The pairs will be the first skaters competing in Vancouver, skating their short programs just two days after the Opening Ceremonies on Valentine’s Day. The table has been set for a delicious entrée of favorites who have the potential to satisfy every craving an observer might have, and the competition even comes with a collection of second-tier teams that offer a sweet dessert for the skating aficionado.
The top contenders include the sentimental global favorites, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao from China, who tug at the heartstrings with stirring performances that somehow transcend the boundaries of figure skating. The married duo will be competing in their fourth Olympic Games, and have three world titles to go with their two Olympic bronze medals.
“We have been training very, very hard this season and putting lots of efforts into improving our programs for the Olympic Games,” Shen admitted recently. “We hope all of our hard work will eventually pay off.”
Shen and Zhao have been competing on the world level since the 1994 World Championships, and will use that depth of experience to propel themselves in contention for another Olympic Medal. Somehow their short program, skated to an instrumental version of Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever, might tell the story of their longevity in this sport that often sees retirements before the age of thirty. At 31 and 36 respectively, Shen and Zhao are the oldest team competing in Vancouver.
“As long as we have performed our best at the Games we will be happy,” Zhao said of their reason for the comeback this season. “The purpose is to show our fans and the world that we have made it again to the Olympics and we have not let everyone down.”
Shen and Zhao will face stiff competition from the two time and reigning World Champions Aljona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy from Germany. The 2008-09 European Champions have hit a streak of bad luck this season so far, and have struggled to maintain their momentum heading into Vancouver.
In Tallinn last month Savchenko and Szolkowy gave up their European title, finishing with the silver medal behind Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov of Russia. At the time, however, Savchenko was recovering from an infection that not only cost the team training time leading into the competition, but also left the usually strong skater looking lethargic and vulnerable.
The Germans will have to look past their misfortunes and focus on what they do well to challenge for the title in Vancouver. Savchenko and Szolkowy should be in the hunt after the short program, but the World Champs must skate with confidence and their trademark power in the freeskate in order to stand atop the podium.
Kavaguti and Smirnov suddenly erupted as serious challengers for the Olympic title with questionable scoring at the European Championships. The Russian champions are credible skaters, but it is puzzling how their component scores increased so dramatically from the Grand Prix Final to the European Championships in comparison to those of the World Champions. Kavaguti and Smirnov just are not on the same plane as Shen and Zhao and Savchenko and Szolkowy, and will have to step up to challenge for the title.
Kavaguti and Smirnov have some difficult tricks up their sleeves, and will undoubtedly unleash all of them in Vancouver. To win, the European Champions will have to be mistake free throughout the competition and include the throw quadruple in the freeskate.
Should any of these teams make mistakes, there are several pairings who could sweep in and snatch a medal from the favorites. The other Chinese teams- Qing Pang and Jian Tong and reigning Olympic silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang are the most poised to pull an upset.
Pang and Tong have been on the verge of something special since struggling with up and down competitions the last couple of seasons. This year, the 2006 World Champions look comfortable in their skating skin, and are once again skating with the technical prowess that they had in the prime of their career.
Zhang and Zhang have been all over the map this season, and as a result, have lost the momentum that being a reigning Olympics medalist usually brings. On the Grand Prix circuit, Zhang and Zhang had their worst finish in six seasons and earned the last qualification spot for the Final where they finished in sixth place. Last month, however, Zhang and Zhang started showing signs of life, and captured their second title in six years.
Zhang and Zhang’s only hope of a repeat trip to the Olympic podium in Vancouver lies in the tiny hands of Dan Zhang. The 24 year old has seemed disinterested in skating this season, and will have to fully commit to perform her best should they hope to have a shot at a medal. Hao Zhang has always been the spark in this partnership, and he will need to motivate his partner to skate up to his level in Vancouver to challenge the favorites.
Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov have been on the brink of a major breakthrough all season, and could shock everyone with a medal in Vancouver. The European bronze medalists are perhaps the most elegant of all of the top teams, and skate with the same qualities of many of the Russian greats. The potential to be a world-class team is there; both skaters just need to believe that they can make the leap from also-rans to contenders.
The key to Mukhortova and Trankov’s success in Vancouver is their ability to handle the stress of a four and a half minute freeskate. Neither skater has shown great endurance or competitive nerve in a long program, even in clean performances. Sadly, Mukhortova and Trankov are as likely to make three mistakes in their Love Story program as they are to skate clean.
Canadians Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison might have the home field advantage, but they don’t exude the same confidence of many of the other contenders. Off-ice personal issues have been known to creep into the Canadian champions’ performances, but they seem to have overcome that season. The pressure of expectation could prove to be too much for Dubé and Davison to handle, and a top finish is something that will only happen if they are pitch perfect from start to finish.
Ukrainians Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov are always fun to watch and could make the final group of skaters for the freeskate if Morozov lands his solo jump in the short program. American champs Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett will not be in contention for a medal in Vancouver, but the duo will electrify the arena with their no nonsense style and technical mastery.