Hold a world championship for the first time in two years, during a pandemic (with rising numbers in many places), with all sorts of training interruptions and stay-at-home orders and what could go wrong?
It all came to roost in the pairs short program Wednesday at the world figure skating championships in Stockholm. Is it just more difficult for pairs, skating in front of a silent hall, reaching into the memory banks for the right feel of the thing and the timing and the memory? Or is all of this just more difficult for the riskiest of disciplines? Perhaps.
There was a very large field of pair skaters in this event – 24 in total – and that’s a very good thing. There have been other years when folk would rejoice if there were half that number of decent pairs in the world. But in Stockholm, only the top three teams transcended all the earthy higgledy piggeldy problems of the day. The top five were going to be the top five.
And oh, add that Japanese team of Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara onto the list. They should have been sixth rather than eighth, so full of the right stuff were they, even down to touching elbows with glee at the end.
And besides, they skated to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the arresting version sung by K.D. Lang. We don’t care how many people have skated to it in recent years; it gave an aura of holiness (without being holy) to the skate. And K.D. Lang sang her version at the Vancouver Olympics. What more do you need? The Japanese had it in their pockets this time. They are growing somehow while others are standing still.
Most of the rest struggled with mistakes. The skating powers were represented at the top (China, Russia) but alas not Canada this time. Canada, a country that has had no real competitions for a year, that lost its world championship a year ago, as well as its Autumn Classic, its Skate Canada International, and its national championships.
Hopes were so high but the piggeldies ate away at the routine of Canadian champions Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro. They tried their best to make it happen, but the triple twist got only a level one and a change-foot combo spin (out of synch) got only a basic mark with no GOE at all. There was a little stumble on the triple toe loop. Moore-Towers fought for everything, like the landing of the throw triple loop, too. It was as if the sun never rose, the ants left the sand hill and headed for the honey pot in the house all at once, or the rain just never stopped. That all plunged them into 10th place in the short program, more than 12 points away from a bronze medal. Their faces spoke volumes. (But it’s not over.)
“I don’t know if there’s anything in that program that we’re particularly proud of,” Moore-Towers said. “We are fairly positive people but I think today, at least for right now, we’re disappointed. We were ready to have some fun today, but that turned south pretty quickly.”
Marinaro said they would love to blame that performance on lack of training, but they were well prepared. “We got our toes wet for the first time in 13 months on the competition ice so now we know what to expect,” he said.
Canada’s No. 2 team, Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud, held up their end at their second world championship, with a score of 59.41, good enough for 12th. They lost some levels all over, but don’t forget they never even got a chance to compete at a virtual Skate Canada Challenge. They have missed everything. Everything.
Up there at the top, so far away from sight are two Russian and a storied Chinese team, all brilliant, although not necessarily the Russian teams that some expected. Those veterans, Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, always so close to a gold medal, but always so far with a foot wrong here, another there, did it to themselves again and are sitting in fourth place, 8.70 points from gold.
Tarasova doubled a triple toe loop, and went to her knees on it. The rest of the way, they delivered content: big fat triple twist, soaring throw triple loop, level four on mostly everything else.
But they skated to “Bolero,” and that belongs to British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean for all time. Nobody could do it like they did. Nobody could touch the way this team swept you up on their way down the ice and carried you to the end, the music and the movement in your ears forever. Tarasova and Morozov just have no spark to carry it off.
The top three teams had all sorts of spark and fire and hey, live coals burning, too. The leaders are Alexandra Boikova and Dmitri Kozlovskii of Russia. (They won a Skate Canada International in 2019, upstarts at the time, more fresh-faced than they are now at ages 19 and 21.) They come from the stable of Tamara Moskvina, who was more than pleased to allow the team to change its routine to “Howl’s Moving Castle” before the world championships.
Boikova said she spotted the music while watching something on Instagram through a fan group. Up popped this music, which takes you to a place you’ve perhaps never been.
They wanted to breathe some new energy into their programs, and besides, they have been testing themselves with a variety of styles. “We don’t want to repeat ourselves,” Kozlovskii said.
“Howl’s Moving Castle” is a 2004 Japanese animated fantasy film, set in a fictional kingdom where magic and modern technology co-exist. It centres around a young milliner, Sophie, who is turned into an old woman by a witch who casts a spell on her. There is a war in the offing, so this movie carries themes of old age, freedom, love, loyalty, and especially the destructive effects of war. Boikova calls it a message of “our love, happiness and hope. It’s the light message for everyone that everything will be all right.”
This film was nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to “Wallace and Gromit.” (You can’t make this stuff up.)
So out comes Kozlovskii in his bright turquoise military uniform, and Boikova swings smilingly away as they solve the problems of the world, and while they are at it, win a short program (80.16 points) at a world championship. They are already the 2020 European champions. Has anyone ever doubted their path to the Olympics? I haven’t.
When they finished their routine, Boikova jumped up and down on the ice and was instantly young again.
They cast former and beloved world champions Wenjing Sui and Cong Han into second place with a score of 77.62 but the Chinese have not competed for at least a year, and Han has been on the injury list this time with surgery to repair a hip back on April 2020. They’ve come back swinging before after long months of recovery.
This time they were a tad rusty: Sui stepped out of a triple toe loop, but other than that, they captured us with an old routine, “Blues for Klook.” The injury didn’t make it possible to do choreography for this season. He couldn’t do many of the moves required. “Blues for Klook” helped them win a gold medal several years ago, and it was the one they most wanted to reprise.
“Because I had surgery, our main goal this year was to recover from the injury,” Han said. “Next year will be the Olympics [in China, note], and that’s our biggest goal. “
He admitted that this competition is challenging for them, but their physical condition is improving and they are moving back to their usual ways of training. “So for us, this competition is to show the best side of ourselves,” Han said.
Sitting in third place are young Russians, just fresh from winning the world junior championships last year: Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, she 19, he 21. They were a delight, skating to “Esmeralda,” and firing off a big triple twist, a solid throw triple Lutz, a triple Salchow, and all sorts of level fours for spins and death spiral. Their score of 75.79 points is within striking distance of the leaders and they have 4.33 more points than the veterans Tarasova and Morozov.
Mishina was afraid the competition wouldn’t happen and were happy to be in Stockholm. They do not even think about being third. “We don’t know if it’s a surprise or not,” she said. ”We were just not thinking about it.”
Galliamov said they have waited for high-level competition for a long time, even if there are no spectators. “We are grateful to the audience who are watching behind the scenes, so thank you all so much for your support,” he said. “We will try to keep making you happy with our long program.”
Mishina said they have had lots of competitions in Russia. So they are not rusty.
Fifth-place team, Cheng Peng and Yang had an extra problem to deal with, as the zipper on the side of Peng’s delicate blue dress flew open and remained that way for the duration of the short program. Perhaps it happened when she suddenly fell backward onto the ice in the opening seconds of their routine to “Somewhere in Time.” It was choreographed by Marie-France Dubreuil, who with husband/partner Patrice Lauzon had won a world silver medal for Canada with this music.
Peng slightly underrotated a triple toe loop and put a hand to steady herself. But their score of 71.32 points left them only a sniffle behind Tarasova and Morozov (they outscored the Russian on technical but not component marks.) and only 4.47 points away from a bronze medal. It was an incredibly beautiful routine. But Sui and Han won the component race. As ever. They are magic on blades.