Five-ring Circus

The Olympic Pairs Short Program Was One of the Most Thrilling Figure Skating Events I Can Remember

Team after team threw down performances that show what skating can be at its absolute best.

Sui and Han practically horizontal skating together
China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong competing during the Winter Olympics at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing on Friday. Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

For years, I have been telling people that pairs is the most exciting and most difficult discipline in figure skating. I must admit, I am severely biased here. For most of my figure skating career, I competed in pairs with my younger sister, and I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder that pairs skating has always been ignored. Perhaps that’s been because, in the United States, pairs has been our weakest discipline; the U.S. has never won gold in the event, and our last Olympic medal of any color was a bronze in 1988. It is sometimes hard to find TV coverage of international pairs events, with networks preferring to air the women’s and men’s disciplines instead. But at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, pairs is finally getting its moment to shine. This year, pairs is the final figure skating event to compete, a complete switch from the way things usually go. In fact, until these Games, pairs has been the first of the four disciplines to conclude at every Olympics since 1976. Each cycle, I felt like they were just trying to get us out of the way so they could get to the events people really cared about. But this year, it’s the pairs who are the headliners.

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Why this year is different is not very complicated: At these Olympics, pairs finally have pride of place because China is hosting, and pairs is the only figure skating event in which China is favored for gold. As much as pairs is a weakness for U.S. Figure Skating, it is the cornerstone of China’s program. Of China’s eight medals in figure skating, six were from pair teams, one of them being a gold medal for Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo in 2010. At the 2018 Olympics, China missed out on the gold medal in pairs by the slimmest of margins: 0.53 points! That silver medal team, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, are back at these Olympics, and ready to claim what they were so narrowly denied four years ago.

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The last time I can remember pairs being thrust into the spotlight in such a big way was at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, when that year’s big judging scandal resulted in the Russian and Canadian pairs eventually receiving duplicate gold medals. That controversy changed our sport forever. As part of the ensuing reforms, the judging system changed entirely: Before, judges simply awarded two scores, for technical merit and presentation, each out of 6.0. Under the new, present-day “Code of Points” system, a technical panel and the judges combine to give each element of the routine a score. It is incredibly complicated, but ultimately, fairer. After the tragic mess that was the conclusion of the 2022 women’s event, my hope for these Olympics is that pairs can change the sport for the better again and redeem figure skating in the eyes of the public. And in Friday’s pairs short program, I saw one of the most thrilling events in the discipline that I can remember. Let’s look at what the high-flying daredevils of the sport pulled off in the short program.

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America Rebounds

The performance by the two American pairs in the short program was America’s finest result in the event in decades. Not since 1998 have two American teams placed in the top 10 after the short program. This time around, the U.S. teams sit in sixth and seventh place after the short, separated from each other by only one-tenth of a point. Could this be the beginning of a Renaissance in American pairs skating?

The first American pair to skate was Alexa Knierim (30) and Brandon Frazier (29). Their path to the Olympics was an unusual one. Frazier tested positive for COVID in January at the U.S. National Championships and was unable to compete, so they had to petition U.S. Figure Skating to be granted a spot on the team. At these Olympics, they have already proved that decision to be a good one, as they helped the U.S. win a silver medal in the team event with two performances that exceeded expectations. (That silver medal, by the way, could turn to gold pending the doping investigation into Kamila Valieva on the Russian team.) In the short program, they continued that excellence with an intense, electric program skated to a cover of “House of the Rising Sun.” In the pairs short program, there is only one side-by-side jump, and it can be a major hurdle that separates the top teams from the rest of the field. Knierim and Frazier seemed a bit nervous at first, but after they held on to land their side-by-side triple toe loops, they really opened up and attacked the rest of their program. Their throw triple flip was a highlight, with massive height and a beautiful landing from Knierim that did not betray the pure effort it takes to land cleanly on one foot with that much momentum. They finished their program with a spectacular level four lift, and when they hit their final pose, Knierim had a confident smirk on her face. They received an impressive score that would hold up in first place until Peng Cheng and Jin Yang of China skated, 11 pairs later.

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Cain-Gribble and LeDuc stick their left legs up and lean to their right in parallel
Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy Leduc. Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

Almost unseating Knierim-Frazier from their lead, however, were Ashley Cain-Gribble (26) and Timothy LeDuc (31), the reigning U.S. champions. Cain-Gribble and LeDuc made history the second they stepped on the ice. By competing, LeDuc had become the first out nonbinary athlete to compete in the Winter Olympics. I’ve written at length about how powerful it was for me at the 2018 Games to see the first out queer skaters competing, so I can only imagine how much this moment means to gender nonconforming and nonbinary people watching. Skating to the score from The White Crow, a biopic about ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc performed in a style that was appropriately soft and balletic. It’s a joy to see two partners who can both lean into a more femme style while still being powerful in their athleticism. They opened with a lovely triple twist with tremendous height and went into side-by-side triple loops, the hardest side-by-side jumps in the competition. They both landed cleanly, all the more impressive as Cain-Gribble had to land on a leg with a sprained ankle and torn ligaments. The one significant error in their program was when Cain-Gribble had a two-foot landing on the throw triple lutz, but otherwise it was an impeccably skated program. Their skating was full of majesty and maturity. I was struck by how they made each moment of the music count. It was thrilling to see a queer skater seize the moment to be fully themselves on the ice. I found myself getting choked up when LeDuc was able to talk to their boyfriend via videocall, and he told Timothy, “You are loved. You are seen. You are worthy of taking up space.” I hope Timothy’s presence at these Games shows other skaters who haven’t felt seen that they too are worthy of taking up space.

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It’s essentially a tie between the two U.S. teams going into the free skate, and I’m filled with pride that America has showed up ready to play at these Olympics. None of these four American skaters were even alive when the U.S. won its last medal in pair. Could that medal drought change in the free skate? Both teams sit about eight points outside the top three, so it would require some serious errors from the leading pairs. But call me Agent Fox Mulder, because I want to believe!

Russians Dominate Again

Kozlovsky spins Boikova with one arm while she bends backward
Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovsky Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images
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Russians have been the gold standard in pairs skating for more than 50 years. I was surrounded by Russians for so much of my skating career that I osmotically absorbed up how to say, “What are you doing?!” in Russian from coaches shouting from the boards. From 1964 to 2006, a Soviet or Russian team won pairs gold at every single Olympics. At these Games, the “Russian Olympic Committee” is positioned once again to take home several medals. China holds onto a very slim lead at the moment, but they’re being chased by three Russian teams who are sitting in second, third, and fourth place after the short program.

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The ROC team currently in fourth place is Aleksandra Boikova (20) and Dmitry Kozlovsky (22), the reigning World Championships bronze medalists. They skated to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, skating’s most overused piece of music, but let me tell you a little secret. It’s overused for a reason—it rules! I love hearing Swan Lake every time! It’s serving you DRAMA, mama. When I skated to it, it felt like the world was going to crack in half as soon as my program was over. I loved Boikova and Kozlovsky’s energy at the beginning of the program. They pulled off side-by-side triple salchows with a difficult entrance straight out of spread eagles, followed by an effortless triple twist. However, on their next element, a throw triple flip, Boikova faltered and put a hand down on the ice while landing. The team seemed to lose a little bit of their fire after that error, but I did enjoy their step sequence, which had an energy I can only describe as pleasingly diabolical. On another night, that would surely have been a top-three skate, but with the strength of the pairs in this event, it was only good enough for fourth, 4.17 points behind the third-place team.

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Sitting in third place are the reigning World Champions, Anastasia Mishina (20) and Aleksandr Galliamov (22). Their short program was set to the ballet “La Esmeralda” by Cesare Pugni. Mishina and Galliamov are incredible athletes. Their triple twist is one of the best in the event. Their throw triple flip flew across the ice with a confident landing by Mishina. This pair skated a totally clean program with impeccable precision and attention to detail. Their style is rather mannered, and perhaps not to everyone’s taste. At times, it can seem like Mishina in particular is miming rather than actually emoting, but I found that deliberate, indicative style rather charming; it was appropriate for the old-fashioned feel of this ballet music. This was the type of performance my coaches would show me growing up and say, “Now THAT’s pairs skating!” I especially like the way they’ve incorporated choreographic flourishes for Galliamov that include backbends to the ice. Although they sit in third place, points matter more than placements after the short program. They are only 1.65 points out of the lead and must still be considered a serious threat for gold.

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Morozov lifts Tarasova with one arm who sticks out her arms and one back leg like she's flying
Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images
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After the short program, Evgenia Tarasova (27) and Vladimir Morozov (29) are achingly close to their gold medal dreams, only 0.16 points behind the leaders. They must hope history won’t repeat itself; in 2018, they were also less than a point behind the leaders after the short, only to fall to fourth place after the free skate. Their elegant maturity was on display to this mix of classical music including “Metamorphosis Two” by Phillip Glass and “Experience” by Ludovico Einaudi. There was so much power in their performance, but it was a quiet power. Their skating possesses a simple beauty that doesn’t announce itself but rather washes over you. Athletically, they were the picture of technique. They hit side-by-side triple toe loops before executing a triple twist that received a literally perfect score from the judges. Next, they went into a soaring throw triple loop that had a landing so good I wrote down in my notes, “like buttah!” For their performance, they were rewarded the highest technical element score of the night, but a slight deficit in their program components score leaves them barely in second place. Watch out for the Russians in the free skate. If the Chinese falter, we just might be seeing a podium sweep.

The Chinese Refuse to Be Outdone

Jin throws Peng spinning into the air and watches her
Peng Cheng and Jin Yang. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
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China has two teams in this event. The first, Peng Cheng (24) and Yang Jin (27), skated to a “sure, I guess that works?” mix of “Moonlight Sonata” and “No One” by Alicia Keys. Despite a shaky landing on a triple loop, they skated an otherwise clean program full of charming contemporary choreography. I was wowed by the difficult entrance to their overhead lift. Their program was good enough for fifth place, keeping them in the medal hunt.

The skate of the night, however, belonged to Sui Wenjing (26) and Han Cong (29), the Chinese skaters who have waited four years to avenge their half-point loss from 2018. Sui and Han took my breath away. Skating with intensity, focus, and relentless attack, they commanded my attention. Watching them skate to the Mission: Impossible 2 score by Hans Zimmer, I actually felt like I was watching an action movie. They landed their side-by-side triple toe loops in perfect unison with great speed. After Sui landed a huge throw triple flip the crowd roared. Of all the pair teams in the event, they felt the most like they were moving as one entity. There was not a tentative moment in the entire program; they aggressively threw themselves into every element with abandon. In their final element, a back outside death spiral, a strand of Sui’s hair elegantly reached for the ice, and I thought to myself, “dear god, even her hair is acting!” It was a joy to watch, an example of the very best that pairs figure skating has to offer. Their performance was good enough to earn a world record score of 84.41 points, putting them in an excellent position to win Olympic gold in their home country.

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After what we witnessed in the women’s free skate, it was a joy to have an event focused on the skating, not on off-ice drama, brutal coaches, and alleged doping. Yes, controversial Russian women’s coach Eteri Tutberidze was there, as she helps coach Boikova and Kozlovsky. But they are not children. I have included the ages of the competitors throughout this piece because I think it is worthwhile to contrast their ages with those of the women competing in Beijing. Among the top 10 finishers in the women’s event, five were under 18. Of the 36 skaters who took part in the pairs short program, only one was under 18, and nine were over 30. It was refreshing to see an event in which the athletes are significantly older, an event filled with adults who I’m more confident can handle the mental pressure of being in the international spotlight.

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We need to have a discussion in the coming months about what the skating community needs to do to protect its younger members. Are age minimums necessary to prevent too much pressure on adolescents? Or are they unfair to people whose bodies are in peak competitive condition before adulthood? If we learned anything from the pairs’ short program, it is that older skaters, when trained right, can still wow audiences with their athleticism. Pairs also shows us the power of skaters supporting each other, a power the community will desperately need as we work together to pick up the pieces from this Olympics. After the incredible skates we saw in the short program, I am excited for a huge free skate Saturday, one that I hope will show us that the Olympic spirit can still bring out the best in athletes and fans. For Sui and Han after their silver in Pyeongchang, for pairs figure skating after years of being ignored, for the sport at large after a distressing Olympics, Saturday night is all about redemption.

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