Article & Photos by Melanie Heaney
After two years of challenges and uncertainty, all eyes are on figure skating again as the sport is one of the premier events at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. In the few weeks ahead of the Games while the omicron variant of COVID-19 surged worldwide, athletes and participants were once again worried that another cancellation or postponement was on the horizon. But the Olympic Games have forged ahead, with very few disruptions due to the virus, statistically speaking. Of course, for the participants that have been affected, as well as those that surround and support them, the disruptions have been much more impactful.
Fortunately, all 23 ice dance teams registered for the Olympic Games have been able to travel, arrive, and practice without major disruptions up to this point. Some teams arrived very early due to participation in the Team Event, which kicked off the Games, and now, all teams have been able to practice on Olympic ice leading up to the event.
The Rhythm Dance will take place in the evening on Saturday, February 12 (early in the morning for our North American readers), and the free dance is scheduled for the morning on Monday, February 14 (late on the 13th for North American time zones).
After sitting out of competition in the 2020-21 season, France’s Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron are the favorites entering this event. They are the only team that has broken 220 points this season in major international competition, a benchmark that they reached at both of their Grand Prix events. This is the second Olympic Games that they have entered as gold medal contenders. In 2018, they won the silver medal behind Canada’s Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir in a very close event. The four-time world champions have not faced the Russian Olympic Committee’s (ROC) Victoria Sinitsina & Nikita Katsalapov since the 2020 European Championships, when Sinitsina & Katsalapov came out on top.
The top Russian team is always a medal contender at an Olympic Games, and this year is no exception. In fact, as the winners of the last head-to-head competition against the French, the sentiment in Russia seems to be that Sinitsina & Katsalapov (pictured, right) are the favorites, not the French. But they did not score as well on the Grand Prix and withdrew from the Russian National Championships due to Katsalapov’s ongoing back injury. They did fare well at the European Championships, earning 217.96 points in their successful title defense, but they placed below both American teams, each in one segment of the Team Event, last week. The ROC won the gold medal in the event, although medals have not yet been awarded due to pending legal matters involving a drug testing violation from another member of the team.
Also contending for the medals are two strong American ice dance teams. Madison Chock & Evan Bates recently won the hotly-contested battle for the U.S. title, but Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue won the last head-to-head battle at an international event, which was in October 2021 at Skate America.
Hubbell & Donohue’s powerful skating and strong edges should usually put them ahead in the rhythm dance, but they made mistakes in this segment at the recent U.S. Championships, and it’s hard to make up points against Chock & Bates in the free dance, where they can rack up high Grades of Execution on multiple lifts. In the upcoming rhythm dance, Hubbell & Donohue will close out the event, so a clean skate should draw very high marks. Both teams skated very well in the Team Event last week, with Hubbell & Donohue winning the rhythm dance and Chock & Bates winning the free dance. Their performances helped the Team USA win the silver medal, their best-ever finish in the Olympic Team Event. They were the first Olympic medals for both teams.
Papadakis & Cizeron, Hubbell & Donohue, and Chock & Bates all train together at the Ice Academy of Montréal under head coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon, and Romain Haguenauer, so their team has a shot at sweeping the podium this year.
Also in the medal hunt are Canada’s Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier (pictured, below), who are the reigning world bronze medalists from last season. Gilles & Poirier scored very well at their home Grand Prix of Skate Canada International, breaking 210 points there. However, of all the medal contenders, they seem the most susceptible to slight downgrades on their levels, which can make the difference between several placements in a competitive field such as this one. In the Team Event rhythm dance, their level two midline step sequence was an outlier among the top teams; they will almost certainly need level three if they want to stay in the medal hunt.
Italy’s Charlène Guignard & Marco Fabbri placed ahead of Gilles & Poirier in both segments of the Team Event, a marked improvement compared to the last couple of times these two teams met. At Skate Canada International in the fall, Guignard & Fabbri were ten points and one placement behind Gilles & Poirier; at the 2021 World Championships last March, the difference was about nine points and three placements. Guignard & Fabbri are reliable competitors, and their precision and composure could keep them in the top group heading into the free dance. They have drawn to skate in the penultimate spot in the rhythm dance, right after Gilles & Poirier.
Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin of ROC had a slower start to their season and were scoring markedly below the top group, but at the recent 2022 European Championships, they won the silver medal and earned 213.20 points. They declined to attend the ROC’s training camp in Krasnoyarsk due to concerns about a COVID outbreak and they were one of the last teams to arrive in Beijing. Stepanova & Bukin added Nikolai Morozov to their coaching team this season, and their skating is already looking a bit more powerful.
While the next group of teams are unlikely to squeeze into the top seven, unless circumstances are unusual at this event, the battle for the remaining spots in the top ten will be exciting in and of itself.
Spain’s Olivia Smart & Adrian Diaz are riding a huge wave of momentum. They have already won the biggest fight of their season, having defeated their national rivals, Sara Hurtado & Kirill Khavalian, in the season-long race for the Olympic spot. They came close to 200 points in their recent fourth-place finish at the European Championships.
Lilah Fear & Lewis Gibson, who represent Great Britain, were right on Smart & Diaz’s heel at Europeans, where they finished fifth. Fear & Gibson had a rough event at Skate Canada International, but have score over 190 twice since then. They were seventh at the 2021 World Championships.
Laurence Fournier-Beaudry & Nikolaj Sorensen of Canada were eighth at the 2021 World Championships and consistently score over 190 points. They have won four bronze medals at their Grand Prix events in 2019 and 2021 and typically get their levels in high-pressure situations. Prior to switching to represent Canada in 2018, they represented Denmark and qualified a berth to the 2018 Olympic Games, but were unable to go, since Fournier-Beaudry was unable to obtain Danish citizenship. Sorensen, who has lived in Canada for over a decade, became a Canadian citizen in 2021.
Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker (pictured, right) are the third entry for the United States and have finished in the top ten at every World Championships since 2018. They had a late start to their season when Hawayek sustained a concussion over the summer and was off the ice for a while. They had to withdraw from their first Grand Prix event and have been playing catch-up ever since, but they skated really well at the U.S. Championships and won the Olympic berth over strong up-and-comers Caroline Green & Michael Parsons.
China’s Shiyue Wang & Xinyu Liu have the advantage of skating for the limited home crowd and have already competed in both segments of the Team Event. They have made big improvements over the past few years and have improved their speed and flow over the ice to match their strong lifts. They have had limited competitive opportunities due to the complications of China’s strict travel quarantine rules, so they have not scored over 190 in a major international competition since the 2020 Four Continents Championships.
Finally Diana Davis & Gleb Smolkin of ROC could also make a run at the top ten. Only fifth at the World Junior Championships two years ago, Davis & Smolkin have seen their scores increase quite a bit this season, topping 180 points at both their Grand Prix assignment and the European Championships, where they finished seventh. Not considered frontrunners for an Olympic spot a year ago, they are definitely a team with upwards momentum at the moment.
Smart & Diaz, Fear & Gibson, Fournier-Beaudry & Sorensen, and Hawayek & Baker all train at the Ice Academy of Montreal. Wang & Liu have been training virtually with the Montreal team since the pandemic began. Davis & Smolkin work with Igor Shpilband and Pasquale Camerlengo in Novi, Mich.