At worlds, a men’s short program filled with powerful emotion and exceptional skating
If they did a highlight reel from the men’s short program at the 2022 World Figure Skating Championships, it might turn into a feature-length film.
It would include scenes of heartrending and powerful emotion. Scenes with one terrific performance after another. A scene showing almost improbable brilliance from a man making an unexpected second appearance at worlds and another scene showing confirmatory brilliance from a teen making a highly anticipated debut at worlds.
Numbers really can’t do justice to what took place over four hours Thursday in Montpellier, France, but they can provide some parameters to assess it.
Twelve of the 29 competitors had personal best scores, a group that included the first (Shoma Uno), third (Kazuki Tomono), fourth (Ilia Malinin) and fifth (Daniel Grassl) finishers.
Each of the top four, led by three Japanese, scored over 100 points, the first time that has happened in a men’s short program at the world championships. Uno had 109.63, Yuma Kagiyama 105.69 and Tomono 101.12, with Malinin of the United States at 100.16.
And the man who finished 22nd, Ivan Shmuratko of war-ravaged Ukraine, brought the crowd to its feet in a touching ovation just by being there, for wearing a simple blue practice shirt with a heart-shaped patch showing the colors of his country’s flag. How sad it was that officials saw fit to give him a deduction for a “costume / prop” violation.
“Today I skated with the Ukrainian people at my side. I do everything from my side to give people hope and to make them proud.” Shmuratko said. “Right now there is no room for different colors, and I decided to skate in the colors of my country with my flag on my chest.”
Shmuratko, 20, chose the platform of a global sporting event to make an eloquent statement about his country’s indomitable spirit. Given that perspective, going on to talk about sport as sport is less jarring.
So we still can appreciate the seamless beauty of Uno’s performance, one that showed he does not need to rely on lyrics to make a program sing. Uno, the two-time Olympic medalist, let an oboe speak, and he allowed himself the calm to interpret the music through phrasing with his skates and body.
“Recently in my skating, I was always looking forward to the next element,” Uno said. “It forced me to give a very hurried performance, and my emotions weren’t always present.”
This time, he did far more than race from one quad to the next quad and then to the triple axel, all executed with aplomb. Uno received his highest scores ever for both technical elements and artistry, the latter broadly expressed by the five component scores.
Uno has had major roles on the world stage for six seasons. He clearly was capable of such performances but often inconsistent in bringing them off.
During that time, Tomono has been a relative bit player. He seemingly came out of nowhere – or, in this case, a minor event that was conveniently close – to give Japan a shot in Saturday’s free skate at becoming the first country to sweep the men’s medals at worlds since the United States in 1956.
The 23-year-old Tomono was supposed to finish his season last weekend at the Coupe de Printemps in Luxembourg, where he won with underwhelming performances (just 77 points in the short program.)
While there, Tomono was asked to go to worlds as a replacement for a replacement, Kao Miura, whose leg injury forced him to give up the spot made available because two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu had withdrawn with an ankle injury. Tomono noted it was the fifth time he has been a replacement entry at an international event.
“I’ve been an alternate a lot, and I know how to handle it,” Tomono said. “I just had to shift plans very fast.”
Tomono said he wound up using the Coupe de Printemps as a practice for how he would do at worlds. With two clean quads Thursday, he fortunately performed much more like he had at his previous competition, the Four Continents Championships in January, when he also had a personal best short program score (97.10).
Malinin, at 17 the youngest U.S. men’s singles skater at worlds since 1966, topped his previous personal best by nearly 20 points with a performance he felt proved he belonged on the 2022 Olympic team. Although he finished second at January’s U.S. Championships, Malinin’s mediocre skating at his one prior international senior level event gave the selection committee justification not to pick him.
“This showed I was definitely supposed to go to Beijing, and I was meant to be there,” Malinin said.
“Watching all the other high-level skaters (at worlds) makes me feel I can fit in very well and even be better than some of them.”
Like the three men who finished ahead of him in Thursday’s short program, Malinin landed two clean quadruple jumps. The first was a quad lutz that received a mean grade of execution score topped this season only by Nathan Chen’s quad lutz in his Olympic gold medal free skate.
A sloppy step sequence kept Malinin from being in the top three.
“I was mainly trying to focus on staying on my feet,” he said.
For two-time Olympian and 2019 world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou of the U.S., the issue was trying to keep his head above roiling emotional waters after his 2022 Olympics turned into a nightmare.
A positive Covid test knocked Zhou out of the Olympic singles event and put him in quarantine for more than a week. Once cleared, he could not attend the Closing Ceremony because authorities said he was a Covid close contact. He has yet to receive the team medal (silver...or maybe gold?) because of the need to resolve the doping case involving Kamila Valieva, who helped Russia finish first in the team event.
No wonder Zhou didn’t want to pick up skates and go to practice for much of the time since returning from Beijing. No wonder he nearly decided to withdraw from worlds as recently as a week ago. No wonder he cried after a short program in which he finished sixth (95.84), his sense of accomplishment not diminished by some eight points lost after reviews led to under-rotation calls on the first two jump elements.
“That short program was a great moment for me,” Zhou said. “Last week, I couldn’t get through a full program or do a good jump.
“Once I made the decision to come, there was a big mental switch. Once I got here, I have been skating pretty well, just trying not to put any additional pressure on myself and accepting everything as it comes.
“Simply being here is a big win for me.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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