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

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

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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.”

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