The team competition brought the tension and drama of figure skating to the forefront of these Sochi Games a day before the actual opening ceremonies. The event was new, but I kept on wondering to myself: Is this 1994?
Like the games in Lillehammer, Norway, we started with some scratchy performances by the top men and had a powerful performance by a Russian pairs team. But we also saw a new generation of skaters continuing their rise up. It was a night to remember most fans, although our sentimental favorite Jeremy Abbott might have felt he was a young boy just coming out of the dentist. Burying his head in his hands after an abysmal start to these games, he seemed to be asking himself: Is this real life?
Let’s dissect the competition. Here are some takeaways:
1. The day wasn’t so great for the U.S, but the team is still in this.
Abbott has a lot to correct before the men’s competition, but he’ll likely be benched for the team program and he didn’t necessarily doom the team. Remember that there are eight rounds to this competition; last night we only saw two of them.
But the pressure is on now for Ashley Wagner to give a wonderful short program. Fortunately, her short to Pink Floyd’s “Shine on you Crazy Diamond” is a strong, smug and sexy piece, befitting her persona. I don’t think her train wreck at Nationals was a total aberration (more on that later), except in this respect: her important jump combination has been pretty steady this season and she’ll likely come through for her team. Team Japan and China will continue to fall in the rankings because they don’t have good ice dancers, which is the strong suit of the United States, Canada and Russia.
As for Abbott, he needs to attack his jumps. That means skating with greater speed (SPEED WINS THE OLYMPICS) and, yes, landing jumps on one foot. His performance was devoid of some of the things we like most about him: steady edges (How can you detect an edge? Look for how they lean their body) and speed. As we noted last night, Paul Wylie should give him a call.
2. Plushenko’s back, but no way will he dominate,
The Russian great Evgeni Plushenko returned to the ice with bombastic presentation, much to the enthusiasm of the crowd in Sochi. He reeled the hardest jumping pass you’ll see at these Games — a quadruple toe loop, triple toe loop in combination — and eeked out the hardest triple jump you’ll see here: the triple axel. (Casual fans: The axel is the easiest jump to spot. It’s the only one that takes off with the skater going forward.)
Despite the success in the technical department, the Bionic Man of Figure Skating also showed how much the men’s sport has progressed without him.
From a critical standpoint, his program was considerably easier than the top male competitors. All of his jumps were in the beginning of the program, not spaced out like most of the men, and his footwork was passionate but not overly complex. Even during his best years, Plushenko has rarely come out on top during an intense rivalry. While he was a head and shoulders better than skaters in 2006, Alexei Yagudin, Evan Lysacek and, most recently, Maxim Kovtun (who beat him at Russian nationals, but was passed over for the Olympics) all defeated him when it mattered. Why should Sochi be different?
3. Remember this name: Yuzuru Hanyu.
Over the past three years, figure skating observers have marveled at the stratospheric rise of the Japanese phenom. On Thursday, we saw why. He’s young, fast (speed wins the Olympics), corks off jumps easily, and has a swaggerific charisma that can electrify a crowd. He’s like a young Evgeni Plushenko. The best men’s skater, pound for pound, is Patrick Chan from Canada. But he has no room for error. Hanyu is here to win.
4. The pairs event might be surprisingly entertaining.
Tatiana Voloszhar and Maxim Trankov started the competition with their distinctive Russian style: powerful, precise, and methodical. They rightfully slayed the competition last night.
But their rivals, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy from Germany, opted to sit this competition out, and they can challenge them. Plus, Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford will continue to be fun to watch. Their short program utilized their incredible height difference and they skated with innovative lifts and the hardest jump combination, set to gorgeous Muzak.
5. The team event might take too long.
I am all for team skating, but there are another two days of this competition. Not sure it will be worth it in the end. It’s still little too early to tell.