4 Things I Learned from the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships

Now that I’ve had some time to sober up and do all the work I set aside so I could wake up at 2:00 AM and watch people fall on their twizzles, I have some thoughts on Worlds. Too much happened for a play-by-play, and two weeks after the fact, it makes more sense to look at the overall takeaway from the event. It also gives me an excuse to skip some performances that scored well but didn’t grab me, and to focus on a few lower-ranking skates that stood out for reasons other than numbers. As usual, I’ve taken a turn for the long-winded, so I’m splitting this recap into three parts.

1. The magic word was “finally.”

As in, “Look who finally won a gold medal!” Yuzuru Hanyu isn’t new to the top of the podium, and he is the reigning Olympic champion. But two years of sloppy silvers – and an error-heavy season – had made fans start to wonder if he’d begun the long slide into irrelevancy. When he bloopered the jump combination in his short program, stepping out of his quad salchow and invalidating the second jump, it looked like he might miss the podium for the first time since 2013. Hanyu’s free skate, however, was the kind of magic moment that makes a week of early mornings worthwhile. He was flawless from start to finish. His four quadruple jumps weren’t just clean, but exceptional, earning near-perfect grades of execution. His steps and connecting moves were more intricate and certain than most of the ice dancers who would compete later in the evening. By the time he landed his final jump – the triple lutz that he’s referred to as his nemesis, and continues to stick at the end of every free skate like he’s on a quest to defeat it – I was standing on my couch and cheering.

The kiss and cry that followed was one of this year’s iconic off-ice moments. Brian Orser seemed almost as overwhelmed as his student; his first words to Hanyu were, “That was fun to watch.” Meanwhile, Hanyu bravely insisted, “I’m not crying,” as tears ran down his cheeks. Fifth after the short program, Hanyu skated first in the final group, so he got to watch in the green room, with growing giddiness and disbelief, as his opponents fell behind him, one by one. Still stunned in the winner’s interview, he could only think about the error he’d made in the short, repeating that he needed to practice more as the interviewer tried to get him to focus on the world title he’d just won. More than any other men’s skater, Hanyu is eternally unsatisfied, insisting on pushing himself past his own limits. This time, his drive paid off.

It was hard for me to believe that Wenjing Sui and Cong Han had never won Worlds before. Their victory could hardly have come at a better time. Sui is finally healthy after two years of injuries, surgeries, and recoveries, and their instantly iconic free skate tells the story of how the team’s friendship strengthened as Han supported her. If you’re not sniffling at the end of their “Bridge Over Troubled Water” program, you have no feelings. It blows my mind that only one judge gave them a perfect 10 for Performance. They came short of perfection – Sui fell on a triple salchow – but it was easy to forget the error as their momentum built both technically and artistically. It’s hard to imagine a pairs program in which a clean quadruple twist isn’t the hands-down highlight, but their best moves came toward the end: a throw triple flip that sent Sui soaring halfway down the length of the rink, with a feather-soft landing; a final lift whose entrance and exit were as physically difficult as they were emotionally resonant. They earned perfect grades of execution for both elements. And in terms of memorable performances, no other pair came close.

2. Comebacks are a Crapshoot.

With the Olympics on the horizon, lots of familiar faces returned to the ice for this year’s Worlds, with varying levels of success. Few comebacks generated more buzz than Carolina Kostner’s. After two years away – some by choice, some mandated as fallout from a doping scandal – the 30-year-old veteran looked like a World medal contender after a bronze at Euros. Even at her peak, Kostner has never been the most accomplished technician, instead earning high marks for her superhuman speed and pristine execution. Her components scores remained among the highest, especially in her free skate, but her technical content looked downright old-fashioned in comparison with the enormous triple-triple combinations and back-loaded content that defeated her. Her fifth-place free skate earned only the tenth-highest technical score, and her sixth-place overall finish was her worst since 2010. Fun as it is to see her back on the ice, I found myself wishing she’d retired at her peak.

Pairs was lousy with comebacks this year. Aliona Savchenko is on the second year of her return tour, and this time, her interaction with Bruno Massot occasionally resembled chemistry. They’ve chosen high difficulty over polish and finesse, which snagged them a silver medal, although my friends have reassured me that I’m not the only one who can barely remember their performances. Newlyweds Alexa and Chris Knierim were in strong fighting shape after an illness took her off the ice for most of the season, but their 10th-place finish speaks volumes about the lackluster state of American pairs.

The most striking pairs comeback belonged to Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov. Stolbova was injured for most of the season, and their uncertainty showed in a nightmare of a short program that included a freakish fall on their twist. But in the free skate, both were in full-on beast mode. They stumbled out of their triple toe-triple toe-double toe combination, and Stolbova singled the last jump, but it’s astonishing to see a triple-triple in pairs at all. They also performed one of the few non-hideous back outside death spirals of the event, an accomplishment that, like many of their elements, might have earned even higher grades of execution if they hadn’t been stuck in the first warm-up group. But the best part of their performance was their distinctive angry-sexy chemistry. A lesser team might have struggled with their flat, abstract music, but they infused it with intensity and purpose. Stolbova and Klimov rocketed from 13th in the short program to 5th overall, in the most satisfying rebound of this year’s Worlds.

Without a doubt, the highest-profile comeback kids this season were Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Some fans, myself included, murmured with skepticism when they announced their return, but Virtue and Moir took the right approach for an accomplished veteran team. They’ve adapted to ice dance’s current direction, adding strategic upgrades to their steps and twizzles, and putting their own spin on the dramatic lyrical free dance style that dominates these days. They faltered in that free dance, as they have several times this season, but they built an insurmountable lead with their extraordinary short dance. Lots of teams were strong in the short this year, but Virtue and Moir were the only ones who made it look easy. They covered so much ice in their pattern dance that the camera operator had trouble finding them, and they brought the house down with a difficult variation on a signature lift. Prince isn’t remotely hip hop, but who cares? They captured his quirky spirit and proved they’re still capable of surprise, experimentation, and growth.

3. Canada has a deeper bench than we thought.

Virtue and Moir were the biggest Canadian story at this year’s Worlds, but it was a great year for Canada in general. With Virtue and Moir’s return, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were demoted to the second string in ice dance,. The limitations they’ve faced in their scoring followed them here: they consistently lost levels in their step sequences and missed the top tier in their grades of execution. But in a volatile dance event, Weaver and Poje achieved a fourth-place finish by demonstrating consistency and focus while others faltered. Earlier in the season, their Michael Jackson short dance had come off as fun but messy. They were sharper and more confident in Helsinki, and that refinement stood out. Before Worlds, it had been easy to give up on Weaver and Poje, but their performances here were a sign that this has been a transitional year, on the road to a real peak during the Olympic season. They won’t be able to rely on others’ mistakes next time, though.

While Weaver and Poje had to prove their relevance, Canada’s third pairs team arrived with few expectations on their shoulders. Liubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch’s partnership is itself a second chance, after years of more conventional, less successful, and less satisfying arrangements for both. With Ilyushechkina’s citizenship still up in the air, they’re not on a sure path toward the Olympics. That’s too bad, since their sixth-place finish was the highest for a Canadian pair this year, and it ensured that Canada will send three pairs to Pyeongchang in 2018. They were especially strong in the short program, which featured a huge, controlled throw triple lutz and more commitment to the tango than some ice dancers mustered. At first glance, their success seemed to be all Ilyushechkina, with her spunky on-ice presence, but Moscovitch was a rock. Keep an eye on him, and you’ll notice how often his keen sense of timing saved the day.

Kevin Reynolds acquitted himself well in the men’s event but got a bit of a raw deal. Stuck skating sixth out of 36 men in the short program, he was in a class by himself among the early groups. He landed two clean quads, including the most polished quad salchow-triple toe loop of the segment. The judges assessed him conservatively in components because he skated so early, and his front-loaded program, with no second-half bonuses for his jumps, set him back on the technical end. If Reynolds had been able to skate in a later group, he almost definitely would have placed higher than 12th in the short program. He looked less confident in the free skate, saving a number of underrotated landings, but he got some justice on his second mark. Across the board, his components averaged about 0.6 points higher in his free skate than in his short program. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it could have been just enough to put him ahead of Mikhail Kolyada overall. If Reynolds had placed 8th instead of 9th, he would have earned Canada an extra guaranteed spot at the Olympics.

But where Canada is concerned, the real story was the ladies. The last Canadian lady to stand on a World podium was Joannie Rochette in 2009, and until now, two have never medaled in the same year. Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman had both posted strong results earlier in the season: Osmond brought home a pair of Grand Prix silver medals and just missed the podium at the Grand Prix Final; Daleman spoiled for silver at Four Continents. I didn’t see anyone predicting a podium finish for either at Worlds, though, and both are so inconsistent that they would have made my Why I Drink list if I’d had time for a ladies’ field guide. As I watched live, the presumption on Twitter was that they would both bomb their free skates. Maybe one would survive. Instead, Osmond and Daleman soared under pressure while most of their competitors stumbled.

Osmond was great in the free skate, but her shining moment was her short program. I can’t imagine a current skater more suited to an Edith Piaf medley, and the music’s rough-edged bravado lent her confidence. She opened with a textbook triple flip-triple toe loop, but what stood out most were her spins. Long-limbed and muscular, Osmond has to work harder than others to make her flexibility moves look clean and natural, but her extension looks that much more dramatic because she has such control over it. That precision, along with some of the fastest basic skating in the field, earns her the high components scores that some fans are skeptical of. In some respects, she approaches her non-jump elements and connecting moves more like a men’s skater, muscling into them instead of faking a delicacy that isn’t really her style. That places her in contrast with most other top ladies, but the more she owns it, the farther she’s able to take it.

As great as Osmond was, Daleman damn near overshadowed her, especially in the free skate. In fact, I was surprised that Osmond beat her in the free – by less than a point, and entirely on components. Daleman competes with less technical difficulty than most top ladies, but her underlying technique is some of the best. Nobody else jumps higher, and she doesn’t rotate until she’s fully airborne, like she knows she’s going to be up there all day. She also beefs up her grades of execution with dramatic and unusual entrances and exits to her jumps. Her choreography is a giant stamina challenge, with few opportunities to breathe or regroup mentally. Which is fitting, because everyone watching was holding their breath for the entire four minutes of her free skate. Points and placement aside, she was the star of the ladies’ event.

4. Don’t underestimate anybody.

Before an event like Worlds, I’m always attentive to the athletes that people aren’t talking about. Underestimated athletes often do well in big events, because they feel the pressure less than the top contenders. Front runners claimed all the gold medals this year, but several quiet heroes made big statements. I don’t know if we’ll start taking them more seriously as a result, but we should be.

It’s weird that Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov still come off as underdogs in pairs, since they won both Euros and the Grand Prix Final this year. Maybe it’s because all of their big accomplishments come from consistency and steadiness, rather than the dramatic but unreliable moves that attract as much attention from a fall as a landing. Maybe it’s because their chemistry is less volatile and passionate than we expect from pairs, a comfortable and friendly connection that can be appealing but doesn’t have the strongest impact on the ice. Or maybe it’s that they had a little more oomph in their performances earlier in the season. Their short program was as stunningly precise as ever, and they wobbled only slightly in their free skate. It was more than good enough for bronze, and in a world where polish and persistence get due credit, it should also be good enough to cement their status as Russia’s strongest pairs team.

Normally, Boyang Jin isn’t an underdog. He’s one of the quad-jumping overlords of men’s skating, and he came to Worlds as the reigning bronze medalist. But a rough season, and a lack of new technical upgrades, had left him as the quad beast least likely to succeed in Helsinki. While others padded their arsenals with bigger jumps, Jin turned his attention to his components marks, addressing justified criticism that his transitions, skating skills, and musical interpretation lagged far behind his competitors’. His performances at Worlds demonstrated how much he’s developed his fundamentals, but more importantly, how effectively he’s cultivated a signature style. There’s never been a question that Jin is having fun whenever he skates, but for the first time, his choreography builds in opportunities for him to show it. An infectious smile can’t compensate for two-footed skating or jumps that launch perilously close to the boards, but it’s evidence of effort in the right direction. Jin’s quad lutz is impressive on its own, but his charm gives it something extra.

After Mai Mihara won Four Continents, you’d think we’d all be paying attention. Instead, folks continue to confuse her with Satoko Miyahara. Throughout her career, Mihara has been overshadowed by jumping prodigies and preternaturally dramatic divas, lost in Japan’s overcrowded ladies’ field. But her mental steadiness and exceptionally clean jump technique have brought her to the forefront this season. A major lapse in the short program took her out of podium range in Helsinki: she doubled her final jump, a flip, receiving zero credit for the element, and sank down to 15th in the segment. But she was error-free and graceful in her free skate, taking the lead and holding onto it for hours. She ended up with the fourth-place free skate, and she might have gone higher if she’d skated later. Compared with the other top competitors’ jumps, the deep edges of her entrances would have stood out more, as would the momentum she gains as she checks out of her controlled landings. Mihara isn’t the most expressive skater, and the Disney-princess wonder of her more confident Four Continents performance didn’t come through as strongly at Worlds. Few athletes can match her technique, though, and she should be giving stamina lessons to the rest of Team Japan. Her fifth-place finish is enough to establish her as an athlete to watch, but her quiet persistence – the quality that makes her all too easy to overlook – seems to be the secret to her success. She’ll enter 2017-18 as a major contender for one of Japan’s two Olympic slots, and it will get harder for her to keep skating like nobody’s watching.


 

Next on The Finer Sports: Two more posts of Worlds reactions! Then, a series of season-in-review posts, plus whatever I have to say about the World Team Trophy.

5 thoughts on “4 Things I Learned from the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships”

  1. I should be asleep. Sarah Rasher, you’re a fun writer to read; Shannon M. Houston at Paste is another who makes me realize I really love being on the earth plane because exceptional writers make me laugh or ponder or deflect or cry or just wish I could, ” . . . . do that voodoo you do so well.”. Looking forward to Parts II and III of Worlds. Thank you so much for writing the talk of your walk.

  2. Slide into irrelevancy? Hanyu? Would that be the Hanyu who broke the WRs last season and then got silver in Boston with a massive injury that had him confined off ice for two months? Then once back, having to start his jumps from singles again? No actual fan thought he was sliding into anything; they only marveled at an amazing season with a new quad (that wasn’t any more error heavy than any other skater’s btw, check actual facts), considering his injury. Helsinki was icing on the cake.

    1. You’re right that Hanyu’s fans didn’t see him as irrelevant at all, but fans of other top men frequently expressed the sentiment that Hanyu was past his prime and being overshadowed by younger skaters. I hate to use the Figure Skating Confessions Tumblr as evidence of anything, but it does show a lot of Hanyu fans on the defensive and a lot of Shoma, Nathan, and Javi fans predicting his downfall. Up until Worlds this season, Hanyu hadn’t performed anywhere close to as well as he did at the NHK Trophy and Grand Prix Final in 2015, and other athletes were skating cleaner programs. That’s how Nathan Chen beat Hanyu at Four Continents, and how Patrick Chan maintained his lead after the short program at Skate Canada for a win there. I checked the protocols, and Nathan Chen, Shoma Uno, and Boyang Jin were all more consistent jumpers this season than Hanyu was, despite greater base difficulty. Hanyu is one of my favorite current men, and I’m over the moon that he pulled out one of the best free skates of his career in Helsinki. But he did have something to prove there, and if he hadn’t skated so brilliantly, we’d be having a very different conversation about him.

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