Ondrej Nepela Trophy Recap: First pancakes, personal bests, and a murderous mermaid

The Nepela Memorial Trophy is a warm, welcoming event that gives new individual and team skaters an opportunity to shine. The event has an informal atmosphere where flower girls and young fans can collect autographs, and medalists are able to chat together and take photos with one another. For many skaters, this is their season’s debut or a chance to get one more trial run in before the Grand Prix season begins. For others, this is an important moment of returning to competition after long recoveries from injury or stepping into the senior level for the first time. Many skaters speak about exploring new themes, challenging new technical elements, or experimenting with musical styles they haven’t done before. At the start of a new Olympic cycle, this is a learning opportunity and many skaters are already thinking about how to grow from their experience. It will be interesting to look back and see how these programs change and grow over the course of the season.

Results

Women
🥇 Isabeau Levito (USA)
🥈 Lara Naki Gutmann (Italy)
🥉 Haien Lee (South Korea)


Ice Dance
🥇 Marjorie Lajoie / Zachary Lagna (Canada)
🥈 Eva Pate / Logan Bye (USA)
🥉 Marie Dupayage / Thomas Nabais (France)


Men
🥇 Gabriele Frangipani (Italy)
🥈 Junhwan Cha (South Korea)
🥉 Deniss Vasiljevs (Latvia)

Isabeau Levito in her Free Skate

The Women’s event was dominated by Isabeau Levito (United States). The 15-year-old had a total score of 198.99. She skates with confidence and charm, and with remarkable consistency in her technical elements. Her technique, and the elements of her presentation, are reminiscent of the teenage Russian stars who have dominated the sport over the last few seasons. We hope Isabeau is able to keep her consistency while she adds more speed and fluidity to her skating as she matures. Throughout practice, she rarely made a mistake on a jump or combo. While posing for photographs backstage, Isabeau shared that she enjoys the energy of her Spanish-style short program and likes “being sassy”. If she was nervous, it didn’t show. She was very friendly while chatting and posing with the other champions during the victory ceremony.

Lara Naki Gutmann in the Kiss and Cry

Lara Naki Gutmann (Italy) won the silver medal with a total score of 166.24. Her programs are a departure from her past style and bring a more mature choreography and creative interpretation to Hitchcock’s villains in her Free Skate. She was aiming for a triple loop-triple loop combination in the short program but doubled the second jump. Her free skate also had two popped jumps. But, her other elements were strong and her choreography is innovative and captivating. Lara shared that she enjoyed her experience participating in the team event at the last Olympics and that it motivates her to try to make the individual event at her home Olympics in Milano in 2026. [A full “GOEing into Detail” interview with Lara will be out on our Youtube channel soon].

Haien Lee in her Free Skate

Haein Lee (South Korea) took home the bronze with a score of 164.88. Haein is a graceful and musical skater, with strong footwork and expression. She is also a hard worker and made the most of her practice sessions, fully emoting as she drilled sections of her programs. She had a very difficult free skate, with three falls. Nonetheless, she was able to continue performing, even bringing a smile to the exuberant masquerade section of her Phantom of the Opera program. She deservedly had the highest scores in the field on her step sequence.

Aleksandra Golovkina has a beautiful spiral

Other performances of note include 4th place Aleksandra Golovkina (Lithuania) and 5th place Nina Tovey (Great Britain) – who both scored new personal bests in their short and free skates. Aleksandra and Nina both have beautiful lines, which carry over in their graceful jumps. They had lower technical content but were very enjoyable to watch.

Maé Bérénice Meité (France) debuted two personally meaningful programs in her comeback to competition after missing a season due to a major Achilles tendon injury, which required her to rebuild her technique and strength. Her short program to Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Really Care About Us is a statement about the death of Michael Brown in 2020, which deeply impacted her. Meité’s free skate is dedicated to her mom, and to her faith in God, both of which helped her persevere through difficult times. While her jumps weren’t quite there yet in competitive conditions, Maé’s performances were powerful and moving. 

The Ice Dance event featured the season debut of Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha (Canada), who won gold with a total score of 193.35. They showcased their speed and precision with the Cha Cha Slide rhythm dance, to the approval of an enthusiastic audience. Marjorie shared that her mirrored dress was cutting into Zach’s hands a bit, but that they powered through. Their free dance to White Crow is a stark contrast in style with the rhythm dance. Zach commented that he was nervous before skating and that he wasn’t able to bring the calm strength he needed for the program. It requires a different kind of strength to be slow and calm on the ice, and it will be interesting to watch this program gain confidence and nuance throughout the season.

Pate and Bye receive gifts from the flower girls

Silver went to Eva Pate and Logan Bye (US) with a score of 178.69. The Americans have won a medal at both of their Challenger events this year, although their scores were lower than at US Classic two weeks ago. Pate commented that their rhythm dance set to music from Rio was her choice, as she’d previously skated to music from Rio during her career as a solo dancer. They are excited to bring a more contemporary edge to their Riverdance free skate while honoring aspects of their own Irish heritage. Eva’s green dress is an homage to the main dancer in Riverdance, and she also has a crown modeled on that costume. The crown ultimately wasn’t included in the costume, but she holds onto it as an incentive to medal (and wears it on the podium!)

Marie Dupayage and Thomas Nabais (France) won the bronze, with a personal best score of 165.78. Their captivating free dance features interesting angular movements and a contemporary dance style. They earned high GOE on their opening stationary lift, which included a graceful attitude position in the one-foot feature from Thomas.

Orihara and Pirinen have one of the most innovative Free Dance themes of the season

Other notable performances included the Finnish team of Yuka Orihara and Juho Pirinen, who debuted their much-anticipated Siren free dance. Juho shared, “we wanted to do something a bit mysterious, then I found this music and couldn’t remember any mermaid programs in ice dance or even in singles so we thought it was going to be interesting.” And yes, he does drown at the end of the program. Juho explained “Yes, yes, so she’s not the mermaid, she’s the siren. We’ve tried to make the story as obvious as possible but it’s been challenging.”

They struggled with their twizzles, earning negative GOE in both programs. That ended up making the difference in terms of the podium, as they finished third in the free skate, just 0.46 points overall behind Marie and Thomas. Yuka was philosophical, saying “I think now we know how we feel in the competition, and it was the first one, so we’ll get used to the bigger competitions.”

The Brown’s show off their Free Dance costumes

Oona and Gage Brown of the US placed 5th. They struggled in the rhythm dance and were disappointed to receive low scores. However, they were able to rebound somewhat with their free dance. “It’s new, this is our first senior competition,” Gage said. He continued, “For it to be an international is definitely different, we hadn’t even skated in the U.S. but it’s good, obviously challenging…at that 3 minute 40 mark I’m like ah this is not a junior free dance, this is a senior. But yeah I like the challenge so far and obviously, this is the first one and we have many more to come.”

It was also an important competition for the Italian teams. First, Victoria Manni and Carlo Röthlisberger have newly switched from Switzerland to Italy, explaining that “when COVID happened, we lost our rink because our coach stopped coaching so we took time off skating…We felt like if we wanted to come back, we wanted to achieve some results and for that, we needed competition at home as well.” Next, Carolina Portesi Peroni and Michael Chrastecky got back to competitive ice after a year off. While Carolina is still dealing with the impact of her knee injury, they were very glad to get through this competition. While they couldn’t train together, Michael trained and coached in Lausanne and worked with a dancer from the Béjart ballet on off-ice movement, which he wants to bring into his skating.

The Men’s podium

In the men’s event, Gabriele Frangipani (Italy) upset the anticipated podium by skating two personal best performances, taking the gold with a combined score of 244.57. He explained, “My goal of this competition was to show how much I changed from all my [past] seasons –  that I don’t give up, that I try until the end even if it’s a complete disaster.” Gabriele was excited to show the hard work he put in during the off-season. He relayed, “I’ve never done so many [run-throughs] until this summer. With my choreographer, we’ve been working a lot of hours, more than last season.” He was already thinking about places where choreographer Benoit Richaud would note he’d missed aspects of the choreography, as well as the missed level in his short program step sequence.

Jun during his Free Skate practice

Silver went to Junhwan Cha (South Korea), who scored 226.32. Jun debuted his new programs of a Michael Jackson medley and James Bond. Both programs, choreographed by Shae Lynn Bourne, are fantastic vehicles for Jun to explore new sides of his skating. The crowd-pleasing Michael Jackson program pushes Jun to dance, moonwalk, and try out many new movements. Jun said that he worked hard on the choreography and wants it to become more comfortable. It was his idea to do Michael Jackson, and he wanted something totally different than in the past. Jun had jump errors in both programs, dropping his technical score, but undoubtedly he is one of the skaters to watch this season – he has all of the aspects needed to get podium places at major competitions.

Deniss and Stéphane in the kiss and cry following the Free Skate

Bronze went to Deniss Vasiljevs (Latvia), who scored a total 214.19. In his seventh senior season, Deniss shared that the next four years are important to him and that he sets high expectations for himself. The “mental tightness” may have gotten in the way at times, but he was glad to complete this first competition and show his new programs. “It’s a first pancake. It’s like in a triangle instead of a circle,” Deniss said. Deniss attempted a quad in the short program for the first time, but a hard fall on his opening quad salchow may have impacted his subsequent jumps, and even his performance of his fun program to Sting’s Englishman in New York. Deniss did a lot of the choreography himself, working with Salome Brunner. The lyric “be yourself, no matter what they say,” would be a good motto for Deniss. While Deniss’ opening quad salchow in his free skate was downgraded, he quickly put it behind him and showed beautiful emotion and power in his new program to Dvorak’s New World symphony. The program shows Deniss’ ability to bring out all of the nuances and drama in a powerful piece of classical music, and draw the audience into his world. Stéphane Lambiel, his coach and choreographer said, “we had the idea for this symphony for a long time…and the way he has developed and the way he expresses himself, I think he has matured enough to skate to that masterpiece.” Stay tuned for a full interview with Stéphane to be published soon.

Honorable mentions go to the young Korean skaters Hyungyeom Kim and Hangil Kim, who placed 4th and 5th respectively in their first senior competitions. Both are very talented and show strong personalities on the ice. Hyungyeom in particular is an emotive performer with great musicality.

Hometown favorite Adam Hagara (Slovakia) also performed well, letting the cheers of his fervent supporters lift and push him to personal-best performances. It was a shame that after landing all of his jumps in his short program, he fell on his step sequence. But, it was the kind of mistake that comes when a skater is fully living their performance while skating a little beyond their own comfort level.

Additionally, Great Britain’s Edward Appleby’s program to Scars had intense and brooding energy, with an interesting choreographic sequence to finish. While he struggled technically, hopefully, he will be able to grow the program to its full potential at the Sheffield Grand Prix.

Haein Lee serves as photographer for the men’s medalists and Gabriele Frangipani’s coach


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