Ceremonies. The figure skating competition begins on Sunday, Feb. 14, with the pairs short program and by the time the skating wraps up with the ladies free skate on Feb. 25 the face of the sport will be changed forever.
Countries that have never before achieved Olympic gold could take top honors in three of the four disciplines, all of which will feature a mix of first-time Olympians and veteran athletes, some of who we haven’t seen in competition for a while.
Host nation Canada has medal contenders in all four disciplines, and they’ll have home country support and pressure.
“Some people talk about the pressure of performing before the home crowd,” said Sarah Hughes, who won Olympic gold in 2002 in Salt Lake City. She said the media attention was intense.
“There’s so much support,” said Hughes, who was recently inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. “The things that I was a little bit concerned about before-having the added pressure-didn’t ever come into play.”
Pairs skating has been in a rut for the past few years, but two-time Olympic bronze medalists, three-time World Champions Xue Shen & Hongbo Zhao of China are intent on changing that in their fourth Olympic appearance. They placed fifth in Nagano in 1998. Their bronze in 2002 in Salt Lake City is largely forgotten in the shadow of the judging controversy over Canadians Jamie Salé & David Pelletier and Russians Elena Berezhnaya & Anton Sikharulidze. Four years later in Torino, Shen and Zhao managed another bronze despite an injury that kept him off the ice until less than two months before the Games.
They returned to top form to win the 2007 World Championships, but then decided they needed a break from competition. After touring for two years with Smucker’s Stars on Ice, Shen and Zhao appear ready to win China’s first Olympic gold.
NoVa native Michael Weiss, three-time U.S. Men’s Champion and two-time Olympian who has toured with Shen and Zhao the past two years, thinks they will.
“They are the epitome of technique in pair skating,” Weiss said. “They make it look so easy. They’re what everybody tries to emulate on so many of the elements and they’re great jumpers individually.”
Two-time World Champions Aliona Savchenko & Robin Szolkowy of Germany will probably also be on the podium. The fight for bronze will be between newly crowned European Champions Yuko Kavaguti & Alexander Smirnov of Russia and Canadian Champions Jessica Dubé & Bryce Davison. U.S. Champions Caydee Denney & Jeremy Barrett will skate with enthusiasm but aren’t figured to be in the medal hunt.
There is no hands-down favorite in the men’s competition. Reigning World Champion and Grand Prix Final Champion Evan Lysacek was defeated by Jeremy Abbott at the recent U.S. Championships. World silver medalist Patrick Chan defended his Canadian title, but has not been skating at a level to match 2009 since suffering an injury last fall. Former European and World Champion Brian Joubert of France finished third at the recent European Championships.
The big name from Europeans was 2006 Olympic gold medalist, 2002 silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, who after three years of skating in shows has made a roaring comeback and established himself as a slight favorite for Vancouver.
“The U.S. has a strong men’s team, but this is pretty much Plushenko’s to lose,” said Weiss, who will be in Vancouver working in production for NBC. “He’s one of those guys who you say was born to do something. He has such natural ability.
“It’s like competing against somebody at baseball and they’re starting on third base. All they have to do is run home. He kind of has that advantage on everybody else, he’s so naturally gifted.
“The way Jeremy Abbott skated at nationals, that’s going to be competitive at any competition anywhere,” he added. “If he skates like that again, I can see him easily getting a medal. What color depends on how everybody else skates. Evan Lysacek is always a threat. He’s consistent. I see him with a shot at a medal too, I just don’t see it being gold.”
Also, look out for Daisuke Takahashi and Nobunari Oda from Japan and Stéphane Lambiel of Switzerland, the reigning Olympic silver medalist and a two-time World Champion who is back after a long competitive layoff. American Johnny Weir, who has changed is long program costume to have fake fur rather than the real fox that angered animal rights activists, will get plenty of attention and footage for his reality TV series “Be Good Johnny Weir,” but the podium isn’t likely.
The time seems to be at hand for a North American team to win gold in ice dancing, which has been dominated by Europeans since its inclusion in the Olympics in 1976. All but two golds have gone to Russian or Soviet teams, with the lone exceptions being Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean of Great Britain in 1984 and Marina Anissina & Gwendal Peizerat of France in 2002.
The top names to watch for in Vancouver are two-time U.S. Champions Meryl Davis & Charlie White and three-time Canadian Champions Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir. Reigning Olympic silver medalists, five-time U.S. Champions Tanith Belbin & Benjamin Agosto also have a shot.
“For any of the North American teams to step up onto the Olympic stage and to earn a medal would speak volumes about the direction our sport is going,” said Virtue. “The North American teams have had a great showing the past two seasons. It’s a definite possibility.”
“We haven’t seen two of the better European teams this season. We haven’t competed against either of them,” cautioned Moir, referring to reigning World Champions Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin of Russia, who recently won the European Championships, and 2008 World Champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder from France, returning to competition after Delobel gave birth to a baby last fall.
“We don’t really care too much who’s on the podium with us,” he added. “We just know what spot we want to be. As selfish as that sounds, that’s kind of the tunnel vision that I have.”
Unquestionably, the ladies competition is Yu-Na Kim’s to lose. The powerful and graceful skater from South Korea, who trains in Toronto, has totally separated herself from the rest of the competition. But she’s not infallible. Rachael Flatt, 2010 U.S. Champion, defeated Kim in the free skate at Skate America last October.
Joining Kim in the medal hunt are Japanese competitors Mao Asada and Miki Ando, both
former World Champions, and six-time Canadian Ladies Champion Joannie Rochette, who will have to balance home country support with home country pressure.
“Kim is in a class by herself,” Hughes noted. “Is she unbeatable? I think it will be interesting in Vancouver to see how things play out. There will be a lot of pressure on her.”
Hughes said the variety of styles among the top competitors will make the ladies event very compelling.
In terms of the two U.S. ladies, Flatt and Mirai Nagasu, both have their positives.
“Flatt has been so consistent,” Hughes said. “I also think she sets a great example beyond skating in terms of what she’ll do with her life, including skating, after these Olympics. (Flatt, an honors student taking AP courses, has already applied to colleges, including Ivy League institutions.)
“Mirai’s personality transcends whatever she’s doing on the ice. She really has found a way to make the audience part of her program.
“All the ladies competitors are going to perform very differently.”