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.