Eyes of the World on Sochi for 22nd Winter Olympic Games

by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photos by Robin Ritoss & Liz Chastney

10ODPod1019-Flags-LC 450On day 11 of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, 24 teams representing 15 countries will take the ice at the Iceberg Skating Palace. This year’s roster includes one couple more than appeared in Vancouver and two nations taking part in their first Olympic ice dance event. For a select few, the contest here is a matter of medal, and for many more, the aim is to secure standing or establish a name in the run-up to 2018. For some, too, the event itself is the reward. But for both top contenders and later qualifiers, the meaning of the games supersedes a first- or twenty-first-place position: every couple here can proudly proclaim themselves Olympians. 

Canadians Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir are the first Olympic ice dance champions since Oksana Grishuk & Evgeni Platov to return to the games to defend their title. The Canadian champions certainly seek to repeat that team’s accomplishment of capturing back-to-back gold. Given their youth in 2010, this Olympic cycle has seen the couple continuing their development as skaters, tackling an impressive variety of genres, from Latin to modern dance, and setting new personal scoring benchmarks each season. This season, though, their balletic free dance to Russian composer Alexander Glazunov’s “Seasons” intentionally hearkens back to the lyrical Mahler-penned free with which they captured Vancouver gold, as well as the classical style that characterized their earlier years. At the Grand Prix Final, the team earned new personal bests in all categories, including a total of 190.00. Last month, they set a new national record free dance score of 117.87 at the Canadian Championships.  

For 2010 Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis & Charlie White of the US, the storyline since 2012 has been one of competitive dominance. The team’s last second-place finish came at that year’s World Championships, and their streak of international victories sits at ten. Though experimenting in part with genres like tango, they have found a particular comfort zone in more theatrical or story-driven programs, an approach which has served them well. At the 2013 Grand Prix Final, they set both a personal best and new world record with a total of 191.35 in their fifth win at the event, and the team would follow that with even more striking numbers one month later at the U.S. Championships. There, they received the first perfect score in this era of ice dance for their Scheherazade free dance – 119.5, with level 4 elements, maximum GOEs on each, and all 10s counted in components.

Despite the American team’s many successes over the past two seasons, the contest between the world’s top couples should come down to what happens on Sochi ice. The gap between the teams at the Grand Prix Final was narrow, with Davis & White leading Virtue & Moir by only .07 in the short dance and 1.28 in the free. In a race so close that every fraction matters, each team will certainly seek to deliver on their levels, but neither can be guaranteed of executing a perfect performance. What is certain is that this contest will mark a memorable conclusion to one of the sport’s most talked-about rivalries. 

13GPF-SrDFD03-9138-PB-RR 595For 2013 World bronze medalists and home team Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev, the current season has had its difficulties. Though they won gold at Rostelecom Cup, they placed second in the free dance, also finished second overall at Cup of China, and wrapped the series with a fourth-place finish at the Grand Prix Final. After achieving their fourth national title, the team opted to sit out the European Championships both to ready for the Olympic team event and to scrap this season’s free dance, the story of two birds pursued by hunters, in favor of a return to last season’s better-received “Madness” program. The team has certainly risen internationally since a 15th-place finish in 2010 as Russia’s young number three couple, and a medal on Russian ice would be a special achievement. A trip to the podium, however, will also depend on technical execution and delivery for both Bobrova & Soloviev and their primary rivals.

Sochi will be the third Olympic Games for France’s Nathalie Péchalat & Fabian Bourzat (pictured, left), who placed 18th at the event in 2006 and seventh in 2010. After a difficult and injury-marked conclusion to last season, the team rebounded in fall, winning Cup of China and taking bronze at the Grand Prix Final. Like Bobrova & Soloviev, however, they have faced their own program issues, focusing after French Nationals on honing a revised, more ballroom-driven take on their Bob Fosse-themed short dance, and skipping Europeans in order to prepare for the team event. In the current Olympic cycle, Péchalat & Bourzat were able to take advantage of a more open field and become regular medal contenders, and now with the team set to retire after the Games, a medal would serve as a terrific conclusion to a longstanding and varied career. Here, too, however, technical sharpness across both programs, as well as comfort with key program revisions, will be essential. 

Canadian silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, as oft-discussed, narrowly missed a spot on Canada’s two-team Olympic squad back in 2010, and set out subsequently to improve themselves and ensure their chance to compete in 2014. The result of their efforts has been a top five finish at each of the last three World Championships and this season, after a pair of silver medals at Skate Canada International and Rostelecom Cup, the couple enters Sochi holding the third-highest international total for the season to date, 175.23 points achieved at Skate Canada. In a Grand Prix Final field crowded with the same top teams facing off here, however, they placed only fifth, with levels in the free dance a particular issue. While the team stands every chance of placing at least top five, both consistency and seasoning may play a role in their odds for a podium finish.

While Italians Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte have been competing on the major senior stage since 2006 – making their first Olympic appearance in 2010 with a 12th-place finish – it has been in recent years that they’ve achieved their greatest success. They placed fourth at last year’s Worlds and, most recently, they brought home their first-ever gold medal from the European Championships, which brought with it a new ISU personal best total of 171.61. The couple, though, finished last at the Grand Prix Final with performances totaling 15 points fewer than their achievement in at Europeans in Budapest. The field in Sochi, too, will include three main rivals not present in Budapest, so their chances of carrying forward their recent success are difficult to determine.  

14Euros-FD-RR-IK-2118 595Russia’s Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov (pictured, right) are known for the roller coaster that their competitive career has become. They are capable of attaining very strong marks with a clean performance, as with an outing at 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard that earned them a personal best total of 171.89, fourth on the season’s best list, but have often erred, dropping technical levels or bobbling an element. Such unpredictability makes them the greatest unknown in the bronze medal race. At last year’s Worlds, the team finished ninth, while at this year’s European Championships, they came within 1.10 points of gold, placing second courtesy of lower short dance levels and a fall on twizzles in the free dance. The duo, well-regarded by panels, is likely to pick up strong component marks here, but for a top five finish or better, that effort will need to be matched by careful execution.

For the second-place American team of Madison Chock & Evan Bates, the field may prove a testing ground of sorts. Last season, the pair finished a very good seventh at Worlds, but had several rockier competitions this fall, earning bronze at two Grand Prix events but grappling with low technical marks and errors. Their silver medal-winning performance at U.S. Nationals, however, showed more precise effort from the team, easily securing their placement ahead of the two other strong couples vying for the podium. With partner Emily Samuelson at the 2010 Olympic Games, Bates finished 11th; he is likely to improve on that placement here with Chock.

2014 U.S. bronze and 2011 World bronze medalists Maia & Alex Shibutani are not expected to be in medal contention here, but can aim to improve on recent world finishes and set themselves up for the next quadrennial. The siblings have finished eighth at each of the last two World Championships while dealing in both seasons with injury. This year, however, the team has been healthier and they picked up two Grand Prix bronze medals this season, as well as the second-best international totals among the U.S. contingent here, due in large part to very strong technical marks. At the U.S. Championships in January, however, the team left points on the ice through missed levels, including on the twizzles in both segments, and returning to early season form will be central to improving on more recent accomplishments here. Their solid basics, however, should keep them in good stead in maintaining a top 10 position.      
Penny Coomes & Nicholas Buckland of Great Britain enter the Olympics as the reigning European bronze medalists. They earned two new ISU personal bests at that event, including a total of 158.69 points. At its outset, the 2013-14 season presented challenges for the team, who finished 13th at last year’s Worlds: a seventh-place finish at Trophée Eric Bompard came but a few weeks after a heart procedure for Buckland. In this field, especially high results will be more difficult to attain, but the recent outing suggests they are in the running to contend for a top 10 finish. This is their second Olympic appearance; they were 20th in 2010.

Pernelle Carron & Lloyd Jones have managed to hold to their position as France’s second team ahead of up-and-comers Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron. This season, they were 13th at Europeans and won the gold medal at the Winter Universiade, and they finished as high as fourth on the Grand Prix series at Cup of China. The team’s 12th-place standing at last year’s Worlds indicates their capacity for solid results, although technical consistency is sometimes an issue.

Julia Zlobina & Alexei Sitnikov enter as the first team to represent Azerbaijan on the Olympic stage since 2006. A country switch (from Russia) and a coaching change has helped them to advance in the world standings in the second half of their long international career. Although they finished a less-than-hoped-for 16th at 2013 Worlds, they placed sixth at the recent European Championships, where they also achieved a new personal best total of 147.78.

Also worth noting are a pair of younger teams from top ice dance nations who may not be positioned to contend this year for a high finish, but have potential to make waves in the coming cycle. Neither Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina & Ruslan Zhiganshin nor Canada’s Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam have ever skated at a senior world championship, but both are past junior world medalists.

Sinitsina & Zhiganshin finished third at their national championships ahead of the more established team of Ekaterina Riazanova & Ilia Tkachenko. They sealed their placement on the Olympic team with by finishing ahead of Riazanova & Tkachenko again with a fourth-place finish at Europeans, where they also set a new personal best in the free dance. Their season’s best total of 153.73 is 11th among all teams in Sochi.

Paul & Islam have rebounded this season from past mishaps and injuries, setting a personal best in the short dance at Nebelhorn Trophy, where they earned bronze, and in both the free dance and overall with a fifth-place finish at Skate Canada International. The couple secured their trip to Sochi with a pair of very strong performances at Canadians, including level 4s on both Finnstep sequences and their first level 4 step sequence in a free dance. They will be looking to gain further notice in their first outing at a senior international of this scope. 

14Euros-FD-RR-TS-0286 595A handful of teams faced a special obstacle to making the Games – citizenship. Germany’s Nelli Zhiganshina & Alexander Gazsi, another team in the running for top 10, have an unusual (though not unheard-of) circumstance, as Zhiganshina is older sister to Russia’s Zhiganshin. Zhiganshina formally renounced her Russian citizenship in the fall, sealing her German citizenship and essentially securing their spot here given recent results which have included a tenth-place finish at 2013 Worlds and seventh at 2014 Europeans.

Germany’s number two team of Tanja Kolbe & Stefano Caruso also includes a new citizen, with the announcement of the Italian Caruso’s newly-acquired German citizenship coming last September. Kolbe & Caruso have nipped at the heels of their domestic rivals a couple of times this season, but were firmly behind them at Europeans.

Italy, meanwhile, sends as its second team Charlène Guignard & Marco Fabbri; Guignard, of French heritage, originally competed for that country before teaming up with Fabbri in 2010, and obtained her Italian passport in August of this past year. Most recently, they placed eighth at Europeans.

The most dramatic citizenship story of the cycle may have been that of Isabella Tobias & Deividas Stagniunas (pictured, left). Stagniunas missed the 2010 Games after the Lithuanian government denied citizenship to then-partner Katherine Copely. The American-born Tobias began seeking Lithuanian citizenship shortly after teaming up with Stagniunas, but it was finally denied to her in early 2013. But after the team’s 15th-place finish at 2013 Worlds, securing a spot for the nation at the Olympic Games, the government reconsidered the case. Tobias, who has learned the Lithuanian language well enough to give interviews, was sworn in as a new citizen in December. The couple finished ninth at the European Championships. 

Rounding out this slate of new-citizen teams are Siobhan Heekin-Canedy & Dmitri Dun, with the American Heekin-Canedy having recently obtained Ukrainian citizenship. The team finished 14th at last year’s Worlds, capturing an Olympic spot for the country, but have fared less well at this year’s events, including a 23rd-place finish in the short dance at Europeans, due in part to a costly fall. They did not qualify to skate the free dance in Budapest.

Five teams competing in Sochi earned the chance to do so by qualifying at September’s Nebelhorn Trophy.

Though sitting out the second half of last season, China’s Huang Xintong & Zheng Xun, who finished 19th in Vancouver in 2010, reinforced their position as their country’s leading ice dancers with a good fourth-place result at Nebelhorn, making them the event’s top qualifiers, They later sealed their berth with an 8-point victory at their national championships.

Right behind them in Oberstdorf were Alisa Agafonova & Alper Ucar, who with a fifth-place finish earned the opportunity to become Turkey’s first ice dance entry at an Olympic Games. Agafonova was born in Ukraine and competed for her birth country until 2010, when she teamed up with Ucar.

Sixth-place Nebelhorn finishers Danielle O’Brien & Gregory Merriman of Australia missed the opportunity to compete in Vancouver due to a heart ailment for Merriman that prevented the team from skating at 2009’s Nebelhorn Trophy. They most recently competed at Four Continents in Taipei, where they finished seventh and earned a new personal best score in the free dance.

14Euros-FD-RR-HD-9776 595Cathy & Chris Reed of Japan, who placed 17th at the 2010 Games, earned a return trip with a seventh-place result in Germany. They, too, have seen their share of injuries over the past quadrennial. Chris competed at Nebelhorn with a torn meniscus, a fact which he hid from his sister, as he did not want to interrupt her focus. The strategy paid off, and the siblings qualified for their second games. The Reeds were born in the United States to a Japanese mother. Cathy had to renounce her American citizenship before Vancouver, but Chris was allowed to maintain dual citizenship because he is younger. He has since had to give up his American citizenship as well.

Finally, the last berth at Nebelhorn was captured by Sara Hurtado & Adriá Díaz (pictured, right). Their approach to the season has been slow and steady; they recently placed tenth at Europeans, five places higher than last year, and will be Spain’s first-ever entry in an Olympic ice dance event.

The Sochi Olympics also marks the first appearance of a new contest, the team event in skating. Competing in the event are ten countries, with each team comprising one entrant from each discipline. Based on a formula quantifying recent results, Canada, Russia, USA, Japan, Italy, France, China, Germany, Ukraine, and Great Britain have all qualified for the team event. The top five teams after the short program will move on to the free skate. With only one couple apiece for Japan, China, Ukraine and Great Britain competing in the individual ice dance event, they will be expected to participate in the team short dance. Countries with deeper fields have the option of utilizing a different couple in each segment (though they can only switch out competitors in two of the four disciplines), but many seem from reports unlikely to do so. Both Virtue & Moir and Davis & White are slated to skate both segments for Teams Canada and USA; Bobrova & Soloviev and Pechalat & Bourzat have also indicated their aim to compete in the event (although the latest news from Russia is that Ilinykh & Katsalapov will skate the free dance), and Cappellini & Lanotte will presumably receive the nod for Team Italy.

Fans, critics, and athletes alike are all anxious to see how the team event will impact the individual events—whether results in the team event will affect the dance medals and how dancers will adapt to the week of limited official practices between the two segments of competition.

The team event gets underway Thursday, February 6, a day before the Opening Ceremony, but the dancers do not take the ice until February 8. The team free dance is February 9, with medals being decided that night. The ice dance competition begins on February 16 with the short dance, and the free dance is scheduled for February 17.