Skaters Heat up Scandinavia at World Championships

Northern Virginia native Ashley Wagner is aiming for another podium finish at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo: Jay Adeff/USFS)
Northern Virginia native Ashley Wagner is aiming for another podium finish at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo: Jay Adeff/USFS)

By Lois Elfman

The 2017 World Figure Skating Championships are underway in Helsinki, Finland. In addition to the constant pursuit for medals, this year’s competition is extremely important as it determines the number of Olympic berths each country will receive.

Ladies lead off the competition and the first question is whether anyone can dethrone reigning champion Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, who has dominated the competition for the past two seasons. Challengers will include a strong contingent from Japan, Canadian Champion Kaetlyn Osmond and U.S. ladies Karen Chen, defending World silver medalist Ashley Wagner and Mariah Bell.

Chen pulled off a stunning upset at the U.S. Championships in January, but it hasn’t been smooth skating since then. She finished 12th at the Four Continents Championships in February and then recently had a collision with another skater at her home rink, but she says the bruising is gone and she’s feeling great. A pep talk from 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi helped her focus.

“Coming off Nationals, it was such a wonderful experience and very exciting, but [at Four Continents] I did have this pressure for myself that I didn’t really know and I’ve never experienced before,” said Chen. “It is in the back of my mind [for Worlds] knowing it’s very important that we all skate very well and we bring back three spots for the Olympics, but at the same time I feel I don’t want to obsess over that.

“It is my first Worlds, and I want to enjoy myself and at the same time be very focused on doing my job and putting out two good skates.”

Despite a rough Grand Prix season in which she did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final and finished second to Chen at the U.S. Championships, Wagner, who trains in California but still considers Northern Virginia home, remains resolute to again land on the podium at Worlds.

“I feel like I have something to prove,” Wagner said. “I feel like I definitely have more to give and do in this sport and that’s why I’m here. After getting that silver medal last year [at Worlds] that was kind of a taste of what I think that I can do. That has definitely been very motivating for me.

“I have worked on the short program; it has been rechoreographed…and I did the exact same thing with the long program,” she added. “I have been putting in a lot of training on the second half of my long so it’s a little more precise and you can see clarity in the movement and the spins.”

Next up are the pairs. Canadian Pairs Champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are the two-time defending World Champions, but come into the championships as underdogs after some rough performances during the past few months.

“Different teams and different skaters build their own momentum towards the World Championships,” said Radford. “We had that in 2015 where we had this unstoppable momentum.

“[This year] I think we’re coming in a little bit more under the radar,” he added. “Keeping perspective and still enjoying all of the hard work even when things don’t work out. It can be very disheartening sometimes when you’re expecting greatness. Meagan and I are always there for each other and we keep persevering and doing our best.”

They’ve made a few changes to their programs to make things more seamless with better flow and included little details that add to the grade of execution. Also, Duhamel’s maternal line immigrated to Canada from Finland. Her grandmother will be visiting her homeland for the first time in almost 20 years. There will also be Finnish relatives Duhamel has never met coming to cheer her on.

“It’s extremely special,” said Duhamel. “It’s almost like I get to skate at home. My relatives get to share this experience with me.”

Other contenders include Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morosov from Russia, Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot from Germany and Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China. The U.S. teams are headlined by newlyweds Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, who received a medical bye after withdrawing from the U.S. Championships as Scimeca Knierim was not yet fully recovered from surgery.

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are among the top teams vying for podium positions at Worlds. (Photo: Jay Adeff/USFS)
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are among the top teams vying for podium positions at Worlds. (Photo: Jay Adeff/USFS)

The men’s competition will be extremely interesting due to the emergence of U.S. Men’s Champion Nathan Chen, who landed five quadruple jumps in his winning free skate at the U.S. Championships. He said he’s been having some boot issues, which has slowed down his training a bit, but overall he’s feeling good.

“This is my first Worlds; of course, being able to make the podium would be huge,” said Chen, who also won gold at the Four Continents Championships. “From a technical aspect, I think I’m at that level to make the podium, but it depends on what [other skaters] do and how clean I’m able to perform. Hopefully, everything works together.

“It’s cool to be in a state where I can in a sense bring the best out of all the other competitors. I know that we all want to win, obviously.”

Two-time and defending World Men’s Champion Javier Fernández from Spain isn’t a heavy favorite, but he has a way of surprising in big competitions. Other names to look for are reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu from Japan and three-time World Champion Patrick Chan from Canada.

Long heralded as one of the most elegant men’s skaters, Chan took a season off following his silver medal finish at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Since returning last season, he’s shown flashes of his unique artistry, but also struggled with the growing technical demands established by skaters like Hanyu and Fernández and now amplified by Chen.

“We’re entering a very exciting period in men’s figure skating,” said Chan. “A period where the pros are the excitement of all these quads being completed, but the con is kind of the mystery of what is going to be the byproduct of pushing the limit technically and pushing the body to the limit when it comes to torque and joint pressure.

“I need to basically skate a clean short program and clean long program if I’m going to stick to the technical plan that I have this year,” he added. “From my experience so far since my comeback is that when it comes to adding more quads or being successful at landing quads in the competition when it counts, the transitions, the skating skills do get sacrificed, I guarantee. Does that make me shy away from pushing myself technically? Not at all. I have to go with the direction the sport is going in.”

The final event will be ice dancing, which will be a tight race between two-time and reigning World Champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, 2010 Olympic gold medalists and two-time World Champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and two-time U.S. Champions and two-time World medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani.

“We are very lucky that we train in a rink that has seven teams going to the World Championships and kind of using that motivation to keep each other going,” said Moir. “This is probably the most prepared we’ve been for a World Championships arguably in our whole career. We’re excited.”

Virtue and Moir stepped away from competition for two years following the 2014 Olympics, and said their return this season has been invigorating. Thus far, they’ve won every competition they’ve entered. They said their philosophy is enjoying each moment. Now living and training in Montreal, they’re taking in the vibrant arts scene in that city—from museums to dance.

“Whatever this is, it feels great,” said Virtue. “We’re just riding it out and loving this—feeling healthy, ready and eager to compete.”