A record number of entries are descending upon Göteborg, Sweden, to compete at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships. Two hundred and three skaters will compete in four divisions with competition beginning on Tuesday. This is the first time in over 30 years that Sweden has hosted the championships in a country that once regularly saw its flag raised at medal ceremonies.
This year’s competition will see the continuation of some heated rivalries battled out on the ice, while new ones are in the beginning stages of formation. It is a changing of the guard of sorts, a blend of 2006 Olympic-era skaters hoping to stay at the top for two more seasons with young upstarts clawing their way towards the podium. This could be one of the most competitive championships in recent years with a large group of skaters who have the potential to stand on the podium on any given day.
Germans Aljona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy have earned the right to be called favorites entering this competition based on their consistency in earning high marks throughout the season. Though last year’s bronze medalists are sometimes inconsistent with the singles elements in their programs, Savchenko, 24, and Szolkowy, 28, demonstrate what Code of Points should bring to a performance. Each of this team’s moves are completed with flair, inventiveness, and a rare spark that has been missing from the pairs field for a few seasons.
What truly sets the two-time and current European champions apart from the rest of the field is the way that they present each element as if it were especially created for them. Each lift has a nuance that makes it special, and the entrances into jumps and the death spiral are difficult and pretty to watch. This year’s ‘Bollywood’ short program to Asoka is particularly interesting, and has been received well by the skating community all season.
Following closely on their heels are a pair of Chinese teams who should be strong threats to challenge the Germans, but neither team has demonstrated that they are ready to step up and win this year’s championship. Perhaps the most compelling challenge will come in the form of Four Continents champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong, who have been having an up-and-down season. After a Grand Prix season of shaky performances, the 28-year-olds pulled it together to deliver respectable performances in South Korea, besting their teammates Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang.
However, the former World champions are struggling to keep pace with the Germans, and will have to be perfect should they want to earn another championship.
“We will try for our best performance,” said Tong. “We have changed our short program elements around so that we can skate our best. We train with top skaters, and that gives us motivation to be better.”
Dan Zhang, 22, and Hao Zhang, 23, conversely opened the Grand Prix season in impressive fashion, winning both of their events with scores that could earn them their first world title. Along the way, the Four Continents silver medalists defeated both the Germans and Pang and Tong quite handily. At the Grand Prix Final, however, Zhang and Zhang showed signs of vulnerability and had to settle for silver behind Savchenko and Szolkowy.
“Since the Four Continents championships, I have not trained well,” said Dan Zhang. “I have an operation, but we will try to do our best.”
Editor’s Note: At press time, Dan Zhang was unavailable to comment further on her operation, but Golden Skate will try to learn more about the procedure.
Other contenders in this pairs field include Russian champions Yuko Kawaguchi (26) and Alexander Smirnov (23) and their teammates Maria Mukhortova (22) and Maxim Trankov (24). These teams have developed somewhat of a national rivalry of late, trading placements from event to event, and are always in the hunt for medals at the end of the day. Mukhortova and Trankov had the momentum of winning the silver medals at the recent European championships to Kawaguchi and Smirnov’s bronze, but the latter is improving with each competition and could surprise with a medal should they skate cleanly.
Outside of these teams, there are a few partnerships that should provide for some interesting battles among the top ten as well. Canadians Jessica Dubé, 20, and Bryce Davison, 22, had a great Grand Prix season, qualifying for their first final and just missing the podium at the event. At their own national championships, however, they struggled in the short program, but rallied to win the silver medals after a good freeskate.
“We want to finish in the top five,” Dubé said rather confidently.
Davison added, “We have put the mistakes from Canadians behind us, and we are practicing well. We believe that we are prepared and ready to compete.”
Ukrainians Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov are an exciting team who could skate well enough to be on the podium, but could also crash and burn to finish in the bottom half of the top ten. After finishing fourth at last year’s championships, this team had a difficult time on the Grand Prix circuit, failing to medal in both of their events. However, Volosozhar, 21, and Morozov, 29, recovered to finish in fourth place at January’s European championships, and will need to improve on that effort to have a hope of a medal in Göteborg.
Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, Jr. are virtually untested and lack the months of training that the other teams have completed, but somehow always find themselves in the hunt for a top ten finish. Teammates, Brooke Castille and Ben Okolski also have less training time under their belts this season, but recently won the bronze medals at the Four Continents championships with scores that should help them improve upon their 12th place finish from last year’s championships.
Canadian champions Annabelle Langlois and Cody Hay are coming off of a string of injuries that have also affected their training time. Langlois suffered a broken rib and battled kidney stones that hospitalized her directly before the Four Continents championships. Though they are training at full strength once again, Langlois explained that she was struggling with regaining her confidence on some of their elements.
“It’s been difficult to let my body relax as we go into the split twist,” admitted Langlois. “It hurts a little more when I tense up, so I just need to let go so that it is natural. It’s something that will get better with time.”
Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin have been strong all season, winning both the European title and the Grand Prix Final. These wins set the team up to be the favorites for their first World title with programs that have been receiving rave reviews from judges and fans alike. However, earlier last week, the team was forced to withdraw from the competition due to an injury to Shabalin’s left knee. It was unclear what the prognosis is for the injury at press time.
With Domnina and Shabalin withdrawing from the competition, U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto are left to battle French champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder for the title. Belbin and Agosto have shown a new side to their skating this season, taking time in the off-season to work on the basics to help improve their program component scores. With a western original dance that is the polar opposite of their Chopin free dance, this team makes a compelling case to win their first World Championship.
“We feel like this is the most prepared that we have ever been heading into any World Championships,” offered Belbin. “It is also the best year that we’ve felt as far as our overall package goes. We have, in our opinion, a great shot at challenging for the gold medal, and we look forward to capitalizing on all of our preparation this season.”
What Belbin, 23, and Agosto, 26, will need to do to make that happen is to increase the difficulty of their connecting moves between elements. Their lifts and footwork sequences are worthy of the title on their own merits, but they will have to be mistake free to actually make that dream become a reality.
Delobel, 29, and Schoenfelder, 30, have become perennial also-rans, but this could be the season for them to finally break through at the World championships. The European silver medalists have programs that might not only propel them to their first podium finish, but could also having them atop the leader board at the end of the competition.
“For this year of course we expect to be on the podium,” confessed Delobel. “It will be our first world medal, and the best will be to get the gold. And it’s possible this year!”
The French champions consistently skate inventive programs that are both entertaining and technical, but also have that trademark avante guard flair to them. This season is no different for the former European champs. Skating to music from The Piano soundtrack, Delobel and Schoenfelder worked diligently to incorporate sign language throughout the program much like the film’s lead character Ada McGrath.
“We worked on our whole program to become more clear on our steps,” Delobel said. “But the biggest work was to develop the sign language to be precise and explicit. To do that, we had to learn new signs to show the beauty of the language. We provide a paper to the judges so that they can understand what we are saying in our program.”
An interesting rivalry is developing among three teams who pose a threat for the bronze medals at this competition. Training mates Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White will face off against Russian champions Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski in a battle that will be talked about for years to come.
Virtue, 18, and Moir, 19, the newly crowned Canadian and Four Continents champions, seem to have the upper hand in this battle thus far, besting both teams in all of their meetings this season. Virtue and Moir show poise and remarkable technical prowess for such a young team, and could be the youngest team in 30 years to win a medal at the World championships.
Skating a romantic free dance to the music from the soundtrack Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Virtue and Moir perform this technical masterpiece with a maturity that belies their ages. Visually, the program is reminiscent of a scene from the movie Pleasantville, and entertains from start to finish. With clean performances, the former World Junior champions could add another medal to their trophy cases.
Davis, 21, and White, 20, had a slow start to their season, missing the Grand Prix Final, but came back to the U.S. championships with much improved programs and gave Belbin and Agosto a run for the title. Their Eleanor Rigby free dance is a passionate display of raw emotion that will draw the audience to the ice, while their Russian folk original dance is playful and somewhat corny. A mistake by Virtue and Moir could mean a medal for this team, but they will have to earn level four on all of their elements to stay in the hunt. Still, a top five finish for this young team would be a triumph of sorts, and could set them up to be medal threats by the Vancouver Olympics.
Khokhlova, 22, and Novitski, 26, are the artistes of the top group, creating beautiful shapes as they contort their bodies throughout their programs, but their attention to art has often sacrificed precision. The European bronze medalists will need to bring their fiery passion to the ice as usual, but will need to remember that clean skating is rewarded. Their free dance to A Night on Bald Mountain and In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt is particularly exciting to watch, and this team has the potential to bring the house down if they skate up to their abilities.
Other teams contending for top ten placements include the ever-entertaining Italian team of Federica Faiella, 27, and Massimo Scali, 28, who are slowly moving up the ranks. This season, the Italian champions have changed everything about their skating, including their training base, in the hopes of moving up in the standings. So far, they have been successful in achieving that goal, and this can be attributed to focusing on strengthening their basic skating. Though they are not a medal threat here, Faiella and Scali could definitely challenge in the future if they continue to improve.
Representing Great Britain, the brother-and-sister team of Sinead and John Kerr seem poised to be the first competitors from their country to crack the top ten since Steven Cousins did it back in 1998. The Kerrs approach their skating from a left-of-center point of view with a natural ability to pull the audience into their performances. This season, the British champions are struggling with skating clean, but if they pull it together, their free dance has the goods to be a showstopper.
U.S. bronze medalists Kimberly Navarro, 26, and Brent Bommentre, 23, are making their World championships debut, and should place in the 8-10 range, along with Canadian silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. Grand Prix Finalists Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France should round out the top ten.
The men’s field is chock full of skaters who could win a medal on any given day, but it is the Japanese men’s champion, Daisuke Takahashi, that has obliterated his competition thus far this season. Takahashi has won every competition that he has entered save the Grand Prix Final, where he placed second by less than a point behind Switzerland’s inspired Stephane Lambiel.
Takahashi has perhaps the best short program since Alexei Yagudin’s 2002 Olympic program that will forever be remembered for it’s passion and staccato footwork that has become commonplace in men’s skating today. Similarly, Takahashi’s ‘Techno Swan Lake’ program is a visual and technical masterpiece so far beyond any other skater’s capabilities, that he should take a big lead into the freeskate should he skate it like he has all season. Only Evgeni Plushenko has earned more points than Takahashi under Code of Points in a short program, and the Japanese phenom’s season best total is more than 25 points higher than any other skater’s total so far this season.
If Takahashi, who turned 22 today, skates close to his potential, he will leave a host of other men in his dust, including former World champion Lambiel, reining World champion Brian Joubert, and European champion Tomas Verner.
Lambiel struggled with the triple Axel early in the season, but it suddenly reappeared at the Grand Prix Final when he defeated Takahashi. Lambiel is the only other skater talented enough in both the technical and artistic sides of skating, and should be the only one to challenge Takahashi for the top spot on the podium. When the current European silver medalist is on, he is electrifying, and can bring the crowd to its feet at the drop of a hat. Lambiel’s the class of the field when it comes to spins and execution of choreography, but the 22-year-old must bring his A game if he wants to regain the world title.
Joubert has been struggling with health issues this season, withdrawing from his second Grand Prix event and eliminating his hopes of qualifying for the Final. At the European Championships, the 23-year-old appeared rusty, but was able to sneak in for the bronze medal.
The six-time French champion is not an artistic skater, so he must depend on his technical prowess to propel him to the podium. It has been Joubert’s goal all season to execute three quadruple jumps in his freeskate, and he might just need that to land on the podium.
“I plan to be completely ready for competition in Sweden,” said Joubert. “I wasn’t prepared for Europeans, but I have worked with Kurt Browning, and we have changed my programs around a lot to make them more comfortable for me.”
Two months ago, Verner became the first man from the Czech Republic to win a European title since Petr Barna who won back in 1992. As a result, he carries the weight of his nation on his shoulders at this upcoming World championship. After making a meteoric rise from 13th to 4th last season, Verner took a step back on the Grand Prix with a dismal performance at Trophée Eric Bompard in November.
However, the 21-year-old is a late-season skater who is proving to have nerves of steel when the pressure is on. Armed with a quadruple toe and two planned triple Axels in his freeskate, Verner has the technical weapons to get him to the podium. With a clean performance, he should easily win his first World championships medal.
Looking further down the line, there are several other skaters who could challenge for a medal. Canadian and Four Continents silver medalist Jeffrey Buttle has returned to the form that saw him win an Olympic bronze and World championships silver medal back in 2006. After losing his national title to the young upstart Patrick Chan, Buttle went home and trained his programs to be technically challenging and technically clean. Buttle will not attempt the quadruple in these championships, but instead will focus on completing everything with positive grades of execution.
“I’m going to this championships to show what I can do now,” said Buttle. “I might try some quads in practice, but I won’t include it in the programs. It’s just not ready. To try it and miss it could change the impact of the rest of the program, so I am going to try to do everything as cleanly as I possibly can. That has worked for me so far this season, and I think that it is a good approach to setting myself up for Vancouver 2010.”
Chan, skating in his first World championships at the tender age of 17, has set the skating world on fire this season. After winning a bronze medal at Skate America, Chan stunned everyone by winning the gold at Trophée Eric Bompard. However, Chan’s season best score is not in the same league as some of the top contenders, and he will have to land both of his triple Axels in his freeskate to have any hope of medaling here.
Interestingly, Skate Canada’s goal for Chan at this competition is “To have fun, and earn a total score of 240 points,” according to Chan. Given that his personal best is 214.94 points, the goal might be a tall order for the Canadian champion.
“I’m excited to be able to go to my first World championships,” said an excited Chan. “I am adding a second triple Axel to the freeskate which will be the first time for me. This is important in my development as a skater, and I think that trying it next season would be too late. So my goal is to skate as well as I can, and not concentrate on placement.”
USA’s Johnny Weir, fresh off his controversial silver medal winning performance at the U.S. championships, has demonstrated a new passion for competitive skating this season. Weir shows an intensity that has been absent in his skating in recent seasons, and seems to want to not only skate well but also win while doing it. An elegant performer with aesthetically beautiful jumps, the 23-year-old has everything he needs to challenge for the podium, and seems to be hungry enough to actually make a valiant charge for a medal.
“I can of course see myself as the world champion,” Weir said with his characteristic charm. “What’s the point of going to the competition if you don’t think you can win it?”
Van der Perren, Russian champion Sergei Voronov, and USA’s Steven Carriere have been skating well enough to place in the top 10 this season, but will need the help of several of the favorites and perfect performances to crack the top six.
U.S. champion Evan Lysacek withdrew earlier this week after his skate blade broke causing a fall that injured his left arm. “The blade broke at the weld,” the two-time and former World bronze medalist explained. “I’ve been through three blades in the past three days. Obviously, something isn’t right…I got a bunch of X-rays and, thankfully, nothing’s broken.”
Lysacek has been replaced by pewter medalist Jeremy Abbott who could play spoiler at this event if he skates the way he does in practices. The key to Abbott’s success here is the short program. If he can put himself in a good position at the end of the first day, the 22-year-old could pull up and stun the rest of the field with his high-scoring freeskate.
The ladies field is perhaps the strongest field in recent memory, and three of the world’s top skaters are still too young to compete in it. Even so, this competition will be a fight until the last note of music is played for the last competitor.
The favorites are Grand Prix Final champion Yu-Na Kim, Japanese champion Mao Asada, and reigning champion Miki Ando. Each of these ladies brings something new to skating, and are masters of the jumps in one form or another.
Kim has been the class of the field thus far this season, winning all of the events that she has entered, and earning the highest score of the season to date. Recently, however, the 17-year-old has been off the ice to allow her hip to heal from a repetitive injury that has plagued her for the last two seasons.
Since withdrawing from the Four Continents championships in her native South Korea, Kim has been slowly returning to her training regimen, and might not be prepared for this competition. The current Worlds bronze medalist is armed with a beautiful triple flip-triple toe loop combination that is usually money in the bank for her. If Kim can perform her jumps like she has earlier in the season, they, along with her relaxed skating style should lead her to her first World championship title.
Kim’s rival, Asada, has been inconsistent this season, but has come on like gangbusters since the Grand Prix Final. At her national championships and again at the Four Continents championships, Asada landed a clean triple Axel, but struggled on the landings of some of her other jumps. Asada, like Kim, has everything that she needs to win this competition, but recent changes in coaching and training location might wear down this emotionally fragile 17-year-old. Asada will have to skate without error, and even then, may end up settling for silver or bronze.
After winning last year’s title in her home country, Ando’s skating took a turn for the worse. Off-season injuries started to wear the Japanese skater down, and her Grand Prix season was a disappointment to say the least. Ando started to regroup at her national championships, but is still not in the form that carried her to the title last season. At the Four Continents championships, where she earned a bronze medal, the 20-year-old was seen landing clean quadruple Salchows on the practice ice that could help her to defend her title this week.
Teammate Yukari Nakano has had a great season thus far, but was left off the Four Continents championships team to allow another skater an opportunity to compete. Nakano has finished in fifth place at the last two consecutive World championships, and is looking to crack into the top three this season. The 22-year-old can also do the triple Axel, and is a lady among girls at the top of figure skating. As the third ranked skater from Japan, however, Nakano must be perfect and get help from other skaters if her dreams of winning a medal are to come true.
European champion and Grand Prix Final bronze medalist Carolina Kostner always seems to be near the top of the leader board in every competition she enters. However, the Italian champion’s technique is suspect, and she can be hot or cold in competition. In this very tight field, even one error could drop Kostner out of medal contention, and possibly out of the top ten. The 21-year-old can get sloppy, and will need to control her speed to get close to the podium.
Canadian champion Joannie Rochette could also challenge for a medal, but like most of the others mentioned before, could find herself fighting for a spot in the top ten with a mistake in the short program. After a promising silver medal winning performance at the Four Continents championships, the 22-year-old has thrown down the gauntlet and shown that she can compete with the best in the world. Rochette is an elegant and calm skater who uses her music to her advantage. At this competition, Rochette will attempt a triple flip-triple toe combination in the freeskate.
“I try not to compare myself to other skaters,” explained Rochette. “Having a triple-triple allows me to compete better with the top skaters, but I go to competitions to do my best. I want to skate my short program like I did at the Four Continents championships, and if I do, I think that I will have a good shot at competing for a medal.”
For the first time in many years, the United States does not have a medal threat among its ladies team, and will struggle to retain three spots for next year’s World championships in Los Angeles. Leading the way is the newly crowned bronze medalist Ashley Wagner, 16, who struggled to a disappointing 8th place finish at the Four Continents championships last month. After skating brilliantly at her national championships, Wagner received multiple deductions on her jumps in South Korea, and has to be concerned that the same could happen in Göteborg.
Former World champion Kimmie Meissner has been plagued with a lack of confidence that began at the Grand Prix Final and carried over to her disappointing seventh place finish at the U.S. championships. Meissner looked rough in a recent exhibition at her home rink in Delaware, and has since changed training locations. The Skate America champion is now working with Richard Callahan, who is known for getting the best out of his skaters, which could bode well for Meissner and the American team. Meissner is hardly a medal threat here, but a good placement would take the pressure off teammates Wagner and Bebe Liang who are both making their World championships debut.