Sports

Skaters Descend on Boston for World Championships

U.S. Ice Dance Champions Maia and Alex Shibutani. (Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating)
U.S. Ice Dance Champions Maia and Alex Shibutani. (Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating)

By Lois Elfman

Boston is steeped in skating history. What better city to play host to the best figure skaters in the world. Talent from all over the world are converging in Beantown for the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships, which kick off on March 28.

The sport is at the mid-point between Olympic Winter Games, so it’s the time where some skaters will step up and others will step out. Competition will be fierce and the sequins will sparkle. Here is a look at some of the talent that will go for gold.

Defending World Pairs Champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada were dominant throughout the 2014–15 season, but this year has been tougher. They suffered their first loss in two seasons at the Grand Prix Final. In Boston, they will face the 2016 Olympic gold medalists, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia, who handily defeated the competition at the European Championships.

“It seems like Volosozhar and Trankov are pretty dominant,” said three-time U.S. men’s medalist Ross Miner, who finished fifth at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “I also like the other Russian couple, Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (who missed the European Championships with an injury). Also, the top Chinese team, Wenjing Sui and Cong Han.

“Against Volosozhar and Trankov, it’s going to be tough for Duhamel and Radford to defend their title, but I’ve seen Volosozhar and Trankov miss,” he added. “It all comes down to who skates well.”

The new U.S. Pairs Champions, Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea, and the 2015 champions, Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, will likely not figure in the medal hunt, but could both finish in the top 10.

In the men’s event, it’s been a record-breaking season for reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who broke world records in scores in the short program, free skate and overall score. He will face the defending World Men’s Champion Javier Fernández of Spain, who recently won his fourth European title, as well as three-time World Champion Patrick Chan of Canada, who returned to competition this year after sitting out the 2014–15 season.

“It’s going to be a dog fight between those three with an outside chance for Boyang Jin (of China) to do something special,” said Miner. “Hanyu has a fluidity to his skating. If I’m completely honest, I’ve always been more drawn to someone like Patrick’s skating, but Yuzuru has done some amazing programs this year.

“Patrick is a skater’s skater,” he added. “Javier is likeable when he’s on the ice. You watch him skate and you want to cheer for him.”

In a talent packed men’s field, U.S. Men’s Champion Adam Rippon and silver medalist Max Aaron will vie for a spot on the podium, but not gold.

“What will be so exciting is that it’s a hometown crowd,” Rippon said. “I know that there’s going to be a little bit extra applause and extra support from your hometown crowd. I’ve talked briefly with Evan Lysacek (who won his 2009 World title in Los Angeles) and Michelle Kwan (who won titles at Worlds in the U.S. in 1998 and 2003) about their experiences at World Championships at home.

“I’ve been training really hard and really well so that I can put out my best performances, so that I can have the best experience for me possible.”

Ice dance is where U.S. teams have been most competitive in recent years. U.S. Champions Maia and Alex Shibutani have Boston roots and clear momentum on their side. They followed up their first U.S. title with the gold medal at the Four Continents Championships. U.S. silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the silver medalists at the 2015 World Championships and the Grand Prix Final, and are in hot pursuit for a return to the podium.

The favorites are defending World Champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, who missed the first part of the season as Papadakis recovered from a concussion, but they were in vintage form winning their second European title. Two-time Canadian Champions, two-time World medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje will also fight for a spot on the podium as will 2014 World Champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte from Italy.

“I think the Shibutanis have a really good shot to do well,” said Miner. “With the programs they have this year, they really can bring the house down.”

The ladies event will likely be dominated by skaters from Russia and Japan. The depth in Russia is so impressive that the defending World champion, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, and the reigning Olympic gold medalist, Adelina Sotnikova, are not on the Russian team, but the likelihood of gold is still high.

“It seems like the dominant one this season is Evgenia Medvedeva (European Champion and Grand Prix Final Champion),” Miner said. “She is pretty awesome. I watched her do a run-through at Skate America where she did like five triple-triples, which you’re not even allowed to do [in a competitive program], but she just did it. She will be, I think, the girl to beat.”

Two-time World Champion Mao Asada from Japan is on the comeback trial, but Miner pegged Satoko Miyahara as the top Japanese skater to watch.

The three U.S. ladies are all medal contenders. Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds have all shown strong performances this season. (Update: after this issue went to press Edmunds withdrew from Worlds due to a bone bruise in her right foot. Fourth-place finisher at the U.S. Championships, Mirai Nagasu, will replace her.)

“I love the fact that we’re going back to Boston,” said 2016 U.S. Champion Gold, who was born in Newton, Massachusetts and won her first national title in Boston in 2014. “I feel so ready.”

Gold has admittedly been overly nervous for the short program in several competitions and has to make up ground in the free skate. For Worlds, she’s focusing on skating two strong programs and coming away with a medal.

“What I can control and what I have to think about before the competition is just doing my programs,” Gold said. “Everything else is out of my hands.”

Wagner, who lived in Northern Virginia for over a decade and still considers it home even though she now trains in Southern California, has had some highs and lows this season, but heads to Boston in an optimistic frame of mind. This will be Wagner’s sixth trip to the World Championships. Her best finish was fourth in 2012. Now one of the veterans on the international scene, she’s aiming for a spot on the podium.

In her third season training with coach Rafael Arutyunyan, and she feels their strong communication is making her a stronger athlete. She’s excited to compete at a World Championships held in the U.S.

“I am so excited to have a World Championships on home turf. That extra level of comfort will definitely be appreciated,” Wagner said. “Boston is so rich in skating history, so we’re going to be skating in front of an audience that knows what they’re looking at and really appreciates it. It’s motivating. The idea of having a World medal in the U.S. would be an awesome moment to have.”