While the cloud of war in Ukraine loomed large, the skating shone brighter than the Montpellier sun at the World Championships which finished yesterday.
The ban on Russian skaters due to their country’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s decision not to send a team to Worlds was most acutely felt in the pairs event where the entire top five from the Beijing Olympics did not compete at this year’s Worlds. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier (USA) stepped up to win both the short programme and the free skating to give the United States its first medal in the discipline since 2002 and its first pairs title since 1979. Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara (JPN) nabbed Japan’s first World pairs medal since 2012 and recorded Japan’s best ever placement in the event with their silver medal, while Vanessa James and Eric Radford (CAN) took bronze less than a year after officially announcing their partnership. Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc (USA) were in second place after the short, but a nasty fall midway through the free for Cain-Gribble forced them to withdraw from the competition.
While Russian women have been a dominant force in recent times, the scandal surrounding Kamila Valieva’s positive doping test and increased scrutiny of Eteri Tutberidze’s coaching methods have tarnished their legacy and their absence did not diminish what turned out to be an exciting event. 2022 Olympic bronze medallist Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) captured Japan’s first women’s title since 2014 and ninth in the history of the event. Loena Hendrickx (BEL) picked up Belgium’s first ever medal in the women’s event despite being sidelined due to injury after the Olympics and only resuming training four days prior to arriving in Montpellier. Alysa Liu (USA) overtook her compatriot Mariah Bell (USA) in the free to become the first American woman to stand on the World podium since 2016.
Even without the presence of either Nathan Chen (USA) or Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN), the men’s competition was still a battle between the Japanese and American skaters. Shoma Uno (JPN) posted personal bests in both the short and free to finally claim a World title after coming second twice in 2017 and 2018. Beijing Olympic silver medallist Yuma Kagiyama (JPN) took his second consecutive World silver ahead of Vincent Zhou (USA) who was heartbreakingly unable to participate in the individual event at the Beijing Olympics last month.
The stars of the championships were undoubtedly Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) whose likeness adorned everything in Montpellier from public transportation to bottles of water. With world records in both the rhythm dance and free dance, they added a fifth World title to their collection of titles to the rapturous applause of the home crowd. They were joined by their Ice Academy of Montreal teammates on the podium with Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (USA) winning silver and Madison Chock and Evan Bates (USA) taking bronze, their first World medal since 2016. For Hubbell and Donohue it was their last competitive appearance.
The war in Ukraine was never far from the minds of those at the World Championships. Ukrainian skaters competed in pairs, men and ice dance categories and were warmly supported by the empathetic crowd in the Sud de France Arena. Everybody hopes by the time Worlds rolls around next year in Saitama, Japan that Ukraine will have peace.