French, Americans, Ukrainians: Ice dance storylines to watch at figure skating worlds

Figure Skating - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 10
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When the ice dance portion of the 2022 World Figure Skating Championships gets underway with the rhythm dance on Friday, the top teams will look to continue dynasties built by themselves or their nations while another team will be considered victorious simply for taking the ice.

Papadakis and Cizeron fight for five

The team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron highlights the field and is expected to receive the warmest welcome in Montpellier, France. Each grew up a roughly four-hour drive from the host city and, for the first time in their lengthy career, will compete in front of a home crowd at worlds.

Papadakis, 26, and Cizeron, 27, are still relatively young compared to their toughest competition but have already achieved far more than most in the sport’s history.

After taking silver at the 2018 Winter Olympics, the French rose to the top of the Olympic podium last month and will now look to add a fifth world title to their resume. A win this week would make them only the second ice dance team to collect that many golds since the discipline was added to the worlds program in 1952 and the first in 48 years (Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov won six from 1970-1976 for the Soviet Union).

Papadakis and Cizeron’s last world championships came in 2019. Worlds was canceled in 2020 as the Covid pandemic began and they withdrew last year due to their inconsistent training caused by that pandemic.

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Since March 2018, Papadakis and Cizeron have won all but one competition they entered. The only team to beat them in those four years, Olympic silver medalists Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia, will not be in France. The same goes for fellow Russians Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, who were sixth at the Olympics, after the ISU barred Russian skaters from events through at least the remainder of this season due to the country’s attack on Ukraine.

“I certainly don’t think it should be considered a diluted competition because every athlete that’s there is deserving and world standard,” American Madison Hubbell said of the field. “I think it’s going to be a very high-level competition, no matter the absence of a few participants.”

With Sinitsina and Katsalapov out, the top two U.S. teams – Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Madison Chock and Evan Bates – should join the French on the podium. All three teams train together at the Ice Academy of Montreal.

The only team whose score has approached those top three teams this season is Canada’s Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, the 2021 world bronze medalists who were seventh at the Games.

Hubbell and Donohue soak in their swan song

American ice dance teams have won medals at the past six world championships and 14 of the last 16, and this year should be no exception to that trend.

Hubbell and Donohue, both 31, will end their competitive careers Saturday as one of the most decorated U.S. dance teams ever, regardless of what happens in France.

They go out with a silver (or gold) team event medal and bronze ice dance medal from last month’s Olympics, at least three world championships medals, 18 Grand Prix medals, a Four Continents title and three U.S. titles.

“Zach and I are dealing with our post-Olympic slump a little differently than others, knowing it’s our last few weeks of training together,” Hubbell reflected.

A fourth world medal, which is theirs to lose, will tie them with Judy Schwomeyer Sladky/Jim Sladky, Tanith Belbin/Ben Agosto and Meryl Davis/Charlie White for the most by a U.S. ice dance team.

Their Olympic ice dance medal came four years after finishing fourth in their Olympic debut, which Hubbell recently referred to as a “medal that we gave away a bit.” They were third in the short dance but missed the podium after Donohue put both hands on the ice in the PyeongChang free dance.

“I have to keep bringing it back to the point that it’s such a unique experience not only to go to the Games but to be one of the lucky few that gets to medal,” Donohue said of their time in Beijing. “I think it gave us love for not only what we do, but the team around us, the environment and situation that we’re in. Being able to hold our heads up high for the rest of our lives and celebrate that together is something that we still look forward to bringing into our final competition at worlds.”

They are the only ice dance team to earn medals at the last three world championships, taking silver in 2018 and 2021 and bronze in 2019. Winning the only color missing from their resume will be an uphill battle, though. Their total at the Olympics was nearly nine points off from Papadakis and Cizeron’s world record score.

When averaging both teams’ scores this season, Hubbell and Donohue are at an 11-point deficit.

“I think it would be against our nature to say anything but that we want to win; we’ve never been afraid to say that,” Hubbell said. “We certainly left points on the table at the Olympics. As happy as we were with our performances and the outcome, neither performance was something we were absolutely blown away with. They all had things we could have done better.

“We’ve been working to make sure we can hopefully grab all of those extra points, get our levels and leave the rest up to whatever may be. … We’re excited to share our last performance with a live audience and 13 of our training teams and almost all of our coaching staff, so it’s going to be a really special thing.”

Chock and Bates ready for long-awaited return to podium

Chock, 29, and Bates, 33, appeared to be ice dance podium mainstays back when they collected a world silver medal in 2015 and bronze in 2016. They have struggled to get back into the medals, though, finishing seventh, fifth, sixth and fourth in the years since.

It appears that, six years later – almost unheard of in the sport, the time has come for their return.

The three-time U.S. champions were fourth at the Olympics, missing the podium by 3.25 points, and have the third-highest season-average score of the teams at worlds – just 0.17 points off that of Hubbell and Donohue.

Chock and Bates, three- and four-time Olympians, respectively, bested their friends once this season, winning the U.S. title by 1.78 points.

“I know the Russians won’t be there, it’s a post-Olympic worlds, some people think it’s diminished,” Bates shared, “but to us it’s extremely important. Regardless of who’s there, we’re going to go there and give it our best shot.”

That shot at the medals might come down to Chock and Bates’ ability to focus solely on their performances – which includes a well-received free dance representing the relationship between an astronaut (Bates) and an extraterrestrial (Chock) – and temporarily silencing the distractions.

The off-ice couple has been vocal about both the emotional/physical letdown that follows an Olympic Games and the challenge of focusing on their sport when there is a war raging in Ukraine.

“Everything right now is really devastating, and I just think about all of our Ukrainian friends,” Chock said. “They just had the biggest highlight of their life [at the Olympics] and then they go home to a war-torn country, and it just breaks my heart and I really just, it’s hard to think about anything else. A medal seems like really not a big deal in light of all of that.”

Ukrainian team returns to competition ice

Six-time Ukrainian ice dance champions Oleksandra Nazarova and Maksim Nikitin are among the friends Chock was referring to, and despite all odds they will be competing in France.

Chock/Bates and Nazarova/Nikitin trained together in Michigan leading up to the PyeongChang 2018 Games.

“We saw them in Beijing and had never seen them happier,” Bates said. “Then we come back and, just in trading messages with them, it’s difficult to comprehend and grapple with having a very similar, shared experience in Beijing and then leaving to such a different life experience. That’s been hard for us to digest and be okay with.”

Chock has been in touch with Nazarova over Instagram direct messages and shared with reporters that her friend was constantly on the go with her family, which included a baby, in an attempt to find a safe place to sleep each night. Meanwhile, Nikitin had joined the fight for his country.

“I think it’s been extremely difficult to go to the rink, especially on days when Madi and Sasha (Nazarova) have spoken,” Bates shared. “Even if I didn’t know anybody, I would feel distracted. I watch the news and keep track of what’s happening. It’s so horrible and so awful.”

When Chock was asked if she sensed defiance from Nazarova in their communications, she replied, “I sensed survival.”

Nazarova, 25, and Nikitin, 27, were eventually able to evacuate to Poland, where they spent last week training.

Hubbell said the Ukrainian team, which has been skating together for nearly 15 years, was urged to compete at worlds by Papadakis, who has also asked her fellow skaters to bring supplies for Ukrainian skaters to France.

“There are so many people in the world who are in need of a moment of joy to maybe help them escape from whatever they’re battling, whether it be depression or unhappiness to fight anything, and hopefully with our figure skating we can be a very small source of joy that brings their life a little bit of light,” Chock said on another way the athletes are able to assist.

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