World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview
Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.
Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.
But they don’t feel like favorites.
“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.
They lost their two most recent international competitions -- third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.
Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki.
“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.
Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.
It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.
This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.
They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.
“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”
They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.
“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.
They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.
Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.
“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”
Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.
Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.
Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.
Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.
Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.
U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.
The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.
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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.