The Pairs Scramble
Like the Men’s event, the state of play among the world’s top pair teams also shows no clear favorite to dominate in Helsinki. The elite six in the world have been swapping victories, and each team’s season’s best free skate scores, for example, fall within a mere eight-point range of each other. The competition at the top is tight and mistakes will be costly in this very deep field.
A slight edge may go to the young Russian pair Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov for their sturdy victories at the Grand Prix Final and European Championships. They’ve been gaining momentum all season and even broke the 80-point barrier in the short program in Ostrava, which few other teams have accomplished this season. In comparison to the others, their unison, polish, speed, and power are obvious, even if set to programs that some might find dated and campy. The occasional quadruple twist this season has helped them keep pace with the other pairs who are pushing the technical envelope. With two clean programs, it’s hard to imagine this team off the podium.
The Chinese pair of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han have missed most of this season due to recovery from surgery to both of her feet, but burst back onto the scene at the Four Continents Championships in grand style. They won the event with a personal best combined score and emotive free skate choreographed by Lori Nichol. The second side-by-side jumps in the long program continue to be their nemesis, but with clean performances and their show-stopping performance quality, the two-time World silver medalists could finally reach the top of the podium.
Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot (GER) started the season like gangbusters with throw triple Axel and quadruple Salchow attempts before being sidelined by a torn ligament to Savchenko’s right ankle. The 2016 World bronze medalists reappeared at the 2017 European Championships in stellar fashion, winning the silver medal with the highest free skate score of the season (148.59). The German-French duo’s personality-driven short program and soulful free skate are distinct, impressive, and have been getting rave reviews all season. With a split triple twist that’ll make the audience gasp, effortless lifts, and finesse and polish by Savchenko that is unmatched, this team has all of the ingredients to become World and Olympic champions.
Two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada have endured another unreliable season in comparison to their impressive sweep of victories in the post-Olympic season. While taking steps forward this year artistically, they’ve struggled with their technical content throughout the season. Whether the team, known more for its tricks (such as the throw quadruple Salchow) than its finesse, can three-peat remains to be seen. Their title defense at the 2016 World Championships, however, shows this team’s resolve cannot be overlooked. They are fierce competitors and have proven many times that one would be foolish to count them out.
Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov from Russia were also sidelined for the beginning of the season due to Ksenia’s ankle injury. The 2014 Olympic silver medalists made their season debut at the Russian National championships and squeaked out the gold medal by less than a point ahead of their younger compatriots, Tarasova and Morozov. Though their programs lack mileage this season, the team’s effortless speed and spellbinding choreography have impressed fans around the world. If they can combine those mesmerizing qualities with the technical conviction they demonstrated at the 2014 Olympic Games and the 2015 Grand Prix Final, they’ll be medal contenders and could even win the gold.
France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès are this season’s most improved pairs team. After years of finishing off the podium at the European Championships and rounding out the top ten at the World Championships, they moved to Florida to train with former pairs skater John Zimmerman this past summer. After a disappointing season debut at Skate America and respectable Trophee de France finish, the team aligned their star quality and hit the jackpot at the European Championships, winning the bronze medal with personal best scores in every category. The team’s confidence and precision was unrecognizable. If they can ride this wave of momentum and even master the throw quadruple Salchow they keep attempting, the top teams will have need for concern. They bring a fresh, modern, sexy approach to pairs skating and will be looking to repeat their performances from Europeans in Helsinki.
Other teams to watch include Canada’s Liubov Ilyushechkina/Dylan Moscovitch and Julianne Séguin/Charlie Bilodeau, China’s Xiaoyu Yu/Hao Zhang, Russia’s Natalia Zabijako and Alexander Enbert, Italians Valentina Marchei and Ondřej Hotárek, and Americans Alexa Scimeca-Kneirim and Chris Kneirim.