By Lois Elfman
Any skater who has been fortunate enough to take part in a competition in Canada will tell you it’s an experience like no other.
“The audience is educated and passionate. Also, they’re open and welcoming to all nations. A great performance is a great performance. It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” said renowned choreographer and TV commentator Sandra Bezic.
“It always seems to feel more intimate here,” she added. “We have such a rich history. There’s a lot of passion and respect.”
The 2013 World Figure Skating Championships will take place in London, Ontario, Canada, March 11-17. For the first time, skaters in all disciplines are required to have met minimum scores in the short and long programs—short dance and free dance for the ice dancers—in international competition in order to qualify. A couple of weeks ago, the International Skating Union lowered the minimum scores slightly to increase the field a bit.
As the skaters make their final preparations, we preview the competition.
Four-time World Champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy would normally be the favorites, but Savchenko’s sinus infection slowed them down last fall causing them to miss their second Grand Prix event and thus the Grand Prix Final. At the European Championships, they finished second to the Russian team of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, who in just three years together have amassed an impressive array of gold medals. Their biggest losses have been to Savchenko and Szolkowy at the 2011 and ’12 Worlds, and they’re eager to assert their supremacy heading into next year’s Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
The bronze medalists from 2012 have split, so other contenders to keep an eye on include veterans Pang Qing and Tong Jian from China, in their 15th Worlds. Gold medalists in 2006 and ’10, they remain sharp. Also, vying for a spot on the podium are Canadian Champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford.
Unfortunately, the top U.S. team, Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, are sidelined due to his hip surgery. Realistically, new U.S. Champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir are aiming for a top 10 finish.
Home country favorite Patrick Chan will be going for his third consecutive World title, but he faces stiff competition from newly crowned European Champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, who makes history with each victory.
“When you’re at the top it’s not always going to be smooth,” said Bezic. “It’s not predictable. It requires two great skates—a short and a long. That will push Patrick. It will push everyone. What’s exciting for the other guys is they know it’s attainable.”
There was a major upset at the 2013 U.S. Championships, where Max Aaron in only his second year in seniors won the title. Three-time champion Jeremy Abbott finished third and will not be competing in London.
“Max Aaron has swagger,” said Michael Buckley, a YouTube celebrity who was part of the Icenetwork broadcast team at the U.S. Championships. “There is something about him, the way he carries himself that was very fun to watch. His jumps brought the house down.”
Aaron has very little experience in senior international competition, so it’s unlikely he’ll be on or even near the podium. To get there, he’d have to surpass proven Japanese competitors Yuzuru Hanyu, Takahito Mura and Daisuke Takahashi.
Heading into the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, two teams separated themselves from the pack—Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. They remain dominant and barring injury or illness the battle for gold will be between these two couples.
“The dance event is just flourishing,” said Bezic. “The quality and the creativity are staggering and wonderful.”
“Every season Meryl and Charlie seem to get better,” Buckley said. “I’m so confident and comfortable watching them…. I love watching the dance. We’re at such a high level. I feel American pride. I love them all.”
Defending World Champions Virtue and Moir have not been quite as sharp this year, but never count this extraordinary duo out—especially at a Worlds not only in their home country but also their home town.
The battle for third will be fierce as a couple of top teams try to rebound from injury—French ice dancers Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat and Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje—and others try to go where they’ve never gone before, namely the new European Champions, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev of Russia.
At the 2013 U.S. Championships in Omaha, Ashley Wagner became the first woman to win back-to-back U.S. titles since Michelle Kwan in 2005, but her star was somewhat eclipsed by Gracie Gold’s electric free skate. Although the U.S. has long thought of the ladies competition as this country’s premier event, there hasn’t been a U.S. lady on the podium since Kimmie Meissner won the title in 2006.
If all goes well in London, chances are good for a U.S. medal as well as earning that sought-after third U.S. berth for next year’s Winter Olympics.
“Ashley is a beautiful skater and she has so many good qualities,” Buckley said. “I think she’s going to go to Worlds and do a great job. Nationals lit a fire in her belly.”
Gold burst onto the scene in 2012 winning the U.S. Junior Ladies title and finishing second at the World Junior Championships. She seemed to buckle under the pressure of high expectations in the short program at Nationals, but soared in the free skate.
“She definitely has the star quality in person and on the ice that you would hope for in a U.S. lady,” said Buckley. “I have high hopes for the U.S. ladies going into Worlds…. We need them to go and do well and get a third sport to make next year so much more interesting.”
Returning to the World Championships after taking last year off from competition is reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea.
“Yuna’s going to have a few cobwebs from not being out there, but she’s—as we’ve seen—a magnificent pressure skater,” said Bezic.
Other ladies to watch for are two-time World Champion Mao Asada of Japan, who hopes to put a good end on a tough season, defending World Champion Carolina Kostner of Italy, who was in solid form at the European Championships, and first-time Canadian Champion Kaetlyn Osmond, who has powerful jumps and great charisma.
Next week, we’ll go up-close with longtime Northern Virginia resident Ashley Wagner as she prepares to take on the world.