Pairs Season Preview 2021

It’s hard to believe that another Olympic season is here already. Thanks to covid-19, the last four years have been unlike any other quad in figure skating. The sport saw the unprecedented cancellation of the 2020 ISU World Championships at the start of the pandemic, then a truncated 2020-21 season that ended in a World Championships without an audience (Stockholm 2021).

Now, 20 months after covid-19 first impacted figure skating, the sport is trying to get itself back on track with what will hopefully be its first complete season since 2018-19. That’s right; we have had only 1 complete season of figure skating since Pyeongchang. No wonder this Olympics feels too soon, in some ways. 

What does it all mean for the pairs discipline, as the athletes look toward Beijing? The landscape of pairs has changed substantially since 2018. There are different faces at the top; different elements being performed, in many cases; and different types of programs, with the new shorter timeframe of the free skate. A lot has changed. Let’s take a look at where pairs skating stands now, with less than 4 months remaining until the 2022 Olympic Games.

Russia

One of the most significant changes of this quad is the increasing dominance of Russian pairs. During the last two decades (2000-2020), Russian pairs were consistently among the top teams in the world, with three Russian pairs winning Olympic gold during that era (2002, 2006, 2014). There was also a Russian pair on the podium at Worlds most years. However, non-Russian teams such as Shen/Zhao, Pang/Tong, Sui/Han, Aljona Savchenko and her partners, Sale/Pelletier, and Duhamel/Radford took home many of the top prizes in the first two decades of the 2000s.

But, in January 2017, I wrote about a new and particularly talented generation of Russian junior pairs merging on the international scene. These young Russians caught my eye at that time because their technical elements were exceptionally strong, and their skating skills and overall package often just as good. The completeness of their skill set was unusual at the junior level. Also, there wasn’t just one star junior team; there was a whole crop of them. I speculated that they might be the start of a new golden age in Russian pairs skating.

Flash forward four years, and that age is upon us. From 2018-2020, Russian junior pairs swept the pairs podium at every Junior Worlds, and look set to repeat this year. The dominance is transferring to seniors as well. The juniors of 2017-18 are seniors now. One of them, Anastasia Mishina, won the World Championships last year with her partner Alexander Galliamov. They were the first pairs team to win senior Worlds on their first try since all-time greats Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov did it in 1986. And their compatriots Alexandra Boikova and Dmitri Kozlovskii weren’t far behind, taking bronze. Tarasova/Morozov were 4th. Russian pairs couldn’t have asked for a better setup for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Looking toward Beijing, all three top Russian teams are contenders for Olympic gold.

Anastasia Mishina/Aleksander Galliamov lead the way as reigning World champions. Many factors fueled this team’s meteoric rise over the past two seasons. Most important, in my mind, is Mishina’s jumping ability. Not only is Mishina one of the most consistent women jumpers I’ve ever seen in pairs skating, her jumps are high-quality as well, with good height and typically smooth runouts. As a result, Mishina/Galliamov are one of the first pairs teams to consistently land a side-by-side triple/triple combination in international competition. The side-by-side triple Salchow/euler/triple Salchow combo sets this team apart from their competitors, none of whom have yet integrated a consistent triple/triple in their long programs. This is a major reason why Mishina, 20, and Galliamov, 22, became World champions at such a young age. The team backs up their jumping prowess with impactful lifts featuring vertically-oriented positions that emphasize their height and power as a team. Add in some cleverly chosen programs, and you had the recipe for a World title.

Mishina/Galliamov: Reigning World champions

Now, the question is whether Mishina/Galliamov can repeat as Olympic and/or World champions. The duo got off to an excellent start this season at the Russian test skates and at Finlandia Trophy. Technically, M/G look as strong as last season (although Mishina had a rare fall in the short program at Finlandia). The team has opted to keep their very successful Esmeralda SP from last season. Intended as an amusing satire of traditional ballet skating, the program encourages Mishina and Galliamov to perform very outwardly to judges and viewers. This season, they have added even more flourishes and interpretation points, particularly for Galliamov. The downside of keeping Esmeralda is that the program did become very familiar by the end of last season. And sometimes, perk doesn’t wear well. 

For their long program, Mishina/Galliamov have chosen music by a composer famous in Russia, Georgy Sviridov. Their specific cuts, “Snowstorm” and a piece from Time, Forward!, are both associated with Russian movies (and the latter piece also with Russian news broadcasts). What’s interesting about the music selection is that, while Russian audiences may understand the connection between the two pieces, other audiences won’t. And they are quite different. “Snowstorm” is a lyrical waltz (used to good effect a few years ago by fellow Russian pair Zabijako/Enbert), while Time, Forward! is more like a march. Does this music work for Mishina/Galliamov? To me, the Time, Forward! section is a better fit for this team’s naturally big, powerful style. Watching the program at Finlandia, I felt that Mishina/Galliamov did not shine in “Snowstorm” in the same way that the more naturally elegant Zabijako/Enbert did. My first instinct is that it doesn’t really feel like an “Olympic moment” kind of program. However, if M/G skate it cleanly and with the technical content that they showed in Finlandia, it will score extremely well regardless.

Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitrii Kozlovskii, reigning World bronze medalists and Mishina/Galliamov’s training mates/rivals, have gone in a different direction. After experimenting with a more subdued short program last year to Captivating Star of Happiness, Boikova/Kozlovskii return this year to their sweet spot, which is big, dramatic music with lots of melodic climaxes. B/K are going with not one, but two, classic warhorses: Swan Lake for the short program and Malaguena for the free skate. 

The duo debuted their programs at the Russian test skates. Chasing their teammates, B/K have added the triple Salchow/euler/triple Salchow combo to their long program this year. But at the test skates, Boikova doubled the first jump of the combo and also struggled with throw jump landings. Will these routines help B/K get back on top of the standings? I’m not sure. The programs, at this stage, feel a bit by the numbers. There is aggressive skating and drama, but nothing particularly new or fresh is brought to these well-worn pieces. The unison and connection between Boikova/Kozlovskii seemed just a bit off at the test skates; they looked better in practice today at Skate America. If B/K are in their top form and skating clean, I’m sure either piece will have enough impact for a win.

Tarasova/Morozov: Still very much a factor

Evgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov got a head start on their fall season with a surprise appearance at Cranberry Cup in August in Norwood, MA. I have no idea why T/M decided to travel all the way to the U.S. for this event … but I sure am glad they did! Since I live in the Boston area, I was able to attend and see Tarasova/Morozov skate in person for the first time since 2016 Worlds in Boston. What a treat and experience! I’ve always been impressed by T/M’s speed and power whenever I’ve seen them live. This time, I could also see how much they’ve grown and improved in their unison, polish, and artistry. 

Tarasova/Morozov debuted their “Clair de Lune” short program and “Lighthouse” free skate at Cranberry. Both programs shone, but “Lighthouse” particularly so, as it was one of the cleanest and best free skates they’ve delivered in recent years. Their free skate score of 151.66 was also one of their highest international scores–an encouraging sign. 

Although it was only a senior B event, I felt that the Cranberry Cup performances were good enough to re-establish Tarasova/Morozov as legitimate OGM contenders. They showed what this team is capable of, if they can just skate clean. Tarasova/Morozov don’t have the SBS 3S/eu/3S combo … but they do have all the other elements. And if they hit, their quality level, GOE, and PCS ceiling is, in my opinion, higher than that of the other top Russians.

Particularly after seeing them live, I feel like not enough has been said about what a beautiful skater Evgenia Tarasova really is. In the world of top pairs ladies, Tarasova has always been a quiet beauty, never one of the fiery, charismatic divas that pairs fans love. But Tarasova truly is exceptional. There is no one else in pairs skating now who has quite the same purity of line, elegance in arm movements, first-class posture, beautifully defined lift positions, and flourishes on landings that she does. Tarasova does not call attention to herself; she appears content as part of a duo, never trying to outshine her partner. But she is truly exceptional and effortlessly lifts this team’s artistry. For his part, Vladimir Morozov has grown and improved significantly in the past few seasons. His expression and line are a fine match with his partner’s; and his lifts are, this season, the best they’ve ever been in my opinion, with improved speed and transitions. Tarasova/Morozov show superior quality in many aspects of their performances: They often skate closer together than other teams, have better unison, more difficult entries and exits to elements, and bigger throw jumps. 

After Cranberry Cup, Tarasova/Morozov changed their short program music from “Clair de Lune” to “Experience.” Aside from the closing and opening poses, not much else seemed to shift within the program itself, which includes some lovely transitions. This program, if not perhaps quite as exciting as T/M’s Rachmaninov no. 2 or Bolero, is still very good and quite suitable for the Olympic season.

“Lighthouse” was a surprise music choice for Tarasova/Morozov because it was introduced to skating, and is therefore closely identified with, former rivals Aljona Savchenko/Bruno Massot. The saving grace is that Tarasova/Morozov’s “Lighthouse” is quite different from Savchenko/Massot’s and doesn’t really recall the other program at all, aside from the music itself. It is one of Tarasova/Morozov’s best free skates and–if not completely original in inspiration–still a lovely and moving routine that works very well for them. Of all the pairs programs I’ve seen so far this year, “Lighthouse” feels the most like an Olympic gold-medal-winning program. 

In addition to the top three Russian teams, Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin could also be contenders for the Olympic team. P/K got a late start to their season due to health problems, but are certainly a capable team technically and will look to capitalize should any of the top three Russian pairs falter. Pavliuchenko/Khodykin recently debuted their new short program to “Be Italian” from Nine, in which they performed a triple twist with an impressive flipping exit, an innovative move that I can’t recall seeing before. Choreographed by former Russian ice dancer (and Khodykin’s wife) Betina Pavlova, the effervescent “Be Italian” program is very fun; yet, to me, not a natural fit for Pavliuchenko’s fierce presence. Khodykin looked more comfortable and outgoing in his expression of the piece. But it will be interesting to see how this program grows, and what P/K’s Black Swan long program is like. 

Apolinariia Panfilova/Dmitry Rylov, who were fifth at Russian Nationals last year, have unfortunately been sidelined this season by surgery for Rylov, which involved a long recuperation period. 

Artemeva/Nazarychev: First senior season (Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

Iuliaa Artemeva/Mikhail Nazarychev, who have just moved up to seniors internationally, looked fairly good in their early-season appearances. This team has some interesting qualities to work with–Artemeva has soft knees and good flow, while Nazarychev is quite expressive for a male partner and also has excellent lift footwork. It should be interesting to see how they develop (hopefully becoming more consistent with jumps). Like several other young Russian teams, they are following Mishina/Galliamov’s lead by attempting a more difficult jump combo–in their case, SBS 2A/eu/3S.

Alina Pepeleva/Roman Pleshkov are a young team who, like Artemeva/Nazarychev, have two Grand Prix slots this year. I had the opportunity to see them skate at the John Nicks Pairs Challenge in New York City in early September and found them lovely to watch, with old-school classical programs and beautiful lines. They are, however, rather lacking in deep edges and power, which will likely affect their placements internationally.

Rounding out the Russian senior pairs are two notable teams who have, as yet, barely been seen outside Russia, due to the pandemic and depth of Russian pairs. Iasmina Kadyrova/Ivan Balchenko are in their second season and are known for their jump difficulty. Like Pavliuchenko/Khodykin, they perform side-by-side triple flips and will also attempt the SBS 3S/eu/3S combo. Kadyrova/Balchenko are still growing artistically, but skate with a lot of speed. They will make their Grand Prix debut at Rostelecom (the last GP event) and will also skate at Warsaw Cup. 

Akopova/Rakhmanin: Making a name for themselves

Karina Akopova/Nikita Rakhmanin are another second-year team who impressed at the Russian test skates and elsewhere. Coached by 2014 Olympic pairs silver medalist Fedor Klimov, this team has some terrific elements, with great height on their throws and twist. They also skate with nice speed and have enjoyably quirky programs. In another country, they could conceivably be contenders for a national title. But with the stacked depth in Russia, they only just made their international debut last weekend at Budapest Trophy, which they won. 

Which brings me to my next point …. The depth in Russian pairs skating is now such that Russia is exporting pairs talent all over Europe and beyond, from the Netherlands to Georgia to Australia. And although it’s wonderful to see such exciting talents coming up in Russia (and we haven’t even gotten into the junior teams!), the fact is that the rest of the world is struggling to keep up at this point. This year, only 23 junior pairs teams appear to have competed on the ISU Junior Grand Prix circuit. Of these, seven were Russian teams (30% of total). Time for the ISU to run some more pairs seminars?? 

In principle, it’s not ideal to have such an imbalance in a discipline. A unique set of circumstances have, perhaps, helped lead to this situation: 

  • First and foremost, the long and glorious history of pairs skating in Russia (and figure skating generally), with great accumulated coaching expertise 
  • An apparent explosion of interest in the sport following the golden years of Yagudin, Plushenko, and Slutskaya and the great success of Russian figure skaters in the 2014 Sochi Games
  • The existence of a popular and financially viable professional skating show market in Russia
  • A longstanding general interest in, and cultural appreciation for, classical performing arts in Russia
  • And–not least–state-sponsored financial support at a level that is believed to be significantly greater than other nations

Such a confluence of factors is unlikely to appear in any other nation in the foreseeable future. So for the time being, it seems, pairs skating may continue to follow Russia’s lead.

China

The story of Chinese pairs is familiar to most skating fans: Pairs skating basically didn’t exist in the country until the 1980s, when Yin Bao/Bo Luan became the first Chinese pair to skate at the World Championships and Olympics. Yin Bao then became a coach and built a dynasty of great Chinese pairs.

Unfortunately, that golden period in Chinese pairs skating seems to be coming to a rapid end. Only Sui/Han and Peng/Jin remain now as top-level Chinese pairs, and there are no clear successors in sight. China did not send a third pairs team to last year’s Worlds, and therefore did not automatically qualify the full quota of pairs for their own Beijing Games. A late attempt to qualify a third pair at Nebelhorn failed. 

Below Sui/Han and Peng/Jin, the next level of Chinese pairs has, for the past 5 years or so, been a shifting landscape of teams coming together, splitting up, and subsequently disappearing, often without ever competing internationally. Even teams that do compete internationally may not stay together past that season. This year, no Chinese junior pairs even competed in the Junior Grand Prix. All in all, the future doesn’t look bright for Chinese pairs. But, at least they still have their current stars.

Sui/Han: Never count them out (Xinhua)

Reigning Olympic silver medalists Wenjing Sui/Cong Han have dealt with a series of injuries and pandemic restrictions since Pyeongchang, but still managed to win 2019 Worlds and place second at 2021 Worlds. The veteran duo hopes to cap their career with Olympic gold in Beijing. Will it happen? From my personal viewpoint, I’d say they have even odds. I think they’ll need their best performances–and perhaps some mistakes from others–to win next February.  But I will never bet against Sui/Han, because they are some of the best competitors I’ve ever seen in this sport. They know how to compete, and they can do it, reliably, when the stakes are high.

Our first glimpse of the two-time World champions came last week at Asian Open. Their new short program, set to flamenco-type music from Mission Impossible, seems like a sound choice–good music that’s a bit sharp and dramatic. Sui/Han looked comfortable skating to it, and I think this should be a solid vehicle for them. 

Their long program is set to “Bridge over Troubled Water,” the same music they used to win their first World title in 2017. This year’s program is substantially different, however. It’s 30 seconds shorter; they’re using a different version of the song to open; most of the choreography and transitions are new; and the final lift is also a bit different. All in all, I would consider this free skate to be closer to a new program than a retread. At first glance, I liked the original more … but the new version is good, too. It’s hard to compare fairly, because the new program has only been seen on fancam-type video, with no facial expressions visible, and at the beginning of their season. Whereas we remember the 2017 program from end-of-the-season videos, when Sui/Han were in top condition and perfectly filmed. My initial feeling is that this can be a good and successful free skate for Sui/Han if they perform it to the best of their abilities. 

At Asian Open, Sui/Han’s elements and basic skating looked good, but not in top form yet (particularly the lifts). This actually doesn’t worry me too much. Sui/Han have historically been a team that really does improve throughout the season. With some pairs, what you see in October is not that far off from what you see in February. Not so with Sui/Han. At least twice, I’ve seen them live earlier in the season (2015, 2019) looking somewhat ragged with their elements, and   both times, they were spectacular at Worlds. So there’s a good chance that this year may be similar. It was also encouraging to see Wenjing Sui land a good triple Salchow in their long program at Asian Open. The triple Salchow really is the key for this team. If they can get that jump more consistent, they can probably contend for Olympic gold. Without it, they have to hope for mistakes from others.

Peng/Jin: More beautiful every year (Xinhua/Wang Lili)

Every year, Cheng Peng/Yang Jin seem to grow in their artistry and sophistication. This season is no exception; their new programs are both exquisite. They have such a lovely, light style and, at times, almost a slightly mystical or mesmerizing quality to their skating. They are unusual, and different, and I truly value what they’ve brought to pairs, both in their time together and their previous partnerships.

Competitively and technically, though, Peng/Jin have been at a standstill during this quad. They are always among the top teams in whatever competition they skate in, and they have placed 4th and 5th at the last two Worlds. Yet they seem unable to break out and claim the top prizes. This is due to two factors: 1) They still do not have a viable second triple (usually doubling their planned triple Salchow in the free skate), and 2) They lack the edge quality and attack of Sui/Han or the top Russian teams. They have fine speed over the ice, but they float and glide rather than dig into the ice firmly. Competitively, Peng/Jin need something more to help them break from the pack and move to the top of podiums. 

Canada

With three World titles in the post-2000 era, Canada is traditionally another big power in pairs skating. Following the retirement of Duhamel/Radford after 2018, Canadian pairs skating has been essentially treading water during this quad. Canadian pairs are successful on the senior level, and have regularly qualified two teams for Worlds. However, getting a third spot or winning a medal at Worlds has proved elusive, and there have been some major disappointments, particularly the end of two high-profile Charlie Bilodeau partnerships (Julianne Seguin, Lyubov Iliushechkina) and the breakup of once-promising team Justine Brasseur/Mark Bardei. 

The stasis in Canadian pairs was broken this spring with the unexpected and controversial news that Eric Radford was coming out of retirement and teaming up not with longtime partner Meagan Duhamel, but with former French pairs champion (and Canadian citizen) Vanessa James. The announcement was not met with universal approval from fans or other Canadian pairs skaters–including Duhamel–due to some of the circumstances around the new partnership (too complicated to get into here).

Moore-Towers/Marinaro: Bringing content and artistry

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro have been Canada’s pairs mainstay during this quad, winning a raft of Grand Prix and Four Continents medals and placing top 7 at both 2019 and 2021 Worlds. MT/M have brought a consistently high performance and artistic level to their programs, and shown competitive jumping ability and many strong pairs elements. MT/M’s main weak point is their triple twist, which is not at the same quality standard as most other top teams. Still, Moore-Towers/Marinaro’s trajectory was generally on an upswing until the cancellation of 2020 Worlds in Montreal, where they had a real (if perhaps outside) shot to medal, based on their performances that season. The Worlds cancellation was a blow, and MT/M have also dealt with injuries and a bit of career ennui. After a year away from competition, MT/M produced just a 10th-place short program this spring at Worlds, but rallied in the free skate to secure a second spot for Canada.

MT/M opened their Olympic season last month at Finlandia Trophy. Unfortunately, it was not a great competition, as they struggled with many elements. MT/M’s eighth-place finish was their lowest result in an international event since 2015 …so I tend to look at this as an anomaly. I expect to see better results in MT/M’s Grand Prix events because they’re a strong team with a good baseline of quality in their skating.

For their long program this season, MT/M chose to go back to their “Carry You” free skate from 2019-20, because they felt it was one of their strongest programs, and they didn’t get the chance to show it to its full potential at 2020 Worlds. They also considered going back to their “The Blower’s Daughter” free skate, but had a personal preference for “Carry You.” This program was well-received by both judges and audiences in 2019-20 (although not one of my personal favorites from MT/M), so it’s probably a sound decision, particularly as Moore-Tower/Marinaro feel inspired by the music.

Since Finlandia Trophy, the duo have completely revamped their short program to “Hold on Tight,” changing both the music cuts and order of elements. I hope the new version of this short program works better for them. I do admit to questioning this piece from a strategic standpoint. MT/M have had, in my opinion, a number of brilliant short programs in their career set to blues-rock or blues-jazz music pieces. Not all skaters can perform that kind of music well … Kirsten Moore-Towers definitely can. Why not use that talent to put out something more distinctive, instead of another plaintive lyrical program? But, maybe this short program music is simply what MT/M want to skate to this season. If so, hopefully it will inspire them to strong performances. Let’s see!

James/Radford with their medals at Autumn Classic (Skate Canada)

Vanessa James and Eric Radford have been a pairs team for only a few months; normally, there would not be high expectations or much attention on them. But with their records, it’s inevitable. Eric Radford is a two-time World champion and three-time Olympic medalist; James, a World bronze medalist and European champion. Those are credentials that judges respect. Although the circumstances surrounding this team’s pairing are the subject of strong opinions among fans, judges will (and must) evaluate James/Radford strictly as athletes.

James/Radford’s early performances show promise. Their triple twist looks great, with nice height, and they’ve got some other good elements as well, particularly their hand-to-hand lift. However, they have definitely suffered from some of the nerves and fluke mistakes that often plague new teams. Even though James and Radford have top-notch skills and experience separately, it still takes time to come together as a team. It’s a tall order to expect J/R to overcome all the new-team jitters, and polish and strengthen their programs to the level they’ll need to be, in time to make the Olympic team in January. For any other team, it probably wouldn’t be possible. For them, it might be. We’ll find out.

From a PCS viewpoint, it’s worth noting that James and Radford have had quite different individual styles in the past. With former partner Meagan Duhamel, Radford most often skated to dramatic ballads or big orchestrated music like Muse or Alice in Wonderland. James, meanwhile, specialized in slow-jam rock and R&B music with former partner Morgan Cipres. Radford has always been among the most naturally elegant of male pairs skaters, with classic posture and great extension, while James was better known for a dynamic, athletic style. James and Radford match well physically (both relatively tall and lean), but stylistically, they are less clearly complementary. 

So far, the team’s programs tend more toward Radford’s aesthetic, in my opinion. Their long program to Harry Styles’s “Falling” builds emotion nicely and is attractive to watch. 

After debuting an earlier short program, James/Radford then switched to an ironically quiet and moody cover of R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People.” It was hard to feel the overall message of this program at Finlandia, and I question if it will carry J/R to strong placements. In any case, it will be interesting to see how this team progresses.

Evelyn Walsh/Trennt Michaud have been Canada’s #2 pair for most of this quad, notching two top 12 finishes at Worlds. Walsh/Michaud haven’t competed yet this season, so we don’t know much about their programs or condition. Just today, they showed some of their new John Mayer LP in practice at Skate America; it would appear to fit neatly into their preferred contemporary-pop style. Expect them to be in contention for one of Canada’s two spots to the Olympics and Worlds.

This fall, Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps made their international debut for Canada at Autumn Classic. Stellato-Dudek/Deschamps have been training together for some time, but only recently received Stellato-Dudek’s release from the U.S. The couple made a good impression and placed 4th at Autumn Classic. S/D have standout lifts and nice presentation, particularly in their long program to “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” by Hidden Citizens. Stellato/Deschamps are not eligible for the Olympics, as she does not yet have Canadian citizenship. However, they could be a possibility for the Canadian Worlds team if Moore-Towers/Marinaro and/or James/Radford do not compete at Worlds.

Lori-Ann Matte and Thierry Ferland are also outside candidates for the Canadian Worlds team, but continued to show inconsistency with their elements at Autumn Classic. 

The Canadian junior pairs scene seems to be in a rebuilding stage right now. Only two junior pairs from Canada competed on the Junior Grand Prix this season.

USA

The American pairs got their season off to an early start in August, when nearly all of them competed at Cranberry Cup in Norwood, MA. A few weeks later, the pairs competed again at the John Nicks Pairs Challenge in New York City. Both events count toward the body of work for U.S. Olympic team selection, so these were serious competitions, with the skaters putting out all their elements. I was fortunate to attend both competitions and see all the top U.S. teams except for Cain-Gribble/LeDuc, who were absent due to illness.

The medalists at John Nicks Pairs Challenge (U.S. style–pewter medalists too!)

As I watched these early events, I found myself thinking back to fall 2017–the start of the last Olympic season–when I attended the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, Utah. That was the kick-off event in 2017-18 for many top U.S. pairs teams. As I thought back to 2017, I realized how much American pairs have improved the past four years. In fact, I think the American pairs, as a group, may now be the strongest that I’ve personally ever seen them.

Compared to 2017, the U.S. pairs are skating faster now, in my opinion; showing generally more power and stronger edges; and the programs are also better, with more sophisticated themes, better choreography, and more intentional skating, in general. The quality of technical elements has improved, too. Triple twists, in particular, are generally better than they were four years ago for U.S. pairs. And lifts have improved, too.

It makes sense. Most of the top U.S. pairs skaters today have been part of the U.S. program for many years now. The partnerships and coaches have changed in some cases, but the players have remained largely the same. Time doesn’t stand still, and neither have the U.S. pairs. Some have worked with new choreographers or coaches from abroad; many have attended the pairs development camps that U.S. Figure Skating offers; all have benefited from monitoring, feedback, and frequent international competition. This season may be their best in some time.

There are some actual placement markers of accomplishment for the U.S. pairs. Last spring at Worlds, the U.S. placed two pairs in the top 10. It was the first time that had occurred since 2012. And, for a brief moment after the short program, U.S. pairs were even in position to potentially win a third spot. It didn’t happen. But still, it was the closest they’d gotten in over a decade, since 2010. 

Another small progress marker came at Finlandia, when U.S. pairs Cain-Gribble/LeDuc and Calalang/Johnson finished second only to Russian pairs–and beat two Canadian pairs, including the reigning Canadian champions. It was just a Challenger event, and just one result. Yet, for U.S. pairs, meaningful. In North American pairs skating, the top Canadian team usually leads, and U.S. pairs follow. If you look at World championships results for the last 20 years, in all but two or three years, the top-finishing North American pair at Worlds was Canadian. So to come out on top, just for the moment anyway, was encouraging.

Are American pairs ready to contend for the top prizes yet? No. Do U.S. pairs still struggle too often with jump landings? Absolutely yes. U.S. pairs haven’t beat back all the demons yet. But they are getting better. And I’m personally going to celebrate that progress. 

Knierim/Frazier: U.S. champions

The leaders of U.S. pairs skating are, unquestionably, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier. Both former national champions with previous partners, Knierim/Frazier took hold of the leading spot at last season’s Skate America, and haven’t looked back since then. They easily were the top American team at both Cranberry Cup and John Nicks Pairs Challenge. The latter event was a particular success–Knierim/Frazier scored a head-turning 76.09 for a beautiful short program there, and a very good 136.46 in their long program, despite a few errors. Those scores show  Knierim/Frazier’s potential and bode well for their chances with international judges.

Knierim/Frazier often remind me of former Canadian champions Sale/Pelletier. Like Sale/Pelletier, they seemed to mesh and achieve success almost instantly, as if they were meant to skate together. Similarly to Sale/Pelletier, Knierim/Frazier have an ease and buoyancy on the ice, and a great balance between athleticism and artistry. The elements they perform are very difficult, yet they make them look easy, just as Sale/Pelletier did. They have elegance and athleticism in similar measures. That is still the magic combination that judges look for in pairs skating. 

Knierim/Frazier have chosen “House of the Rising Sun” for their short program this year and Coldplay’s “Fix You” for the free skate. The short program is a lot of fun. It’s the first time that Knierim/Frazier have skated to rock music, and they do it well, showing good speed. The program is exciting to watch. “Fix You” is a bit more of a predictable choice, but the free skate is well-crafted and definitely works for the Olympic season. Knierim/Frazier’s elements looked good at their early events. The main goal will be to keep as consistent as possible with jump landings and continue to refine and improve everything for even more impact.

Calalang/Johnson: So much potential

Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, reigning U.S. Nationals silver medalists, lived through a nightmare in 2021. When Calalang received word on February 12 that she had tested positive for a banned substance, the team’s competitive future was thrown into doubt, and Calalang/Johnson were forced to miss Worlds for a second consecutive year. It took 8 months, but finally Calalang was cleared of any wrongdoing. (The positive drug test came from an ingredient in her makeup that metabolized into a banned byproduct.) In an emotional Instagram post, Calalang spoke of the experience as being “the worst 230 days of my life.” 

Calalang/Johnson continued to work and compete, despite the career threat hanging over them. The duo placed third at Cranberry Cup, second at John Nicks Pairs Challenge, and fourth at Finlandia Trophy. Calalang/Johnson have a new short program to a blues rock version of “Come Together.” Choreographed by Benoit Richaud, it’s a crowd-pleasing number that shows off their strength and power. They are reprising last year’s “Who Wants to Live Forever” for their long program. 

I still feel that great things are potentially just around the corner for this team. Calalang/Johnson have so many of the elements needed for success. Their triple twist is among the best in the world. Their lifts are terrific and can compete with anyone’s. Their throw triple Salchow is pretty consistent now, and the throw triple flip close to consistent (I’m guessing that perhaps just minor adjustments in hold or timing will perfect it). Side-by-side jumps are the one question mark, really; and perhaps with less stress hanging over them, Calalang/Johnson will have better luck there. 

Just as important as the elements, I also love Calalang/Johnson’s skating skills and find them to be an exciting team. Particularly when you see them live, their speed and power are so noticeable, and their presence on the ice is big. If Knierim/Frazier remind me of Sale/Pelletier, then I would say Calalang/Johnson remind me a bit of Duhamel/Radford. Simply because their athleticism and charisma create a sort of explosive feeling to their skating that reminds me (in the best way) of Duhamel/Radford.

One thing Calalang/Johnson can work on now is really finding and emphasizing the special moments in their programs. They have almost everything they need technically. Now is the time to start showing judges that they can really perform and generate emotion as well.

Cain-Gribble/LeDuc: Coming back from covid-19

The latter is not a problem for Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, bronze medalists at U.S. Nationals last year. Cain-Gribble/LeDuc, known for their performance quality, extension, and commitment to artistry, have come out this season with a terrific new short program to “White Crow,” showcasing interesting choreography from Misha Ge. They’re pairing this routine with a reprise of their well-received W.E. free skate from the 2018-19 season. These programs show off the team’s strengths very well.

Cain-Gribble/LeDuc’s off-season, however, took an unfortunate turn when Cain-Gribble came down with a breakthrough case of covid-19, despite being vaccinated. Their first competition at Autumn Classic was rocky. However, Cain-Gribble/LeDuc got back on track by winning bronze in a very competitive field at Finlandia Trophy–a great accomplishment for them. Now, they have a chance to medal at both their Grand Prix events. Ashley and Tim always put their whole hearts into whatever they’re doing, so I fully expect them to be strong contenders for the Olympic team in January. A key element for them will be continuing to increase flow and smoothness on their lifts, as well as hitting the problematic side-by-side jumps.

Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov had their best season to date last year, winning bronze at 2020 Skate America and placing fourth at Nationals. Like Calalang/Johnson, Lu/Mitrofanov are a powerful and strong team and tend to make a bigger impression live, in my experience, than on video. Lu/Mitrofanov are known for their side-by-side jumping ability and have the difficult SBS 3S/eu/3S combo in their free skate.Their short program is a bit unusual, with a zombie theme, but is a good vehicle for their power and athleticism. Their long program to “Ancient Lands” has a more classic look but, again, suits them well with its archetypal good/evil theme.

Lu/Mitrofanov started their season with a subpar showing at Cranberry Cup, but bounced back at John Nicks Pairs Challenge to take bronze with one of the best long programs of their career. They have 2 Grand Prixs to help further build their body of work. The youngest of the four top U.S. teams, Lu/Mitrofanov still have more work to do in polishing their movement quality on the ice and bringing out a deeper connection to their music. They cannot be called favorites for the Olympic team; but nor should anyone count them out. If they continue their upward trajectory and other teams falter, they could certainly contend. A Four Continents spot is also a strong likelihood.

Emily Chan/Spencer Howe, training mates of Lu/Mitrofanov, unexpectedly placed fifth at last year’s U.S. Nationals. Still a fairly new team, Chan/Howe have a wonderful musicality and maturity to their skating and can successfully interpret different styles of music. This year, they have a great flamenco short program to “Nyah” and a haunting, elegant long program to “Elegy for the Arctic” by Ludovico Einaudi. Chan/Howe really inhabit these programs, bringing them convincingly to life, and their speed has improved noticeably. Chan/Howe are still working toward consistency on their technical elements, but are much more steady than they were a year ago.  

Chan/Howe placed 4th at Cranberry Cup and 6th at John Nicks. Unfortunately, they do not have Grand Prix assignments, but will appear at Warsaw Cup in November.

Chelsea Liu and Danny O’Shea are a brand-new team–although both skaters have much experience with previous partners. They came together after O’Shea split with longtime partner Tarah Kayne and Liu returned to skate in the U.S. after several years in China. Despite how new they are, they have gelled quickly and finished 5th at Cranberry Cup and 4th at John Nicks. They were particularly impressive in the short program at John Nicks, scoring 66.67.

Like their training mates Knierim/Frazier, Liu/O’Shea have a lovely sense of ease and flow to their skating. They skate with speed, and everything they do looks easy and natural. This quality–so rare these days in pairs skating–helped them score well in their fall competitions, despite errors on elements. Liu/O’Shea’s triple twist is good, and their lifts excellent for such a new team. However, jumps are a question mark, with Liu falling quite a few times during their fall events. Hopefully as they progress, Liu/O’Shea will be able to make throw jumps, at least, more consistent. The couple’s programs this season are fine but not particularly memorable. I can see potential for Liu/O’Shea to have some stunning programs in years to come, highlighting their flow and lyricism (if they continue).  

Liu/O’Shea make their Grand Prix debut this week at Skate America and are also scheduled to compete at Warsaw Cup.

Katie McBeath/Nate Bartholomay are in their second year competing together. They placed 7th at both Cranberry Cup and John Nicks, then had their best outing to date at Autumn Classic, where they scored 168.61 to place 5th. Their jump elements are perhaps more consistent than some of the American pairs, but the quality and size of their pairs elements is still developing. 

While American senior pairs are on the upswing, the situation in junior pairs is less promising. U.S. junior pairs are led by Anastasia Smirnova/Danil Siianytsia, a team that possesses great pairs skills but has yet to prove consistent jumping ability. Smirnova/Siianytsia skated in two JGP events this season but did not medal. Other U.S. junior teams such as Martins/Bedard, Fleming/Finster, and Lockley/Prochnow are not yet competitive at the international level. While it’s great to see U.S. senior pairs improving, the lack of U.S. junior teams who are prepared to make the jump to seniors is concerning.

Asia and Europe

Many countries have just a few pairs who are competitive internationally, rather than a whole group. But, even if these countries don’t field as many pairs, their stars are often bright indeed.

Miura/Kihara: Potential Grand Prix medalists

Perhaps the first and foremost of these stars is Riku Miura/Ryuichi Kihara of Japan. After skating in relative obscurity with other partners, this couple teamed up in 2019 and soon showed great potential. Last spring, they placed in the top 10 in their first World Championships. This fall, they notched a big victory at Autumn Classic–despite having to train apart from their coach due to covid-19. Miura/Kihara really have a great package to their pairs skating–strong jumps, good lifts, great skating skills, and real chemistry together. Also, their “Hallelujah” SP is a winner. They may contend for a medal this week at Skate America.

Another star is Spanish pairs team Laura Barquero/Marco Zandron. This couple is very new, but have gelled quickly. Barquero/Zandron were quite consistent at their European Challenger Series events this fall. Their elements and skating skills are not necessarily of the highest quality just yet, but they’re completing elements cleanly and scoring well. They qualified an Olympic pairs spot for Spain at Nebelhorn Trophy. 

In Germany, Aljona Savchenko’s success appears to have inspired other pairs skaters, and the country now has a good leading team in Minerva-Fabienne Hase/Nolan Seegert. This couple has improved greatly in almost all aspects the last few years and recently won Nebelhorn Trophy. They look set to claim Germany’s sole spot for the Olympics. After a promising start in juniors, Annika Hocke/Robert Kunkel have struggled in their transition to seniors. Some of their pairs elements, particularly the triple twist, need further improvement. Alisa Efimova/Ruben Blommaert continue to train together, but the status of Efimova’s hoped-for release from Russia is unclear.

Della Monica/Guarise: Final Olympic season

Italian champions Nicole Della Monica/Matteo Guarise will likely end their career after this Olympic season. They are keeping their heartfelt “Let It Be” short program and debuted a lovely and interesting new long program at Lombardia Trophy. Although Della Monica/Guarise were not yet in top form at Lombardia, I am confident that we’ll see them perform better later in the season (as they did at Worlds last spring, where they placed 8th). Rebecca Ghilardi/Filippo Ambrosini, 17th at Worlds, are a solid team but have yet to bring their jump consistency or triple twist to a high level.

Austrian champions Miriam Ziegler/Severin Kiefer are one of the few teams who have yet to compete anywhere this fall. Nothing is known about their programs or condition. They are scheduled for two of the later Grand Prix events, NHK Trophy and Rostelecom. Hopefully Ziegler/Kiefer will be in good shape to participate in their third Olympics together.

Israeli pairs skater Evgeni Krasnopolski, 33, remains a fixture in international pairs, now skating with his (cough) seventh partner, Hailey Esther Kops. This couple surprised many by claiming one of the Olympic pairs spots at Nebelhorn Trophy. The combination of Kops’s jumping ability and Krasnopolski’s solid pairs elements and experience proved more potent than expected.

Hungarian team Ioulia Chtchetinina/Mark Magyar and Czech team Elizaveta Zhuk/Martin Bidar both qualified Olympic spots at last year’s Worlds, where they placed 14th and 15th respectively. The Hungarians just won a bronze medal at Budapest Trophy; the Czechs have, unfortunately, struggled messily through their early season.

Finally, the small country of Georgia is making its presence known on the pairs skating scene. Georgia has two promising young teams, Karina Safina/Luka Berulava and Anastasiia Metelkina/Daniil Parkman (all four skaters are originally from Russia). Safina/Berulava won medals at both their JGP events this fall and also qualified an Olympic spot at Nebelhorn. Metelkina/Parkman, meanwhile, had a good season opener at Budapest Trophy. 

Wrap-up

So that’s my (very long) view of the pairs world as we enter the biggest competitions of this Olympic season. After the break from skating last season due to covid-19–with only scattered competitions here and there–I’m really looking forward to seeing the pairs and all the exciting things they will do this season! I hope to return with an Olympic predictions column later this season and perhaps some competition reviews of some of the major events. Until then … thanks for joining me for this look at the current state of pairs skating! 

Note: If you’re enjoying articles on The Divine Sport, please take a moment to “like” the site’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/adivinesport/. You can also follow me on Twitter to get updates of new posts: @ClaireCloutier on https://twitter.com.

2 thoughts on “Pairs Season Preview 2021

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