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Olympic ice dance final could make figure skating history


Meryl Davis and Charlie White (DAMIEN MEYERDAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images)

Power and beauty, whimsy and drama, classical music and the King of Pop all will be featured in Monday’s final in ice dance. Will Meryl Davis and Charlie White become the first U.S. team from to win an Olympic gold medal in the event? And who will win the compelling race for bronze?

This event has the chance to be not just the most competitive ice dance competition of all time, but the best figure skating event of all time. That’s not an exaggeration. The two top teams have offered a great rivalry over the past six years (videos galore here.)

We know ice dance can be a little esoteric and sound a little strange – what the heck is a twizzle? – but this guide will get you covered. This post will recap the strengths and weaknesses of the top teams and give some predictions for who will win this thing. During prime-time coverage, I will be live tweeting and fielding questions on Twitter @newsbysamuels.

If you found the short dance on Sunday a little boring, the free dance might be more of your thing. Free dances feature as many as five lifts (so long as one partner doesn’t lift the other over the head), a combination spin, two sections of fancy footwork and the most distinctive move of ice dance – the twizzle. In this less restrictive portion of the competition, teams perform in any style they want, to any music they want. Dances must be able to be replicated in a ballroom or on a dance stage.

It is this less restricted phase of the competition that American’s Davis and White truly unleash their power. Their program has changed over the course of the year to become more sultry but it crescendoes fast and powerfully. Their telling of the story of Scheherazade, the Persian legend of a woman who seduces the king to delay her beheading, has become a bit of an American figure skating legend. They are at least the third top American Olympic prospects to skate to this music. Evan Lysacek won his gold medal in 2010 using this piece; it was not so good for Michelle Kwan, who fell to this music in the 2002 Olympics and came in third.

Davis and White’s version has become popular because it has been remixed to Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love”  on Buzzfeed. But there is no “surfborting” in ice dance.

Davis and White enter the long dance with a 2.5-point margin over Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, a healthy lead in ice dance but not an insurmountable one. If they are to secure the gold medal, they must skate even stronger and faster than before. You can tell if a team is skating strongly by how few steps on the ice it takes them to go from one end to another, and also the ease in which the man lifts the woman.

There is a tendency for those in first place to take it a little easy in the second program to avoid making mistakes. Davis and White do not have that luxury. If they make one mistake, they will probably lose. And if they don’t skate fast, their Canadian competition could usurp this title.


Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada (Bernat Armangue/Associated Press)

Virtue and Moir, reality TV stars in their homeland and widely reputed for fundamentally improving ice dance, find themselves in a pretty terrible position. They need Davis and White to make mistakes to win this gold medal. The judges have gravitated toward the Americans’ dramatic style all year, and reviews of the Canadians’ scheduled program have been tepid. Tepid perhaps because the concept’s a little hackneyed, an homage to their own success while skating to Alexander Glazonov’s “The Seasons.”

The program only remotely works because they’ve had such great success. For Virtue and Moir, it is all about edges and pure beauty. Don’t expect much theater from them. But watch as they pick up points by shifting weight from one side of their bodies to the other, skating with perfect posture and in a more difficult “dance hold” position, with all four arms locked, as opposed to a position with only two hands locked. They were born for the ice.

But don’t be fooled by their beauty. They are sharks. During the last Olympic season, Davis and White had their number until Virtue and Moir blew them out of the water at the Vancouver Games. That scenario is less likely here, but it could happen.

For the Canadians to win, they’ll need a little help from their training partners but also have to skate with an ease that they haven’t had all season. We will be able to tell whether or not they will become two-time Olympic champions by their first lift.

Virtue will climb on one of Moir’s knees; and he’ll kick the other foot off the ice. If that lift is perfectly timed with the music, a circumstance that’s been rare all season, that means the two are ready to play.

 


Ilynkh and Katsalopov are in third place. AP photo.

 

Then there’s the race for bronze. It was a bit of a surprise when Russian’s Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalopov surged to third place with a poised, confident short dance. They’re mistake-prone and have been hindered by programs that can be a little weird.

They are now headed toward their strong suit, when Ilinykh channels her Mila Kunis beauty and her prima ballerina personality to an interpretation of “Swan Lake.”  They’ve been building momentum all year, so I would expect a good performance tonight. Their strengths are their innovative lifts and their ability to sell a program. But they lack the difficulty of the other pairs; note how relatively rare it is for them to skate in that dance hold position.

Challenging them for the bronze will be France’s Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, 2012’s world bronze medalists who just can’t seem to get a break. Their program today is playful and features some great lifts. I’ve never been compelled by this team because they don’t secure many good deep edges and they don’t have much bend in their knees. But the French are innovative and wispy and generally likable. If the judges prop them up from fourth place to third, it would be an appreciation of their longevity in the sport.

The other Russian pair, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, had a good season this year but will likely drop in the rankings. They are the fastest team on  the ice, but they lack the extension, the pointed toes, the good posture of all of their competitors. Judges might be more compelled by Canadian’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who will be skating to a technically proficient and steamy tango; or Anna Capalleni and Luca Lanotte, the energetic Italian pair who will be skating to “The Barber of Seville.” The Italians will be the most entertaining program, but they don’t have those deep edges that we discussed before.

As for the other two Americans teams, expect them both in the top 10. Dare we be so lucky, NBC will broadcast the the dueling Michael Jackson programs, one from the United States’ Maia and Alex Shibutani, the other by Britian’s Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland. We used to have “The Battle of the Carmens,” now we have the Battle of the Moonwalk. Ow!

My predictions: 1. Davis-White; 2. Virtue-Moir; 3. Ilinykh-Katsalopov; 4. Bechalat-Bourzat; 5. Cappalleni-Lanotte; 6. Bobrova-Soloviev.

 

More Olympics news

Snowboard cross postponed until Tuesday

Five thoughts on the men’s hockey prelim rounds

Jenkins: Sochi was the wrong choice. Dangerous snow is one reason.

Davis, White lead rivals Virtue, Moir after figure skating short dance

Olympic hockey playoff bracket is set

Wise: Pressure on Team Russia builds

At Winter Olympics, many medals rest on judges’ decisions

Small Minn. town produces another Olympic duo

Jacobellis falls again while leading snowboard cross semifinal

Mikaela Shiffrin: ‘I’m going for a medal in two events’

Photos from Day 10 | Daily TV schedule | U.S. medal winners

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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