Ice Network

Russians waltz to pairs lead over renewed Germans

Savchenko, Szolkowy ride 'Pink Panther' to second; Protopopovs attend
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Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov were completely on their game Tuesday night, putting everything they had into their "Masquerade Waltz" short program. The Russian favorites totaled a world-record score of 84.17 and assumed a 4.53-point lead over their closest competitors. -Getty Images

With the team that began it all for Russian pairs skating in attendance in the Iceberg Palace in Sochi -- two-time Olympic pairs champions Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov -- another team began what it hopes will be the start of a new Russian skating dynasty.

Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, already gold medalists from the team competition, won the short program Tuesday night at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games and are now one free skate away from securing another.  

With the Sochi crowd staunchly supporting all three of Russia's teams -- the leader of the Imperial Russian Ballet Company was even leading the crowd by banging on a huge drum and Russian flags were waving everywhere in the arena -- Volosozhar and Trankov did not disappoint. And they performed especially strong, even though they knew their main competition, the German team of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, had already turned in a season's-best performance.

Volosozhar and Trankov lead with 84.17 points, followed by the Germans, who were docked with a Level 2 death spiral, with 79.64 points.  

"The Protopopovs beat the German world champions in the Olympics (in 1964), and it's like a new circle of the story," Trankov said. "It would be very important to give gold back to Russia."

The Protopopovs won the first of their two Olympic titles 50 years ago in Innsbruck, starting a streak of 12 consecutive Olympic pairs skating victories by teams representing the Soviet Union, Unified Team and Russia, that abruptly ended in 2006. The 2010 Olympics in Vancouver were especially disappointing for Russia since it did not have a single team on the pairs medal podium. The federation regrouped and put maximum effort into its pairs teams, specifically designed to make a comeback in the skating discipline in the first Winter Games held on Russian soil.

Volosozhar and Trankov spoke about how they have come to Sochi often to prepare for these Winter Games.

But certainly, the other teams entered in these Winter Games were not about to just hand over the title to the Russians; not just the Germans, but also the Chinese and the Canadians, and the night was filled with some of the strongest, if not the strongest, performances in pairs skating of the season.

The Germans were incredibly strong, even though they used their backup Pink Panther program, a routine that had used in the past and resurrected just weeks ago.  

As Szolkowy put it, "We haven't lost yet."

"The most important thing for sure is that we skated clean. If it was not 100 percent powerful, I would say it was at least 105 percent," Szolkowy said with a laugh. "It is our Olympics, and we want to fight for the Olympic gold."

Not if the Russians have anything to say about it.

Amidst a friendly but boisterous crowd, Volosozhar and Trankov presented their short program with such immense speed, unison and power that, when they finished, it was obvious they would end the night in first. 

But they were not the only strong Russians in the field. In addition, Russia's second team, featuring Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, shined. Just two years removed from the junior ranks, Stolbova and Klimov skated a clean routine to find themselves an impressive third with 75.21 points.

"Of course we did not think about the high ranks," Klimov said. "But, it was the best skating of the season, for sure. The Olympic Games is unpredictable, so you can expect anything."

Meanwhile, the Chinese Olympic silver medalist team of Qing Pang and Jian Tong, who have skated together for more than two decades, are fourth with 73.30.

Death spirals sent two otherwise strong Canadian teams into a downward spiral.  

The two Canadian teams are fifth (Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford) and sixth (Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch). Both Canadian couples lost valuable points with their death spirals, as Duhamel and Moscovitch, the 2013 world bronze medalists, received a Level 2 and Moore-Towers and Moscovitch were handed a Level 1.  

Even so, the night will be remembered as one with far more highlights than lowlights. Five of the top 10 teams earned their ISU personal-best marks, including two-time U.S. champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, who find themselves in a great position entering the free skate Wednesday night in ninth with 67.44 points. They had been hoping for a top-10 finish here in Sochi and now are in position to achieve that. The other American team of Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay are in 14th and also scored a personal best with 56.90 points.

Castelli and Shnapir are having a terrific run in these Winter Games, having already earned a bronze medal as part of the team event.

"I was thinking when we went onto the ice, 'We're already bronze medalists,'" Castelli said. "I think this is the most calm we've been at the Olympics. I know that's weird to say, but we've already skated twice."

The couple believe they have more to showcase in the free skate, which includes a throw quadruple Salchow.  

"Honestly, I think we could do better, but it gives us confidence," Shnapir said. "The score definitely reflected our energy and what we put into the performance."

Zhang and Bartholomay did not compete in the team event, and Bartholomay admitted he had a "little bit of a rapid heartbeat" before they started their routine.

It was "not a panic," he said, but more of an excitement to get things going in Sochi. The duo gave each other what has become a traditional fist bump when it got on the ice and got things going with their opening triple twist. Bartholomay underrotated his triple toe loop, but the team performed solid down the stretch.  

"We were a little scratchy on a couple of things, but we're happy," Bartholomay said. 

"We're just happy to be here," Zhang added.

Zhang and Bartholomay said they have enjoyed life in the Olympic Village and have taken in all of the experiences that go with this life perk, chatting up skiers and snowboarders and having meals with members of the U.S. women's hockey team.

But the highlight, perhaps, came after they stepped off the ice. That's when they could take off their skates and watch the final groups of pairs skaters, including the Russians.

"Seeing them skate on practice sessions has been jaw-dropping," Zhang said. "It's inspiring just to see them and watch them skate."

If the short program is of any indication of things to come in the free skate, it could shape up to be a night to remember. Of the top four teams, Stolbova and Klimov will skate first, followed by Volosozhar and Trankov, Pang and Tong and then Savchenko and Szolkowy.

When the Germans picked the last spot in the draw, Savchenko yelled, "Yes!"

That means the drama of whether they will attempt a throw triple Axel at the end of their free skate won't be resolved until the very end of the night.

When asked about whether they might try it, Szolkowy smiled and said, "Lean back and there will be a surprise, maybe."

As for the Protopopovs, they exited the Iceberg Palace having seen what could have been a new direction for Russia. But Oleg Protopopov spoke with caution when asked about his impressions of the night, offering one word to sum up the evening: "Tomorrow."