Spring. Bright sunshine, passing showers, flowers, a touch of warmth in the air. The World Figure Skating Championships always takes place at the intersection of seasons, between winter and spring, in March. You never know what those days will bring. This year, in the south of France, Worlds came with beautiful days of cool breezes, high clouds, and happiness. It felt like an oasis after a stormy season.
Worlds, by its nature, is such a celebratory competition. Skaters at Worlds have won just by qualifying to be there. It’s a happy thing for anyone to be there–skater, fan, judge, or media.
For me personally, this Worlds was special and different, because it was the first that I attended as a skating journalist. Worlds is all about the skaters, of course; but writers and photographers have their goals and dreams, too. My biggest dream, as a writer, was to go to Worlds as accredited media. When I first started this website eight years ago, that seemed like a longshot, but this year, it actually came true!
So it was a privilege to be in Montpellier. I had to remind myself of that a couple times the first day, when I ran into problems with my rental car, hotel, and phone! Not to mention feeling lost at times in a sea of perfect French speakers. It was my first time traveling on my own outside North America.
But, after a day or so in Montpellier and finding the arena and practice venue, I felt ready for the week to come. And what a week it was … because this Worlds was unusual and significant in many ways.
Geopolitics intruded abruptly on the 2022 World Championships when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, less than a month before the event. Much of the world condemned the invasion, and the IOC advised that Russian and Belarusian athletes be banned temporarily from international competition. The ISU followed the IOC’s lead, excluding Russian and Belarusian skaters and officials from attending Worlds. Most of the skating community appeared to support the ban. Still, its unprecedented nature had major implications for the sport.
The international skating community is self-contained and relatively small. In some ways, it resembles an extended family. International-level skaters and coaches and officials know each other, see each other at competitions, often work with each other. Skating competitions are not just sporting events but also reunions of a sort, where the community comes together to celebrate their shared work and passion. The absence of Russia felt a bit like a family member gone missing. An important family member.
The ISU is a union of nations (i.e., national skating federations), and in theory, all ISU members are co-equal. Yet, in the skating world, there are “big countries” and “small” countries. The “big countries” have traditionally fielded the most competitors and won the most medals. Since the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union, and then Russia, has been one of skating’s “big countries.” Their initial dominance in pairs and ice dance during the 1960s-1980s later extended to singles skating in the 1990s-2000s.
Russia’s greatest figure skating glory has come during the Putin era. Russian President Vladmir Putin uses sports as a tool to boost the country’s image and prestige. Sports are understood to be generously funded by the state in Putin’s Russia. And Putin purposely associates himself with the country’s stars through appearances at sporting events and photo ops with decorated Russian athletes.
Figure skating is a crown jewel for Russia’s sports empire. At the start of this season, Russia was considered in contention to win as many as four out of five figure skating gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. Not only were Russians winning on the ice, they were also in charge off the ice, with Alexander Lakernik as First Vice President of the ISU (second only to President Jan Dijkema).
Russia had, you might say, become the big brother of the skating world. And, like a big brother, Russia sometimes seemed to throw its weight around a bit. There was, at times, a sense of arrogance in interviews with Russian athletes and coaches. There were results and scores favorable to Russian skaters, but inexplicable to others. The next-level achievements of Russian women (curiously unmatched by any other country’s women) were a conundrum for the skating community. Russia had become such a behemoth that “skating while Russian” jokes were common.
When news emerged that the ISU Council proposed to raise the minimum age for seniors (a move seen as advantageous to most countries, but disadvantageous to Russia), it drew the following comment from ex-USFS president Samuel Auxier to reporter Phil Hersh:
The defeatist tone of these remarks–from a former president of a big-country federation, at that–seemed to further illustrate just how untouchable Russia had become.
Then, it all started to unravel. On Feburary 5, news of Russian superstar Kamila Valieva’s positive drug test hit the sport like a bomb. The ensuing scandal was among the biggest ever in skating. Suddenly, doubt existed as to whether the Russian women’s record-breaking accomplishments were actually legitimate—or fueled in part by strategic doping. The extensive recent history of doping in Russian sport only raised suspicions further; and the scandal was still swirling when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. By that point, there was little sympathy for Russia or its athletes among the skating community.
Within one season, Russia had gone from ruling the sport to not even being able to compete.
In another unprecedented move, China declined to send a team to Worlds. China did not share its reasons for the boycott, but they are likely related to the Chinese government’s zero-Covid strategy (and also, possibly, a shift in direction for the Chinese skating federation). China’s absence meant that Olympic pairs champions Wenjing Sui and Cong Han would not contend for a third World title. Also out were perennial podium contenders Peng/Jin.
With all this happening, Worlds in Montpellier loomed as a test of sorts: Could the skating world put on an exciting and high-quality world-level competition without the Russians, or the Chinese? Would the event still have enough star power and technical fireworks to satisfy fans? I think the answer was a resounding yes.
Worlds started on Monday, March 21. The Sud de France Arena, with its dramatic, stylish facade, felt cavernous at first inside, with the press seats some 20 feet back from the ice. American arenas usually have a warren of gray-walled tunnels directly behind and beneath the arena; at Sud de France, there were no tunnels. The skaters warmed up in a great open corridor, with the ceiling three stories above them and side doors open to the spring air. The press room was in another building entirely, just a few steps from the arena. The practice facility was across town at an Art Deco-inspired facility, the Vegapolis.
The competition began on Wednesday. Audiences in Montpellier were warm and enthusiastic, welcoming the athletes with applause. The atmosphere felt festive. All week, the crowd supported the French skaters vigorously. But, especially in the opening days, some of the loudest cheers were for the Ukrainian skaters, who bravely came to compete at Worlds despite the war in their country: Sofia Holichenko/Artem Darenskyi, Ivan Shmuratko, and Oleksandra Nazarova/Maksym Nikitin.
The Ukrainian skaters patriotically wore team jerseys to compete in their short programs and the rhythm dance. Afterward, they spoke emotionally of their pride in Ukraine, shock at the Russian aggression, and determination to represent their country to the world. Once again, geopolitics were intruding, but now in an inspiring and memorable way. Skaters from other countries were unanimous in their support and sympathy for the Ukrainian athletes.
“The way that they skated–it showed professionalism to the highest level,” Saulius Ambrulevicius (LTU) said of fellow ice dancers Nazarova/Nikitin.
The pairs event at Worlds was the smallest in recent memory. Not only were the Russians and Chinese absent, the Italian pairs also missed skating due to positive covid-19 tests. Only 14 pairs competed in the short program; only 12 completed the free skate. Nonetheless, the competition had a palpable emotional quality.
Two pairs (Ziegler/Kiefer and Jones/Boyaji) had already announced that this would be their final competition. A number of other teams declined to say if they planned to continue. So the competition felt a bit like a going-away party, or graduation.
Many of the most memorable moments occurred backstage in the mixed zone, as Jones/Boyadji spoke with candor and warmth of their long career, while Ziegler/Kiefer were emotional after their final performances. The pairs skating community is quite close, and it was heartwarming to see longtime competitors/friends hugging backstage and supporting each other.
On the ice, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier claimed the United States’ first World title in pairs skating since 1979. Their performance in the long program impressed with its sensitivity and grace. This team has a light yet athletic touch on the ice, an interesting combination of qualities that is uniquely theirs. For me, their victory was deeply satisfying.
As an American and a pairs fan, I’ve always been, necessarily, a U.S. pairs fan. And it hasn’t always been easy to be a U.S. pairs fan. But this season was special. I was fortunate to be in attendance when the American pairs started their season back at Cranberry Cup and the John Nicks Challenge. I wrote, after those events, that the U.S. pairs were looking their best, as a group, that I had ever seen. I think this assessment proved out over the season, as the U.S. pairs won three Grand Prix medals, gold and silver at Four Continents, and a team medal at the Olympics. It was exciting to be there in person to see Knierim/Frazier win the World title!
Unfortunately, the joy was somewhat dimmed due to Ashley Cain’s terrible fall in the free skate. I’ve always admired the determination, grit, and artistry of Ashley and her partner Timothy LeDuc. To see them have such a great performance in the short program–placing a well-deserved second–only for it to end in disaster was distressing.
Riku Miura/Ryuichi Kihara of Japan claimed the silver medal with flawed, yet still exciting, performances. It seemed like the pressure of being favorites got to them a little bit. No doubt it’s all just part of the learning experience, and we’ll see them come back even stronger next year.
The immediate future for pairs skating, after this Worlds, looks a bit tentative. With Russian pairs still banned, and uncertainty around which current teams will continue, it’s hard to predict what things will look like next year. There may be a lot of surprises ahead. (Such as today’s announcement that 27-year-old Natalia Zabijako, 2019 World medalist, is teaming up with former JGP skater Zachary Daleman, 22, to skate for Canada.)
The men’s event in Montpellier was exciting, with quads and artistry to spare. The short program, in particular, was excellent, with 11 men scoring over 90 points in this segment (an indicator of a pretty stellar program).
The three Japanese men–Shoma Uno, Yuma Kagiyama, and Kazuki Tomono–were a clear cut above in the short program. Each skated magnificently and scored over 100 points. Yuma Kagiyama’s “Smile” SP was very nice to watch, with his excellent skating skills and light touch on the ice. But Tomono’s brilliant program to Cinema Paradiso probably impressed me most; his effervescent quality as a performer is delightful.
The free skate also featured some great programs. It was really satisfying to see Shoma Uno finally ascend to the top of the Worlds podium, after winning silver medals in so many events. I enjoyed his Bolero LP. It feels creative and fresh–yet with a pleasant undercurrent of familiarity at the same time–thanks to the intriguing version of Ravel’s Bolero that forms the backdrop of the program. The strong tempo and simplicity of this music are an excellent match with Uno’s powerful, unfussy, skating skills-based style. Coach/choreographer Stephane Lambiel selected just the right program for his student this season.
The biggest surprise of the event was Camden Pulkinen, whose terrific free skate to “Besame Mucho” took third place in the long program and vaulted him to fifth overall. To say that Pulkinen’s result came out of nowhere isn’t quite correct, but isn’t a total overstatement, either. Pulkinen has struggled to make his mark in seniors the past few years, delivering a series of inconsistent (and sometimes disastrous) programs. This season seemed not much different, as he placed only 14th in his highest-profile early event, Finlandia Trophy.
Yet, Pulkinen remained upbeat when I interviewed him this fall, asserting: “I believe in myself.” That faith bore results at U.S. Nationals—where his strong fifth-place performance was somewhat overlooked in the debate over Olympic team assignments—and at Worlds in Montpellier. It was great to see Pulkinen skate his best and overcome whatever obstacles might have stood in his way. His performance at Worlds should be an inspiration to all skaters who have struggled through tough times.
Many expected ice dance to be the highlight of Worlds, with new Olympic champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron skating in their home country, in what might have been their final competition. If anything, the event was even better than expected.
I didn’t realize just how much love the French audience would have for their Olympic champions. The crowd greeted Papadakis and Cizeron with a tremendous ovation every time they appeared. It was special to see how much they appreciate this team.
This was the first time in six years that I had seen Papadakis/Cizeron skate live (the last being 2016 Boston Worlds). I’ve enjoyed watching them compete very much since then. But, I was frankly curious to see if Papadakis/Cizeron were still as far ahead of the field as international judges have placed them since 2016.
After watching them skate in Montpellier, my opinion is … Yes. Despite the amazing talent of so many top teams, I’d say that Papadakis/Cizeron still do stand above the rest. Their elegance, flow, glide, and speed allowed them to deliver outstanding programs in Montpellier. I found their rhythm dance particularly interesting, with its pronounced distinction between the sumptuous flow of their Midnight Blues pattern and the sharp, precise movement of the “waacking” hip-hop section. No other team showed such complete and fully realized character within each rhythm, in my opinion. Their “Elegie” free dance, set to music by French composer Gabriel Faure, was unparalleled in statuesque elegance—if a bit cool in emotional temperature.
Whether they continue or not after this Worlds, Papadakis/Cizeron are already among the all-time legends of ice dance. Why? I feel that their unique physicality is the starting point of their success. Physically, they seem to be a perfect match both for ice dance and for each other, with long lines, natural elegance, and a perfect height difference. As Yuna Kim once said of herself, they have “a good instrument” for skating. This, combined with their superlative skating skills, creativity, and simpatico emotional temperaments, create a near-perfect package. It was great to see them win Worlds in their home country.
The whole ice dance event had a joyous quality. With the Olympics over and a lifetime goal achieved for many teams, it felt like the heavy pressure was off. With this being the final competition for some teams, there was a desire to savor the moment. The friendly camaraderie between all the I.AM dancers added to the positive mood, which culminated in the three World medalists holding hands on the podium.
Of many memorable performances, one that particularly stood out was Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker’s Chopin free dance. The intimate, seamless nature of this program creates, to me, a dreamlike effect. The entire package works so well, with the soft but strong skating skills of Hawyek and Baker, the compelling music, and the lush mauve costumes completing the mood.
Another favorite moment was seeing Natalie Taschlerova and Filip Taschler live for the first time. I only noticed the Czech sibling pair this season. Watching them at Nebelhorn and Lombardia, I was impressed by their power and edges. Seeing them live at Worlds confirmed and strengthened that impression. I thought their speed in the rhythm dance was second to none, and in fact every bit as good as the top teams’. Plus, that speed is coupled with wonderful body lean and edgework. I adored their fun and original Madonna rhythm dance. Although Taschlerova unfortunately had a twizzle error in the free dance, the Czechs still placed 13th overall–a huge improvement over last year’s 22nd.
This team gives me serious Denkova/Staviski vibes. Like the two-time Bulgarian World champions, the Czechs don’t come from a big country nor have quite the traditional ice dance look. But, like the Bulgarians, they certainly have the skill set and talent to make a big impact.
The women’s competition in Montpellier should have been, theoretically, most affected by the absence of the Russians. But it didn’t feel that way. Again, there was a lot of excitement and joy in this event.
Kaori Sakamoto was stunning to watch in practice and competition. It’s been six years now since Sakamoto first caught my attention at the 2016 Junior Grand Prix Final. From that moment on, it’s been a joy to watch and appreciate her amazing skating skills. Her run of edge has to be one of the best, if not the best, that I’ve ever seen from a woman skater. She covers the ice effortlessly and easily. This year, those skating skills were paired with great jump consistency and a memorable long program (of which I’m a fan). As with Shoma Uno, Sakamoto’s victory marked a skater realizing the full potential of her considerable talent.
The most indelible moment of the competition for me, though, was Loena Hendrickx’s free skate. The Belgian champion looked like a vision in gold as she spun and jumped her way through an intricate, exciting program to Arabic-inspired music. The crowd’s cheers grew louder and louder with every minute. Hendrickx is the first non-Russian European woman to win a medal at Worlds since Carolina Kostner of Italy, and the European crowd at Worlds was definitely 100 percent behind her. It was pretty thrilling to watch.
U.S. women Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell also turned in fine performances to place third and fourth respectively. And there was a sense of poetic justice in Anastasia Gubanova’s strong fifth-place finish in Montpellier (after being reduced to competitive irrelevancy in her home country, Russia).
Montpellier gave me hope that women’s skating can perhaps return again to being a sport that I can actually enjoy and feel good about watching (which has not been the case for some time now). Much, though, still depends on whether proposed rules changes are accepted.
Montpellier Worlds was undoubtedly a success. Crowd attendance was good; the skating was at a high level; and fans online seemed to enjoy the event. The mood in the arena, from skaters to fans to journalists, was very positive. This unusual Worlds passed the test. It was a satisfying end to an eventful Olympic season.
For myself, I enjoyed every minute. Most of the time, I was focused on the skating. But I did take some hours to catch the flavor of the southern French city. I got my first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea; enjoyed lunch in the hilly, cobblestoned historic center of Montpellier; wandered through the city’s peaceful botanical garden; and experienced its ancient cathedral and modern electric tram system. Judging by their Instagram posts, the skaters at Worlds enjoyed visiting the sights as well.
Worlds is over. But one significant event still remains. The ISU Congress, which takes place June 5-10 in Phuket, Thailand, is the official biannual meeting of all ISU member federations for the purpose of voting on new leadership, rules, and regulations.
This year’s Congress should prove significant in several ways. First, the Congress will vote for a new President, with current incumbent Jan Dijkema retiring. Since Dijkema’s tenure started in 2016, figure skating has mostly been spared the jarringly obtuse proposals put forth by the previous president, Ottavio Cinquanta. However, figure skating drifted further under Russian influence, represented by Vice President Alexander Lakernik. The Russian official now seeks to continue in his role, despite Russia’s current pariah status internationally (and despite the fact that he is too old to run again, requiring a rules change to be elected). Lakernik, who has been an ISU official since at least the 1960s, is clearly loath to give up his position of influence.
My view is that new leadership is necessary. The figure skating community needs to look for a future that will better serve the interests of all federations (not just the most powerful).
Even more important, the Congress must vote to enact new age minimums for the senior level of figure skating. I argued for this step four years ago. Everything that has occurred since then has only reinforced my opinion. The age minimum must be raised as a first step to correcting the problems in women’s figure skating. Again, it is in the long-term best interest of almost every federation to support this step.
It’s time to learn something from the unusual, and special, World Championships that we all experienced this spring; and to start down a new road.