Jitters ruled the day. So many women had not skated in such a long time, and here they were at the world figure skating championships in Stockholm that some weren’t sure would happen at all.
None of it went as scripted, except that Anna Shcherbakova ended up in the lead with a healthy 81.00 points in the women’s short program, leading Japanese champion Rika Kihira, one of only three who attempted a triple Axel, and the Empress-who-would-not-quit Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, the only other one who actually landed one.
Alexandra Trusova, the 16-year-old wonder kid who plans five quads in her free (at least on paper), was the only other one who had a triple Axel on her card for the short program, but after a rocky morning practice with it, she decided to scale it down to a double Axel. It went well, of course. But then she landed a tightly rotated triple flip on an uncertain edge, and fell on a triple Lutz that was to be part of a triple-triple combo, losing the combo. l. It was as if she had hit a vat of trombone sliding cream. That sent her tumbling to 12th place, and left coach Evgeny Plushenko with unreadable eyes, scratching his head as he left the ice surface.
Now, as a coach, Plushenko will have to figure out how to draw out long program success from a bit of a disaster. “I think I couldn’t handle my excitement,” Trusova said later. “I’ve been getting really nervous at competitions lately.” This is her first senior world championship. She wouldn’t say exactly what she would do in the free.
Tuktamysheva made her time in Stockholm count. After all, she hadn’t been to a world championship since 2015, when she won. Often eclipsed by the endless trail of teenagers with quads, Tuktamysheva hasn’t let anything deter her. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been to worlds and Europeans, so it meant even more for me to do a clean skate,” she said.
She landed a triple Axel that seemed a bit tight, but still received bonus marks of 1.71 for it, and a +4 from one judge, a row mostly of +2s from others. “The triple Axel right now is in good working order,” she said. “I worked on it a lot. I knew there was still the whole program to come and I was only feeling relieved after the triple flip, when all the jumps were behind me.”
She feels she’s better than she was in 2015. She’s now 24. “It’s important for me to move on and not stagnate,” she said.
The surprise of the day was 18-year-old Canadian Madeline Schizas, who is not the national champion, but should be, considering she won the Skate Canada Challenge, and there was no Canadian championship this year. Competing in only her second major international event, she skated early, and as if she had done this all of her life. Out soared a triple Lutz – triple toe combination that earned 1.69 bonus points and a triple loop that earned her a row of +3s, all spiced up with level fours on all three spins.
This effort shot her into 9th place, ahead of Trusova of Russia, world silver and bronze medalist Satoko Miyahara of Japan, and Alexia Paganini of Switzerland. (Paganini, fourth at European last year, had the sort of skate – fumbling a combo, doubling a triple loop, it didn’t take much – that pitched her into no-man’s land: finishing 25th and missing the cut to get into the free skate by half a point.) Trusova’s element score of 38.48 was higher than that of veteran Japanese skater Kaori Sakamoto, now sitting in sixth place, and U.S. champion Bradie Tennell in seventh.
“It was cool to compete with the highest ranked competitors in the world,” Schizas said. “I saw some of them actually compete during the championship [ISU notes don’t specify which event this was] in Canada back in 2015 [when she would have been 12 years old],” so it’s just so incredible to be here competing against the best in the world. I was really proud that I put off a good performance today.”
Schizas was third in Canada last year at her first crack at the senior level. She also watched the 2010 Olympics – when she was only six years old – and saw Joannie Rochette skated to a bronze medal despite the death of her mother several days before. “I saw her skate her short program at these Olympics,” Schizas said. “It was really such a beautiful moment for me. I’ll never forget it. So, growing up, I actually looked up to Joannie Rochette. She was such an amazing skater and she was such a strong person.
“I also think it is great that she has continued her education now and she’s a doctor. I’m looking forward to someday continuing beyond skating and I think she is such a good role model.”
Canada’s other Canadian, Emily Bausback, who was the 2020 Canadian champion and who is actually still the reigning Canadian champion, finished only 27th and did not qualify for the free skate, missing that by 1.98 points.
Shcherbakova, like Schizas, at her first world championship, has more experience at the high levels, though. She was the 2020 European silver medalist last year. Her score of 81.00 surpassed her previous best of 78.27, but still falls short of the world record of 85.45 set by Alena Kostornaia of Russia while winning the Grand Prix Final last year. Kostornaia has suffered from a COVID infection and had to bypass her nationals.
Even so, Shcherbakova said she was very nervous throughout the event. She was satisfied with her jump combo, a very difficult triple Lutz – triple loop that she did with ease, getting 2.19 bonus points for it. She had a slight stumble in the step sequence and got a level three for that. But in a word, to her “O doux printemps d’autrefois” routine, she was lovely.
Rika Kihira was only .20 behind Shcherbakova in the element score, but the Russian outfooted her in components. Kihira had a troubled warmup, but threw herself into her “The Fire Within” routine, and skated on the edge. She was exciting.
Kihira landed her triple Axel, but it was a jump done with a slight underrotation. She did the same thing at the end of her triple flip – triple toe loop combo, and these cost her points with GOE. In the end she got 79.08 points and posed a restrained fist pump at the end. “Wow,” said her coach Stephane Lambiel, “You are a fighter.”
The other two Japanese skaters fared less well. Kaori Sakamoto , skating to soft classical music and then drifting into jazz – fascinating music choices for her – was extraordinary, although she fumbled her combo, a triple flip – triple toe loop with a swing around. And her triple Lutz left off a wrong edge. She admitted her Lutz wasn’t stable.
But the quality of her work was unforgettable. How can someone with so much power and speed and muscle show softness at the same time, in the same breath? The landing of her opening double Axel was so soft and deft and off a deep edge, you were left with the feeling of: “Ohhhhhh.” In spite of the troubles on her Lutz, it too was landed on a soft knee. We want more of Sakamoto. Perhaps she was undermarked? With a score of 70.38, she was well below her best mark of 76.95, taken at the 2019 World Team Trophy. Her components were on a par with Tuktamysheva, and slightly higher than Karen Chen, who sits fourth as the top American.
Satoko Miyahara, who may have had the benefits of generous calls in the past, finished only 16th in the short program after she fell on her triple Lutz , first part of a combo with a triple toe loop that didn’t happen. She fought for the landing of a triple loop, and knowing she needed a combo, eked out a sad little single toe loop. The Tiny Queen was otherwise extraordinary and refined, but her mark of 59.99 paled in comparison to her best at 76.08.
Miyahara, who moved to Canada last year to train with Lee Barkell, said she didn’t think her Lutz was going wrong, but landed outwards. “Overall I was very nervous,” she said. “I want to work on my mental strength.” Barkell might be good for her in this. If ever there was a coach that exudes calm in the face of explosion, it is Barkell.
U.S. champ Bradie Tennell came out with an edgy, modern routine designed by Benoit Richaud, but landed only a triple Lutz – double toe loop. That took her by surprise. She rarely misses. “I think my timing was a bit off,” she said. “It’s very strange because my Lutz combo is one of my most solid jumps, so I’m pretty disappointed with that skate.
“I’ve been skating a clean short program every single day since nationals, so to come here and put out a program like that is very surprising to me, and I’m pretty unhappy with it. Actually, I think I really let myself down there.” If she and Chen stay at the same ranking after the free, they would qualify three women to the Olympics.
Both South Korean skaters – Yelim Kim and Haein Lee – were competing at their first world championships, and ended up fifth and eighth respectively, which bodes well for them getting three spots for the Olympics. Kim the reigning national champion, 18, said she still couldn’t believe she had skated a clean program and received such a high score: 73.63, higher than the 69.45 that was her best in the past.
She said when she was unsure of what to skate to for her short program, 2010 Olympic champion Yu Na Kim advised her to skate for Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum.” “I put my heart into making sure to skate an even better performance,” she said.
Wearing white with sparkling white beads (mask, too) Haein Lee, 15, skated a beautiful thing to “Ave Maria,” a calming piece if ever there was one. But still, Lee was very nervous, she said. “I had a hard time in Korea before coming here,” she said. “But I think I did well. I’m so happy.”
Veteran French women’s skater Mae Berenice Meite didn’t get past her combo jump, injuring herself and falling. She did not finish. Sources say she ruptured her left Achilles’ tendon, but it’s uncertain whether it is a partial or total tear. She returns to France tomorrow.
The women’s free is on Friday.