Figure skaters' flop delivers wake-up call

2021-03-31 12:06:10

Silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, gold medalists Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov of Russia and bronze medalists Aleksandra Boikova and Dimitrii Kozlovski of Russia with their medals after the pairs free skating final at World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm, Sweden, March 25, 2021. [Photo/Agencies] Despite the strong return of its ace couple in the pairs event, Team China's slim pickings across the other disciplines at the World Figure Skating Championships has sent alarm bells ringing at home ahead of Beijing 2022. With China a traditional powerhouse in the sport, a solitary silver medal and just five Olympic qualification spots at last week's worlds in Stockholm fell well below expectations to raise concerns that golds could prove elusive at the Winter Olympics on home ice next year. Just two months into their reunion, two-time world champion pair Han Cong and Sui Wenjing impressed in their first official outing since Han was sidelined following hip surgery last April, winning China's only medal in the Swedish capital, and their fifth at the worlds. Even with minor flaws in Sui's jumps, the Chinese duo, who won the world title in 2017 and 2019, looked to be approaching their best. Their trademark triple-flip throws and some difficult lifts helped them score 148.09 points in the free skate for a 225.71 total to finish less than two points behind winners Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov. Russia's Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii took third spot. Having battled back from a staggering array of injuries, including Sui's repeated ankle problems, since 2012, the Chinese pair drew enough encouragement from last week's routines to believe they can turn the silver they won at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea into gold in Beijing. "This is a good start for us," Han told the Olympic Channel after Thursday's free skate. "Our plan this year was to recover. We wanted to stay healthy... so we can compete in the Winter Olympic Games." "We did what we can do right now," Sui added. "We only practiced on the ice for two months after the recovery (from Han's surgery)." "We're glad that we can compete at a pretty good level. However, we're not at our best yet, only 70 to 80 percent of our best selves, but we do think we've made huge progress in just two months." Some disappointing executions from Han and Sui's compatriots in the face of stiff competition from Russia and Japan, however, provided something of a wake-up call for China ahead of the Beijing Games. Arriving in Sweden fresh from winning the Cup of China title in November, men's singles skater Jin Boyang, a two-time bronze medalist at the worlds (2016-17), came up well short in his quest to bring home a third medal. A series of botched landings in both the short program and free skate saw Jin finish a lowly 22nd. Attempting a routine considered to be of a world-class difficulty level, the 23-year-old failed to land any of his quadruple jumps properly in the free skate, scoring 91.74 points lower than his winning total at the Cup of China in Chongqing, a leg of the ISU Grand Prix series. Jin's poor showing at the worlds, coupled with veteran Yan Han's 13th-place finish, means China can now only send one of these skaters to the home Olympics. Teenager Chen Hongyi, China's sole representative in the ladies' event, finished 21st, while the duo of Wang Shiyue and Liu Xinyu took 13th spot in the ice dance, each earning a qualification berth in their respective disciplines for next year's Olympics. Along with Han and Sui, Peng Cheng and Jin Yang also secured an Olympic pairs berth, thanks to a fourth-place finish. China is now aiming to secure a third pairs entry at the next qualifying event-the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany in late September. According to International Skating Union rules, each country or region can qualify a maximum of three skaters, or pairs, in an Olympic event-as long they are ranked high enough. Despite the daunting challenges ahead, Lori Nichol, a Canadian choreographer who has been working with Team China for over a decade, is remaining upbeat on the host's Olympic prospects. Based in Toronto, Nichol has been overseeing Han and Sui's progress during the pandemic via online Zoom calls. "The Olympics are always a huge pressure for everyone; everybody would like to do their best there," Nichol, a World Figure Skating Hall of Fame member, told NBC Sports last week. Reflecting on Han and Sui's chances, she commented: "You know you want it, so let's focus minute by minute, day by day, week by week, and we will be there." Nichol is planning some magical moves for Sui and Han's gold-medal bid, but how and where their creative partnership will continue amid the pandemic is unclear. "I try not to think about that," she said. "I focus just on the music and our approach. And whether it is me going there or them coming here, or Zoom, it's all possible to make great work."