Olympics figure skating preview: pairs

Truth time: pairs is the discipline that I follow the least. I have one pair that I adore, but I don’t have strong feelings (good or bad) about many others. However, pairs is the fastest, riskiest, and most dangerous discipline, with soaring throws and twists and death-defying lifts. Pairs women are incredible: you need guts if you’re literally being thrown onto a blade that’s 1/8 of an inch wide. So, although pairs isn’t my favorite discipline, I have all the respect in the world for each team.

Two teams are expected to battle for Olympic gold, and a few other teams will duke it out for the bronze.

For the other disciplines, check out posts about men, ice dance, and women.

Wenjing Sui and Cong Han (China)

My favorite pair by a mile. Coached by the legendary Hongbo Zhao (the male half of my all-time favorite pair), Sui and Han have technical difficulty, precision, and personality. They’ve been skating together for years, so they perfectly complement each other. On the ice, Sui is a firecracker, and Han does a fantastic job of supporting her. They’re just as dynamic off the ice, as they love to tease each other relentlessly.

Sui and Han missed out on most of last season since Sui was recovering from foot surgery. They bounced back and managed to win their first world title with a emotional long program to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” They’re young (she’s 20, and he’s 22), so they could feasibly compete in another Olympics…or even two. You never know what will happen in four years though, so I hope they have stellar performances at this Olympics.

I saw Sui and Han live at 2016 World Championships, and their lively short program to Spanish-themed music was fabulous. Their choreography – especially their step sequence – mirrored the music, hitting all the notes at the right time.

Watch the video if you like: fierce musical interpretation, impossibly high throw jumps, sassy women and the men who support them

Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot (Germany)

Savchenko is a boss queen; there’s no other way to describe her. She’s a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, and this will be her fifth Olympics (one with a Ukrainian partner, three with a German partner, and the current Olympics with Massot). How is that even possible? I’ll tell you how: she’s a boss queen.

After her former partner Robin Szolkowy retired in 2014, Savchenko decided she wanted to continue skating. She paired up with Massot, who was a French citizen at the time. Massot narrowly passed his German citizenship test in time to qualify for the Olympics. Massot entertains me because it sometimes looks like he still can’t believe that he gets to skate with a legend like Savchenko. He’s the weaker link of the team, but he’s performed a lot better than I initially expected.

Since they’re a newer team, Savchenko and Massot aren’t quite as polished as Sui and Han. However, they have the highest twists in pairs (a guaranteed gasp from the audience) and have gained consistency over the past couple of years. They set a new world record in the long program at a competition in December: the performance was spectacular. I may be pulling for Sui and Han to win the gold, but I won’t be upset if Savchenko and Massot win. Savchenko truly deserves it.

Watch the video if you like: divas, spirited performances, twists that practically reach the roof of the arena

Xiaoyu Yu and Hao Zhang (China)

Zhang is another pairs legend. This will also be his fifth Olympics (three with his first partner Dan Zhang, one with his previous partner Cheng Peng, and the current Olympics with Yu). He’s most well known for his long program at the 2006 Olympics, where his partner Dan Zhang (no relation) had a terrifying fall on a throw quad salchow less than 30 seconds into their program (1:01 of this video). The pair recovered and earned the silver. After Dan retired in 2012, Hao paired up with Cheng Peng before the Chinese Skating Association matched Zhang with Yu last season.

Since Yu and Zhang were such a new pair, they didn’t make much of an impression on me last year. This year, their Swan Lake long program (yes, yet another Swan Lake) is elegant and refined. I wouldn’t have been able to tell that they had been skating together for less than two years.

Watch the video if you like: classical music, elegant lines, traditional skating

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (France)

James and Cipres are an exciting pair to watch. They make bold music choices, and it helps that they’re easy on the eyes. She often favors catsuits (Savchenko is the only other woman who can pull this off), which is another feature that distinguishes them from other pairs. They’re a little rough around the edges, but they’re a crowd favorite with their dramatic style.

Last year, they had a breakthrough with their long program set to “Sound of Silence.” The version of the song they skated to was too “yell-y” for me, but they nonetheless owned the program. The crowd’s enthusiasm multiplied with every element they successfully completed.

Watch the video if you like: raw-edged performances, beautiful people, high entertainment value

Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (Russia)

Tarasova and Morozov are a quintessential Russian pair. They have great lines and technique but are more introverted performers. Even though I don’t engage as much with their programs, I appreciate that they have their own style.

For their long program, Tarasova and Morozov are skating to Christina Aguilera’s “Candyman.” It’s unexpected, but I can understand why they chose the music. It might have been an effort to expand their repertoire and performance skills. The choreography is awkward and stiff at times, and the censorship of certain lyrics is jarring, but Tarasova and Morozov do their best with the material. I don’t particularly like the program, but hey, at least it’s different.

Watch the video if you like: brightly colored costumes, efforts to be more engaging with the audience, pop music

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford (Canada)

Duhamel and Radford have some of the most technically difficult programs in pairs. Their programs are athletic and powerful. They’ve been criticized for a lack of artistry, and I admit that I prefer other pairs’ style. However, they deserve praise for raising the technical bar and encouraging other pairs to do the same. I really admire Duhamel’s drive: she’s ambitious, hard-working, and follows a vegan diet. (I could never do that, so I have mad respect for people who do.)

At the 2016 world championships, Duhamel and Radford were the only top team who skated cleanly in the free program. They captured the title by skating to Adele’s “Hometown Glory.” I attended the event live and was sitting next to a few Canadians who were happy to see their countrymen with the gold.

Watch the video if you like: athletic skating, difficult jump combinations, a performance that builds with the music

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