Friday, February 7, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourn II: Every-Four-Year-Fan's Update on Pairs & Men

So... you haven’t spied a figure skating blade on the TV screen since that blond Russian guy with the mullet whined about the American guy winning gold?  Have no fear. Read on and find out what you’ve missed in the past four years.

First up—the PAIRS in review:

2010 OGM’s Shen/Zhao (China) finally retired and are now raising a baby girl. Look for Zhao in the Kiss’n’Cry when the current Chinese pairs compete; he’s now a coach.

2010 Silver Medalists Pang/Tong (China) are engaged, but stayed eligible for one more Olympic cycle before moving on to the matrimonial stage in their relationship. Together on the world scene since 1998, they are unparalleled in terms of experience but are a few years past their prime. They’ve been on the world podium 5 times, winning twice.

2010 Bronze Medalists Savchenko/Szolkowy have been on the world podium every year since 2007 (winning four times in all) and remain renowned for their strength as well as their frequently out-there costumes/programs, but have more or less been eclipsed by Volosohzar/Trankov... though the recent Grand Prix Final proved they can still beat them if Volosohzar/Trankov have a really off day.

Who is Volosohzar/Trankov? A classic case of two pairs skaters just clicking on all cylinders from the get-go. She (Tatiana Volosohzar) was skating w/her husband Stanislav Morozov for Ukraine in 2010. They finished 8th. He (Maxim Trankov) was skating with Maria Mukhortova for Russia in 2010. They finished 7th. Shortly after Vancouver, they joined forces (representing Russia) and quickly rose to the top of the pairs skating world, winning silver at Worlds in 2011 and ’12, and gold in 2013.

Meanwhile, in North America...

Canada has been blessed with two very strong pairs teams post-Vancouver. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford, skating together since late 2010, are 3-year national champs and the reigning world bronze medalists... while Kristen Moore-Towers/Dylan Moscovitch are right behind them, both nationally and internationally (finished 4th last year at Worlds). Both teams are in the mix for Sochi medals.

As for the U.S., it looked for a while like our best chance for a powerhouse team a la Volo/Trank was the pairing of Denney/Coughlin (she of the 2010 Olympian team Denney/Barrett; he of 2011 National champs Yankowskas/Coughlin). D/C took the 2012 National title and have finished as high as 8th at Worlds, but finished 3rd at this year’s Nats and did not receive one of the two Olympic appointments as a result. Those went instead to Castelli/Shnapir, together since 2006 and two-time National champs at this point... and Zhang/Bartholomay, a young team that happened to skate lights-out in both short and long programs at Nationals and became the surprise silver medalists as a result.

And now let's study the MEN in review:

2010 OGM Evan Lysacek (USA), despite remaining competition-free since Vancouver, had every intention of returning to Sochi to defend his title. Unfortunately, his injury-plagued body had other plans—and Lysacek is only in Sochi as a spectator (and contributor to the Today Show).

2010 Silver (or as he would say, “platinum”) Medalist Evgeny Plushenko (RUS) is now 31 years old and skating at his fourth Olympics as a medal contender. He has not competed much (due both to choice and to injury), and his bid to win Russian Nationals this year came up a little short when he was defeated by a teenager. But none of the Russian men have skated solidly on the international front in the past couple of years; in fact, poor turnouts by both their competitors at last year’s Worlds resulted in Russia having only one slot for the men in this year’s Games. That one spot was ultimately rewarded to Plushy... as you may have already seen via his appearance in the Team Event.

2010 Bronze Medalist Daisuke Takahashi (JPN) went on to win Worlds that same year... but has not been able to replicate that victory since. Nonetheless, he is the most decorated Japanese male figure skater to date and has achieved “rock star” status in his native land. And despite finishing only 5th in this year’s Japanese Nationals, he was chosen as one of three men to represent Japan in Sochi. This will be his third and final Olympics (unless he pulls a Plushy, of course)... and he may be a sentimental favorite for the medals at best; the top man out of Japan right now is teenager Yuzuru Hanyu, who showed his tremendous skills Thursday in winning the SP in the Team Event.

Meanwhile, the post-Vancouver face of men’s figure skating belongs to a Canadian man of Chinese descent. Patrick Chan was 5th in his Olympics debut, but as the now three-time World Champion, he looks to break the “Canadian curse” (felt most strongly by the likes of Brian Orser, Kurt Browning, and Elvis Stojko) and win the gold.

The U.S. men have struggled since Vancouver to replicate the success of Lysacek (or Johnny Weir, for that matter, who like Lysacek is working for NBC this time around). Jeremy Abbott has won the US title four times in all, but has finished no higher than fifth at Worlds (and was 9th in Vancouver, as you may have heard about a zillion times already from the media). His teammates on the world front have varied widely over the past four years: Adam Rippon... Ross Miner... Richard Dornbush... Max Aaron... but none of them were able to grab that 2nd spot for the US men in Sochi. It went instead to rising star Jason Brown, the ponytailed wonder who does an SP to Prince music, has known Arsenio Hall since birth, and got over 3 million hits on YouTube after last month’s Nationals. At age 19, he is the youngest American man to figure skate at the Olympics since fellow Chicagoan David Santee did so in 1976 (at age 18).

I hope this helps bring 4-year fans in particular up to speed a bit as the first two “individual” disciplines (pairs & men) get underway in the coming days.

Remember, the Team Event continues Saturday 2/8 at 9:30 AM on NBC SN (Sports Network), with highlights coming in prime time Saturday night!

I will be live-tweeting as much as I can... follow me on Twitter @KLBSt8ofSk8.

Look for the next blog update sometime Monday! 

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