Team USA’s Opportunities Abound At World Figure Skating Championships
by Lynn Rutherford
Vincent Zhou reacts during the figure skating gala exhibition at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 20, 2022 in Beijing.
Any world championship event that takes place in an Olympic year has the potential to be wildly unpredictable. This week’s World Figure Skating Championships in Montpellier, France, could be particularly wide open.
Attrition among the Olympians is a given after the already long season, and last week that list grew to include Team USA’s Nathan Chen. The three-time defending world champion who is coming off an Olympic gold medal withdrew from the event citing a nagging injury. With two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan having previously withdrawn, the door open is open for someone other than the two titans to win the men’s world title for the first time since 2016.
Meanwhile, in addition to the usual turnover, the International Skating Union, figure skating’s world governing body, barred Russian athletes from the competition in response to the country’s invasion of Ukraine, meaning five individual medalists at last month’s Olympics will be absent. China, which claimed the Olympic gold medal in pairs, is not sending a team to Montpellier.
These absences create opportunities for new Team USA stars to emerge, and veterans to cap their careers with world medals. The event runs Wednesday through Saturday.
Here is how it shakes out:
Japan Leads The Way In Men’s Event, With U.S. Skaters Right There
Not only is Chen absent, but Jason Brown, sixth at last month’s Games, will not compete. The 2015 U.S. champion was first alternate for the world team, but after Chen’s late withdrawal, he was not available. Instead Camden Pulkinen, fifth at the 2022 U.S. championships, will make the trip.
Three-time U.S. runner-up Vincent Zhou, the 2019 world bronze medalist, is Team USA’s highest-ranked skater in Montpellier, but the 21-year-old from Palo Alto, California, is still recovering from the devastation of having to withdraw from the individual event in Beijing following two positive tests for COVID-19. In addition, although Zhou was permitted to perform in the closing gala, he was not allowed to march in the Closing Ceremony.
While Zhou returned from Beijing and immediately resumed training in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he is still processing the disappointment.
“Some days I wake up and don’t want to go near my skates,” the skater told reporters on a teleconference last week. “Sometimes I think to myself, I should just forget about everything that happened, just get on the ice and go for it, take the shot, who knows, maybe it will turn out will. Then I step on the ice and am instantly reminded of what happened.”
Ilia Malinin competes during the men's free skate at the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 9, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.
With Chen and Hanyu out, Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno, who won silver and bronze at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, are heavily favored for the podium. With his repertoire of quadruple jumps, combined with finely tuned programs, Zhou could also challenge for a medal.
“I’m not ready to give up yet. I’m getting on the ice every day working toward my goals and trying to better myself,” he said. “I’m hoping I can bring out a spark of something at the world championships. I know I have it deep within me, I’m a very motivated person and I don’t give up easily.”
New star Ilia Malinin also has chance to shine.
The 17-year-old U.S. silver medalist makes his world debut in Montpellier, and he comes armed with an ever-growing collection of quads and quad combinations. At the U.S. championships, he landed six clean quads and was the only man to put out two clean programs.
The son of two Olympians — Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skorniakov, who competed for Uzbekistan and coach their son in Reston, Virginia — Malinin does not lack for confidence. On Instagram, he goes by @quadg0d, and regularly posts new jumps landed in practice, including the quad axel.
A More Open Women’s Event
With their array of triple-triple combinations, triple axels and quads, Russian women have won five of the last six world titles. They took three of the top four women’s spots at the Olympics last month, including the gold and silver medals. To say their absence will be felt in Montpellier is a severe understatement.
“Obviously, results will look different,” U.S. champion Mariah Bell, 25, said last week. “It’s exciting, there’s maybe some opportunity to bump up. Ultimately, I’m not thinking too much about it. That’s been my motto my whole career. … The most reliable thing is just to focus on myself.”
Japan’s Olympic bronze medalist Kaori Sakamoto and her teammate Wakaba Higuchi, who landed triple axels in both of her programs in Beijing, look strong for medals. So does Young You of South Korea, who placed sixth at the Games.
Team USA’s best medal hope is two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who took seventh at the Olympics. While the 16-year-old failed to fully rotate her triple axel in Beijing, her other jumps — including her triple-triple combinations — were solid, as were her spins and steps. If Liu lands on the podium, it would be the first women’s world medal since Ashley Wagner won silver in 2016.
Two U.S. Pairs Could Medal
The pairs’ field in Montpelier is even more depleted than the women’s event. With Russia and China out, the top five finishers in Beijing are all absent. That leaves 2021 U.S. champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, sixth at the Games, and reigning U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who placed eighth, as medal favorites.
Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy Leduc compete during the pair skating free skate at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 19, 2022 in Beijing.
A U.S. pair has not medaled at the world championships since Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman took the bronze medal in 2002. A U.S. team hasn’t won since Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner in 1979.
“It’s a unique situation, but I think every world championships has some unique situation, or some circumstance that maybe not everyone foresees,” LeDuc, 31, said. “We’re trying to just keep our blinders on and staying laser-focused on what we need to do, and what we need to accomplish on the ice, regardless of anything going on around us.”
“There are scores we have in mind we want to achieve, and feelings after the skates that we want to feel, so we’re going more towards that,” Cain-Gribble, 26, said. “Because we know that if we just focus on that and not so much the results, we will put together two performances that will feel like we gave 100 percent.”
The U.S. pairs’ biggest competition will come from Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who placed seventh at the Games. If Miura and Kihara win, it will be the first-ever world title for a Japanese pair.
U.S. Ice Dance Teams Favored For The Podium
Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are the only reigning Olympic champions competing at worlds. Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia, who narrowly defeated three-time U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue for Olympic silver last month, are absent.
Both Hubbell and Donohue, and three-time U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates, fourth at the Games, look strong for medals.
For the Olympic bronze medalists, Montpellier marks their final competitive appearance, and the three-time world medalists want to cap it with personal best programs.
“It would be against our natures to do anything but say we want to win,” Hubbell, 31, said. “We’ve never been afraid of staying that. We certainly left points on the table at the Olympics. As happy as we were with the performances and the outcome, neither performance was something we were absolutely blown away with. We could have done better. We’ve been working on making sure we can grab all of those extra points and get our levels.”
For two-time world medalists Chock and Bates, who plan to continue competing, Montpellier is another opportunity to perform their popular “Love in Outer Space Program” free dance and share its message of tolerance and acceptance.
“With this program, we wanted to do something really unique,” Bates, 33, said. “We got a chance to skate it twice at the Olympics, and we’re really proud of how we skated and the reception our program received. On that front I think it’s been a great success and any time you do any program for the last time at the world championships, you always want to skate well and do right by a program that you’ve spent months and months perfecting. So we’re just going to pay homage to a great program that we believe in and that’s been great to us.”