At first glance, the pairs competition could prove to be somewhat lackluster in comparison to the drama and intrigue displayed last month in Vancouver at the Olympic Games. The newly crowned Olympic Champions, China’s Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, announced after the competition that they had closed the door on their eligible career, seemingly leaving their pairs field in Torino without any star power.
“I want to tell all the people that care about us that we won’t take part in any competition from now on,” Shen announced to reporters at a celebration after their win. “We want to say thank you to all the people that are always support us – team officials, doctors and our teammates. Our coach Yao Bin is the one we even don’t know how to express our gratitude to.”
Though the competition may have been dealt a blow with their announcement, Shen and Zhao’s teammates Qing Pang and Jian Tong may be the eager understudies. Silver medals behind Shen and Zhao in Vancouver and at the Grand Prix Final in December were the only losses of the season for the 2006 World Champions.
Pang and Tong have experienced somewhat of a renaissance in their skating this season, after a few years of falling short on the world level. This season four-time Four Continents Champions have skated with a renewed technical prowess and consistency that has allowed the off-ice couple to express themselves with a fiery passion on the ice. Their skating is so much improved that they won the freeskate in Vancouver, and nearly overtook their teammates for the top spot on the podium.
“Our performance for the long program was a kind of surprise for ourselves,” Tong admitted. “So it will be real difficult to try to top it. However, as a top skater, you always have to try your best. Therefore, we will also definitely try our best at the World Championships.”
Pang and Tong realize that the road to winning a second World Championships title will be a tough one, having just a couple of weeks of full training to prepare for Torino.
“It will be really difficult to win the gold at the World Championships this year,” Pang explained. “The competition would be really intense as the standard of the top skaters such as the Russian pair and the German pair are all really strong. Again we will try our best. The past season has been the best for us in term of our training and our personal condition. So we will keep our best condition and make this event a memorable one.”
Tong added, “We have only been training intensively after the Olympics for half a month. The preparation has been good so far and we sincerely hope this will be a perfect World Championships for us as this probably will be our last World Championships.
Pang and Tong will face formidable competition from Germany’s Aljona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy and Russia’s Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov.
Savchenko and Szolkowy, the two time and reigning World Champions head to Torino as a bruised and battered team in terms of mental toughness. This season has been a disappointment almost from the start for the German champions, and they may be lacking in confidence as they try to defend their title.
The negativity around the two-time World Champions might be too much for them to overcome, but the fact remains that Savchenko and Szolkowy are one of the most brilliant pairs teams to compete in recent years. The formula for repeat success for this is simple in theory, but a massive undertaking- Skate the way that they have skated up until this season. With performances similar to most any of their competitions in the two previous seasons might just be enough to take home a third Championships title.
Kavaguti and Smirnov might be the hungriest of all of the teams competing in Torino, finishing in the dreaded fourth place in Vancouver after a medal a big win at the European Championships in January. In being so ambitious, Kavaguti oftentimes skates as if she is trying too hard to win medals, and this causes her to make mistakes.
In Torino the Russian champions need to go for the big tricks that earn them high scores, including a throw quadruple salchow that Kavaguti has been itching to land since omitting it from the Olympics. Two mostly clean programs should earn Kavaguti and Smirnov a second World Championships medal, and they could win it all with perfect performances.
Another Chinese team, Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang could also be in the hunt for another medal in Torino. This season, however, the 2006 Olympic silver medalists are but a shade of their former selves. As recently as last season when they won the World silver medal, Zhang and Zhang looked as if they were poised to finally break through with a big win internationally. But this season has been nothing but sloppy performances minus a win at the Four Continents Championships in January.
Since the Olympic Games where they finished in a disappointing fifth place, Zhang and Zhang have been reported as ‘not being in a good mood’, and refused requests for an interview. In Torino the three time World silver medalists will have to put that disappointment behind them in order to have a shot at the podium. Anything else could cause them to finish without a medal for just the second time in six seasons.
Canada sends two strong teams to Torino, and will look to earn placements that will give their country three spots to next year’s championships. Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison have proven in the past that they are contenders for medals on the world level, winning the bronze in 2008. But like several of the other top teams, the Canadian champions have struggled this season to regain their top form.
“Since we didn’t have our best skate in Vancouver we wanted to finish the season off on a good note,” Davison explained. “We want to show what we can do.”
But since the Olympic Games, Dubé and Davison feel re-energized, and are prepared to reestablish themselves as one of the world’s best.
“We definitely are getting our energy back,” Davison said of their recent training. “Obviously we prepared to peak for the Olympic Games, and that is why we do so much preparation before the season begins so that we can peak at the right times. We are going for the podium in Torino.”
The Canadian silver medalists, Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay are optimistic about how their partnership is progressing, and hope to make a move in Torino that would propel them into the spotlight.
“In Torino we want to build off of our Olympic performances,” Hay said recently. “We had two strong skates in Vancouver, and we feel we can take them up another notch and hopefully push our way into the top five. But our eyes are always on the podium.”
Langlois and Hay admit that training for the World Championships has been somewhat rushed for them, but believe that they are ready for the challenge.
“It feels like it has been a quick turnaround from the Olympics, and the way we have been preparing for Worlds has been a little bit different,” Langlois said. “But we are definitely going to be ready in Torino, we have a great team of people around us, that are making sure we are where we need to be.”
Russia’s Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov head to Torino after finishing in seventh in Vancouver for what could be their final competition as a team. Internet rumors have Trankov forsaking this partnership to skate with the Ukraine’s Tatiana Volosozhar, who is ending her on-ice partnership with boyfriend Stanislav Morozov. Volosozhar is said to be skipping this championships in order to be eligible to skate at next year’s World Championships under s different nation’s flag. Sitting out this World Championship’s would allow Volosozhar to meet International Skating Union rules for pairs skaters changing national affiliations.
Americans Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett are looking for redemption in Torino after a disappointing thirteenth place finish in Vancouver. The US Champions have gone right back to the grindstone in order to launch a successful campaign in their second World Championships.
“Since returning from Olympics we have been back to our normal training schedule,” Barrett said. “Its been a little tough coming off such a big competition like the Olympics and having to jump right back into training, but we have been doing a good job. Before Vancouver I had an injury that prevented me from training very much, but this time we are both healthy and looking forward to skating well.”
A top ten finish is not out of the picture for Denney and Barrett, who finished in ninth place in their debut last season. Along with teammates, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, the duo hopes to place high enough to earn three spots for next year’s World Championships.