Olympics 2022: Pairs Preview & Predictions

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.

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Castelli and Shnapir Reunite for a Cause

When Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir parted ways in 2014, they didn’t expect to ever skate together again. As a pairs team, based at the Skating Club of Boston, they won two U.S. national titles (2013-14) and an Olympic bronze team medal in 2014. But despite their success, Castelli and Shnapir didn’t always get along well. So they ended their partnership after the Sochi Olympics and went their separate ways. 

Now, seven years later, Castelli and Shnapir are unexpectedly teaming up again to perform at A Night of Stars, a benefit show in the Boston area to raise funds for cancer research. The show takes place on Saturday, Dec. 4, with all proceeds going to the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation, Mass General Brigham, and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. A Night of Stars is also the Grand Opening Celebration for the Skating Club of Boston’s new facility in Norwood, MA, completed in 2020. 

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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.

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Drew Meekins: “Pairs skating is ready for a rebrand”

On first sight, you could almost mistake Drew Meekins for a current competitor in pairs skating (especially these days!). Fit and youthful at 36, Meekins retains an energetic passion for the sport of figure skating. It’s this drive that inspired him throughout his competitive career with pairs partner Julia Vlassov and culminated in the 2006 World Junior pairs title. Indeed, the former champion admits that the idea of competition still crosses his mind at times.

Today, though, Drew Meekins’s focus is on making his mark on the other side of the boards. For over a decade since his retirement, he has worked with top national and international skaters as both a coach and choreographer. Now, he’s fulfilling a longtime personal goal by launching his own pairs skating group in Colorado Springs, CO. Meekins hopes to help grow and reshape the discipline of pairs skating in the United States. 

Recently, Meekins took some time to chat with me about his competitive skating career, his development as a coach and choreographer, current trends and challenges in pairs skating, and what he hopes to accomplish with his new pairs skating group. 

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Getting to Know Olga Ganicheva

Over the last decade, Olga Ganicheva and Aleksey Letov have quietly moved toward the top rank of American figure skating coaches. The husband-and-wife team, who are originally from Russia, started coaching in the Dallas, Texas, area in 2002. There, they built up a skating school based at one of the Dr.Pepper StarCenter rinks in the area (now Children’s Health StarCenter). Their skaters started appearing regularly at U.S. Nationals. In 2016, Ganicheva and Letov’s coaching success was recognized with a Developmental Coach of the Year award from the Professional Skaters Association. 

Last year, Ganicheva and Letov started a new chapter when they moved from Dallas to Boston to become High Performance Directors at the Skating Club of Boston’s new three-rink facility in Norwood, Massachusetts. They brought their skating group to Boston with them. Ganicheva and Letov are unusual among elite-level coaches in that they coach both singles and pairs. Their top pairs teams, Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov and Emily Chan/Spencer Howe, finished just off the podium, in fourth/fifth place respectively, at this year’s 2021 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships. 

Recently, Ganicheva took a few minutes between coaching sessions to talk about her and Letov’s background, their move to Boston, and her thoughts on the pairs event at the 2021 ISU World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden.  

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Worlds 2021: Pairs Predictions

‘Tis the night before Worlds … and I have pairs predictions! Fair warning: This is a very last-minute look at the pairs field for Worlds, at the end of a very odd season of figure skating (due to the covid-19 pandemic). And, as Kirsten Moore-Towers pointed out in a pre-Worlds teleconference call, we just don’t have a lot of data for this past season. For many pairs at Worlds, this will be their first international competition of the season. So neither they, nor we, really know what to expect. Therefore, take the following predictions with a grain of salt.

These are my thoughts about where the pairs may place in Stockholm.

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Meagan Duhamel: Life After the Olympics

Three years ago this month, Meagan Duhamel stood on the podium at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, having just achieved a lifetime goal. Already a World champion with partner Eric Radford, Duhamel also won two Olympic medals in Pyeongchang (team gold and individual bronze). It was the pinnacle of her figure skating career.

Duhamel/Radford at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games

Yet, as much as she savored her Olympic success, Duhamel was already looking ahead and making plans for the future. While still in Pyeongchang, she had already ventured into coaching, helping to teach North Korean pair Ryom/Kim, who also competed at the Games. Duhamel and Radford were planning a professional skating career with Stars on Ice and other shows. And she and her husband/coach Bruno Marcotte were looking to start a family.

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Roman Sadovsky: Figure Skater & YouTuber

The Grand Prix season always seems to bring its share of new stars and surprises. Roman Sadovsky was a bit of both in November, when he unexpectedly won bronze at NHK Trophy. 

Not many picked the 20-year-old Canadian skater to medal at NHK, which featured an impressive field of men’s competitors, including two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu. But Sadovsky seized the moment in Sapporo, impressing judges and fans with his sweeping quad Salchow jumps and elegant programs. His medal was a bit of a surprise; yet, it was something he’d been building toward for several years.

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Finster/Nagy: Young Team on the Rise

When Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy began their pairs partnership in late fall of 2017, they were a bit of an unlikely duo. The new partners had a five-year age gap–and also came from different disciplines. 

Nagy, 20, had been a singles skater for the majority of his career, with only one brief season of pairs skating at the Juvenile level in 2011. Finster, although five years younger than Nagy at 15, had significantly more pairs experience. She started competing in pairs at age 10, and won the 2015 Novice National title in pairs at age 11 (with former partner Eric Hartley). In the course of her pairs career, Finster has worked with noted U.S. pairs coach Dalilah Sappenfield, as well as Jessica Miller, former competitive pairs skater from Canada. Finster hails from the area of Louisville, KY, while Nagy was born in Budapest, Hungary, and later moved to the United States.

Finster-Nagy-spiral

 

But despite the disparity in their ages and backgrounds, Finster/Nagy immediately sensed potential when they tried out together in fall 2017. They decided to become partners, and relocated to Colorado Springs to work with Sappenfield. Success followed quickly. The team earned a Junior Grand Prix [JGP] berth in fall 2018, took silver in Junior Pairs at 2019 U.S. Nationals, and were named to the U.S. team for the 2019 Junior World Championships, where they placed 11th.  Continue reading “Finster/Nagy: Young Team on the Rise”

In Honor of Tenley Albright’s Birthday

Today, July 18, marks the 84th birthday of Tenley Albright. Born in 1935, Tenley Albright was a trailblazer in U.S. figure skating, becoming the first American lady to win an Olympic title (1956), as well as the first to win a World championship (1953, 1955). Albright captured a total of six World and Olympic medals in her career, as well as five National titles. Albright’s success–together with that of her contemporary, Dick Button–signaled the United States’ coming of age as a competitive force in the figure skating world.

Albright-in-competition
Tenley Albright in her competitive days

After her Olympic victory, Albright left competitive figure skating to focus on her education. Here again she was a trailblazer, graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1961 and becoming a surgeon during an era when women represented only 6% or less of the average medical school class. She practiced surgery for 23 years, raising three daughters along the way. Continue reading “In Honor of Tenley Albright’s Birthday”