who finished 9th in the Worlds; and Morgan Mathews and Maxim Zavozin of the USA, who finished as the No.1 Junior pair this year. Since the advent of the New Judging System, which is now used in all countries for major events, it has become increasingly obvious that the skaters have been making tremendous changes in their skating programs, owing to the desirability to have ever increasingly complex movements that are heavily weighed in favor of the level of the elements. According to Katalin Alperin, an international Ice Dance judge for Israel at the ISU and now Technical Controller in the NJS, "the NJS is having the effect of causing the skaters to concentrate more on the merits of having the highest possible levels rather than the interpretation of the movements themselves." What remains to be seen is how our skaters will be able to adapt to the new realities of the system. 11 speed skaters set to compete in Italy Eleven Israeli skaters will take part in the 14th Alta Valtellina Trophy competition in Bormio, Italy, this weekend. A number of them will stay in Bormio after the event in order to continue their preparations for the first Olympic Qualifying Competition to take place next weekend and will then travel to the Hague for the second round of Olympic tryouts the following weekend. Elena (Pribysh) Kaplan and Katya Stukanov, together with Sergei Katsov and Vladislav Bykanov, appear to have the best chance to vie for an Olympic spot. Denis Zaslavsky, Israel's premier short track skater, will not be competing because of recurring injuries. Olga Danilov has officially retired from racing, because of injuries suffered at Bormio last year when she fractured her leg during the competition, and is now coaching part of the team at the Canada Center, along with Vera Zaslavsky. For hockey aficionados, the new season officially takes off with a doubleheader at the Canada Center in Metulla on Friday at 7:30 p.m. The opener features Ma'alot vs Haifa, followed by a match-up of last season's league champions, Lod, taking on Bat Yam.