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China’s Sui and Han must fend off three Russian pairs skating teams in Stockholm

ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships - Seoul

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 09: Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China perform in the gala exhibition during day 4 of the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships at Mokdong Ice Rink on February 09, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Annice Lyn/Getty Images)

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For many years, the pairs gold medal at the World Figure Skating Championships practically had “Pozdravlyayu!” engraved on it.

Beginning in 1965, through 2005, Soviet or Russian skaters won 33 world titles. Since then, they have stood atop the podium just once, with Tatyana Voloshozhar and Maksim Trankov in 2013.

This week, at the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm, Sweden, all three Russian entries – Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitry Kozlovskii, and Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov – have a credible shot at gold.

“Any of the three can win, in my opinion, which is crazy,” Meagan Duhamel, a two-time world pairs champion (2015, 2016), said. “And Russia has a fourth team (Daria Pavliyuchenko and Denis Khodykin) who stayed at home, who could have been medal contenders.”

There is an obstacle in Russia’s path to renewed pairs dominance: Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, the two-time world champions (2017, 2019) and 2018 Olympic silver medalists who make their season debut in Stockholm.

“Over the years, we’ve seen them show up once a season and look spectacular,” Duhamel said. “I don’t think you can ever count them out, that’s for sure. Many a time they have showed up at a Four Continents or worlds having not competed anywhere since worlds the year before, and looked great.”

Duhamel, who with partner Eric Radford also won seven Canadian titles and 2018 Olympic team bronze, speaks from experience. At the 2018 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, the Canadians settled for silver after Sui and Han – who had skipped their Grand Prix events, due to Sui’s foot surgeries – gained a new personal best score and skated away with their fifth Four Continents title. (They now have six, having won the event in 2019.)

But Duhamel thinks it will be difficult to duplicate that feat in Stockholm.

“I wonder what kind of state (Sui and Han) will be in – will they use new programs, or old ones?” she said. “I do think all three Russian teams will have a leg up on everybody else, because they have competed several times this year (in Russia). They haven’t just gone out once and competed.”

In Duhamel’s mind, veterans Tarasova and Morozov, two-time European champions who won their third Russian title in December, have the edge in Stockholm, over both Sui and Han and their younger Russian teammates.

“They have been very inconsistent, but when they have delivered, the judges have been ready to reward them, because of their superior skating skills and quality on all of their elements,” she said. “And this year they have finally come out with two great programs, which has also been a sore spot. We’ve seen the experimenting they’ve done with different free skates over the years, including ‘Candyman’ at the Olympics, but now they have a winning free skate, in my opinion.”

Not so fast, says Elena Bechke, who with Denis Petrov won the 1992 Olympic silver medal for Russia. (They competed under the Olympic flag as the Unified Team.)

“I really think Mishina and Galliamov, the younger team, is improving unbelievably fast, and they are a major threat,” Bechke, who now coaches in North Carolina, said. “At the moment, they are more consistent. I watched every competition [held in Russia] and they only had one bad skate so far. For some reason [at Russian nationals] they just got really emotionally exhausted from being on top and they had trouble with their throws.”

One advantage Mishina and Galliamov possess, according to Bechke, is their triple jumps.

“They are doing triple salchow, euler, triple salchow, which is an amazing jump combination,” she said. (Mishina has missed the second triple at times, including at 2020 Rostelecom Cup.) “That’s in addition to triple toe loops.”

Both Boikova and Kozlovskii, and Mishina and Galliamov, are coached by the legendary Tamara Moskvina, 79, who has trained European, world and Olympic medalists since the 1970s. Moskvina also coached Bechke and Petrov; to this day, Bechke refers to her as “my coach.”

“In 1992, when my coach had the top two (Bechke and Petrov, and Natalya Mishkutiyonok and Artur Dimitriyev), she said, ‘I am done, I am going to retire,’” Bechke said. “Guess what, two years later, she did not. Four years later, she did not. Thirty years later, she is still coaching. It is her life.”

Back in the 1990s, Moskvina sometimes spoke of hypnotizing her athletes into giving good performances. According to Bechke, though, her success is due to thorough technical knowledge, including of the judging system, and plain hard work.

“My coach tells you the facts, what needs to be done,” she said. “There is no hypnosis, no special psychological approach. There is a trust between the coach and a skater, because the skater knows, ‘I did my work, now I’m calm, I’m going to get out there.’

“[Moskvina] stays with you the entire time [at competitions], she can ask a few questions and you answer, and she can make an assessment, but there are no psychological tricks or anything like that,” Bechke added. “She has so much experience, she can identify any problem and apply her tools.”

Both Duhamel and Bechke are high on Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, the U.S. champions who teamed up in March 2020 after long careers with their former partners, Chris Knierim and Haven Denney, respectively.

“You take, if not the strongest than one of the strongest, pair girls in the U.S., and you put her with the best pair boy in the U.S., and it should result in what you have right now,” Duhamel said. “Should they deliver [at worlds], they can find themselves moving up the ranks quickly. They have the skillset and all of the appeal to compete against the top teams in the world.”

While Bechke doesn’t see Knierim and Frazier cracking the top four, she thinks Stockholm is their chance to make a statement to international judges.

“They have a great chance to improve and then place really well at the Olympics next year,” she said. “I absolutely love the way they look, [because] everything looks effortless. Unlike some other American and Canadian pair teams, they have a beautiful, elegant style, and that’s what really sells. … If they skate clean, no big mistakes, they can absolutely finish in the top five or six. I really like watching them. I think they are the best American pair team in a really long time.”

The key for Knierim and Frazier, according to Duhamel, will be a clean short program. Because they are a new team, with no ISU ranking points, they will skate in the first warm-up group. Judges are known to hold back on top marks until the final flights.

“They will skate really early, and this will cost them maybe a point or two in program component scores (PCS),” Duhamel said. “But I remember when Eric and I went to our first worlds, in 2011, and Volosozhar and Trankov made their debut. They skated early and they won the silver medal. But if [Knierim and Frazier] are not clean, it doesn’t help their reputation with the international judges.”

Bechke is even more blunt.

“Miss a jump, and that’s it,” she said.

There are other strong pairs in the field, including China’s Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, two-time Grand Prix Final silver medalists; Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, who are coached by Duhamel’s husband, Bruno Marcotte; and Matteo Guarise and Nicole Della Monica of Italy.

“The Canadian pair fits into that group trying to get themselves on to the podium, hoping to be ready on the day if the opportunity is there for them,” Duhamel said, adding that Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, the 2019 U.S. champions, are also part of that equation.

“They have good programs, excellent energy and they commit to the programs 110 percent,” she said. “For their training, I expect they are focusing on finishing the rotations on the side-by-side jumps and getting the levels on all of the elements. If you see Level 2 on a death spiral, a Level 3 on a lift, or an under-rotation, these things add up.”

Consider something else, as you watch the pairs competition unfold in Stockholm this week: It may be Moskvina’s penultimate world championships as a coach.

“I think, after the next Olympics, my coach will finally retire,” Bechke said. “I think skating keeps her going, but now she’s got this nice partner in crime (associate coach Artur Minchuk). I think he’s going to take over and she probably will just consult. That’s my idea of what she’s going to do, but really, who knows?”

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