Wednesday, February 3, 2010

An Every-Four-Year-Fan’s Guide to Figure Skating in Vancouver… Pairs Edition

(NOTE: In these remaining days leading up to the Opening Ceremonies, I’m doing a small series of posts to serves as a sort of Cliff’s Notes to figure skating fans who only follow the sport every four years or so (or every TWO years back around 1994, LOL). If that’s you, happy catching up… and feel free to comment or ask a question. If that’s NOT you… be sure to find an “Every-four-year fan” and tell them about it! Thanks.)

PAIRS: We Said Hello Goodbye (and Hello Again)

2006 Torino’s top pairs were most likely remembered for two things: PAIN and BRAVERY.

Totmianina and Marinin, the gold medalists from Russia (winning in Torino without any of the controversy of Salt Lake City 2002), were perhaps remembered best as the couple that endured a shocking fall during the 2004 Skate America free skate—Marinin stumbled during a lift, Totmianina crashed head first to the ice and lay there lifeless for several long minutes, and fans and commentators held their collective breath and said a prayer. But Totmianina’s injuries (aside from a concussion) were relatively minor, and with the help of a sports psychologist (for Marinin’s sake), they resumed training and competing… and returning to form. They retired from amateur competition in 2006.

Next in the long line of Russian pairs royalty appeared to be Mukhortova and Trankov, who vaulted from bronze to gold at Russian Nationals in 2007. But they’ve lingered at silver-medal status ever since, and haven’t finished any better than 5th at Worlds. Taking over that top spot in Russia was Kavaguti (Kawaguchi until 2009; she gave up her Japanese citizenship to compete for Russia) and Smirnov, a Tamara Moskvina creation that didn’t come together until after Torino. They’ve since won gold at Nationals 2008-10, and took bronze at Worlds last year.

With a track record like this, can the Russian gold standard hold up in Vancouver? Some think it may be China’s time instead…

Zhang and Zhang, the silver medalists in Torino, are the ones who had to stop and regroup during their Torino free skate when a botched throw quad salchow sent Dan Zhang careening into the boards. Regroup they did, though, and skated well enough to make the podium. Zhang and Zhang remain one of the top three in a veritable powerhouse of Chinese pairs talent; they are now three-time Worlds silver medalists.

Shen and Zhao were the reigning Olympic Bronze Medalists when they repeated that placement in Torino, coming off of next to no training time due to a ruptured Achilles tendon for Zhao. They competed one more season, claimed their third World title in 2007, and married each other shortly thereafter. After two seasons away, Shen/Zhao decided to rejoin the amateur ranks this year and make one more run at Olympic Gold. At ages 31 and 36, they’ve been posting their best CoP scores ever and won all their Grand Prix events (including the Final) earlier in the season.

Pang and Tong finished fourth in Torino; like Shen/Zhao and Zhang/Zhang, they have now been competing for China for over a decade. Their best finish was the 2006 Worlds shortly after Torino (where they won gold), but their international success has been very hit-or-miss since then.

Despite all this, the favorite for many is bound to be the German pairing of Savchenko (originally from the Ukraine) and Szolkowy. And with good reason, as they’re the two-time and reigning World Champions. It’s worth noting, though, that they just lost to Yavaguti/Smirnov at Europeans a few weeks ago…

The only other country to make a podium appearance at Worlds since 2006 is Canada; Dube and Davison took bronze in 2008.

The top U.S. team in Torino-- throw-triple-axel landing Inoue and Baldwin—got as high as 4th at Worlds in 2006, but have struggled since then and failed to qualify for Vancouver. 2007 U.S. Champions Castile/Okolski have been plagued with injuries since then; 2008-9 U.S. Champions McLaughlin/Brubaker have been plagued with inconsistencies and finished out of the medals at Nationals. Fortunately (or not?), all current U.S. champions Denney/Barrett are plagued with is inexperience.

As for that elusive throw quad salchow… the only ones who are likely to consider it for Vancouver are Kavaguti/Smirnov, and they haven’t been wildly successful with it this season (in one event Kavaguti reportedly dislocated her shoulder falling on it, popped it back in while they got a couple minutes to recover, and carried on with the free skate). I kind of hope they leave it out, but I can picture Moskvina giving Kavaguti a “you can DO it” pep talk, a la Béla Károlyi, if a quad could make the difference on the podium.

For Clips of the Day on these posts, I’m posting the highest-scoring performances on record, according to the ISU, under the Code of Points system. For pairs, it’s
this free skate recently completed by Yavaguti/Smirnov at 2010 Europeans… which is rather surprising to me, given the mistakes on a few jumps, the fact they only did a throw triple salchow (though a great one), and the fact that Yavaguti seems to have some weird break in concentration around the 2:55 mark that’s pretty disconcerting. Was this a classic case of points inflation at a non-international event? Hmmm.


Not An Expert said...

That 'weird break of concentration' for K/S was actually her popping her shoulder back in (again!). I saw the event live and thought it was just awkward choreography, or her forgetting the move, but knowing what really went on, it's amazing that she landed those double axels right after. It's interesting seeing the last four years wrapped up like that, great idea!

Kelli Lawrence said...

No kidding! Wasn't it just a throw triple salchow they did though? It sure looked like it, and I thought I counted the rotations in slo-mo... or did it pop out on something else?

Yavguti's going to convince me she's made of Silly Putty by the time this season is over...