2018 Olympics Figure Skating Preview: Pairs Part 2

We have a pairs short program starting any minute, so here’s your quick guide to the second half of the pairs alphabet.

We have a pairs short program starting any minute, with the men’s event hot on its tail. Meanwhile, I have a job and a social life and the occasional need for sleep. So here’s your quick guide to the second half of the pairs alphabet, with video, basic info, and a brief analysis of where each stands in the Olympic field. For more detailed profiles of the skaters from the first half of the alphabet, plus explanations of the four broad categories I’m sorting them into, see my 2018 Olympics Pairs Preview Part 1.

Kirsten Moore-Towers & Michael Marinaro

The Basics: Moore-Towers and Marinaro represent Canada. She’s 25 and from St. Catharines, Ontario; he’s 26 and from Sarnia, Ontario. They now live in Montreal, coached by Bruno Marcotte. They began skating together in 2014, and both have had notable international careers with other partners, she with Dylan Moscovitch and he with Margaret Purdy.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Since they teamed up, Moore-Towers and Marinaro have been seen as the fourth chair in Canadian pairs, but they stepped up when it mattered at Nationals this year and earned an Olympic spot. That takes the pressure way off – their teammates are seen as far more likely to rise to the podium – but also leaves them unjustly overlooked. They don’t compete the most difficult content, but skating conservatively and with consistency can get a team far when everyone’s nerves are running high. I can’t convince myself to count them out, which is the kind of ridiculous but satisfying mathematical conclusion that’s Why I Drink.

Cheng Peng and Yang Jin

The Basics: Peng and Jin represent China. Both are originally from Harbin and now live in Beijing, where they train with Bin Yao. She’s 20 years old, while his age is difficult to report on because of age falsification controversy. They’ve been skating together since 2016, before which she skated with Hao Zhang and he with Xiaoyu Yu.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: This team would probably be fandom darlings for their plucky personalities and warm on-ice connection, but they captured the heart of the internet when the Chinese Skating Association forced a partner swap, sending the message that Yu and Zhang were the preferred team and Peng and Jin were “Team Leftovers.” While Peng and Jin do lack the consistency and explosive jumping ability of the other Chinese teams, they make up for it in the precision and loveliness of their elements. They’ll probably get lost in the shuffle, but if they skate their best in Pyeongchang, they have the technical and artistic skills to catch the judges’ attention. Rooting for them feels like an act of revenge, and that’s Why I Drink.

Tae Ok Ryom & Ju Sik Kim

The Basics: Ryom and Kim represent North Korea. They’re both from Pyongyang, where they still live and train, coached by Hyon Son Kim. She’s 19 years old, and he’s 25. They’ve teamed with other partners domestically but have had international success only with each other.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Some athletes are important more for what they represent than for how they’ll compete. As North Korean athletes at an Olympic Games in South Korea, Ryom and Kim’s mere presence is symbolic. The best part is, they’re legitimately good enough to hold their own. They’re fresh off a bronze medal at Four Continents – achieved in a less strenuous field than usual, but nonetheless a first for a North Korean team at an ISU championship. They perform with a natural grace and flow, and their throw jumps are breathtaking. It’s unlikely they’ll have the base difficulty to reach the top ranks, but they’re Just Happy to Be Here on a more profound level than anyone else in the field.

Aliona Savchenko & Bruno Massot

The Basics: Savchenko and Massot represent Germany, although neither is a native of the country: she was born in Obukhiv, Ukraine, and he in Caen, France. Both skated for their countries of origin in the past and had notable international careers before they teamed up in 2014, she with Robin Szolkowy and with Stanislav Morozov, and he with Daria Popova. They live in Oberstdorf, Germany, where they train with Alexander Konig. She’s 34 years old, and he’s 29.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Savchenko has been a force of nature throughout her long career – she’s been competing internationally since 1998 – and she’s raised Massot to her level. Their greatest strength is their lack of weakness: they’re strong jumpers, elegant lifters, and spirited and versatile performers. Savchenko is also basically a pro at this Olympics thing, as she’s won bronze medals at the past two Games. If they skate like they did at their most recent international appearance, the Grand Prix Final (Savchenko’s fifth career gold medal at the event, and Massot’s first), they’ll be almost unstoppable. If they make weird, dramatic errors, as they too often do, their base value and high program components might still be enough to keep them on the podium. They’re not a lock for a medal, but they’re Front Runners.

Julianne Seguin & Charlie Bilodeau

The Basics: Seguin and Bilodeau represent Canada. She’s 21 years old and from the Montreal area; he’s 24 and originally from Rimouski, Quebec. They train in Chambly, Quebec, under a coaching team led by Josee Picard. They’ve been a team since 2012, before which she was a singles skater, and he had some domestic and junior-level success with another partner.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: If my doctor wants to understand the state of my liver function, she might want to look to the Canadian pairs. Like their teammates, Seguin and Bilodeau are world-class talents, but so unreliable under pressure that it’s impossible to predict where they’ll wind up in the standings. As performers, they’re among the most engaging pairs skaters, with a strong connection to one another and lots of emotional range. Their technical difficulty is high enough to put them in contention, although they tend to throw away points with small errors – when they’re not melting down completely. It would be great to see them rise to the occasion, but the uncertainty of that happening is Why I Drink.

Wenjing Sui & Cong Han

The Basics: Sui and Han represent China. They are either 22 and 25 years old or 20 and 28 years old, depending on the documentation. They’ve been skating together since 2007 and have had no other partners during their career. Both are originally from Harbin but now live in Beijing, where they’re coached by Hongbo Zhao.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Sui and Han are the reigning World Champions, and their momentum has continued into this season. They’re capable of an enormous quadruple twist lift, but where they really bring home the points is on the beauty of their execution. They don’t just do difficult elements; they perform them with finesse, and in ways that blend with the choreography. Sui has been battling injuries for several years, though, and their errors are often as dramatic as their successful jumps and lifts. To win gold in Pyeongchang, they’ll have to keep things exceptionally clean, but they’ve proven themselves so often capable of doing so that they’re Front Runners.

Miu Suzaki & Ryuichi Kihara

The Basics: Suzaki and Kihara represent Japan. She’s 18 years old and comes from Nagoya, while he’s 25 years old and from Ichinomiya, Aichi. They train primarily in the Detroit area in the United States, coached by Jason Dungjen and Yuka Sato. Both are former singles skaters, and he previously skated pairs with Narumi Takahashi. They’ve been a team since 2015.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Suzaki and Kihara have already attracted attention for skating their short program to music from the skating-themed anime Yuri on Ice. The team event gave them a rare showcase, as pairs is the weakest link in Japan’s otherwise formidable figure skating program. Even when they nail their elements, which include a sometimes impressive side-by-side triple lutz, they don’t have the overall difficulty to stand up to a field that is pushing pairs to new limits. They’re a great example of how a Just Happy to Be Here team can gain popularity through savvy choices and winning personalities.

Evgenia Tarasova & Vladimir Morozov

The Basics: Tarasova and Morozov will compete as Olympic Athletes from Russia. She’s 23 and from Kazan; he’s 25 and was born in Germany but moved to Moscow as a child. They train in Moscow under Nina Mozer. They skated with other people early in their careers, but their partnership, which began in 2012, is the first internationally significant one for both.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: If nothing else, Tarasova and Morozov will be memorable. Criticized in the past for not standing out enough artistically, their free skate is either a bonkers attempt to remake their image or a triumph of figure skating camp. Either way, they have the skills to back it up, from their huge opening quad twist to their speedy and graceful lifts. While they’re not paragons of consistency – and what pair is? – they have a remarkable ability to rebound from errors, most recently at the European Championships, where they jumped from a fifth-place short program to an overall gold medal. Get ready for some yellow polka dots on the podium, because they’re Front Runners.

Xiaoyu Yu & Hao Zhang

The Basics: Yu and Zhang represent China, and like the other Chinese teams, they have conflicting records of their ages: 22 or 20 for her, and 33 or 36 for him. She’s from Beijing, and he’s originally from Harbin. They train in Beijing with Bin Yao and Hongbo Zhao. Before they teamed up in 2016, she used to skate with Yang Jin, and he had substantial international success with Dan Zhang (including an Olympic silver medal way back in 2006) and Cheng Peng.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: China took a risk by putting these two together despite their success with other partners, and they’ve proved to be steady competitors, but not stars. Their difficulty is on par with that of other top teams, and they’re about as consistent as anyone, which means that on their best day, they’re in the conversation for a medal. But with less chemistry or artistic impact than the other teams at their level, they’ll have to hit every jump perfectly. They’re solid Dark Horses, but they’ll be eclipsed by other teams unless they give the performances of their lives.

Natalia Zabiiako & Alexander Enbert

The Basics: Zabiiako and Enbert will compete as Olympic Athletes from Russia. She’s 23 and was born in Tallinn, Estonia, and he’s 28 and from St. Petersburg. Both have laundry lists of former partners, although their current team is by far the most successful for both. They’re based in Moscow, and their primary coach is Nina Mozer.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Zabiiako and Enbert tend to fly under the radar, to the point where I’ve seen several dedicated figure skating fans forget that they’d made the team for major events such as Worlds and Europeans. While they’re not the most dynamic performers, their rare consistency and focus have become a major asset. If other teams skate well, Zabiiako and Enbert are probably out of the running for a medal, but if it’s a messy pairs event, look for these Dark Horses to glide past the wreckage.

Miriam Ziegler & Severin Kiefer

The Basics: Ziegler and Kiefer represent Austria. She’s 23 and from Oberpullendorf, and he’s 27 and from Graz. They’ve been a team since 2013, and both had some success as singles skaters before that. They train in Salzburg and in Berlin, coached by Knut Schubert.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: In every generation and discipline, there are a few solid, persistent mid-listers. Ziegler and Kiefer are defining examples, with a respectable record of top-ten finishes at Europeans and qualifications for Worlds and Olympics. They don’t compete the most difficult jumps, or land them consistently, but they skate with a determined joy that makes them a pleasure to watch. They won’t come in last, but they won’t finish in sight of the podium, either. They’re Just Happy to Be Here, and they’re the kind of team that fans are just happy to have around.


Previous Olympics Coverage on The Finer Sports:

Up next: previews of the men and ice dance, followed by the rest of the ladies!

2018 Olympics Figure Skating Preview: Pairs Part 1

There’s a good chance you’re new here, and don’t realize that I have a fraught relationship with pairs skating. On the one hand, it’s figure skating, so I love it more than the vast majority of things in the world. On the other hand, it’s pairs. When it comes to the three other disciplines, I can analyze down to the nitpick level, pointing out how a singles skater’s choctaw to triple lutz will raise her grade of execution or noting when an ice dance team will lose points for missing a checkpoint in their pattern dance. If your response to the previous sentence was, “All of those words were in English, and yet I could make no sense of them,” that’s pretty much how I feel when pairs skating aficionados talk about lift categories or throw jump technique. I enjoy watching pairs and have my favorites, but when called upon to preview the discipline for Olympics viewers, I’m winging it like a casual fan.

So it’s research skills to the rescue for me as I go through the first 11 of the 22 teams who will compete in Pyeongchang. For each, I’ll provide a video of a recent strong performance, a rundown of their career highlights, and a discussion of how their season has gone so far. I’ll follow with the best analysis I can provide of how they’ll perform at the Olympics. And since you should never ask a professional statistics nerd to make predictions based on data (unless you want a lecture on why statistical data is descriptive rather than predictive, and seriously, save yourself now), I’ll place each team into one of four broad categories:

  • Front Runners are the teams most likely to win an individual medal of any color at the 2018 Olympic Games.
  • Dark Horses have a tougher battle ahead of them, but they have technical skills and other qualities that put them in the conversation.
  • Most teams at the Olympics are Just Happy to Be Here. They’ve been training most of their lives for this event, and it’s a reward just to skate on Olympic ice, whatever the outcome. Many JHTBH teams are a pleasure to watch, and can make a powerful statement by skating their best when the world’s eyes are on them.
  • Some teams defy categorization. They have inconsistent or unusual records, and are therefore so unpredictable that it’s impossible to place them within the standard pecking order. These teams are Why I Drink, and in many ways, they’re the most fun part of watching figure skating.

Because the pairs field is more volatile than the other disciplines’, it’s especially stacked with Dark Horses, and because the alphabet is an overly effective randomizer, all of the Front Runners will be in Part Two.

Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya & Harley Windsor

The Basics: Alexandrovskaya and Windsor represent Australia. She’s 18 years old, and he’s 21. Alexandrovskaya is originally from Moscow, Russia, while Windsor hails from the suburbs of Sydney. They’ve been skating together since 2015. It’s been his only pairs partnership to date, and the first for her to achieve significant international results. They train with Andrei and Galina Pachin in Sydney, and with Nina Mozer in Moscow.

Career Highlights: Alexandrovskaya and Windsor debuted last season, skating mostly at the junior level. They were the surprise winners at Junior Grand Prix Estonia, becoming the first Australian pair to win a JGP event, and went on to place 5th at the 2016 Junior Grand Prix Final. After a disappointing 11th-place finish at the Four Continents Championships, they dominated at the World Junior Championships, taking gold and logging another first for an Australian team. At the senior-level World Championships, they skated well but couldn’t contend with the more established teams, for a 16th-place result.

Season So Far: This season, Alexandrovskaya and Windsor didn’t receive any senior Grand Prix assignments, so they returned to the JGP in the autumn. They started strong with gold at JGP Poland but hit a speed bump at JGP Latvia, where they placed only 4th. They were back on their game at the Junior Grand Prix Final, though, becoming the first Australians ever to win that event. On the senior level, they were spectacular at the Tallinn Trophy, winning gold by a 16-point margin. Under pressure at the Nebelhorn Trophy to earn an Olympic spot for Australia, their inexperience showed, but they managed to pull off a bronze medal. At Four Continents, they seemed poised for a medal after a great short program, but they collapsed in the free skate and finished only 6th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Alexandrovskaya and Windsor are trailblazers for Australia and are almost certain to break records and set new standards for pairs in their country. However, they’re a young team and prone to nerves. Both of these factors lead to technical errors, as well as to relatively low components scores compared with the more established teams. If they skate lights out in both programs, they’re very much a factor at these Olympics, and even if they don’t, they’ll skate well enough to make a name for themselves going forward. They’re Dark Horses with a bright future ahead.

Kristina Astakhova & Alexei Rogonov

The Basics: Astakhova and Rogonov will compete as Olympic Athletes from Russia. She’s 20 years old and from Moscow; he’s 29 years old and from Salsk. They’ve been skating together since 2014. Before that, she experienced some junior-level success with Nikita Bochkov, and he had a substantial international career with Anastasia Martiusheva. They train in Moscow, coached by Artur Dmitriev.

Career Highlights: Astakhova and Rogonov  began their partnership in 2014 with two Challenger Series gold medals, at the Volvo Open and Golden Spin, as well as a surprise bronze medal at their first Grand Prix assignment, the Rostelecom Cup. Since then, they’ve mostly found themselves on the lower tiers of international podiums: they’ve earned six career silver medals at Challenger Series events, and taken bronze at a total of four Grand Prix competitions. They’ve never even reached the podium at Nationals, although they’ve been 4th three times.

Season So Far: Astakhova and Rogonov have been solid and steady throughout the current season. They began with a silver medal at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, then gave their best performances of the season on the Grand Prix circuit, earning a pair of bronze medals and setting new personal best scores at the NHK Trophy. After a shaky outing at Golden Spin – nonetheless good enough for silver – they couldn’t quite find their feet at Nationals. Although they finished fourth there, another team was rendered ineligible by the International Olympic Committee in the wake of Russian doping violations, so Astakhova and Rogonov get their shot at an Olympics.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Compared to their fellow Russians, Astakhova and Rogonov have milder-mannered personalities and less explosive technical elements, which gets them lost in the shuffle. They also tend to miss crucial jumps in high-pressure situations, which is why they’ve never quite made it to a Russian podium. On the other hand, this is a competition where the lack of pressure could work in their favor: with more focus on the other Russian teams, Astakhova and Rogonov could shine. They’re the kind of ninja Dark Horses that it’s impossible to rule out.

Paige Conners & Evgeni Krasnopolski

The Basics: Conners is 17 years old, and Krasnopolski is 29; they represent Israel. Conners is American by birth – from Pittsford, in western New York state – but her mother is an Israeli citizen. Krasnopolski was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and immigrated to Israel with his parents as a small child. Now, both live and train in Hackensack, New Jersey, USA, coached by Galit Chait Moracci. They’re a brand new team, skating together since 2017.

Career Highlights: Krasnopolski is Conners’ first skating partner of competitive significance, but he has a long history in the sport prior to teaming with her. Connors is, in fact, the fifth woman with whom he has competed internationally in pairs. Before that, he was a three-time Israeli silver medalist in men’s singles, and placed as high as 30th at Junior Worlds as a singles skater. In pairs, he’s earned medals at a number of “senior B” international competitions and placed as high as 7th at the European Championships (with Andrea Davidovich) and as high as 17th at the World Championships (with Danielle Montalbano). With Davidovich, he represented Israel at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and placed 15th.

Season So Far: Conners and Krasnopolski have had a promising debut season together. They gave solid performances at all three of their Challenger Series events and earned a bronze medal at Ice Star in Minsk. At the Nebelhorn Trophy, they rose to the occasion technically and artistically, securing an Olympic spot for Israel when they placed 8th. At the European Championships, they finished 9th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Krasnopolski has struggled to stick with his partners for more than a season or two, but Conners seems like a good match for him despite their chasm of age and experience. She’s a natural performer, which brings out his musicality; in turn, his maturity appears to ground her and help her control her technical elements. Nonetheless, their components scores and grades of execution hold them back, as they don’t skate with the intricacy and ease of higher-ranked competitors. If they hit every element dead on, they might throw off some predictions, but they’re unlikely to build enough on their base value to become more than Just Happy to Be Here.

Nicole Della Monica & Matteo Guarise

The Basics: Della Monica and Guarise represent Italy. She’s 28 and comes from Bergamo; he’s 29 and from Rimini. Coached by Cristina Mauri, they train primarily in Bergamo. They’ve been skating together since 2011, prior to which Della Monica experienced international success with Yannick Kocon, and Guarise was a world champion roller skater.

Career Highlights: In her previous partnership with Kocon, Della Monica competed at the Olympics for the first time, finishing 12th in 2010. Her results improved markedly when she teamed up with Guarise, however. Della Monica and Guarise are three-time Italian silver medalists and three-time national champions. They’ve earned numerous medals at senior B international events and excelled at the Challenger Series in 2016, taking gold at both the Lombardia Trophy and Golden Spin. They’ve competed at six European Championships, always placing in the top 10, and have finished as high as 11th at Worlds, in 2016. At the 2014 Olympics, they came in 16th.

Season So Far: Della Monica and Guarise have been making a great case for themselves this season. They began with Challenger Series silver medals at both the Lombardia Trophy and Finlandia Trophy. Then, they gave a pair of standout performances at their Grand Prix events, placing fourth at Cup of China and earning their first career Grand Prix medal, a bronze, at the Trophee de France. They looked great at Nationals, where they won their third domestic title in a row. At Europeans, they came in a solid 6th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Della Monica and Guarise have taken home more hardware this season than ever before, and they’re peaking at the right moment to exceed expectations during these Olympics. They also possess many of the qualities that can boost a team’s components score: they’re fast, with deep edges and fluid body lines, and they express a lot of personality and connection to the music. Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to count them among the herd of Dark Horses in this year’s pairs field, I can’t come up with a scenario in which they reach the podium. They could get close, though, which makes them the captains of the pairs division of the Just Happy to Be Here squad.

Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford

The Basics: Duhamel and Radford skate for Canada. She’s 32 years old and comes from the Sudbury area of Ontario; he’s 33 and grew up in a small town in western Ontario. They now both reside in the Montreal area, where they train with coaches Richard Gauthier and Bruno Marcotte (the latter is Duhamel’s husband). They’ve been skating together since 2010, and both have notable previous partners – Craig Buntin for Duhamel, Rachel Kirkland for Radford – as well as significant prior careers as singles skaters.

Career Highlights: Before teaming up, Duhamel and Radford had already made their marks on the sport. They’re both former junior national champions in singles (2003 for her, 2004 for him), and Duhamel took bronze at Four Continents in 2010 while skating with Buntin. The magic and the medals really kicked in when they got together, though. They’ve won seven consecutive Canadian pairs titles as a team. They’ve medaled at every Grand Prix event that they’ve entered since 2011; seven of those medals have been gold; four are from the past four Skate Canadas. They were Grand Prix Final champions in 2014, Four Continents champions in 2013 and 2015, and World Champions in 2015 and 2016. They competed at the 2014 Olympics but placed only 7th.

Season So Far: This has been a challenging season for Duhamel and Radford, although they’ve enjoyed some notable successes. Heavily favored to win the Challenger Series Autumn Classic, they made several errors and took silver instead. They had a similar experience at Skate America and achieved only bronze. At Skate Canada, they got back on track, winning gold after an excellent free skate. But it was back to technical difficulties at the Grand Prix Final, and they settled for bronze. At Nationals, they calmed concerns about their domestic dominance with a pair of terrific skates and maintained their reign at the top of the Canadian podium.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Duhamel and Radford are one of the most accomplished current pairs teams. While fans sometimes gripe that their performances are too technical, their exceptional skating skills and their free, friendly chemistry convince the judges of their artistry. They also compete some of the most difficult jumps in the field, including a side-by-side triple lutz and a throw quadruple salchow – both of which they landed solidly at Skate Canada. The problem is, those impressive elements are hit or miss, and the misses have outnumbered the hits this season. Lingering injuries, as well as the fact that both are well into their 30’s, have affected their stamina as well. Add to that uncertainty the fact that if Radford reaches the podium, he’ll be the first out gay man to win an Olympic medal in figure skating, and it’s clear that they’re Why I Drink.

Anna Duskova & Martin Bidar

The Basics: Duskova and Bidar are both 18 years old and represent the Czech Republic. She comes from Nymburk; he’s from Ceske Budejovice. They train primarily in Prague, with Eva Horklova as their coach. They’ve been skating together since 2011, and both were singles skaters before that.

Career Highlights: Duskova and Bidar gained international experience for three seasons at the junior level, improving by leaps and bounds from year to year. Their breakout season was 2015-16, when they took silver at the Junior Grand Prix Final and Youth Olympics. They went on to win 2016 Junior Worlds, becoming the first Czech pair ever to do so. That fall, they came in second at the JGP Final again, and won their first senior-level gold, at the 2016 Cup of Nice. They gave solid performances at both of their ISU Championships, finishing 7th at 2017 Europeans and 14th at Worlds.

Season So Far: Duskova and Bidar have had to withdraw from most of their planned competitions this season, as Duskova suffered a knee injury in October 2017 that required surgery. The only event they were able to participate in before that was the most crucial – the Nebelhorn Trophy, where they eked out a trip to the Olympics with a 9th-place finish.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Even before Duskova’s injury put the brakes on what should have been a resume-building season for this young pair, things looked awry for them. They skated with uncharacteristic caution at the Nebelhorn Trophy, and formerly rock-solid elements looked shaky there. According to their Facebook page, Duskova was excited just to be back on the ice as of early December, but they’ve been telling the Czech press they’re at full strength now. On one level, that makes Duskova and Bidar the great unknown quantity of this pairs event. It’s hard to imagine them factoring into the medal conversation even if they’re at their best, though. They’re extremely talented, but their artistry and skating skills aren’t polished enough to keep up with the top of the field. They should interpret Duskova’s speedy recovery as a gift and be Just Happy to Be Here.

Annika Hocke & Ruben Blommaert

The Basics: Hocke and Blommaert skate for Germany. She’s 17 years old and a Berlin native; he’s 25 and comes from Bruges, Belgium. Coached by Knut Schubert and Alexander Konig, they train in Berlin and Oberstdorf. They’ll celebrate the one-year anniversary of their partnership in Pyeongchang. Before teaming up, both competed as singles skaters, and Blommaert previously skated pairs with Annabelle Prolss and with Mari Vartmann.

Career Highlights: As a singles skater, Blommaert twice represented Belgium at Europeans and Junior Worlds. After making the switch to pairs, he medaled at a number of small international competitions with his earlier partners, including a gold medal at Cup of Nice with each (in different years). He and Vartmann were 8th at 2015 Europeans. Hocke was achieving respectable results as a singles skater through last season, most notably a 7th-place finish at the 2016 Junior Grand Prix of Russia and a bronze medal at the 2017 German National Championships.

Season So Far: Hocke and Blommaert stayed busy on the “senior B” circuit during the fall of 2017. They picked up silver medals at Ice Star and Cup of Nice. On home ice at the Nebelhorn Trophy, they performed a fabulous free skate, although the tougher field there meant only 5th place for them. At Europeans, they reaffirmed their status as up-and-comers, finishing a solid 8th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Hocke and Blommaert are an excellent match, and watching them, it’s hard to believe they’ve only been skating together for a year. They synchronize their moves beautifully and display a rare natural connection. From a technical standpoint, it does sometimes look like Hocke is still learning some of her pairs elements, and it’s surprising that these two fairly accomplished singles skaters don’t compete harder jumps. That puts an unfortunate ceiling on their technical base value, and their status as relative unknowns means they won’t receive any favors in the components department. With that in mind, they’re Just Happy to Be Here, but strong performances could win them a lot of fans going forward.

Vanessa James & Morgan Cipres

The Basics: James and Cipres represent France. James is 30 years old; she was born in Canada, raised in Bermuda and the United States, and competed for Great Britain in singles. Cipres is 26 years old and comes from Melun, outside Paris. They now live and train in Florida, coached by John Zimmerman. Before teaming up with James in 2010, Cipres was a singles skater, while James previously skated with Yannick Bonheur.

Career Highlights: James and Cipres first became national champions in 2013, and they renewed their title every year through 2017. They’ve competed at seven European Championships, never placing worse than 6th and taking the bronze medal in 2017. They’ve earned a total of four Grand Prix medals, although never a gold one. At Worlds, they consistently place within the top 10; their highest result has been 8th, in both 2013 and 2017.

Season So Far: James and Cipres have achieved some of the strongest results of their career this season and put themselves on the radar for the Olympics. They began with a surprise win at the Autumn Classic, then won medals at both of their Grand Prix events, silver at the Trophee de France and bronze at Skate Canada. At Europeans, they skated a lights-out short program that initially put them in first place, but a missed jump and some wobbly lifts in their free skate proved costly. They slipped down to fourth place, missing the podium by 0.01.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: James and Cipres’ soaring and muscular style is unique in pairs, and it’s gaining favor with judges who have underrated their components scores in the past. They haven’t been entirely consistent on their throw quad salchow this season, but they’ve had more hits than misses. That jump alone should keep them in the conversation, but no amount of technical difficulty seems to be enough to hold them up if they make errors elsewhere. They tend to sacrifice points in weird places, like their spins and death spirals. James and Cipres always look like they should be good enough to reach a high-profile podium, and then, somehow, they blow it. It would be cool to see them pull an upset, but the likelihood of that is slim enough that they’re Why I Drink.

Kyueun Kim & Alex Kangchan Kam

The Basics: Kim and Kam represent South Korea. She’s 18 years old and from Seoul. He’s 22; he was born in New Zealand and has lived in the United States but considers Seoul his home. They live in Montreal, where they’re coached by Bruno Marcotte. They’ve been skating together since 2016, before which both were singles skaters, and Kam skated pairs with Yeri Kim.

Career Highlights: Before teaming with Kim, Kam’s most notable accomplishments were a junior-level gold medal in singles at the 2013 Asian Trophy, and a top-ten finish at a Junior Grand Prix event in pairs with Yeri Kim. Kim has placed as high as 5th in singles at Korean Nationals and made the top 10 at a couple of Challenger Series events. As a team, they were 5th at the 2016 Autumn Classic and at the 2017 Asian Games, and 15th at 2017 Four Continents.

Season So Far: Kim and Kam had a terrific free skate at the Challenger Series Autumn Classic, where they placed 5th. They also won their first international medal together, a bronze, at the 2017 Cup of Nice. At Nationals, they won an uncontested gold medal. Beyond that, they’ve had a quiet season, including a withdrawal from Four Continents – probably to ensure they were healthy and ready for the Olympics.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: While Korea has built up a substantial program in singles skating and has a notable ice dance team, things haven’t come together for the country in pairs yet. Unable to qualify a pair through placements at qualifying competitions, Korea used one of its host picks to include Kim and Kam. While they’re a hardworking team who can be fun to watch, their technical level doesn’t come close to that of the rest of the field. They’ll be Just Happy to Be Here as soon as they hear the roar of the crowd and see the flags waving for them.

Alexa Scimeca Knierim & Chris Knierim

The Basics: Knierim and Knierim, who married in 2016, represent the United States of America. She’s 26 and comes from the Chicago area; he’s 30 and from Tucson. They train in Colorado Springs with Dalilah Sappenfield. They became a team in 2012, and although they skated with other partners previously, didn’t achieve much internationally until they began skating together.

Career Highlights: Chris skated with four other partners before finding Alexa, and he was most successful with Brynn Carman, earning a couple of national medals at lower competitive levels. Once the Knierims teamed up, however, it became clear that they were more than the sum of their parts. They’ve stood on the national podium together four times and been national champions twice, in 2015 and 2018. They’ve earned five Challenger Series medals, including gold ones at the 2014 US International Classic and the 2015 Ice Challenge. In 2015, they had an excellent Grand Prix, taking silver at Skate America and bronze at the NHK Trophy, and qualifying for the Grand Prix Final. They’re two-time Four Continents medalists, and they’ve reached the top 10 each of the four times they’ve competed at Worlds, placing as high as 7th in 2015.

Season So Far: After sitting out most of 2016-17 while Alexa recovered from a life-threatening gastrointestinal illness, the Knierims have skated at full health this season, although perhaps not at the top of their game. They began with a silver medal at the US International Classic, then finished a slightly disappointing 5th at both of their Grand Prix events, Skate America and the NHK Trophy. At 2018 Nationals, they earned their second career national title, albeit in a less decisive victory than many had expected.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: The Knierims are a technically gifted team, but they haven’t reestablished relevance for American pairs as many fans have hoped they would. Instead, they’re coming to the Olympics as the USA’s sole representatives in pairs – the only discipline in which America doesn’t have a full complement of three entries. Some of their elements are phenomenal, including an enormous quadruple twist lift and a lovely throw triple flip. However, they almost never land their side-by-side jumps cleanly, and they lack the transitional smoothness and expressive flair of the top teams. I know a lot of fans who will be drinking heavily as the Knierims take the ice, but when I set my patriotism aside, it’s clear that they’re Just Happy to Be Here.

Valentina Marchei & Ondrej Hotarek

The Basics: Marchei and Hotarek represent Italy. She’s 31 years old and from Milan, and he’s 34 and from Brno, Czech Republic. They train primarily in Bergamo with Franca Bianconi. Prior to teaming up with Hotarek in 2014, Marchei had a successful career as a singles skater. Hotarek has competed internationally in pairs with several partners, and represented the Czech Republic in singles before that.

Career Highlights: Before teaming up with Marchei, Hotarek was already a six-time Italian champion in pairs, twice with Laura Magitteri and four times with Stefania Berton. With Berton, he placed as high as 9th at Worlds, came in 11th at the 2014 Olympics, and won a bronze medal at 2013 Europeans. Meanwhile, Marchei competed successfully in ladies’ singles for over a decade. Her best result at Euros, out of 10 appearances, was 4th in 2013, and she got up to 8th at Worlds in 2012. Coincidentally, she placed 11th in the ladies’ event at the 2014 Olympics. Since teaming up, Marchei and Hotarek have won six Challenger Series medals, including two gold ones in a row at the Warsaw Cup. They’ve never quite reached the podium at a Grand Prix or Euros, although they’ve knocked on the door, with a number of 4th and 5th place results. At 2017 Worlds, they came in 9th, securing Olympic spots for two Italian pairs.

Season So Far: Marchei and Hotarek showed no signs of slowing down this season, and posted some of the best results of their long careers. They kicked off their season with a so-so performance and a bronze medal at the Lombardia Trophy. While stiffer competition meant lower placements at the Grand Prix, they posted strong scores at the Rostelecom Cup, where they were 4th, and the Cup of China, where they were 5th. After winning the Warsaw Cup for the second year in a row, they underperformed a bit at Nationals, accepting their third consecutive Italian silver medal. But they were spectacular at Euros, especially in the short program, and set a new career-best score on their way to 5th place.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Marchei and Hotarek’s love for figure skating comes through with every move they make, and their combination of experience, personality, and mutual trust gives them a leg up in their components scores. Their technical content isn’t quite as challenging as many of their competitors’, and their jumps have always been hit or miss. Nonetheless, they have enough gas in the tank – and enough points in their base technical value – that they’re hail-Mary long shots for an Olympic medal. If they keep their heads while others melt down around them, they could be the kind of Dark Horses who make things interesting.


Previously on The Finer Sports: 2018 Olympics Ladies’ Preview, Part One.

Next up: the rest of the pairs, followed by men, dance, and the rest of the ladies. Not necessarily in that order.

2018 Olympics Figure Skating Preview: Ladies Part 1

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games are upon us! I mean, they’re soon. Really soon. For figure skating fans, there’s no way to feel truly prepared. World Championships and Grand Prix Finals might be more accurate tests of which skaters are the best in the world from year to year, but the Olympics are special. They’re also subject to one of the most complicated, and often nonsensical, qualification processes in sports, which means that a number of big names will be stuck at home, while several athletes you’ve never heard of will be making things awkward in the short program – or rising to the occasion. And everyone will be watching.

There are 30 ladies on the list for Pyeongchang, and this post will cover the first 15 of them in alphabetical order. I’ll go over some basic information about each athlete, and I’ll provide overviews of both their major career accomplishments to date and their seasons so far. Building on those, I’ll analyze how I think each skater will perform at the Olympics. I won’t make any podium predictions – that’s not my style – but I’ll place each athlete in one of four broad categories:

  • Front Runners are the athletes most likely to win an individual medal in Pyeongchang.
  • Dark Horses are less likely to make it to the podium, but they’re talented enough to pull off a surprise.
  • Just Happy to Be Here describes the majority of competitors, for whom the Olympic Games have been a lifelong dream. There’s no shame in being assigned to the JHBH squad, and there’s plenty of opportunity for enduring fame, especially in this age of the viral video.
  • Why I Drink is a special category reserved for athletes who are just too hard to categorize. Their prior resumes are so full of inconsistencies or contradictions that they don’t fit within the standard pecking order. In some ways, they’re the most fun part of watching figure skating. And in the high-pressure environment of the Olympics, they have the potential to massively upset the status quo. Of the four women who have won Olympic gold in ladies’ singles in this century, three would have made my Why I Drink list if I’d had a blog then.

With no further ado, here’s the first half of the alphabet.

Larkyn Austman

The Basics: Austman is 19 years old and represents Canada. She comes from the Vancouver area, where she continues to live and train, with Zdenek Pazdirek as her primary coach.

Career Highlights: Austman first drew attention in 2013, when she won a junior national title. She struggled to translate that success to the international stage, placing only 16th at her sole World Junior Championships appearance in 2014. After that, she faded from view a bit, but a fourth-place finish at 2017 Nationals put her back on the map, and soon afterward, she won her first international medal, a bronze, at the Challenge Cup.

Season So Far: The autumn was rough going for Austman. She placed a lackluster 12th at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, then finished dead last at her Grand Prix debut, Skate Canada. When she took bronze at Nationals, it came as a surprise – and a revelation.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Austman benefited, more than anything, from Canada’s shallow bench. Canada boasts two standout talents in ladies, who earned space for three Canadian ladies at these Olympics.  Nationals became a battle for bronze, and Austman came out on top. But she wasn’t great in her career-making free skate, just better than everyone else: she fell on her most difficult jumping pass and struggled with several other landings. She hasn’t found a way to shake her competitive inconsistency, and she doesn’t have a triple-triple combination. As a result, she’s Just Happy to Be Here.

Karen Chen

The Basics: Chen is 18 years old and represents the United States of America. She’s originally from Fremont, California, in the Bay Area, but has moved south to train in Riverside, CA, with Tammy Gambill.

Career Highlights: Dedicated skating fans have known about Chen since she was a child, when she excelled domestically at lower competitive levels, and then internationally as a junior. In her senior Nationals debut, in 2015, she took a surprise bronze medal; two years later, in 2017, she skated back-to-back career-best programs and became US National Champion. She followed that by overachieving again at the 2017 World Championships, where she held steady to take 4th place.

Season So Far: Chen’s season got off to a promising start, with a strong short program and an overall bronze medal at the U. S. Classic. On the Grand Prix circuit, however, she struggled, managing only 7th at Skate Canada and 8th at Skate America. At Nationals, she performed beautifully, with a pair of apparently clean programs that suffered from deductions for underrotated jumps. Still, she did enough for a bronze medal and a place on the Olympic team.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: The best moments of Chen’s career make her look like a contender, and her strongest performances and scores – as well as her difficult technical content – put her on par with the best of the field. In reality, however, Chen’s inconsistency makes her one of the biggest wildcards in the sport, and a perennial headache for the many internet fans who adore her. Even when she looks great to the naked eye, she’s often a mess on paper, as she tends to cut her rotations short when she’s under pressure. As a result, she’s never won a medal at a senior Grand Prix or ISU championship. On the other hand, she’s made a habit over the past few years of peaking late in the season. Chen also tends to skate her best when she has nothing to lose, and that’s actually the case in Pyeongchang: her two American teammates are under much more pressure to deliver. Chen has been Why I Drink for the entirety of her senior-level career, and a lot of us will be raising a glass to her as she takes the ice in Pyeongchang.

Dabin Choi

The Basics: Choi is 18 years old and skates for South Korea. She’s from Seoul, where she still lives and trains. Her primary coach is Eun-Hee Lee.

Career Highlights: In the race to become the next Yu-Na Kim, Choi has long been a front runner, reaching the senior-level podium domestically before her 12th birthday. Although she’s never achieved national gold, she’s always near the top, with two bronze medals and three silver on her resume. She first made an impact internationally in 2015, with a strong 9th-place finish at Junior Worlds in the spring and bronze medals at both of her Junior Grand Prix events in the fall. The greater artistic and stamina demands of senior-level competition held her back last season, although she pulled off a triumphant surprise win at the 2017 Asian Games. Her solid 10th-place finish at the 2017 World Championships earned two spots for South Korea at the Olympics.

Season So Far: While Choi remains on the radar, she hasn’t quite broken through this season in the way that her fans might have hoped. She looked solid at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in the fall, where she placed 4th, but unsteady at the Finlandia Trophy and Cup of China, finishing a disappointing 9th at both. She seemed set to redeem herself at Skate America but had to withdraw at the last minute due to illness. At Nationals, however, she was back on form, earning her third national silver medal. Her performance at the Four Continents Championships last week confirmed that she’s back at the top of her game; she placed fourth, her strongest finish at an ISU championship to date.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: In an increasingly crowded field of young Korean ladies, Choi has emerged as one of the standout talents, not only for her jumping ability but also for creative programs that bring out her bubbly personality. At her best – as at the Asian Games last season – she’s knocking on the door of the top tier of international skaters, but she’s not as polished or as consistent as she needs to be. She’s the Dark Horse least likely to succeed in Pyeongchang, but keep an eye on her, especially since she’s the hometown favorite.

Kailani Craine

The Basics: Craine is 19 years old and represents Australia. She’s a native of Newcastle, New South Wales, but like most top Australian skaters, she trains abroad – in her case, it’s Los Angeles, with Tiffany Chin as her coach.

Career Highlights: Craine has emerged as the top Australian talent of her generation, and as one of the faces of a growing program for figure skating in her country. She’s a four-time senior national champion, and holds five more national titles at lower levels. She’s placed as high as 16th at Junior Worlds, and qualified for the free skate at a crowded 2017 World Championships, finishing 24th. She’s earned a number of medals at smaller international competitions throughout her career, most notably a silver at the Challenger Series Warsaw Cup in 2016.

Season So Far: Many of Craine’s achievements this season look modest, but in context, they’re more impressive. She was only 8th at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, but that field was stacked; she actually held her own against several of the best ladies in the sport. She finished only 10th at Skate Canada, but that’s a respectable feat for a lesser-known athlete at her Grand Prix debut. Craine also had no trouble winning a fourth consecutive national title. But her biggest moment came at the Nebelhorn Trophy, the final qualifying event for the Olympics, where she was tasked with earning a spot in Pyeongchang for Australia. She delivered, and then some, giving back-to-back performances of her life to take a high-profile, high-stakes gold medal.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: I’d love to consider Craine a long shot, because she’s an animated and versatile performer with one of my favorite ladies’ short programs of the season. However, even when she’s skating her lights-out best, her technical difficulty and fundamental skating skills don’t put her on par with the many strong contenders. She doesn’t compete a triple-triple jump combination, and when the judges get picky, as they did at Skate Canada, she loses points for underrotated jumps. Let’s call her the captain of the Just Happy to Be Here squad.

Gabrielle Daleman

The Basics: Daleman is 20 years old and represents Canada. She’s originally from Toronto, and continues to train in that part of the country, with Lee Barkell as her primary coach.

Career Highlights: Daleman first made her mark as the 2012 junior national champion, and she’s stood on the senior podium in Canada every year since: she’s won gold twice, and silver four times. She placed a strong 6th at 2013 Junior Worlds, and a year later, competed at her first Olympics, where she finished 17th. In the years that followed, a combination of injuries and nerves held her back, and she has never won a medal on the Grand Prix circuit. But in 2017, Daleman stormed the post-season, taking silver at the Four Continents Championships and a career-defining, prediction-destroying bronze at the World Championships.

Season So Far: Daleman has been battling a series of illnesses since Worlds, and her international results in the fall reflected that. Competing far below her full strength, six was Daleman’s lucky number, and her placement at the Finlandia Trophy, Cup of China, and Skate America. She came to Nationals recovering from pneumonia, but you never would have guessed it from her two poised and clean programs. She earned massive scores on her way to her second Canadian title.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: The good news is, it looks like Daleman will finally be healthy in time for the Olympics. However, it’s hard to say where she’ll be technically, in a season when her health has so frequently interrupted her training. Daleman’s jump technique is some of the best in the sport, with such height off the ice that she gets hang time in the air. She’s also returned to her signature “Rhapsody in Blue” free skate from last season, a crowd-pleaser that shows off her strengths as a performer. Under most circumstances, a reigning world bronze medalist would be a top contender, but with so many question marks surrounding Daleman, she’s more of a Dark Horse.

Loena Hendrickx

The Basics: Hendrickx is 18 years old and represents Belgium. She’s from Turnhout. She trains mostly in Oberstdorf, Germany, alongside her brother, Jorik, who will compete for Belgium in the men’s event. Carine Herrygers is her coach.

Career Highlights: Hendrickx is a two-time Belgian champion. She got off to a slow start at the junior level, but she’s made her mark as a senior with medals at a number of smaller internationals, most notably gold at the 2017 Challenge Cup. She’s also risen to the occasion at several ISU championships, placing an impressive 7th at the 2017 European Championships and reserving a place for herself at the Olympics by finishing 15th at last year’s World Championships.

Season So Far: We haven’t seen much of Hendrickx this season, as she’s been recovering from a knee injury that forced her to withdraw from most of her fall events. She seemed to come out of nowhere at the 2018 European Championships, where an intense and confident free skate carried her to fifth place, the best Euros finish in history for a Belgian lady.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Hendrickx is a trailblazer for Belgian ladies’ skating, and her free skate at 2018 Euros was a revelation. She seems to have spent her recovery period working on her musical interpretation and her skating skills, and she’s a whole new skater now, mature and refined. A couple of crucial popped jumps revealed that she still has trouble with her timing, though, and her relatively low base technical difficulty limits her. Her program components scores haven’t caught up with her big improvements in artistry and fundamentals, either. Hendrickx might be a factor in 2022, but this time, she’s Just Happy to Be Here.

Anna Khnychenkova

The Basics: Khnychenkova is 23 years old and represents Ukraine. She’s from Dnipro, where she trains with Viacheslav Tkachenko.

Career Highlights: Khnychenkova focused on pairs skating during her teenage years, which makes her a bit of a late bloomer in the ladies’ field. She’s a six-time Ukrainian national medalist and the 2017 national champion. In 2016, she competed at both Euros and Worlds for the first time, and achieved her highest placements to date at both: 21st and 19th, respectively. Later the same year, she achieved her first international gold medal, at Ice Star in Minsk.

Season So Far: Khnychenkova has been a fixture at Challenger Series competitions and other “senior B” events this season, with solid results at most of them. Her strongest outing was at Cup of Nice, where she took bronze after landing a massive triple toe loop-triple toe loop in her short program. At the Nebelhorn Trophy, she had some trouble but got the job done, earning an Olympic spot for Ukraine with her seventh-place finish. She was a so-so second at Nationals, but the athlete who beat her is too young to compete at the Olympics. She’d surely hoped to establish herself as a contender with a strong European Championships, but she unraveled instead, following an excellent short program with a free skate meltdown that left her only 23rd overall.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Khnychenkova’s name is one of the least known in the ladies’ field at these Olympics, and it’s a shame, because she’s a pleasure to watch when she’s at her best. While she’s never attempted a triple flip-triple toe loop in competition, her current free skate layout suggests she might give it a shot here, and that difficulty boost would launch her into long shot territory. However, she’s also inconsistent, and her straightforward choreography limits her program components potential. It’s exciting that this underrated athlete made the cut for an Olympic Games, and that achievement should make her Just Happy to Be Here.

Hanul Kim

The Basics: Kim is 15 years old and represents South Korea. She comes from Anyang and trains in nearby Gwacheon with Ji-Yeon Oh.

Career Highlights: Kim emerged as a rising star in junior international competition, placing as high as 5th at the Junior Grand Prix Czech Republic in 2016. She’s competed as a senior at Korean Nationals five times, moving steadily through the ranks as she matures and improves.

Season So Far: Kim moved up to the senior level internationally this season, and has experienced her greatest competitive success so far. She began with a fabulous debut at a small meet, the Philadelphia Summer International, where she rallied from a rough short program to win the free skate and take overall bronze. She placed 4th at Nationals, the best finish of her career, ahead of several bigger names. At the Four Continents Championships, she proved herself worthy of an Olympic spot by nailing a triple lutz-triple toe loop in her short program and placing a surprise 6th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Kim has benefited from the fact that many of the best Korean ladies are too young to compete at the Olympics; born in April 2002, she just makes the cut. Nonetheless, she’s risen to the occasion this season, demonstrating her ability to land difficult jumps with control and panache. She lacks consistency, though, especially under pressure, and while she has a lot of natural on-ice presence, her choreography is fairly simple. Kim could overachieve at the Olympics – and the hometown crowd would love it – but at this point in her career, she’s Just Happy to Be Here.

Carolina Kostner

The Basics: At 30, Kostner is the oldest competitor in the ladies’ event; she represents Italy. She comes from Urtijei, in far northern Italy, and trains in Oberstdorf, Germany. Her coaches are Alexei Mishin and Michael Huth.

Career Highlights: Where does one even start with an athlete who has been competing internationally for longer than many of her rivals have been alive? She debuted as a junior in 2000-01, and became junior national champion that season. Since then, she’s earned nine senior national titles and has never done worse than silver at Nationals. Kostner has been a Grand Prix mainstay since 2003, with 14 medals at Grand Prix events, four of them gold. She’s medaled at four of her five Grand Prix Final appearances, and she won in 2011. She’s stood on the podium at the European Championships every year since 2006 and is a five-time European Champion. Kostner has won six medals at the World Championships and was the 2012 World Champion. This will be her fourth Olympic Games – and she arrives as the reigning bronze medalist.

Season So Far: Kostner has had an impressive season by any standard, but one that leaves her with something to prove. She began with strong but flawed performances at two Challenger Series events, taking bronze at the Lombardia Trophy and silver at the Finlandia Trophy. Her silver streak continued at the Grand Prix, with second-place finishes at the Rostelecom Cup and NHK Trophy, taking her to a fourth-place result at the Grand Prix Final. After stopping to pick up her ninth career Italian championship, Kostner brought home European bronze.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: At an age when most women have long since stopped training triple jumps, Kostner has upgraded, premiering a perfect triple flip-triple toe loop combination in her short program at Europeans. That jumping pass puts her difficulty on par with the best. But Kostner’s advantage has always been her second mark. She skates with speed, edge depth, and ice coverage seldom seen outside of ice dance, and her maturity and self-awareness make her an extraordinary artist. Kostner will have a hard time reaching the top of the Olympic podium, but she’s a Front Runner for a second bronze, if not better.

Xiangning Li

The Basics: Li is 17 years old and represents China. She lives and trains in her hometown of Qiqihar, coached by Ming Xu.

Career Highlights: Li has been rising through the ranks domestically for a number of years. She earned her first national medal, a bronze, in 2014, and has reached the podium at Nationals every year since. She emerged internationally in 2015 with a pair of sixth-place finishes at Junior Grand Prix events. Last season, she followed an 11th-place result at Junior Worlds with her World Championships debut. There, she placed only 14th, but set new personal best scores and established herself as a skater to watch.

Season So Far: Li has developed quickly over the past year, and this season was a breakout for her. She began with a phenomenal free skate at the Cup of Nice, earning her first international medal, a silver. She struggled under the pressure of her two Grand Prix assignments, placing low in the rankings at both, but she rallied at the Chinese Championships, winning her first national title by an impressive 10-point margin. At the Four Continents Championships, she placed a solid tenth.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: It’s not Li’s fault, per se, that China will send only one lady to the Olympics in figure skating this year. Nonetheless, it reflects the fact that China lacks a true star in ladies’ singles. Li is lovely and graceful but a bit mechanical in her presentation, which hurts her components scores, and she doesn’t compete difficult enough jumps to make up for that. With consistency and focus, she’ll stay in the middle of the pack, but it’s hard to imagine her aiming higher than Just Happy to Be Here.

Aiza Mambekova

The Basics: Mambekova is 18 years old and represents Kazakhstan. She’s from Almaty, and she splits her training time between her hometown and St. Petersburg, Russia. She’s coached primarily by Kuralai Uzurova.

Career Highlights: Mambekova is a three-time Kazakh silver medalist. She achieved only modest results in her first two Junior Grand Prix seasons, but had more success in 2016, reaching the top 10 at both JGP France and JGP Estonia.

Season So Far: Mambekova lost most of this season to a foot injury but returned in January for her first international medal, a bronze at the FBMA Trophy. She went on to perform a clean free skate at the Four Continents Championships, where she placed 20th.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Mambekova’s presence at the Olympics is mostly a reflection of how spots on the roster are allocated to countries. Kazakhstan boasts one certified star in ladies’ singles, and that athlete placed well enough at Worlds in 2017 to secure a slot for a second Kazakh skater. Mambekova is a lovely performer, with terrific musicality and charisma, but she has the lowest planned base difficulty in the field. She competes only one type of triple jump, a salchow, and her low placement at Four Continents reflects that even when she skates her best, she can’t keep up. Of everyone headed to Pyeongchang, Mambekova might be the most Just Happy to Be Here.

Evgenia Medvedeva

The Basics: Medvedeva is 18 years old and will compete as an Olympic athlete from Russia. She lives and trains in her hometown of Moscow, with Eteri Tutberidze as her coach.

Career Highlights: Medvedeva first drew international attention in 2013, when she came seemingly out of nowhere to win both of her Junior Grand Prix events, then take bronze at both the Junior Grand Prix Final and Junior Worlds. She was even more dominant in juniors the following season, winning every international competition she entered, including the JGP Final and Junior Worlds – plus a junior national title and a bronze medal at senior Nationals. She moved up to seniors in 2015 and established her reign over ladies’ figure skating, settling for silver at the Rostelecom Cup but skating home with gold everywhere else, including the Grand Prix Final, European Championships, World Championships, and Russian Nationals. In 2016-17, Medvedeva went entirely undefeated, becoming the first lady since Michelle Kwan to win back-to-back World titles and, during the course of the season, setting new world records for the highest scores ever recorded in a short program, free skate, and overall.

Season So Far: Medvedeva has hit a speed bump this season, as a foot fracture has forced her to sit out several competitions and put a dent in her consistency and stamina. The injury didn’t stop her from taking gold at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, Rostelecom Cup, and NHK Trophy. It did, however, become serious enough that she withdrew from the Grand Prix Final and National Championships in order to recover. She returned for the European Championships and delivered a pair of strong performances, but her two-year undefeated streak ended there, as she took silver.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: At the start of the 2017-18 season, even Medvedeva’s detractors would have called her a lock for Olympic gold. More than almost anyone else in the sport, Medvedeva is capable of executing extremely difficult jumps in tricky configurations, and of making it look easy. Her programs are meticulously constructed to squeeze every point out of the scoring system – to the frustration of some fans. But the fact is, the bonuses and point-earning features are in place to reward difficulty. While a few other ladies can push the technical limits of the sport as far as Medvedeva does, none can do it as consistently, or with such effortless grace and musicality. Medvedeva’s foot injury has cut into her training time, and that’s opened the door for a handful of others to threaten her claim to a gold medal. Still, if anyone in the field is a guaranteed Front Runner, it’s Medvedeva.

Mae Berenice Meite

The Basics: Meite is 23 years old and represents France. She comes from Paris and the surrounding area, and currently trains in Paris with coach Shanetta Folle.

Career Highlights: Meite has reached the podium at French Nationals every year since 2009, and she’s a four-time national champion. While she’s never earned a medal at a Grand Prix event or ISU championship, she’s a fixture in international competition. She’s placed as high as fifth at the European Championships, in 2014, and 10th at the World Championships, in 2015. She represented France at the 2014 Olympic Games and came in tenth.

Season So Far: Meite looked shaky in the fall, placing a disappointing 8th at the Autumn Classic and next to last at the Rostelecom Cup. Things looked up a bit at the Trophee de France, where she finished 8th, and way up at Nationals, where she regained her national title. She made some errors at Europeans, but her performances were good enough for a respectable 8th place.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Meite is going to be so much fun to watch at these Olympics that her placement almost doesn’t matter. Skating to pop music that captures her personality and masks some of the flaws in her technique, she’s likely to rack up the YouTube hits even if she doesn’t earn the point totals to match. Meite’s inability to perform under pressure is especially frustrating because her technical difficulty is high enough that if she could skate clean, she’d put herself in the conversation. Unfortunately, she’s most likely to alternate explosive jumps and sassy dance breaks with devastating falls, and that’s Why I Drink.

Satoko Miyahara

The Basics: Miyahara is 19 years old and represents Japan. A Kyoto native, she lives and trains in Osaka, and is coached by Mie Hamada.

Career Highlights: Miyahara first turned heads as a junior, winning back-to-back junior national titles in 2011 and 2012 and just missing the podium twice at Junior Worlds. It was as a senior that she really came into her own, though, taking silver at Four Continents in 2014, her debut season. Since then, Miyahara has earned seven Grand Prix medals, two of them gold, and twice finished second at the Grand Prix Final. She is the 2016 Four Continents champion and has stood on the podium every time she’s competed at the event. In 2015, she gave an inspired performance to take silver at the World Championships. On the national level, she’s been challenged but rarely bested; despite strong competition, she’s won Nationals four years in a row.

Season So Far: A hip injury brought Miyahara’s 2016-17 season to an early end, and she began the current season still nursing inflammation. Her troubles showed in a disappointing 5th-place finish at the NHK Trophy, but she was back at the top of her game a few weeks later at Skate America, where she won gold. Facing a tough field at the Grand Prix Final, she placed only fifth despite a solid performance. At the Japan Championships, however, Miyahara was on fire, sailing to her fourth consecutive title with a near-perfect free skate. She was a little below her best at the Four Continents Championships, though, and she settled for bronze behind two of her Japanese teammates.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: I had Miyahara marked as a front runner in my outline for this post, but looking over her season, I have to reassess. It’s not for the usual reasons, either. Like many international judges, I’ve been critical in the past of Miyahara’s jump technique, which relies on fast rotation rather than height. When she’s confident, as at Nationals or Skate America, that approach is no longer an issue. Unfortunately, she’s been giving in to either nerves or the pain of lingering injuries this season, and that’s when the mistakes creep in. I fear that her beautiful programs, which show a captivating range of emotion and storytelling, will look great until the judges rip them apart. If she keeps her head – or performs with such exquisite grace that the technical caller lets the small stuff go – she could pull an upset and skate away with gold. The greater likelihood of disappointment is Why I Drink. 

Mirai Nagasu

The Basics: Nagasu is 24 years old and represents the United States of America. A native of the Los Angeles area, she now lives in Colorado Springs, where she trains with Tom Zakrajsek.

Career Highlights: Nagasu seemed to burst out of nowhere when she won a junior national title in 2007, then took silver at Junior Worlds shortly afterward. She followed that by sweeping the Junior Grand Prix, then winning her first and only senior-level US national championship at the age of 14 in 2008. Since then, she’s reached the national podium four more times, but she’s also placed as low as 10th. Internationally, Nagasu has won three Challenger Series events, brought home medals from four Grand Prix competitions, and stood on three Four Continents podiums. At the World Championships, she’s never done better than 7th, but she came in 4th at the 2010 Olympic Games.

Season So Far: It’s been a typical season for Nagasu, which is to say, she’s been all over the place. She started with a solid outing at the US Classic, landing two triple Axels and earning a silver medal. Nagasu was a disaster at the Rostelecom Cup, placing only 9th, but she looked strong again at the NHK Trophy, where she finished 4th. At Nationals, she gave some of the most confident performances of her career, earning a triumphant silver medal.

Outlook for Pyeongchang: Under most circumstances, hearing Nagasu’s name announced for warm-up is a reminder to refill my glass. This time, however, she’s armed with a technical weapon powerful enough that even if she melts down, it will be a glorious disaster. Nagasu is the only lady at these Olympics who will attempt a triple Axel, and the way things have been going lately, she’ll probably stand up on the landings. She hasn’t completely resolved the jump technique problems that have cost her deductions throughout her career, but she’s improved in that respect, too. And it’s hard to argue with her performance quality. It’s possible that calling Nagasu a Dark Horse is overly optimistic, but it would be far more foolish to count her out.


Next on The Finer Sports: the rest of the ladies, followed by the other three disciplines!