Making magic, and making it work: Sui and Han’s partnership with choreographer Nichol

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Stockholm: Day One
Getty Images
1 Comment

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are not the oldest pair skaters competing at the 2021 ISU World Figure Skating Championships this week, but at ages 25 and 28, respectively, they may have had more comebacks, misfortunes and reinventions than the rest of field combined.

The two-time world champions (2017, 2019) burst on to the senior Grand Prix circuit in 2010 as gingham-clad teenagers skating a country hoedown short program. The tiny Sui charmed crowds with her high-flying vivacity and winsome sass, and they captured bronze at the Grand Prix Final.

Since then, they’ve matured into the most sophisticated and versatile performers on the current pairs’ scene, presenting programs ranging from a Spanish romance to Leonard Cohen’s soulful “Hallelujah.”

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Results | TV, Stream Schedule

They’ve also battled back from a staggering array of injuries, including Sui’s multiple ankle and foot problems in 2012, 2015 and 2018 – requiring several surgeries – and Han’s hip joint surgery in April 2020.

Despite their travails, the Harbin, China, natives have put forth the longest-running comedy act in figure skating, with Sui as the wisecracking instigator and Han her hapless straight man. Take this exchange, at a press conference at the 2016 World Championships in Boston:

“There isn’t any chemistry between us,” Sui said, perhaps thinking reporters were cooking up a romance. “He is like my father.”

“That’s a joke,” Han said. “The feeling is like cousins.”

“He talks too much every day,” Sui quickly rejoined.

Lori Nichol, Sui and Han’s choreographer since the 2015-2016 season, confirms the two skaters are indeed good friends.

“They could probably, at this point, give couples’ counseling,” Nichol said.

“They really know each other well, they admire each other, they have fun together. Skating is such a tough sport, and the training for it is incredibly hard work, but they’ve learned it doesn’t have to be drudgery. When you’ve been together for so long, you have inside jokes and you have really adorable things the other person does, and they choose to focus on that.”

In Stockholm on Wednesday, Sui and Han seemingly launched yet another comeback. Competing for the first time this season, they grabbed second place and 77.62 points with their “Blues for Klook” short program, highlighted by a brilliant step sequence. Their only error was Sui’s step out on a triple toe loop.

Heading into Thursday’s free skate, the Chinese are just 2.54 points behind leaders Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitry Kozlovsky of Russia.

“Our main goal this year was to recover from [my hip surgery],” Han said. “Next year will be the Olympics, and that’s our biggest goal. This competition is challenging for us. We like our ways of training, and it’s been moving us to the right track gradually… our physical condition is getting better and better.”

Nichol created the “Blues for Klook” short for Sui and Han’s 2016-2017 season. The skaters returned to it when the combined exigencies of Han’s surgery and the COVID-19 pandemic made training time scarce. Their free skate here, set to the haunting “Rain, in Your Black Eyes,” has seen duty for three seasons.

Sui and Han train in Beijing, under 2010 Olympic pairs champions Zhao Hongbo. Nichol is based in Toronto.

“It was all via Zoom, polishing the programs,” Nichol said of her work with the pair this season. “Often, it was just messaging back and forth. Now, it’s getting ready for next season. It’s a constant…. After worlds, we will pick up again with all things season 2021-2022.”

Nichol, a member of three figure skating hall of fames – Skate Canada, U.S. Figure Skating and World – has worked with many all-time greats, including Patrick Chan, Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek, to name just a few. But the choreographer has formed one of her closest and longest-lasting professional relationships with the Chinese pair.

“We study a lot about skating and art, discuss our beliefs of what the ultimate in skating is to us, and share music ideas or even just a feeling to get the ball rolling,” Nichol said.

Over the years, as the skaters have matured, the choreographer has uncovered more tools with which to build her master works.

“They have loads of courage, and they work really hard and really smart,” she said. “The multitude of injuries has taught them how to make the most out of every moment, whether it is on ice or off ice.”

According to Nichol, the key to the pair’s brilliant programs in recent seasons, including their silver medal routines at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, is Han’s transformation from a solid pair man to a true performer.

“He is a fantastic pair partner, and her safety has always been his highest priority through the years,” she said. “It took part of his focus away from his own performance and interpretation. After many years together, they have a joint intuitiveness that frees up mental and emotional space to perform and interpret in great depth. So now, we get to see Han Cong’s brilliance as well.”

Some pairs exploit a great height differential between partners, when developing lifts and other elements. That is not available to Sui and Han, both comparatively small in stature, so Nichol explores other avenues.

“It’s not just height, it’s how bodies are proportioned that dictates what you can or can’t do in movement together,” she said. “It comes down to the length of the torso, the length of arms, the length of legs, and flexibility.”

“Every team, no matter who they are, have challenges with what their bodies can do together, and they all have greatness they can create,” Nichol added. “You can also dream up great things that they can’t do, because of the proportions of their bodies. That’s true for any pair.”

Nichol plans to create special magic for Sui and Han next season, when the team attempts to win the Olympic gold that so narrowly eluded them in PyeongChang. This time, they will compete on home ground, in Beijing.

“Olympics are always a huge pressure for everyone; everybody would like to do their best there,” she said. With Sui and Han, she advises, “You know you want it, so it’s lets focus minute by minute, day by day, week by week, and we will be there.”

How and where the creative partnership will work – whether the skaters visit Nichol in Toronto, she travels to China or they continue to collaborate via Zoom – are unknowns.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen with the pandemic, the rules in Canada and the rules throughout the world,” Nichol said. “I try not to think about that. 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.

“Of course, I would love to see them. We have tons of fun when we choreograph. But whatever will be, will be, and we will make it work.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Birk Irving, last man on Olympic team, extends breakout season with Mammoth win


One year ago, Birk Irving was the last man to make the four-man U.S. Olympic ski halfpipe team. Since, he continued to climb the ranks in arguably the nation’s strongest discipline across skiing and snowboarding.

Irving earned his second World Cup win this season, taking the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, California, on Friday.

Irving posted a 94-point final run, edging Canadian Brendan Mackay by one point. David Wise, the two-time Olympic champion who won his fifth X Games Aspen title last Sunday, was third.

A tribute was held to 2015 World champion Kyle Smaine, a U.S. halfpipe skier who died in an avalanche in Japan last Sunday.

“We’re all skiing the best we have because we’re all skiing with Kyle in our hearts,” Irving said, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “We’re skiing for him, and we know he’s looking down on us. We miss you Kyle. We love you. Thank you for keeping us safe in the pipe today.”

Irving also won the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colorado, on Dec. 17. Plus, the 23-year-old from Colorado had his best career X Games Aspen finish last Sunday, taking second.

The next major event is the world championships in Georgia (the country, not the state) in early March. Irving was third at the last worlds in 2021, then fifth at the Olympics last February.

The U.S. has been the strongest nation in men’s ski halfpipe since it debuted at the Olympics in 2014. Wise won the first two gold medals. Alex Ferreira won silver and bronze at the last two Olympics. Aaron Blunck is a world champion and X Games champion.

Irving is younger than all of them and has beaten all of them at multiple competitions this season.

New Zealand’s Nico Porteous, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, hasn’t competed since the Games after undergoing offseason knee surgery.

In snowboarding events at Mammoth, Americans Julia Marino and Lyon Farrell earned slopestyle wins by posting the top qualification scores. The finals were canceled due to wind.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Olympic 400m champion, announces pregnancy


Bahamian Shaunae Miller-Uibo, the two-time reigning Olympic 400m champion, announced she is pregnant with her first child.

“New Year, New Blessing,” she posted on social media with husband Maicel Uibo, the 2019 World Championships silver medalist in the decathlon for Estonia. “We can’t wait to meet our little bundle of joy.”

Miller-Uibo, 28, followed her repeat Olympic title in Tokyo by winning her first world indoor and outdoor titles last year.

Also last year, Miller-Uibo said she planned to drop the 400m and focus on the 200m going into the 2024 Paris Games rather than possibly bid to become the first woman to win the same individual Olympic running event three times.

She has plenty of experience in the 200m, making her world championships debut in that event in 2013 and placing fourth. She earned 200m bronze at the 2017 Worlds, was the world’s fastest woman in the event in 2019 and petitioned for a Tokyo Olympic schedule change to make a 200m-400m double easier. The petition was unsuccessful.

She did both races anyway, finishing last in the 200m final, 1.7 seconds behind the penultimate finisher on the same day of the 400m first round.

She did not race the 200m at last July’s worlds, where the 200m and 400m overlapped.

Notable moms to win individual Olympic sprint titles include American Wilma Rudolph, who swept the 100m, 200m and 4x100m at the 1960 Rome Olympics two years after having daughter Yolanda.

And Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics, when the mother of two also held world records in the high jump and long jump, two events in which she didn’t compete at those Games.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!