By Lois Elfman
The eagerly anticipated figure skating events of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia get underway even before the Opening Ceremony. The inaugural team competition starts on Thursday, Feb. 6, with the men’s and pairs short programs. The U.S. will be one of 10 countries participating, but as of press time had not yet revealed which skaters would be taking part. In two of the disciplines countries are allowed to use different skaters or teams for the short program and free skate, but no one is saying how this might play out.
“Right now we’re not supposed to talk too much about strategy,” said ice dancer Charlie White.
All the skaters on the U.S. team have been in frequent contact—group texting and using Snapchat—building a sense of camaraderie.
“Those of us who’ve been have been [to Olympics] are able to answer questions from those who haven’t,” said four-time U.S. Men’s Champion Jeremy Abbott, who competed at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. “We’ve been planning out activities we can do in the village and that we can do together. It’s really cool to feel part of a team since we’ve been individuals our entire careers.”
Two days after the very first team medals are awarded, the pairs competition gets underway. The battle for gold will likely be between Russians Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov and Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. These two teams have dominated the World Championships in recent years with Volosozhar and Trankov pushing the bar higher and higher. Other teams to look out for are the three-time Canadian Champions and current World bronze medalists Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and veteran Chinese competitors, reigning Olympic silver medalists Qing Pang and Jian Tong. If U.S. Champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir land a quad throw jump, they could be top six.
Next up will be the men, and it would be foolish to overlook Russian skater Evgeni Plushenko, heading into his fourth Olympics—he won silver in 2002 and 2010 and gold in 2006. Three-time World Champion Patrick Chan of Canada will face intense competition from his own nerves and from Japanese skaters Yuzuru Hanyu and Daisuke Takahashi (2010 bronze medalist) and two-time European Champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.
Abbott will aim to leave a mark on the sport in his second Olympic appearance. Training following the Nationals has been going well and Abbott said he was feeling much more grounded heading to Sochi than he did prior to Vancouver four years ago. He said the level of competition in Sochi will be high and he’s excited to be in the medal hunt. Quadruple jumps have once again become crucial in the men’s competition and will likely be a deciding factor, but triples, spins and program components cannot be overlooked.
“We’ve made a training plan over the last two years and stuck to it, and it’s been progressing kind of methodically and slow and steady,” said Abbott of himself and coaches Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen. “When I was in Boston, as soon as I got off the medal stand it was right back to business.”
In the ladies event, all eyes will be on defending Olympic gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea. After taking off the 2011-12 season, Kim staged a blazing comeback capturing the 2013 World title. An injury sidelined her last fall, but she appears ready for Sochi. Likely do ferocious battle with Kim is longtime rival Mao Asada of Japan, who won silver at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Other medal contenders include including newly crowned European Champion Julia Lipnitskaia of Russia.
The U.S. has medal hopefuls in new U.S. Ladies Champion Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, who was named to the Olympic team despite a fourth-place finish at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston.
Even with opportunities like appearing on The Tonight Show, where she juggled for host Jay Leno, Gold is staying focused.
“Juggling on The Tonight Show is awesome and exciting, but I go home and I have an Olympic banner hung and I have an Olympic jacket on my couch and I know instantly what time am I getting up tomorrow to train for the Olympics,” said Gold.
Known as a strong athlete, Gold has been developing other aspects of her skating under the guidance of veteran coach Frank Carroll, with whom she’s been working for only a few months.
“I’m really developing the artistry side. So I think that’s something to look forward to—the new Gracie Gold—at the Olympics,” she said. “I’ve got to keep training and keep fine-tuning.
“I definitely think I have a chance at medaling,” she added. “It’s really who’s going to stay focused and who is going to leave everything out on the ice. The Olympics really is about throwing everything and just saying, ‘This is what I have. Can you beat it?’
Things have been much more frenetic for Wagner, who has decided to ditch this year’s long program to Romeo and Juliet and return to last year’s free skate to Samson and Delilah, but with elements of this year’s free skate blended in. She jokingly described it as a bit of a “Frankenstein” program. Wagner said the change isn’t a big deal because she’s accustomed to change
“Going into the Olympics I want to feel as comfortable and confident on the ice as I possibly can,” said Wagner, who’s had a tumultuous year—changing coaches, training sites and choreographers as well as her parents getting divorced. “Nationals was me skating scared…letting that one moment overwhelm me…. This new program is going to let me get into that confident, forward motion type of thinking.”
While the ladies probably remain the marquee event for American audiences, the only serious chance the U.S. has for gold comes from two-time World Ice Dance Champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who took silver in 2010 and recently won a precedent-setting sixth U.S. title. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the reigning Olympic gold medalists, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, are Davis and White’s only serious competition. These two top teams both train in Canton, Michigan with coach Marina Zoueva.
“We feel like we’ve evolved so much over the last four years, so we’re really excited to go in and show off our improvement across the board, not just in any one area,” said Davis. “Much of the day is spent focusing on training the programs, being in the best physical shape we could possibly be. We certainly spend a lot of time focusing on the nuances—bringing up the programs to a new level.”
While Davis and White have competed with intensity every season, they also began the build up to the Olympic season quite a while ago. They trained the opening lift in their free dance for more than two years, and picked their free dance music, Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, also more than two years ago.
“Charlie and I really focused over the years on giving ourselves programs that challenged us in the right way at the time,” said Davis. “We’ve tried to push the envelope for ourselves in terms of exploring different areas of our performance and different areas of our athletic abilities.
“We kind of knew that Scheherazade was a piece that was really appropriate for us this year,” she added. “Taking into account the fact that we wanted to save it for our Olympic program, we also really wanted to save it for a time where we could do the music itself justice, which now we feel like we can.”
All of the skaters are aware of the security concerns, but have faith that the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee and the Russian government will take all possible precautions.
“I see all the headlines and obviously it is something that I’m thinking about,” said Wagner, whose father, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, was at the Pentagon on 9/11 and thankfully was unharmed. “I really, truly believe in the USOC as well as the Russian Olympic Committee. I believe they’re going to do everything they possibly can to make sure the athletes feel safe and comfortable because our job is to go there and compete.”