Bradie Tennell performs at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the Orleans Arena on Jan. 17, 2021 in Las Vegas.
Quadruple Lutzes, triple Axels, twizzles and, if we’re lucky, a healthy dose of drama returns next week, when 192 athletes from 40 nations take part in the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships, held at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden.
With COVID-19 still a grave concern, the International Skating Union (ISU) and local organizers have created a tight bubble environment, similar to that used by U.S. Figure Skating at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. That means no spectators, little media and a restricted number of coaches and officials.
“The biggest thing is, all of the athletes need to be conscious of being socially distant and not mingle too much,” Evan Bates said. “Things like having meals together, hanging out together outside of the rink, are out.”
Testing and masking protocols will be strictly enforced. Participants are restricted to controlled areas, including the official hotel and arena.
“We have already had one PCR test; we have another on Thursday, we have another one when we arrive, and then we have one a few days later,” Jenni Meno, coach of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, said. “I’ve been wearing an N95 mask, I will continue to do that. I think we just have to be as safe as we can, and as smart as we can, and that’s all we can really control.”
The overwhelming sentiment, expressed by all four U.S. champions on media teleconferences, is gratitude at being able to compete. The 2020 world championships, scheduled to be held in Montreal, Quebec, last March, were canceled.
“Last Wednesday, it was exactly one year ago worlds was cancelled, and it brought back all of those feelings,” Bradie Tennell said. “I’m so excited and I feel really ready. I can’t wait to get there.”
"I miss the audience, I miss having the energy of having a live event,” Nathan Chen said. “It feels different when people are there, engaging in the event. But that being said, it is what it is. At least we're able to compete and have a worlds."
Here’s what to expect in Stockholm:
Chen vs. Hanyu Showdown
The last time a U.S. man won three world figure skating titles in a row, “M*A*S*H” had just ended its 11-year network television run, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was climbing the charts and Ronald Reagan was in the White House. The year was 1983: the skater, Scott Hamilton. He would capture Olympic gold and a fourth world crown the following year.
Chen is favored for a three-peat in Stockholm, but a significant obstacle stands in his path: two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. While Chen has won their last two matchups, most recently at the 2018-2019 Grand Prix Final, Hanyu showed top form winning his fifth Japanese title in December, combining his elegant, fluid style and intricate steps with six quadruple jumps in two programs.
“He's really the benchmark, or the standard, of what skating looks like, and he has been for many, many years,” Chen said.
“He is an idol I watched while growing up (Chen is 21; Hanyu, 26). It's always an honor for me to compete against him. I'm super excited to push myself to catch up to what he is."
Asked what he thought of his rival’s recent performances, Chen noted that despite training in Japan, away from his Toronto-based coach Brian Orser, Hanyu looked in peak form.
"I know how difficult it is to not train at your traditional training base,” said Chen, who spent portions of the last two seasons attending Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, away from his Irvine, California, rink and longtime coach Rafael Arutunian. He is now on leave from Yale, with plans to return following the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
“For (Hanyu) to look this strong, this clean, this well put together is really impressive,” he added. “I don’t think he has lost anything (during the pandemic). If anything, he's gotten better…. His jump content is solid. His skating skills are strong. He seems sharper, everything seems fine-tuned. … He's looking great."
Still, Chen may have an edge. His programs at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas in January, while not completely clean, had a higher technical base value (points) than Hanyu’s, including quadruple Lutz and flip in his short program.
“I don’t think I need to change too much, since nationals,” said Chen, who often changes his planned jump content the day of events. “(I will) probably run a similar (layout).”
If a man other than Chen or Hanyu wins gold in Stockholm, it will be considered an upset. Still, many will challenge for the podium, including U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou, the reigning world bronze medalist who, like Chen and Hanyu, routinely includes four quadruple jumps in his free skate. Japan’s Shoma Uno, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist, is also a strong candidate. Russian national champion Mikhail Kolyada and Boyang Jin of China, a two-time world medalist, are not as consistent as the top skaters, but bear watching.
While he lacks quad firepower, Jason Brown’s compelling skating and performance skills could create some of the week’s most memorable moments. His short program, set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” was a special highlight of the national championships.
Two U.S. Teams Vie For Ice Dance Gold
U.S. ice dancers have earned medals at the last five world championships, but none have claimed gold since Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2013. With four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France not competing, Stockholm offers the best chance yet for either Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, or Madison Chock and Evan Bates, to stand atop the world podium.
To Hubbell, though, Papadakis and Cizeron’s absence is immaterial.
“It seems impossible until it’s done, to knock off the reigning world champions,” she said. “It would have been our goal regardless. We’ve had a really great year, we’ve been training incredibly hard. I think it would be a disservice to anyone who wins the world championships to put it as, they won because Gabby and Guillaume weren’t there.”
In a combined 13 worlds appearances, both U.S. teams have won silver and bronze medals. Chock and Bates are two-time U.S. champions (2015, 2020) while Hubbell and Donohue own three U.S. crowns (2018, 2019 and 2021), most recently edging out their longtime rivals at nationals.
“Since then, we’ve been healthy and injury free, just really training a lot of repetitions, (doing) a lot of cardio, making sure we are in peak physical condition,” Hubbell said.
Unlike last season, when they struggled to become comfortable with their programs, the couple made few changes to either their racy “Burlesque” rhythm dance or their soulful free dance to “Hallelujah.”
“I think this year, both programs equally did a really great job of creating a solid base to build upon,” Donohue said. “There are a few things we want to tweak, based on the feel we want to provide or what we feel is going to add to the performance. But for the most part you are going to be looking at a well-repeated choreography.”
Not so for Chock and Bates, who like their longtime rivals train at the Ice Academy of Montreal. Chock suffered a concussion in an off-ice fall last summer, limiting their training time and forcing them to withdraw from Skate America. Other factors, too, complicated their preparations for the national championships.
“It was like, it rains it pours, at the end of 2020,” Bates said. “The second half of the year was really challenging for us.”
The skaters made changes to both of their programs, particularly their “Snake and Snake Charmer” free dance, for nationals, but have restored the original choreography for worlds.
“We feel the programs are in a fantastic place, better than they have been,” Chock said. “We feel the flow, the energy, everything is really gelling.”
“If we can perform at worlds the way we’ve been training, we are going to be in a very good position,” Bates said.
Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, the U.S. bronze medalists who also train in Montreal, have what many consider their finest programs ever, and look strong for a top-ten finish.
The U.S. teams’ biggest competition will likely come from two Figure Skating Association of Russia (FSR) couples, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, the 2019 world silver medalists, and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, four-time European medalists who placed fourth in the world in 2019.