“Why are we talking about figure skating on a travel blog?” is what any sensible person would ask when seeing the title of this post. The Winter Olympics are starting in a week, so I have to comment on figure skating. I skated for five years when I was in elementary and middle school and have continued to follow the sport. It’s a big part of my life, and I love to talk about it. Unfortunately, I don’t know any figure skating fans in real life, so I’ve had to bore a very patient friend with my commentary over the past few years.
Since I have a blog now, I’m going to dedicate a few posts to figure skating in the lead-up to the Olympics. If you’re here solely for travel posts, don’t worry: I’ll alternate between skating and travel posts, so you don’t have to read about skating if you don’t want to. I plan to cover figure skating in just four or five posts, so I promise the skating coverage will end quickly.
“Ladies” (ahem, women’s) figure skating is considered the headline event of the Winter Olympics, but I’m most excited about the men’s event this year. At least six skaters are serious medal contenders, and predicting the podium is close to impossible. My biggest hope is that the event doesn’t end up being a splatfest, but this might be unrealistic with the top men including so many quadruple jumps (“quads”) in their programs. The results may depend on who falls the least. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the winner falls at least once in his long program.
Below are my thoughts on the serious medal contenders (and one bonus skater!). They’re ordered in my predicted likelihood of winning Olympic gold.
Nathan Chen (USA)
Chen is arguably the USA’s best chance at an Olympic gold in figure skating. He competed in his first international season last year and made a big splash by including four quads (including the quad lutz, the most difficult jump today) in his long program. While this technical-based tactic helped him earn a number of international medals last season, Chen was criticized for being a jumping machine without much artistry. If you disregarded the jumps, his programs were pretty empty.
This season, Chen has focused more on developing his artistry while still maintaining his technical arsenal. With a couple of Olympic medal contenders sidelined with injuries, Chen has been picking up a bunch of gold medals this season. He’s been inconsistent with his long program, but his short, set to “Nemesis” by Benjamin Clementine, is among my favorite programs across all disciplines this season. The music is modern, and the choreography perfectly suits it.
Watch the video if you like: music that is not opera, Les Miserables, Moulin Rouge, or Phantom of the Opera (all too rare in figure skating); dynamic choreography; exciting step sequences
Shoma Uno (Japan)
Take one look at Uno’s face, and you’ll think he’s a real-life anime character. For such a small skater, he makes a big impression. He pays careful attention to his music and has some of the most difficult programs in the men’s field. However, his jumping technique is wonky. I’m always convinced he’s going to fall when he takes off for a jump, which distracts me from the rest of his skating.
Uno has consistently been on the podium for the past couple of years, although he hasn’t won a major international title yet. This may change at the Olympics, especially if other medal contenders falter.
I don’t love either of Uno’s programs this season, which are both set to classical music (Vivaldi’s “Winter” for his short program, and Turandot for his long). In contrast, I loved his short from the 2015 to 2016 season, which was set to more contemporary music. In a sport where warhorses like Carmen, Swan Lake, and Tosca are trotted out by multiple skaters every season, I always appreciate fresher music.
Watch if you like: funky music, fun choreography, dramatic presentation from a baby-faced skater
Bonus: check out 7:11 of this video, which shows a distraught Uno after he made a couple of big mistakes during his long program at the 2016 World Championships. Although Uno was miserable, I thought he was so endearing. That face! His adorable coach! I can’t take it.
Boyang Jin (China)
You can thank Jin for starting the current quad craze, where the top men are now putting at least three quads in their long programs. Jin burst onto the international scene a couple of years ago when he was the first skater to successfully land three types of quads in one program. After Jin pulled this off, many of the top skaters started packing more quads into their programs.
Last year, Jin made a serious effort to improve his artistry, which has made him even more of an Olympic medal threat. The two-time Worlds bronze medalist has been dealing with ankle injuries this season, but you can never count him out.
No matter what he does in the future, I will always adore Jin for his Spiderman short program from last season. It was playful, upbeat, and included web-slinging. What more can you ask for from a program?
Watch the video if you like: shoulder shimmies (2:59 in the video), limitless charm, tongue-in-cheek entertainment
Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan)
No one can beat Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic champion, when he’s clean. He has everything: the jumps, the spins, and the artistry. If figure skating has a rock star, it’s Hanyu. He has attracted an extremely devoted fan base due to his skating skills, unrelenting hard work, and humble attitude. [NB: like Uno, I’ve always thought Hanyu resembles an anime character.] He famously keeps a Winnie the Pooh tissue box on the side of the rink at competitions. Fans weep with joy at the end of good performances and with sorrow if he makes mistakes.
Unfortunately, Hanyu has been a big question mark for the past few months, as he’s been MIA due to an ankle injury. There have been very few updates about his training status, and no one knows what kind of shape he’ll be in at the Olympics. However, if past performances are any indication, he’ll find a way to get onto the podium.
For the Olympics, Hanyu is skating to two programs that he’s used in previous seasons. These programs are brilliant, but I was still disappointed with his choices. He’s already skated both programs flawlessly, and I don’t think he can recapture the same kind of magic. I hope he can prove me wrong.
Diehard Hanyu fans have a lot of memorable performances to choose from (2015 NHK Trophy, 2015 Grand Prix Final, 2017 Worlds), but my favorite Hanyu program is his short from the 2014 Olympics. Set to the bluesy “Parisienne Walkways,” Hanyu’s short was so, so cool. As you can probably tell by now, I tend to favor newer music over classical choices since it adds more interest.
Watch the video if you like: a balance of athleticism and artistry, cool choreography, blues and rock
Javier Fernandez (Spain)
Fernandez has singlehandedly carried Spain’s figure skating program for years. When he first started becoming competitive, he was known for being a great jumper and a master of character-driven programs. Now, he’s no longer quite the technical wizard he once was, but he’s become a more mature skater. He was a medal favorite at the 2014 Olympics but placed a disappointing fourth. I’m rooting for him to get a medal of any color this Olympics; he certainly deserves it.
I attended the 2016 World Championships in Boston and watched the men’s practice session on the afternoon of the long program. Fernandez had an off day and was having trouble with his skates; he kept taking breaks to adjust his laces. I thought this was a bad omen for the long program that night. However, his long program to Guys and Dolls ended up being one of my most vivid memories from the championships. It was electric. I cheered after every jump and was screaming by the end of the program…as was the rest of the crowd.
Watch if you like: Frank Sinatra-like swagger, attractive Spanish guys (hey, I will do anything to get more people to watch skating), unbridled enthusiasm from the audience (the roar starting at 4:54 was deafening)
Patrick Chan (Canada)
Chan was one of the favorites – if not the favorite – for the gold at the 2014 Olympics. He had dominated the previous three seasons but ended up with the silver in Sochi. After his disappointment at the Olympics, he took a year off from competitive skating before staging a comeback. With other men upping their technical game, Chan hasn’t been nearly as dominant this Olympics cycle and hasn’t made the podium at the world championships.
Although he may not be able to catch up with younger competitors in terms of jumps, Chan is the complete package. He has wonderful fundamentals: below the shin, he’s one of the most beautiful singles skaters. The bottom of a skate blade is concave, so a blade contains two edges (an inside edge if you lean toward your arches, and an outside edge if you lean toward the outside of your foot). Chan is a master of edge work, which makes his skating look effortless.
When he first returned to competition after the 2014 Olympics, Chan seemed to have lost steam, but then he had a superb performance at a competition in early 2016. Chopin is such a predictable choice for skating, but Chan elevated the music. His deep, smooth edges complemented the piano perfectly.
Watch if you like: gorgeous skating to gorgeous music, masterful edge quality, a comeback effort from a veteran athlete
Adam Rippon (USA)
I focused on the serious medal contenders for most of this post, but I also have to talk about Adam Rippon, one of my favorite male figure skaters. Something catastrophic would need to happen to the medal contenders for Rippon to get on the podium at the Olympics, and I would never wish a bad performance on anyone. Instead, my humble wish is for Rippon to have clean performances at the Olympics. His lack of a consistent quad keeps him out of the running for a medal, but his lines and artistry are unparalleled.
Rippon’s been on the international circuit forever, but he was plagued with inconsistency. Although I loved his skating, he often broke my heart by crumpling at competitions. Something changed at the 2016 World Championships, when he finally delivered two dazzling programs. I was lucky to watch both of his programs in person, and I remember leaping from my seat, yelling in joy and disbelief as he finished his long program to a Beatles medley.
Since the 2016 Worlds, Rippon’s been solidly consistent in international competition. He missed the second half of last season due to a broken foot, but he’s been back with a vengeance this season. At a competition in November, he had to pick up bugs that had ventured onto the ice before his long program. After that distraction, he landed awkwardly on his opening quad lutz, dislocated his shoulder, popped it back in, and skated the rest of his program cleanly (see 3:24 of this video, if you’re so inclined).
As much as I would like to feature Rippon’s long program from the 2016 Worlds in this post, I’m going with his short program set to Ida Corr and Fedde Le Grande’s “Let Me Think About it,” which he’s used for the last couple of seasons. I absolutely loved this program the first time I saw it in fall 2016. Figure skating judges tend to have conservative tastes (I know, this makes no sense in a sport with rhinestone-studded and feather-adorned costumes), but Rippon makes no apologies to the judges in this short. He’s commanding and fierce, and the audience totally buys in. Have I made it clear how much I love Rippon yet?
Watch the video if you like: unbelievable sass, clubby dance music, beautiful spins. Also, check out the dancing audience member in orange at 2:41.