This past week brought a new milestone in men’s figure skating. U.S. skater Ilia Malinin, 17, became the first man to ever land a quadruple Axel jump in competition, a feat he accomplished at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Lake Placid, NY.
Malinin’s groundbreaking moment caught the mainstream press by surprise. Those who follow figure skating closely, though, were primed for the moment. This spring, Malinin had shared videos of himself doing quad Axels in practice, so skating fans knew it was a possibility he’d land the jump at this competition.
Still, the actual sight of the first quad Axel was stunning. This is in part because the triple Axel jump–the quad’s predecessor– remains itself such a relatively significant element in men’s skating.
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.
Ice dancers Allison Reed and Saulius Ambrulevicius, who represent Lithuania, have both been part of the international ice dance scene for many years now. Reed began competing internationally in 2009, while Ambrulevicius’s ice dance career began in 2014. But, it’s only since the couple teamed up and started to compete together that they have gained increasing recognition from ice dance judges and fans alike.
All photographs by Olga Trofimova (courtesy of Stars on Ice)
Stars on Ice returned to New England this past weekend for the first time in three years. And what a return it was! The headliner of this season’s tour is newly crowned Olympic champion Nathan Chen. But, he’s just one star in a cast full of World and Olympic medalists. This year’s show–which includes many programs that became iconic during this Olympic season–is titled “Journey” and celebrates the winding paths that all these athletes traveled to get to the Olympics.
An Evening with Champions–the longest-running charity figure skating show in the world, organized by students at Harvard University–returned last weekend for the first time since 2019. The show, which originally started back in 1970, had been set for a gala 50th-anniversary celebration in 2020. Unfortunately, the covid-19 pandemic interrupted those plans. But, after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, the show returned this past Saturday. It was a pleasure to see the delayed 50th anniversary edition of An Evening with Champions (EWC).
For 22-year-old Roman Sadovsky of Canada, the Olympic season was one of peaks and valleys. The peaks included qualifying a second men’s Olympic spot at Nebelhorn Trophy in September and placing fourth at Rostelecom Cup in November. Unfortunately, the low point came at the Olympic Games in Beijing, where Sadovsky struggled and placed 29th in the individual men’s event, failing to make the long program. How satisfying, then, for Sadovsky to rebound at the 2022 ISU World Championships in Montpellier, France, where he recorded his highest placement so far at a major ISU championship (12th).
I talked with Sadovsky and his longtime coach, Tracy Wainman, in the mixed zone at Worlds to get their reactions to his performances in Montpellier. The duo also spoke about the war in Ukraine and how it’s affected Sadovsky, whose parents both emigrated to Canada from Ukraine.
Last week, Keegan Messing competed in his fourth ISU World Championships in Montpellier, France. Messing’s 14th-place finish in Montpellier was well off his career-best 6th place at 2021 Worlds in Stockholm last year. However, the Canadian skater was unfazed.
“It’s always a pleasure to represent [Canada],” Messing said after the free skate. “And it’s always a pleasure to come out at Worlds and just be here.”
“I have mixed emotions,” coach Bruno Marcotte confessed Thursday night, after his students Riku Miura, 20, and Ryuichi Kihara, 29, won the silver medal at the ISU World Championships in Montpellier, France. Seeing Miura/Kihara reach the World podium–less than three years after they first teamed up–was exciting. However, Marcotte also knows that his team is capable of more than they delivered in their free skate at Worlds.
“Their practices here were great,” Marcotte said. “After the Olympics, I felt like they needed to come down a little bit [from their Olympic peak]. After every competition, you need to come down. But it was like they were resisting that. Training was a struggle for a bit.”
This week, Canadian ice dancers Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha will write the final chapter of their season at the 2022 ISU World Championships. The duo are hoping to put out season’s-best performances of two programs that have served them well this year: Their “Funkytown” disco rhythm dance and their signature “Birds” free dance set to the Rio soundtrack. At practice this week in Montpellier, I caught up with Lajoie and Lagha to talk about their programs and what makes them tick as a team.
Both skaters were born and grew up in the suburbs of Montreal, Quebec. Lagha said that his parents are of Algerian descent. Both started out skating singles, but Lajoie was drawn to ice dance from an early age.
“When I changed coaches at seven years old, I was training in an area where there were also ice dancers. So, since [I was] a very young age, I saw it and thought, ‘I want to do this,’” Lajoie explained. “Then they found Zach.”
‘“Her coach [also] coached in my club. And he was like: ‘Oh, I have a girl [whom] I really want you to try with.’ And so at one point I tried,” Lagha said. “And then I just kept going.”
Lajoie, 21, and Lagha, 22, have been partners for over ten years already, since 2011 (except for a six-month break in 2015). The duo see the longevity of their partnership as a bonus, as they try to make their mark in senior ice dance.
“I think it’s cool,” said Lajoie. “I see older skaters who are at the end of their career, and they’re celebrating their 10 years. And we are [just] starting to be seniors, and it has already been even longer. So I think it’s a very good advantage for us, that it’s already as long as some of the top seniors. We are very different, and I think that’s also very good for a couple, to grow together as two very different people, two different mindsets of working. It works super-well.”
Lagha agreed that their personalities are quite different.
“I’m more serious, and she’s more light-hearted. That’s pretty much a summary of it,” he said, with a smile.
Lagha admits that his intensity and analytical nature can make competition challenging for him.
“I get nervous. Really, really nervous,” he said of competing. “I overthink. I love the feeling right after the competition. That’s an amazing feeling, when you skate well and have good results. That is really cool. But the day of the competition … It’s not cool,” he said wryly. “Although I try to stay in my zone, so I don’t really know what’s going on around me.”
Lajoie has a slightly different perspective.
“I enjoy competing, yes, for sure,” she said. “Of course, like most people, I don’t enjoy being stressed. But I like the adrenaline that I have just before a program. It’s something that I can’t find in my life, other than in competition. It’s such a special feeling, always. But just like Zach, my favorite feeling is when I’m done competing. It’s so cool, especially when you did super-good.”
Lajoie and Lagha have enjoyed a successful season so far in 2021-22, capped by a trip to their first Olympic Games in Beijing last month. Both skaters said they learned a lot about how to handle the special pressure of the Olympics at the event.
“I think the stress, the pressure, the adrenaline [of the Olympics] is so much bigger than anything else. It’s really unique,” said Lajoie. “And we skated very well. So that’s proof that, under stress or pressure, we can still perform well. That’s why I’m very glad that we went at such a young age, so [that] we practice [coping with] that stress. I think it was a good learning experience for us.”
Lagha said that the long time span of the Olympics makes it much different than other competitions.
“Knowing that you have 13 days before the [ice dance] competition, it’s long. The competition starts in the practices. That’s where the judges see you, and that’s where they start to think. So you have to be on point at every practice,” he commented.
However, with it being their first Olympic Games, Lajoie and Lagha competed without the stress of being medal favorites.
“It wasn’t our competition,” Lagha said. “Everyone’s got their own league. And we’re not in the big league, for now. We’re just trying to improve all the time. In our case, it’s almost like smaller competitions are more important, because that’s where we can [make] a difference in the rankings. The Olympic Games–we were thirteenth, I think. And even if we skated even better, we would still [probably] stay thirteenth. So in terms of stress, for me, it was fine. It was like a normal step.”
Lajoie and Lagha do see potential for upward progress at the World Championships in Montpellier, but don’t want to make it their main focus.
“After the Olympics, there’s usually a lot of movement in the standings. And I think we have a chance now to move up the rankings,” Lagha said. “But even though we know that, it’s important not to think about this and [to] really focus on the performance. We want to perform well. This is the main goal, as usual. And there are some little technical things that we want [to achieve], also. And whatever will happen, will happen. We just want to do a really good performance for the fans. And in this, we can do something cool. Sometimes we focus in [too much] on the technical, and then that’s it. It’s over with.”
Lajoie and Lagha feel confident in the programs they’ll be showing in Montpellier. Their rhythm dance, set to “Funkytown” and two other songs, has been a fan favorite this season. It’s a fast-tempo piece that places a lot of cardio demands on the skaters.
“I really have fun doing it, and every time I go to the practice and it’s this program, I’m happy to do it. Definitely, this program is really cool,” Lagha said. “And no, it’s not hard, because compared to a free dance, nothing is hard. For us, it’s almost–not a piece of cake, if you are talking cardio. But, because we have such a difficult free dance, and it’s mentally so hard and draining to do the free dance, the rhythm dance for us now feels not that hard. It’s hard, but not as much.”
The couple said they’ve been happy with audiences’ reactions to their rhythm dance.
“They reacted [well] almost every time,” Lagha said of the crowd’s response. “Only the first competition they didn’t react–that was Autumn Classic. But we didn’t really perform full out. Coming back from Autumn Classic, we knew that something needed to change. And we needed to attack a lot more. Since then, every time we did it, the public reacted. So we’re going to try to do the same here in France.”
Romain Hagenauer, one of Lajoie and Lagha’s coaches at I.AM, created and choreographed both their programs this year. This is the second year that the duo are skating their bird-themed Rio free dance, set to Brazilian music. Unlike many current free dances, the Rio program is very uptempo and fast, again requiring a significant cardio effort. Lajoie and Lagha explained that they intentionally chose the program for this purpose, to help them stand out to judges and audiences.
“Romain came up with the idea. He has always choreographed our programs,” Lajoie said. “He sent us the music, and we said yes. We hadn’t seen the movie before.”
“Because everybody’s trying to do something lyrical, we thought that this would be a good program so that people can really notice us,” Lagha explained. “So that’s why we’re doing it.”
“We love it,” Lajoie said. “But, we’re kind of excited that it’s our last one [at Worlds]. It’s been two years of very hard cardio. It’s a hard one.”
“Really, the biggest challenge [of the program] is the physical,” Lagha added. “Now, after two years, the elements are pretty much like bam-bam-bam. We do it without really thinking much. However, we always have to focus on turns and do the technical [aspect]. But it’s really automatic right now. I would say that another challenge is to get clean lines, even though the music is really fast. It’s much easier to do it when you have time–you can really extend your arm and do a really big movement. But when the music is fast, it’s a lot more messy when you try to do this. So you have to do smaller movements, but pretty precise, and it takes a lot of energy. I’d say this is one of the big challenges of our program. And also, to get connection between us two. In a program like this, it’s not really easy.”
“The music doesn’t build [to say], ‘Look at each other,’” Lajoie commented. “It’s bird-y. The other ones who are doing slower music, they can really connect. We’ve tried to work on it.”
“It’s been a critique of this program,” Lagha acknowledged.
Still, Lajoie and Lagha have enjoyed the Rio free dance and have no regrets about taking it on.
“Maybe eventually, when we get older and more mature, we’re going to go to this lyrical style,” Lagha said. “It’s a style that, personally, I really like to do much better than the one that we’re doing now. But I think it’s necessary for our development. And I think in terms of skills, we’ve improved a lot from this free dance.”
With their season ending this week at Worlds, it will soon be time for Lajoie and Lagha to make plans for next fall. They have yet to choose music or start choreography for next season’s programs. Like other teams, they are awaiting the ISU’s announcement of next year’s rhythm dance theme and compulsory section.
However, Lajoie and Lagha are already looking forward.
“I’ve started to think about lessons that we need to take,” said Lagha. “Off-ice training, and weaknesses that we need to absolutely improve for next year. I didn’t want to lose time preparing this [only] when the off-season started. We made a little game plan.”
Lagha noted their preparations for next season are “much more complicated’ than just choosing music.
For the next few days, though, the team’s attention will be on this year’s programs.
“We don’t want to take our minds away from this competition,” said Lagha.
The past week’s events in figure skating have almost rendered predictions pointless. Because who could have predicted that the biggest Olympic women’s favorite in recent memory would have a positive drug test days before her individual event? Or that she would be allowed to compete, despite this? Or that we would witness today’s bizarre spectacle, which saw her in tears after losing the free skate to two of her teammates?
The controversy over Valieva cast a cloud over the whole figure skating competition. When you consider that Valieva’s positive test followed widespread Russian doping at the Sochi Games eight years ago–and knowing that the Russian state plays an outsized role in Russian sport and values Olympic medals as nationalist totems–it’s hard not to wonder if the doping may extend beyond her.
The Valieva saga has also simply been sad to watch, particularly today. The crowning of the Olympic women’s champion is traditionally the climax of every four-year cycle of figure skating. But, the day that everyone anticipated ended instead with skaters sobbing and shouting on worldwide streaming. Not to mention the fact that the Valieva case raised serious questions about abusive coaching practices and a problematic judging system.
With all this, pairs predictions feel like a minor concern. But, I had started writing them before the Valieva saga began, so I decided to continue.
While working on these predictions, I kept thinking back to the last Olympic pairs event in 2018. Pyeongchang was such an epic competition in pairs skating. Arguably, one of the best in Olympic history. The elements were big, and the personalities were even bigger, with stars like Savchenko, Sui, Duhamel, and more.
After 2018, the rules and format changes to pairs skating (de-emphasis of quads, shorter free skates) felt like they made the sport fundamentally smaller and less exciting. And the new, younger stars of pairs skating–while bright–just didn’t, for me, fill the big shoes left by the pairs of Pyeongchang.
The Beijing pairs event will mostly lack the quad elements of Pyeongchang, and will arguably lack some of the star power. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing; it’s time for the sport to renew itself and look for a brighter future.
But, before we fully enter a new era, a few older teams–Sui/Han of China and Tarasova/Morozov of Russia–are here, possibly for the last time, to remind us of the elegance and passion of the sport’s past. The race for gold will come down to these veteran teams vying with the much younger, more athletic Mishina/Galliamov, current World champions.
Sui/Han and Tarasova/Morozov both have special and distinctive qualities and skills that have made them successful teams for the past 8 years. Mishina/Galliamov, meanwhile, are the most technically proficient pair, and will lead the sport into the next quad. (How fitting, then, that they skate to a piece called “Time, Forward!”)
Who will win in Beijing? And how will the other pairs fare? Here are my predictions.