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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