Russians in position to end pairs’ drought at figure skating worlds; U.S. best in years

2020/21 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Rostelecom Cup: pairs' short program
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A young pairs’ team from Russia is in position to win at the world figure skating championships, potentially ending an eight-year gold-medal drought.

Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitry Kozlovsky topped Wednesday’s short program in Stockholm with 80.16 points, edging two-time world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China by 2.54.

Boikova, 19, and Kozlovsky, 21, were sixth in their senior worlds debut in 2019, then won both the 2020 European title and Russia’s Grand Prix Series event this past autumn.

The last duo from once dominant Russia to win a world title was Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, who ended an eight-year drought in 2013. Technically, skaters aren’t representing Russia this week, but the Russian Skating Federation, as the nation’s flag and anthem are barred from major international sporting events due to doping issues.

American pairs Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc and Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier were sixth and seventh, respectively. Their combined results after Thursday’s free skate must add up to no more than 13 (sixth and seventh, for example) for the U.S. to earn the maximum three pairs’ spots at the 2022 Olympics.

The U.S. last put two pairs in the top 10 at worlds in 2012. The U.S. last put two pairs in the top seven in 2002.

Competition continues Thursday morning with the men’s short program.

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Boikova and Kozlovsky can become the youngest pairs’ world champions since the legendary Russians Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergey Grinkov, who won four titles from 1986-90 while Gordeeva was a teenager.

Sui and Han, undefeated in scattered competition since taking silver at the 2018 Olympics, are working their way back from Han’s hip joint surgery last April. They last competed at the February 2020 Four Continents Championships, skipping a Grand Prix in China in November due to his recovery.

The Chinese went back to an old short program in part out of comfort, given Han’s challenge coming back from the surgery.

“Though we only trained for a short time we did manage to perform well,” Han said, according to the International Skating Union.

The American pairs, after early mistakes, recovered and are in position to secure three Olympic spots. It comes four years after the U.S. earned just one spot for the PyeongChang Olympics, its fewest since the first Winter Games in 1924.

Cain-Gribble fell on their triple Salchows. LeDuc called Cain-Gribble’s performance, rising to execute the rest of an otherwise strong program, “the mark of a champion.”

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, third at January’s nationals, replaced Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson on the world team a few weeks ago after the U.S. silver medalists withdrew for personal reasons unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic.

Knierim and Frazier, U.S. champions in their first season together, lost points when he doubled their planned triple toe loops. They both called it a fluke.

“I was so proud of him because the moment he skated away from that jump, he held himself so strong and put together, and the rest of the program he gave it as if he nailed his jump,” Knierim said.

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Gaon Choi breaks Chloe Kim record, youngest X Games snowboard halfpipe champion

Gaon Choi
Jamie Schwaberow/X Games
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South Korean Gaon Choi broke Chloe Kim‘s record as the youngest X Games snowboard halfpipe champion, winning at age 14 on Saturday in Aspen, Colorado.

Choi, the world junior champion, landed three different 900s in her third of four runs to overtake two-time U.S. Olympian Maddie Mastro. She then landed a frontside 1080 in her fourth run.

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression of their best run over the course of a jam session rather than scoring individual runs.

Choi became the first Winter X Games medalist for South Korea, a nation with a best Olympic halfpipe finish of 14th. She is six months younger than Kim was when Kim won the first of her five X Games Aspen halfpipe titles in 2015.

“I began snowboarding because of Chloe Kim and now almost being near her level when she was 14, it feels weird that I can see a possibility that I would go beyond her some day,” Choi said through a translator, according to organizers. “I’m already starting to look forward to the next Olympics.”

Kim, the daughter of South Korean immigrants, posted that she has known Choi for almost a decade.

“I feel like a proud Mom,” she posted. “The future of snowboarding’s in good hands.”

Kim, the only woman to land back-to-back 1080s in a contest, is taking this season off after repeating as Olympic champion but plans to return ahead of the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games.

Mastro, who was 12th and 13th at the last two Olympics, landed her patented double crippler (two back flips) on two of her runs, but it wasn’t enough. She was the last woman to beat Kim at the 2019 U.S. Open.

Earlier, American Colby Stevenson earned his second X Games ski slopestyle title, one year after taking silver in ski big air’s Olympic debut. Stevenson, who was one millimeter from brain damage in a 2016 car crash, capped his first two of four runs with 1620s, according to commentators, taking the lead for good after the latter.

American Alex Hall, the Olympic slopestyle champion, was seventh.

Later, Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi won women’s snowboard big air, highlighted by a triple underflip. The field lacked 2021 X Games champion Jamie Anderson (pregnant) and 2018 and 2022 Olympic champion Anna Gasser of Austria. Iwabuchi was fourth at the last two Olympics.

Gasser withdrew moments before the competition after placing seventh in Friday’s slopestyle, according to commentators.

Zoe Atkin became the first British female skier to win an X Games title, taking the halfpipe in the absence of Olympic champion Eileen Gu of China. Atkin had two 720s in her fourth and final run to overtake Olympic bronze medalist Rachael Karker of Canada.

Atkin, the 20-year-old and Stanford student and younger sister of 2018 Olympic slopestyle bronze medalist Izzy Atkin, was ninth at the Olympics and never previously won an X Games medal.

Gu withdrew on Friday with a knee injury from a training crash.

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Madison Chock, Evan Bates win historic U.S. ice dance title for figure skaters in their 30s

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Madison Chock and Evan Bates won their fourth national ice dance title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and made all sorts of longevity history.

Chock and Bates, fourth at the Olympics and third at last March’s world championships, totaled 229.75 points between the rhythm dance and free dance. They prevailed by 22.29 over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest margin of victory in a U.S. ice dance since it was shortened from three programs to two in 2011.

“This is probably the best we’ve ever skated in our careers,” Bates said on NBC. “I think that’s the statement that we wanted to make.”

Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko took bronze but are likely to be left off the three-couple team for March’s world championships in favor of Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, last year’s U.S. bronze medalists who planned to petition for a worlds spot after withdrawing before nationals citing mental health.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the top U.S. couple at the 2022 Olympics (bronze) and 2022 Worlds (silver), retired after last season.

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Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, who are engaged, became the first dance couple in their 30s to win a U.S. title in the modern era (at least the last 50 years).

Chock and Bates made the nationals podium for an 11th consecutive year, one shy of the record for any discipline.

Bates, who last year became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 13 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that breaks the U.S. record for a single discipline that he shared with Michelle KwanNathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

Those records matter less to Chock and Bates than what they’re hoping is a career first in March: a world championships gold medal.

They earned silver or bronze a total of three times. All of the teams that beat them at last year’s Olympics and worlds aren’t competing this season, but Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier defeated Chock and Bates at December’s Grand Prix Final, which is a sort-of dress rehearsal for worlds.

“If we don’t win gold at worlds, we’ll be disappointed,” Bates, whose first senior nationals in 2008 came when new U.S. women’s singles champion Isabeau Levito was 10 months old, said earlier this month. “We’ve set the goal for ourselves in he past and haven’t met it yet.”

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