Figure skating pairs event features battle between two dynasties

February 10, 2014

Figure skating’s most dangerous event begins Tuesday with a dramatic battle between one team trying to cement their legacy in the Parthenon of Great Pairs Teams, and  another trying to reassert the dominance of the sport’s traditional powerhouse.

We start with the German pair, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. If you thought Michelle Kwan’s unfulfilled quest for gold was tragic, consider the story of the four-time world champions. This is the second time they’ve started an Olympic cycle as the presumptive heirs to the gold medal. And for the second time, their dream might not be fulfilled.

The drama started in 2010, when the Germany were on track to win the country’s first pairs gold medal since 1948. They had dominated the discipline for the past two years, until a wonderful Chinese pair came out of retirement. The Germans were neck-and-neck with Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao after the first round in the 2010 Olympics, but an uneasy performance in the final left Savchenko and Szolkowy in third place.

Savchenko and Szolkowy decided they would try again. They improved their speed and presentation. Again they appeared to be on track to becoming the next Olympic champions.

But another problem for the Germans was brewing. During those same Olympics, the top Russian pair finished off the podium, in fourth. For Russians, it was a disgrace. Teams from the former Soviet Union had won a gold medal in every Olympic pairs event since 1960; now they didn’t win any. So the stronger partners from two different teams, one Ukranian, were merged into a super-pair: Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. They immediately made an impact in the sport, and were second to the Germans at the World Championships in 2011 and 2012, before usurping the title in 2013.

Volosozhar and Trankov had become so dominant in the sport that most people thought they would coast to the gold medal in Sochi. But Savchenko and Szolkowy have decided not to go gently, and actually came out ahead of the Russians in their last head-to-head competition.

Both teams are powerful, with explosive jumps and throws. The Germans are a more detailed and perform more difficult footwork, but the Russians are faster and cast a bigger presence on the ice. Both teams struggle with inconsistency.

The short program Tuesday night could tell the tale. If the Germans want a shot at the gold medal, they must perform a powerful short program without mistakes. It must be the best of their careers because the Russians perform their moves with such precision that judges award them big marks even when they mess up. If Savchenko and Szolkowy can win this portion of the competition, or at least can mange to be in a close second place, they have a chance. If the Germans fall significantly behind in points, it will be practically impossible for them to rally back.

And then there are the spoilers: Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford perform some of the hardest tricks in pairs skating, coupled with innovate poses and tremendous artistry. They are skaters’ skaters, with deep knee bends and enviable unison. Another team to watch would be 2010’s Olympic silver medalists, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, who wowed crowds with their passionate free skate to “Man of La Mancha” in Vancouver.

As for the United States’ pairs, I wouldn’t expect much. The champions, Marissa Castelli and Simon Schnapir, do not skate with sophistication of the major competitors and have had trouble on their jumping passes. For the casual fan, a “sophisticated” pair always looks like they are skating in synch, starting with the depth of the bend in their knees. They skate closely together and land their jumps at the same time. I’m more excited about Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, the  No. 2 U.S. team, because they show more promise. If either team can be in the top 10 after the short program, I’d consider that a miracle.

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously covered social issues in the District of Columbia.
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