Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva took magnificent and relaxed first steps toward becoming the first repeat women’s world figure skating champion since 2001, topping the short program with a near-record score in Helsinki on Wednesday.
The 17-year-old tallied 79.01 points skating clean, highlighted by a triple flip-triple toe loop jump combination. She leads by 3.03 points over Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond heading into Friday’s free skate. Another Canadian, Gabrielle Daleman, is third.
Surprise U.S. champion Karen Chen is in fifth after the best short of her international career — 69.98 points — in her worlds debut.
Chen is two spots ahead of 2016 World silver medalist Ashley Wagner, who had 69.04 points. Wagner, at her seventh world championships, scored 4.11 more points last year, when she was in fourth after the short.
The other American, Mariah Bell, is 13th.
The top two U.S. placements after the free skate must add up to no more than 13 in order for the U.S. to earn the maximum three spots at the 2018 Olympics. They are currently at 12.
Later Wednesday, the pairs short program produced surprises. The two-time defending world champions placed seventh. The only Olympic medalist pair in the field was 13th.
Medvedeva, who has lost once in two seasons as a senior skater, is noted for her motivation to set personal bests. She missed her short-program world record by two tenths on Wednesday, and, unsurprisingly, reacted to her score by exchanging words with her coach before the customary smile.
“They were good scores,” Medvedeva said later in a press conference, via translator. “I will try to give the maximum in the free skate.”
Medvedeva prepared for her title defense by listening to music throughout the day — K-pop — before taking the ice at 3:30 p.m. local time.
After her typical, class-of-its-own skate, she showed the calm and laughter of a veteran skater, chuckling several times during the press conference. Even speaking some English.
It would be a shock if Medvedeva doesn’t become the first repeat world champ since Michelle Kwan. She would complete the most dominant two seasons since Katarina Witt in the 1980s.
“Last year I didn’t quite understand what was happening because it was my first world senior championship,” Medvedeva said. “Now I don’t feel any pressure”
Medvedeva had the highest scores for technical elements (jumps and spins) and artistic components (transitions, interpretation of music, etc.), again showcasing her overall dominance. She admires both aspects. She was asked, too, to name an expressive skater whom she admired.
“I can’t right now name anyone for the past, but I would like to point out Ashley Wagner,” Medvedeva said. “Ashley is able to portray any kind of character in the music. She can be lyrical. She can be totally different.”
Wagner had a clean skate Wednesday, but received lower grades of execution for her jumps. She tweeted “3 points” afterward, referencing her deficit from third place and a spot on the podium going into the free skate.
“I know that I am in fighting distance,” she said. “I really do not have that much to catch up on.”
Chen, the surprise U.S. champion, tallied a personal best by 5.52 points with a clean short program in her world championships debut. Despite her national title, Chen was the biggest question mark of the U.S. women coming into worlds, seeded 17th in the field among best international scores this season.
“I did realize that there is a lot more pressure here, but I didn’t want to let it affect me,” said Chen, who seems past the flu, nerves and boot problems that plagued her in a 12th-place finish at the Four Continents Championships in February. “[Four Continents] was a wake-up call for me.”
Bell, the U.S. bronze medalist and also a worlds rookie, scored 61.02, putting both hands on the ice on her opening triple-triple jump combination.
“Short has this season been a program that has been a little more mentally challenging for me,” she said.
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Women’s Short Program
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 79.01
2. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 75.98
3. Gabrielle Daleman (CAN) — 72.19
5. Karen Chen (USA) — 69.98
7. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 69.04
13. Mariah Bell (USA) — 61.02