Feature | Figure Skating

8 things we learned from the figure skating season ahead of Beijing 2022

With the completion of World Team Trophy, the international figure skating season is officially wrapped. So, what did we learn ahead of the Olympic year and the coming Winter Games in Beijing?

By Nick McCarvel ·

The 2020-21 figure skating season has taken its final bow.

With the completion of World Team Trophy on Saturday (17 April) in Osaka, Japan, a season heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic is officially wrapped.

Three new world champions were crowned, Nathan Chen won his third consecutive world title, and the entire sport moved closer to the Olympic season, with Beijing 2022 set to start on 4 Feb.

Here, eight things we learned from a most unusual season. And what it all means for the coming Winter Games, where medals will be handed out in the four disciplines – as well as the figure skating team event.

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Chen and Hanyu in a class of their own

Four years later, it’s still Chen and two-time Olympic champion Hanyu Yuzuru who will go into the Games as favourites in men’s singles.

Both skaters showed true grit this season, Chen in winning a third world title (coming from behind to do so), as well as notching victories at Skate America, the U.S. Championships and World Team Trophy.

For Hanyu, it was the challenge of having to leave his training base in Toronto, Canada, without coach Brian Orser and train mostly on his own, something he came to savour. He scored a fifth national title in Japan and continues to seek something no skater has ever done: A landed quadruple Axel.

But the men’s field is not just about Chen and Hanyu: Mikhail Kolyada was resurgent and revitalised with coach Alexei Mishin; 17-year-old Kagiyama Yuma is a force to be reckoned with (more on him below); and the likes of Keegan Messing, Olympic silver medallist Uno Shoma, fan favourites Jason Brown and Kevin Aymoz and others are not to be counted out in what has turned into a compelling class of international men’s skaters.

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Russia leads the ladies charge

While the international spread is healthy in the men’s discipline, it’s all about Russia in the ladies’, where upwards of seven skaters (if not more!) could be considered likely candidates to make the three-skater team for Beijing 2022 – and stand on the podium at the Olympic Games.

It was Anna Shcherbakova who bubbled to the top this year, having battled Covid-19 mid-season before going on to win titles at Russian nationals (her third) as well as worlds and WTT (both firsts). A resurgent Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, age 24, is the elder stateswoman in a discipline dominated by teens, the triple Axel-jumping “Empress” winning a world silver medal six years after her 2015 title.

Can she make the Olympic team, though?

Both Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia would like to have something to say about that, as will rising 15-year-olds: Kamila Valieva, Daria Usacheva and Maiia Khromykh, a trio just as fierce as their more experienced teammates.

Are Olympic medallists Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva out of the picture? Not entirely – but it’s a long way back.

Japan’s Kihira Rika didn’t finish the season the way she wanted so as to be considered an Olympic medal threat, though she and compatriots Sakamoto Kaori and Miyahara Satoko will continue to try and push as much.

And Americans Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell helped secure a provisional third spot for the U.S. team in Beijing, but will it be Alysa Liu who ends up being the one most likely to factor into the Beijing conversation? Could be.

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Pairs race heats up without clear favourite

Raise your hand if you called Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov as the world champions in pairs at the outset of the season?

Anyone? No one?

The Russian duo’s win is emblematic of a pairs discipline that hasn’t had a true favourite since Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot’s triumphant win at PyeongChang 2018, though – when healthy and at their best – that moniker should belong to China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who will be the most-watched figure skaters for the home hopes in Beijing next February.

Aside from Sui/Han, Russia has a cadre of top teams, including Mishina/Galliamov, world silver medallists Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, veterans Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov as well as Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin.

Also to watch this coming season: Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro; China’s Peng Cheng and Jin Yang; new American duo Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier among others.

What did Papadakis and Cizeron’s absence mean?

It’s still hard to know exactly how the four-time world champion Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron’s absence this season will play out come the Games.

Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov took advantage, the Russian duo winning its first world title and then backing that up with a win at WTT.

Are they now the de facto favourites among international judges? Papadakis and Cizeron cited training interruptions and the uncertainty around the pandemic as their reason for sitting out the season, but in a discipline where momentum is important, the door could be ajar.

The U.S. battle continues to be fierce, though it appears that Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have edged ahead (pun intended) of training and teammates Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Hubbell/Donohue winning both the U.S. title and claiming a world medal, while Chock/Bates finished off the podium (4th).

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier waited an entire season without competing before worlds, but their two performances in Stockholm were a moment, and earned them their first world medal – a bronze. They’ll factor into the podium convo for Beijing in a dance discipline that has gone from strength to strength in recent years.

Also to watch: Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin (RUS); Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri (ITA); Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson (GBR); and Laurence Fournier-Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen (CAN), each of whom finished in the top eight at worlds.

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New kids on the block: Kagiyama the real deal

While it was Zagitova who timed her breakout season with the Olympics so well in 2018, this season’s true breakout star was Kagiyama, who had given us a glimpse of his brilliance last year - including a win at the Youth Olympic Games at Lausanne 2020 – then fully blossoming with a triumph at the Japanese Grand Prix, a medal at nationals and a world silver medal, finishing ahead of both Hanyu and Uno.

What makes the storyline that much sweeter is his coach: His dad, two-time Olympian Kagiyama Masakazu, the two sharing a memorable moment in the kiss and cry at worlds as Kagiyama’s scores came in.

Valieva, Usacheva and Khromyk will look to have breakout years next year on the international stage, as will the American Liu.

Russian teens Andrei Mozalev and Petr Gummenik will try and break through for their men’s team, as well, though the Russian scene remains highly competitive, and includes Evgeni Semenenko, who was 8th at worlds.

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Olympic spots confirmed – mostly

So, who is going to the Olympics, exactly?

National teams will be named by federations in December and January ahead of Beijing 2022, with each governing body having its own selection criteria. Skaters, however, must have a minimum qualifying score at a sanctioned International Skating Union event.

Each skater must be at least 15 years old by 01 July 2021.

While some teams – like the Russian ladies (three) – have had their number of qualified positions confirmed, others – like the U.S. men and ladies – will need to confirm their second or third spot at the Nebelhorn Trophy ISU Challenger Series event, set for 22-25 Sept. in Obersdorf, Germany.

The teams with a confirmed three spots (the maximum) for Beijing? They are:

  • Ladies: Russia, Japan
  • Men: Japan
  • Pairs: Russia
  • Dance: Russia, U.S., Canada

Meanwhile, the aforementioned U.S. men’s and ladies singles teams, as well as the Chinese pairs team and Russian men have the chance of securing that third spot at Nebelhorn.

See a full explainer for Olympic spots via the ISU here.

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Pandemic will have lasting impact on training

Papadakis/Cizeron were perhaps the most visible example of the way the pandemic altered athletes’ training, but that Covid impact will continue through to the Olympic season, with social distancing still in place, and travel limited.

Choreography, namely, could still be done remotely for Olympic programs, and skaters returning to places like Canada still have to undergo a full two-week quarantine.

“I just have such a tremendous amount of respect for the skaters because these are challenging times,” said 2014 Olympic ice dance champion Meryl Davis in a January interview with Olympic Channel. “These are exceptionally difficult times. There's a lot going on in the world right now. And skating is always hard. Competing in elite sport is always difficult. And yet in these times in particular, I just have such a tremendous amount of respect for what these athletes are doing, training their best every day, working so hard.”

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Skaters prove their toughness – again and again

Timely noted by Davis, what this past season proved was something most fans already knew: Figure skaters are as tough of athletes - and people - as they come.

Amid cancelled events, closed rinks, limited ice time and restrictions at competitions, they have continued to turn out some of their best skating at international events and will look to do much the same in the lead-up to the Beijing 2022 Games.

While small events will take place throughout the summer, the ISU Challenger Series starts 10 Sept. in Bergamo, Italy, while Skate America kicks off the Grand Prix Series, set for 22 October in a TBD location.

Thanks for following along this figure skating season with us here on Olympic Channel.

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