The senior World Figure Skating Championships have started in Saitama, Japan, a country that was an acknowledged skating powerhouse even when Russia was still allowed to compete. In these second Worlds without Russian skaters, defending gold medalists Shoma Uno and Kaori Sakamoto hope to retain their titles on home ice. Sakamoto has been having an erratic season, winning Skate America (Janet Jackson reportedly enjoyed her Jackson-themed short program) and Japanese Nationals but finishing the Grand Prix Final in fifth place. Uno has had a superb season, winning gold at Nationals and the Grand Prix Final, and finishing first in the men’s free skate at the Japan Open (Team Japan won). He doesn’t have a quad axel—only Ilia Malinin, the US champion, has that, though not consistently—but the five quads Uno does have in his free skate, plus his high component scores, have placed him over Malinin this season in both the Japan Open and the Grand Prix Final.
Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates are arriving at their tenth Worlds with their fourth US gold medal. They faced unusual competition at Skate America from their teammates Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who finished first in the free skate, but Hawayek and Baker withdrew from the rest of the season’s events, citing ongoing health problems, and the other US ice-dance medalists, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons (silver) and Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko (bronze), are appearing at senior Worlds for the first time. So Chock and Bates are well positioned to add a gold medal to the bronze (their second) they won last year—but Canada’s Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier have had a breakthrough this season with their “Evita” free skate. They missed Canadian Nationals—Gilles had appendicitis—but received a bye to Worlds; if they’re back in fighting shape, they will be formidable competition.
Three hours into the pairs’ short program, Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps of Canada arrived to skate an elegant tango, scoring more than seven points over their teammates Lia Pereira and Trennt Michaud, who had held the first-place spot for more than an hour. But the highlight of the night was the final flight of competitors, including defending champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, the first US pairs team to win Worlds since 1979. This season they are also US champions (last year they missed Nationals when Frazier tested positive for COVID, but they were given a bye to the Olympics and Worlds). They won Skate America and the MK John Wilson Trophy to qualify for the Grand Prix Final but came in second, behind Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara (the first Japanese pairs team to win that title). Knierim and Frazier entered this competition with an emotional burden: Three weeks ago their coach Todd Sand suffered a heart attack in Calgary, where his US team Sophia Baram and Daniel Tioumentsev were competing in the World Junior Championships. The question was whether Knierim and Frazier could control their nerves to win gold here (as Baram and Tioumentsev rallied to do in Calgary). They skated last in the short program, with Miura and Kihara in first place with a season’s-best score, and Knierim maintained her usual steely smile—but Frazier fell, putting them in second, more than six points behind the Japanese and slightly more than one point ahead of the Italian team, Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii. Competition continues through Sunday.
This article was originally published on Vogue.