The precursor to Beijing 2022 had Olympic qualification implications, and crowned three first-time world champions. Nathan Chen also won his third in a row.
“This is one I’m going to remember forever.”
Those are poignant words from any athlete, but in particular in that they came from Nathan Chen after he earned his third consecutive title at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships, which wrapped up in Saturday (27 March) in Stockholm, Sweden.
Chen stormed back from third place in the short program with masterful free skate, vaulting him past two-time Olympic champion Hanyu Yuzuru, who would win the bronze, and Hanyu’s Japanese teammate, 17-year-old Winter Youth Olympic Games champion Kagiyama Yuma.
Chen now carries a trio of world titles (2018, 2019 and 2021) into the coming Olympic season, while each of the other winners in Stockholm were first time: Anna Shcherbakova in the ladies; Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov in pairs; and Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov in ice dance – each skater representing the Figure Skating Federation of Russia (FSR).
The world championships served as a qualifying event for Olympic spots for each country in the four disciplines, and the International Skating Union will release a full list of qualified spots in the coming days.
Here, seven takeaways from a memorable four days in Stockholm, where the competition happened without fans and with Covid-19 protocols in place.
Having not lost at any event since the 2018 Olympics (nine international golds in a row), Chen had an uncharacteristic fall in the short program on a quadruple Lutz, his first in over 120 competitive jumps, dating back to the Grand Prix Final in 2018.
But the 21-year-old California native didn’t let that sidetrack him, and instead kept the quad Lutz in what turned out to be an epic free skate, landing five quads and scoring a monster 222.03 in the free, just points from the world record score he owns (224.92).
Chen said a relaxed mentality helped him soar to the heights he did: “I just try to remind myself how fortunate we are to be here. That relaxes me. 'Be here, be present.' We train for these moments, we live for these moments. Without these, it's pointless what we do every day.”
Hanyu said he felt as though his balance “started to crumble” in the free skate, minor mistakes all it taking to open the door for Chen. The two-time Olympic and world champ nonetheless has his eyes set on more greatness next year, including working on the never-done-before quadruple Axel.
“I’d like to practice quad Axel as soon as possible,” the 26-year-old said in Japanese. “I want to work on perfecting my landing and incorporate [the jump] in competitions.”
Kagiyama was inspiring throughout his two skates, the 17-year-old becoming the youngest world medallist since Hanyu in 2012 and delighting his coach and father, two-time Olympian Masakazu.
The men’s event had a flurry of fierce skating at its finish, including from 2018 Olympic silver medallist Uno Shoma, who finished fourth, as well as Keegan Messing of Canada, American Jason Brown, Evgeni Semenenko and Kevin Aymoz, who finished fifth to ninth respectively.
A world title is a pretty perfect way to celebrate your 17th birthday, isn’t it?
That was the case for Shcherbakova, who led after the short program and didn’t look back, leading a FSR sweep of the ladies’ podium, with Elizaveta Tuktamysheva winning the silver medal and Alexandra Trusova bouncing back in the free skate for bronze.
Tuktamysheva was the feel-good story of the ladies’ event, the 24-year-old winning a silver six years after her world title in 2015 at age 18. It was the first time she was back at worlds since then, having failed to qualify among an always-difficult Russian field of ladies.
She’ll now try to qualify for her first Olympics next season.
Shcherbakova can bask in being world champion for a bit, but it won’t give her a free pass to Beijing, either, with the likes of 2020 European championships winner Alena Kostornaia with her eye at the Games, and Shcherbakova’s training mate Kamila Valieva age eligible next season for senior competition.
“To me it is a great honour to win” here, Shcherbakova said in Russian. “It’s going to give me new energy and I want to work harder for next season.”
American Karen Chen was a standout story, too, posting two solid skates to tie a career-best fourth-place finish and help the U.S. qualify a (provisional) third spot for Beijing along with teammate Bradie Tennell, who was ninth.
Belgium’s Leona Hendrickx had her best-ever finish at worlds in fifth after a stirring free skate, while Japan’s Sakamoto Kaori finished sixth. Her teammate, Kihira Rika, was second after the short program, but dropped to ninth in the free to finish seventh overall.
Austria’s Olga Mikutina finished eighth.
Pre-event, the chatter surrounded three teams: Two-time world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China; two-time world medallists Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov; and rising Russian team Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii.
Enter Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, the 2019 world junior champions who held firm in the short program at third, then exploded in the free skate, a near-perfect performance to “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“We are the champions!”) vaulting them to the win.
They are the first Russian pair team to take gold at worlds since 2013.
"We were really surprised to come first," a shellshocked Mishina said after their triumph. "I don't know what to say in this moment because we don't even understand what it means yet."
Mistakes hampered the long programs of Sui/Han (silver), short program leaders Boikova/Kozlovskii (bronze) and Tarasova/Morozov (fourth), a season of interrupted training showing on the ice in Stockholm.
Cheng Peng and Jin Yang of China were fifth, while Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro rebounded from a tough short program to finish in sixth.
The ice dance competition was guaranteed a first-time world champion team as four-time and reigning champs Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron had opted not to come to worlds, citing the season of interrupted training.
That left the door ajar for former world medallists Sinitsina and Katsalapov, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, to claim a first-ever title heading into the Olympic year.
It was the Russians who would take full advantage, both of their programs skated with an unbridled passion that the judges awarded in full, and capturing their nation’s first ice dance gold at worlds since 2009.
Hubbell/Donohue won silver for a second consecutive worlds, while Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier had the skate of the competition in the free dance, a Joni Mitchell program lifting the Canadians to their first-ever world podium.
Chock and Bates were left on the outside looking in, finishing fourth.
Sinitsina/Katsalapov missed several weeks of training during the season due to Sinitsina contracting Covid-19, even being hospitalized at one point.
“This medal means a lot to us, it's a very dear medal for us,” Katsalapov reflected. “We went through a lot of obstacles towards it, especially this year. It means to us that we can work more and we can still improve."
The ISU will confirm final qualification spots in the coming days (by 11 April or earlier), but worlds served as the platform for nations – not individual skaters – to earn their positions at next year’s Beijing Winter Games, with the Nebelhorn Trophy (ISU Challenger) event next season used as a secondary qualifier.
Particularly noteworthy was the U.S. ladies team earning back a provisional third spot (their combined 13th the exact number they needed); Japan doing the same – and just barely; Aymoz helping France to two spots in the men’s; and host China actually missing out on a second spot in the men’s.
Former world medallist Jin Boyang was 22nd, while Yan Han finished 13th, not a strong enough finish (combined 28th or one skater in the top 10) needed for two spots.
Regardless of how the next year shapes out, another meeting of Chen and Hanyu proved to have plenty of twists and turns, though neither skater was able to bring his ultimate best through both programs over the weekend.
“Being in his space is incredible,” Chen told a small group of reporters about competing against the two-time Olympic champ, many in the sport calling Hanyu the GOAT. “He’s someone I was inspired by growing up, watching in 2014. ... He’s one of those athletes that you get starstruck even seeing him in person.”
“I want to step back and let his thing – I know he’s incredible,” Chen continued. “I want to try and do the best I can do, too. Whatever is going to happen with the scores will happen.”
Will they meet again at the Beijing Winter Games next February? Only time will tell.
As it always does, worlds produced plenty of feel-good stories, on the podium and beyond. Here are just a few of them: