World Championships – Göteborg, Sweden
by Melanie Hoyt & Michelle Wojdyla
When the dance event at the 2008 World Figure Skating Championships concludes on March 21, one thing will be certain: at least two of the teams on the podium will be first-time world medalists. However, in a discipline that becomes more unpredictable every year, nothing else is set in stone for the event in Göteborg, Sweden.
The withdrawal announcement of Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin on March 12 was unexpected. European champions Domnina & Shabalin, who also snagged gold at the Grand Prix Final, are out of the competition due to an ongoing injury to Shabalin’s knee exacerbated in practice leading up to Göteborg. He had surgery on it in December, but the recovery has taken longer than he originally anticipated. This, added to the ligament injury diagnosed on March 11, has forced the Russians to sit out the World Championships.
Domnina & Shabalin were considered one of the frontrunners, so it would appear that the fight for gold has been narrowed to two teams.
The favorites to take the title may be Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto, the only team with World Championship medals on their résumé. Their free dance this season has been celebrated by fans and judges both domestically and internationally. Belbin & Agosto chose to skip the Four Continents Championships this year, an event they have used in the past to gain momentum before the World Championships. Their last international competition was their silver medal-winning effort at the Grand Prix Final in December, where they won the original dance, but were second to Domnina & Shabalin in the free dance and overall. Although Belbin was also fighting a knee injury when the duo won their fifth U.S. title in January, a short rest allowed her to recover completely, and Belbin & Agosto are approaching the World Championships with the confidence that may propel them to the top of the podium.
Belbin & Agosto’s biggest challenge will likely come from the French champions, Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder. Delobel & Schoenfelder have been near the top of the world standings for several years, but in their past three trips to the World Championships, they have placed fourth twice and fifth once. They have had a strong season, including a close second-place finish to Domnina & Shabalin at the 2008 European Figure Skating Championships. If they skate well, 2008 should be the year that Delobel & Schoenfelder finally step onto the World Championship podium.
Two teams on the rise will probably be fighting for the remaining spot on the podium. Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir won their first Canadian title this year, and in only their second year on the senior level, they finished fourth at the Grand Prix Final. Their score at the Four Continents Championships, 207.32, was the highest score posted by any dance team at international competitions this season, and the young team beat Delobel & Schoenfelder in both the original and free dances, though not overall, at NHK Trophy in December. If anyone is going to play spoiler, it could be the Canadians.
Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski are now the top Russian entry into the World Championships and also have a great shot at the podium. After a fifth-place ranking at the Grand Prix Final, Khokhlova & Novitski’s dynamic and energetic style helped them win the Russian National title and a bronze medal at the European Championships. In their last three head-to-head battles with Virtue & Moir (2007 Worlds, NHK, and the GPF), the Canadians came out on top each time by over five points. At NHK Trophy, Khokhlova & Novitski finished about ten points behind, but had fallen in the free dance. Sweden will offer the Russians the chance to surpass their eighth place standing from the 2007 World Championships.
Meryl Davis & Charlie White’s rather lackluster performances on the Grand Prix circuit had some calling last year’s seventh-place finish at Worlds a fluke. The University of Michigan students missed a month of practice at the beginning of the season because of injuries to White, but as the season has progressed, they have looked stronger and stronger each time out. After re-working their programs, their performances at the U.S. Championships and the Four Continents Championships indicate that they belong among the top teams in the world. Their score of 199.45 points had them in second place at the Four Continents Championships, and is in the same range as Khokhlova & Novitski’s mark at the European Championships.
Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat squeaked into the Grand Prix Final this year, and are a viable threat to the top five at the World Championships. Bourzat has also struggled throughout the season with a knee injury, and their fifth place performance at the European Championships lacked some of the impact that they made on the Grand Prix series with their innovative “Insanity”-themed free dance that had captured silver medals at Skate America and Cup of Russia.
Italians Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali edged past Pechalat & Bourzat at the European Championships. Faiella & Scali have strong dances this year, and although they are flying under the radar, they could make a statement if their programs are rewarded in Sweden. They were ninth last year at Tokyo Worlds, and with three teams that were ahead of them not competing in Göteborg, Faiella & Scali have a good chance of making that final flight for the free dance.
After two eleventh-place finishes in a row at Worlds, five-time British champions John & Sinead Kerr could finish in the top ten and secure two places for Great Britain at next year’s World Championships in Los Angeles. Although they placed a disappointing fifth at their season début at Cup of China, they came back with better performances at NHK Trophy and the European Championships, where they finished sixth — not far behind Pechalat & Bourzat. Last year in Tokyo, the Scottish siblings finished more than five points ahead of the French.
After a surprising second-place finish at Skate Canada, Italy’s Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte’s season appears to have tapered off, but they should still figure into the top ten. It may not be the most likely scenario, but it is plausible that the Italian teams could finish high enough to qualify three teams for next year.
Americans Kimberly Navarro & Brent Bommentre, attending their first World Championships, are coming off of a fantastic third-place finish at the Four Continents Championships, and are also within striking distance of the top ten. Alexandra & Roman Zaretski of Israel may also improve on last year’s 14th-place finish, and Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje have been improving throughout the season. Based on their efforts at the Four Continents Championships, they should vault past 20th place, where they finished last year.
Unlike ice dancing competitions in the past, the skaters today are more likely to trade places in the standings both within the event and across the season. No one is a lock, making the dance events more exciting for everyone. For example:
Belbin & Agosto have not been beaten by any team this season other than Domnina & Shabalin (although Belbin & Agosto topped the Russians, too). They have, however, lost the TES mark to both Virtue & Moir and Davis & White.
Delobel & Schoenfelder lost the free dance to Khokhlova & Novitski at Trophee Bompard and lost both the OD and free dance to Virtue & Moir at NHK. They were third in the free dance behind Belbin & Agosto and Domnina & Shabalin at the GPF, and also lost the free dance to Domnina & Shabalin at Euros.
Khoklova & Novitski have beaten Davis & White, Capellini & Lanotte, and the Kerrs this Grand Prix season, but finished behind Davis & White at 2007 Worlds.
Faiella & Scali topped Pechalat & Bourzat, the Kerrs, Capellini & Lanotte, and the Zaretskis at the European Championships and Davis & White at Skate America, but placed more than nine points behind Pechalat & Bourzat at Skate America and nearly nine points behind Davis & White at 2007 Worlds.
While this list in far from all-inclusive, it demonstrates the volatility of ice dance. Every segment is crucial, and events have been won based on winning only the compulsory dance.
The compulsory dance kicks off the competition on March 18 with the Argentine Tango. The competition continues on March 20 with the original dance and concludes with the free dance on March 21.
When the dance event at 2008 Worlds concludes on March 21, one OTHER thing will be certain: we will have gold medalists who have never before stood on the top step of the World Championship podium.