After a season of challenges, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov (pictured above) finished theirs on the highest of notes.
The Russian ice dance duo skated to a 130.15 - just three points shy of the score that helped them win a first world title for the Figure Skating Federation of Russia (FSR) last month - to capture the ice dance free dance at the World Team Trophy figure skating event in Osaka, Japan, on Friday (16 April).
The event, held every year, pits the top six nations in the world against one another, with the placements in both the short and free programs earning points for said teams.
Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy were second in the free dance (124.75), while Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker were third (110.16)
Team Russia team well and truly have the lead after Friday's afternoon session. They have 73 points to the U.S. tally of 66. Hosts Japan are third with 60.
In the pairs short program, it was another world champion team in Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov who had a strong showing for the Russians, runaway winners in the short with a 73.77.
Second to fourth place was separated by just 0.6 points, with Italy's Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise earning the runner-up spot with a 66.09, followed by Miura Riku and Kihara Ryuichi of Japan (65.82) and Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S. (65.68).
Sinitsina/Katsalapov, Mishina/Galliamov ride wave from worlds
The turn-around from the world championships, held late last month in Stockholm, was always going to be a challenging one, but the three-week gap didn't appear to bother the two winning teams on Friday, who turned in thrilling performances for respective wins.
"A lot happened in the past year," said Mishina, who paired up with Galliamov for a surprise win at worlds themselves last month. "We have a new coach, the coronavirus which halted [the season] - a lot [happened]. But we wanted to fight through everything and keep at it, and we think we have."
Mishina/Galliamov opened with a monster triple twist in their short, then hit a difficult throw triple Lutz which earned them plus 2.23 points on the Grades of Execution (GOEs). Their lone weakness was a double Salchow on the side-by-side jumps, with Galliamov committing the mistake.
The feeling across the event is one of thankfulness from the skating teams, voiced by Della Monica in the mixed zone: "We had a chance to skate at the world championships but there was no audience," she said, noting the limited capacity crowd in Osaka. "I was very happy to skate here. What we like about this [Italian] team is that we are the most experienced ones. The other ones are so young. I feel a privilege to be here. To work together. Skate for each other."
That sentiment stretched across into the dance, as well, as Sinitsina and Katsalapov carried their own momentum from worlds. Earlier in the season Sinitsina contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalised, the duo off the ice for more than a month. They've come back even stronger.
"We have each other’s back all the time and are blessed with so much support from so many people, particularly our parents," said Katsalapov in the mixed zone.
"It’s what helps us stay determined to win. We have been at home a lot and we were six months behind schedule regarding our training and preparation for the season. It was not easy. Hopefully next year will be less problematic and complicated." - Nikita Katsalapov
The duo turned in another chilling performance of their moving, balletic "I Giorni" and "Songs My Mother Taught Me" free dance.
While the Italians were impressive in second, the U.S. duo feels as though they have their work cut out for them in the off-season.
"We both felt satisfied with our skate today and it’s difficult to balance it with the frustration we felt when our score came up," said Hawayek.
Baker added: "We’ve gotten really good feedback from the U.S. panel of judges, but we’re not perceived as well internationally, clearly. Every event this season we’ve shown up. We’re going back to the drawing board and figure out what we need to do."