In world women’s short program to leave viewers gasping, Anna Shcherbakova’s breathtaking skating filled the rare air at the top

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Stockholm: Day One
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Whew.

Maybe it’s because we are all out of viewing shape from not having had a significant international figure skating competition in more than a year, since the coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 World Championships and everything else of consequence this season until this week.

Or maybe it’s because there was so much to wrap our heads around during the first part of the first event at the 2021 ISU World Figure Skating Championships.

Whichever you apply, it was easy to be left breathless after trying to process the multiple storylines emerging from Wednesday’s women’s short program in Stockholm, Sweden.

There were some breathtakingly beautiful skating moments, too.

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Results | TV, Stream Schedule

And, unsurprisingly, it took just a few hours in front of screens of various sizes for everyone to get fittingly exercised about the judging.

Gotta start somewhere, so…

Anna Shcherbakova of Russia (81.00 points), Rika Kihira of Japan (79.08) and Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva (78.86) of Russia were unquestionably the top three, even if there could be debate over the order of the top two.

Tuktamysheva not only was back at worlds for the first time since winning in 2015. The self-styled Empress was baaaaaaaaack, big time, with one of her best performances, including a strong triple axel and a substantial upgrade in difficulty of her jump combination since December’s Russian Championships, after which she also changed her short program music and choreography.

“I’m really glad with being world champion six years ago, [but] I think it’s harder just to be here than it was to win in 2015,” Tuktamysheva said, referring to the fierce competition to make the Russian women’s team. “Figure skating is much harder now.”

As was the case in her last world meet appearance four years ago, Karen Chen (74.40, fourth) was unexpectedly the leading U.S. skater, with a personal best by more than seven points and flawless execution of every element. She and Kihira were the only skaters in the top six to receive all Level 4s (the highest) on the footwork sequence and the three spins.

“A great confidence booster for me,” Chen said.

Reigning U.S. champion Bradie Tennell (69.87, seventh) was underwhelming, lacking speed and emotion and doing just a double on the second jump of her planned triple-triple combination. As she came off the ice, her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, said. “That was so not typical.”

“I haven’t been training that way, so it comes as a surprise to me too,” Tennell said. “I’m pretty disappointed with that skate. To go out there and miss a combo is very unnatural for me.”

The skater who followed Chen, two-time Olympian and six-time national champion Maé-Bérénice Méité of France, became a sad storyline in the exhausting tale when she tore the Achilles tendon in her left foot on the takeoff of a triple toe loop, her second element, and was forced to stop skating because of the pain and instability. The French newspaper L’Equipe quoted a French skating federation official saying the injury probably would need surgery.

Méité’s withdrawal means France will have to seek an Olympic women’s qualifying spot at the Nebelhorn Trophy next fall.

Chen and Tennell go into Friday’s free skate in position to give the United States women three spots for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which requires final placements adding up to 13 or fewer.

“The (three spots) has been the hot topic,” Chen said. “I do feel the pressure.

“My goal for the free skate is to just deliver the free skate I know I am capable of. I have yet to show that [this season].”

Also unexpected (but welcome): Russian coaches Aleksei Mishin (Tuktamysheva) and Yevgeny Plushenko (Aleksandra Trusova) finally seemed to have mastered keeping the masks over their noses.

Plushenko may have wanted to pull the mask over his eyes during Trusova’s shockingly poor short program.

“I think I couldn’t handle my excitement,” said Trusova, 16.

In her senior worlds debut, the two-time world junior champion was 12th (64.82). Not even a handful of clean quadruple jumps in the free skate may be enough to get Trusova a medal after she failed to do a combination – having botched the landing of its first jump – and received an edge warning on another jump.

Despite all that and her generally uninspired skating, the judges saw fit to give Trusova the third-highest component score total. That was among several head-scratching scores in the short program.

Two presumably justified “q” calls, meaning the jump was a quarter-revolution short, cost Kihira enough grade of execution points to drop her behind Shcherbakova.

“I wasn’t very confident on my jumps,” said Kihira, who got one of the “q” notations on her triple axel.

Yet there seemed no justification for her losing 1.74 PCS points to Shcherbakova or for four of the nine judges to place her third overall, behind La Tuk. (Was it a coincidence that three of the four are from former Soviet Bloc countries?)

It was also worth noting that what looked like the two best executed jump elements of the day, a double axel by Kaori Sakamoto of Japan (sixth place) and a triple lutz-triple toe combination by Kim Yelim of South Korea (fifth), did not receive the highest GOEs. In both cases, Shcherbakova had higher GOE scores as she recorded a personal best total by nearly three points.

There is no disputing that Shcherbakova skated beautifully, interpreting Massenet’s elegiac “O sweet spring of yore” with an appropriately serious mien and understated elegance. Shcherbakova, who turns 17 Sunday, also landed the most difficult combination of the 37 competitors, a triple lutz-triple loop.

Shcherbakova, speaking fluent English, said the absence of spectators made her more nervous, although that was not evident in her performance. She once again proved herself to be in command at the biggest events, as evidenced by having won three straight national titles, the first two as an underdog.

Her free skate is to begin with consecutive quadruple lutzes, one in combination. If she does them as well as she did at the Russian Championships, no one need hold their breath over who will be the 2021 women’s world champion.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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