Pairs figure skating breath of fresh air after Valieva debacle

The smattering of distanced Chinese fans at Capital Indoor Stadium could double-revel in that, because it came from Sui Wenjing, 26, and Han Cong, 29, whose masterful skating to “Mission: Impossible 2” in the short program scored 84.41 and epitomized the ongoing, galloping improvement of this vein of a sport gone troubled again.

“All the elements [of the sport] have improved ”in recent years, said Anastasia Mishina, whose pairing with Aleksandr Galliamov stood both tall and third (at 82.76) going into the long program and medal presentation set for Saturday night. “The first four or five or six pairs are always almost perfect, and this is fantastic.”

Rampant near-perfection left three Russian Olympic Committee teams, two Chinese teams and two US teams to fill the top seven after Friday night, with Russians in second, third and fourth place, the Chinese first and fifth and the Americans a heady sixth (Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier) and seventh (Timothy LeDuc and Ashley Cain-Gribble). All those people looked either happy or more so, with LeDuc and Cain-Gribble achieving radiance.

“It was honestly a little bit of an out-of-body experience,” Cain-Gribble said, “because we are so trained, we just allowed that to take over, and so when the music” – Ilan Eshkeri’s gorgeous “The White Crow “-” ended, it was when we finally felt everything. “

The oldest among the lot, a brilliant 37-year-old Canadian who often has composed his own music for the skates as at Sochi 2014, also composed music Valieva used in her 2020-21 campaign. “I have a lot of thoughts,” Eric Radford said. “I have a lot of feelings.” He paused. “But, I don’t know – I don’t want to say anything. I just, I hope it could bring about positive change in the sport, in a way. “

“I’ll be honest,” said LeDuc, who had a triumph as the first openly nonbinary Olympian. “I did not view much of last night simply because we’re very focused on everything that’s happening today. From what I’ve heard, it looks like a very troubling situation, and we’re hopeful that things will improve in some way. “

With the bigger questions in the air, Cain-Gribble, 26, joined those advocating raising the age for eligibility. “I definitely think so,” she said, “because I think that you need to be at an age when you’re able to make decisions on your own and be accountable and be able to know what is right and what is wrong, and not just be relying on those people that are encouraging you. ” She added that it would allow “also to be able to give skaters a chance to allow the body to develop naturally.”

The thorniness of those issues contrasted with the uplifting simplicity of what Sui said of competitors Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, who stand in second after a smashing 84.25. “I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Sui said, “to compete with each other, and we are improving because of each other.”

Even the idea that Sui and Han led after the short program at PyeongChang 2018, and finished with a silver to the German team of Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, fades here. “I think each competition for us is different,” Sui said, “and we have different expectations, but this time the Olympics is held in Beijing, and it’s completely different for us because we are competing in our home country.”

It “encourages us to perform better,” she said.

The joy filtered down through the rankings to Nos. 6 and 7, where the Americans finished. Knierim and Frazier skated to a frenzied “House Of The Rising Sun,” and Frazier said: “I think it, number one, suits our identity as a team. You know, very explosive, very fast, very outgoing. We have heard mainly positive things about it. The more negative stuff was when we had it monitored at the start of the season, and it was just, ‘We want to see more and more of this.’ Ever since then, the season started, the grind started and we’ve heard just very strong positive feedback. “

“I like feisty,” Knierim said.

They held the lead through much of the night, and then came Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, who came within a tenth of a point of their fellow Americans at 74.23 to 74.13 and had the added distinction. LeDuc called it “such a joyous moment out there today,” and said, “Amazing queer people have come before me and laid the groundwork for me, so now I have to do that for others as well.”

Olympian figure skaters Madison Chock and Evan Bates aren’t the only couple who found love on the ice. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue also have a past. (Julie Yoon / The Washington Post)

Many of these skaters have functioned with a strange schedule here – the team competition two weeks ago, a long delay, now this – and some have operated with the strange reality of the unfinished business of the team competition from way back at the beginning of the Games. The Russian team won that, but Valieva’s positive test has left those medals unpresented, with much uncertainty including the current fourth-place finish of Canada.

“You know,” said Radford’s 34-year-old skating partner Vanessa James, “I don’t really have a comment on that because there are so many circumstances. It could have been different, it could have been the same. But I think Canada did the best that they could and whether it gets a medal or doesn’t I think everyone can be very proud of their performance. “

To a question about Vincent Zhou, the American who missed the team competition (and the silver medal finish) because of a positive coronavirus test, Knierim said, “Yeah, but now he’s out [of isolation], so if there’s a chance of a medal ceremony, he could be there. ” And Frazier said, “We’re getting small updates [on the case]but very low-key times and very little information. “

Even with those rumbling issues, the night brimmed with good vibes. “We want everybody to see the splendor, the beauty of figure skating, and also to show the style of the Chinese player,” Sui said. That, it turned out Friday night, was quite some style.

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