by Melanie Heaney | Photos by Melanie Heaney & Robin Ritoss

Every four years, the figure skating world that we live in daily becomes the center of the sporting universe. Along with the rest of the world, we get swept up in the magic. For two weeks, emotions swell, dreams come true, and hearts are broken. The athletes may tell themselves that this is just like any other competition to cope with the pressure, and that is fine, but everyone knows the truth: this is not just any competition. This is the Olympic Games.

The action in Pyeongchang, South Korea, gets underway this week with the Team Event. In line with the traditional Olympic Games schedule, the ice dance individual short and free dances are the third of the four disciplines to compete following the team event. While many have speculated about team event rosters, the major medal contenders for team medals—Canada, Olympic Athletes from Russia, and the United States—are the playing the strategy game and keeping their plans under wraps until the last possible moment.

Canadians Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir (pictured, right) have already won three Olympic medals—gold in 2010, silver in 2014, and team silver in 2014—and are likely to become the most decorated ice dancers in Olympic history this year, with likely chances for another team medal and another individual medal. They are gold medal threats, of course, as they have been in every competition that they have entered in the past eight years. Virtue & Moir unveiled a retooled version of their Moulin Rouge free dance last month at the Canadian Championships, where they were awarded a perfect free dance score of 124.70 in the final performance of their domestic reign. Between the Grand Prix Final and the Canadian Championships, they had the music for the second half of the free dance recut; it now builds to a more dramatic ending, instead of ending with Satine’s sudden death. Choreographic changes included a photogenic spiral/spread eagle move and an explosive final choreographic lift. The changes addressed the criticism that some have had for Virtue & Moir’s final competitive free dance, which was that it lacked an “Olympic” feeling, and it certainly provides even more contrast to the program of their main rivals, Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron.

Papadakis & Cizeron of France (pictured, left) have built plenty of momentum over the course of the season, becoming the first team in history to crack the 200-point barrier internationally, which they managed in all three of their Grand Prix outings, as well as at the European Championships. Their “Moonlight Sonata” free dance has been stunning every time they have performed it, and many feel that they have the better free dance of the two teams, in terms of program construction and overall effect. In contrast to Virtue & Moir, this is Papadakis & Cizeron’s first Olympic experience. France is not one of the favorites for a team medal, so Papadakis & Cizeron have decided to skip the team event. It remains to be seen whether avoiding the early comparison with Virtue & Moir is the right strategy.

With both teams approaching the ceiling of dance scoring, levels are likely to make the difference. Neither team has consistently earned level 4 on all elements this season, so step sequence levels are going to be key, and the technical panel will have a lot of power to decide this year’s Olympic champion. To earn level 4 on a step sequence, every single turn must be clean, and that is so difficult to do at any competition, much less in the emotion of the Olympic Games. Virtue & Moir’s style of technique gives them a small advantage; they are more accurate on step sequences overall, but they are by no means perfect. Papadakis & Cizeron’s deep knee bend makes their skating floaty and ethereal, but it is more difficult to control the turns. The French have the advantage on the twizzle sequences; Virtue & Moir have been less consistent with this element over the past few years. And while Virtue & Moir’s lifts are more difficult to execute and have more of a “wow factor,” Papadakis & Cizeron do enough for level four and have been earning high GOE, so lifts have not been a distinct advantage or disadvantage for either team.

In terms of program components, both teams have been picking up 10.00s all season. In their head-to-head meeting at the Grand Prix Final, Papadakis & Cizeron won the PCS in both segments, but their margin in the short dance was only 17 one-hundredths of a point. In both dances at the Final, Papadakis & Cizeron skated after Virtue & Moir, so skate order could play a major role this time around. Both teams will draw to skate in the final group of the short dance.

Based on the season’s trajectory, it is unlikely that any other team will challenge for the top two spots without a catastrophic mistake, but the battle for bronze should be fierce. For the first time ever, all three American teams are Olympic medal hopefuls, along with a Russian team, an Italian team, and a Canadian team.

Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue defeated Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock & Evan Bates to win their first U.S. national title last month, but that may not have been enough to cement them as the top U.S. in the eyes of the international judges. Hubbell & Donohue are entering their first Olympic Games, while the other two teams were both in Sochi. Chock & Bates emerged as the top U.S. team after the Sochi Games, but lost their crown to the Shibutanis at the end of the 2015-16 season. Last year, they struggled to keep pace with the Shibutanis, despite using new choreographers and carving out a distinct, edgy style. This year, they have made up some points, and actually won the free dance at the U.S. Championships and had the highest-ranked free dance among the American teams at the Grand Prix Final. Both times, though, they only edged out the other teams by a nose in the free, and not overall. Their short dance is fine, but has not yet stood out for them.

The Shibutanis have the opposite issue; their short dance is the highlight of their competitive offerings this year. While they wanted this year’s free dance to close a “trilogy” of programs that began with their memorable program to “Fix You” in 2015-16, using Coldplay again seems to invite the comparison that the new program to “Paradise” is simply not as magical as “Fix You.” They have been the most consistent U.S. in the short dance and it is assumed that they will participate in the team event for the United States, at least in the short dance. It is not yet known if a different team will skate the free dance, or if the Shibutanis will skate both portions.

Hubbell & Donohue, meanwhile, are on an absolute high and are rolling into Pyeongchang with a ton of momentum after winning their first U.S. title and making their first Olympic team. They were first alternates for the 2014 Games, and in the past four years, they have changed coaches and training locations. They have probably improved their quality of skating more than any other team in the top ten. Although a bit accident-prone in the past, they have been extremely consistent and accurate this year, and it is possible that their peak is still to come. But although training in Montréal alongside Virtue & Moir and Papadakis & Cizeron has been incredible for their skating, it may be a factor that keeps them off the podium. In such a political event as the Olympic Games, it seems unlikely that a single training group—and a relatively new one, at that—could sweep the podium.

Since Russia was issued a categorical ban from the Games by the International Olympic Committee, Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev will lead the “Olympic Athletes from Russia team, or OAR. They will not compete under the Russian flag, and should they win a medal, it would not be added to Russia’s historic medal count. Competing amid all of the controversy—especially since fellow ice dancer Ivan Bukin was not invited by the IOC and, therefore, cannot compete—must be difficult for Bobrova & Soloviev, but they have plenty of experience. Together since 2000, only Virtue & Moir beat the 2013 world bronze medalists and 2014 Olympic team event champions on partnership longevity.

Italians Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte were surprise champions at the 2014 post-Olympic World Championships, securing their victory by the smallest margin in history. They have never been back to the world podium this quadrennial, but they won three European silver medals in a row before missing the podium this year. Cappellini & Lanotte had their worst event of the season at the European Championships last month, and it seems inevitable that they will bounce back; they always do.

Finally, Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje still have a shot at the bronze medal, particularly if they can crack the top five after their short dance. Twizzles have been their nemesis, but fans are hoping that they have left their demons at home and will peak in Pyeongchang. If they can get through the short dance cleanly, their free dance is a tried-and-true rework from 2011-12 that has continued to score well. If they can skate it to the best of their ability, the moment should feel quite Olympic.

Dancers first take the ice in the team event on Sunday, February 11 (airing on February 10 in North America). The team free dance will be on Monday, February 12. The individual short dance takes place a week later, on February 19, and the free dance is scheduled for February 20.