Olympic co-champions Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, of Russia, and Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, of Canada, each elected to skip the World Championships due to a whirlwind of media appearances following the Olympic Games last month. Unlike the pairs judging fiasco that took all of Salt Lake City by storm, the only fiasco of the competition in Nagano was the dreadful level of performances among the top competitors. When the falls were counted and the scores were input, the message of the competition was that Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze and Sale and Pelletier have set a near impossible standard for others to reach.
Thrice world medalists, China’s Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao were used to their flawless performances routinely placing behind less-than-perfect efforts from the now Olympic co-champions. What the Chinese had in raw athleticism, they lacked in refinement and purity of technique. This year, they enlisted the help of American choreographer Lea Ann Miller, and in Salt Lake City, they attempted and very nearly landed a throw quadruple salchow in their quest to do anything to upset the applecart. They finished in a familiar spot–third.
Favorites to win Worlds in the absence of the top two teams, Shen and Zhao had a rocky performance. Shen fell on a triple toe loop. Zhao singled a double Axel. The throw quad was a “safe” triple. Yet, they still won– without losing a single ordinal. With this performance, the level of pairs skating came back down to earth. The glut of heavenly skating that the audience has been spoiled with over the past four years came to a halt. And, all things considered, Shen and Zhao’s complex and technically valiant program was not so bad. It’s just that it looked rather like a normal World Championship winning program in light of the surreal pairs competitions of the past few years.
European Champions Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin of Russia took silver with last year’s program to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Normally the models of consistency, Totmianina and Marinin had an outside, but real, chance to walk off with the title after the problems of Shen and Zhao. Their hopes for gold ended when Marinin went down on a triple toe loop, but the duo who train under Oleg Vassiliev in suburban Chicago hung on to earn their first world medal, a silver. A perfect version of this same program earned them only fourth place in the free skate just one year ago, again a sign of the weakening standard of competition.
But perhaps the most depressing performance came from three-time U.S. Champions Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman, whose bronze medal winning free skate was virtually identical to the skate that left them seventh last year. After phenomenal skates at the Grand Prix Final and the Olympics where many felt they were grossly under marked, perhaps the judges felt it was time to right the previous wrongs. With judges from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Germany, and Poland favoring the Americans on the second mark, Ina and Zimmerman earned a bronze medal, the first of their career in spite of a performance that left them looking sullen as they came off the ice. Ironically, their career-best skate earned them fifth at the Olympics, while their self-described worst skate of the season earned them third at the World Championships.
For Ina, this may be the close of an extremely successful international career spanning seven World Championships, five U.S. titles, three Olympics, and two different partners. A world medal narrowly eluded her and former partner in Jason Dungjen in 1997, and a practice injury forced them to withdraw from the 1998 World Championships, where they would have entered the competition as the second-ranked pair. During their first two years together, Ina and Zimmerman mostly floundered at the big events, but they seemed to find a happy medium for competitions this season after making a pact to “have no life” until after the Olympics. Perhaps for that reason, Ina, 29, and Zimmerman, 28, are undecided as to whether they will continue to compete on the eligible circuit next season.
One team who has committed to another season is the hard-luck Russian duo of Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov, who have been in competitive free fall since winning a gold medal at the World Championships in Nice. Last year, sub-par performances dropped them to fourth overall, and they remained fourth this year even with a much technically stronger performance than Ina and Zimmerman. Despite Zimmerman’s miss on a solo triple toe loop and Ina’s fall on a throw triple salchow, Petrova and Tikhonov were unable to overtake the Americans even though they performed both of those same elements cleanly. Often criticized for their lack of speed and subdued performance ability, Petrova and Tikhonov will need to spice up their skating if they are to climb back on to the world podium.
Even if the retirement rumors of Shen and Zhao are true, China has no need to worry about having medal contenders in future World Championships. Qing Pang and Jian Tong delivered perhaps the two most solid performances of any pair, marked by their daring release elements and rapidly improving dynamic. Pang and Tong finished fifth, the exact spot Shen and Zhao finished at the World Championships four years ago. Despite their rise, their reign in China will likely face a challenge from Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, who performed the first quadruple twist seen in the World Championships in a decade and a half, to finish a strong ninth.
The second American entry, Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn, rebounded from a disastrous Olympics to place a career-best seventh with a clean short program and a solid free skate. The combined finishes of Ina and Zimmerman and Scott and Dulebohn comfortably earned the United States three pairs berths at next year’s World Championships in Washington, DC. Scott and Dulebohn have indicated that they intend to remain eligible and hope to lead the charge of American pairs in DC.