Fierce battle set for ice dance bronze at OlympicsTeams from France, Russia, Italy, Canada all in mix for podium spot
Sochi is the final competitive event for two-time European champions Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat, and the veteran French ice dancers are giving it all they've got.
"We're in the best shape we've ever been in our skating career," Bourzat, 33, said of himself and his 30-year-old partner. "We're here to fight."
Round one was the team short dance event. Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. won the segment, followed by Canadian rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Then, it got interesting: Four-time Russian champions Ekaterina Bobrova and Dimitri Soloviev beat out the French for third place by a point.
"We were disappointed," Péchalat admitted. "We thought if we had made one place higher, France could qualify for the final round [of the team event]."
After the team short, the French traveled to Moscow with their coach, Igor Shpilband, and two of his other teams: U.S. silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Lithuanians Isabella Tobias and Deividas Stagniunus, to train at the Odintsova rink. They returned to Sochi a few days ago.
"I'm very happy with how Péchalat and Fabian are preparing," Shpilband said. "We were very pleased in the team event with the levels and the technical scores from the [judging] panel. We just want to make sure they make the key points in the short dance even stronger."
Shpilband thinks spending three days at Odintsova was a big benefit for his teams.
"We had an opportunity to skate more," he said. "In Sochi, it's only 30 minutes a session; you can only play your music once. Over there, we skate twice a day and play the music as much as we need to, and the musicality in the short dance is very, very important. You have to get every musical accent played with the full amplitude."
The French will square off not only against Bobrova and Soloviev but another Russian couple, European silver medalists Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, who sent the Iceberg Skating Palace into a frenzy of joy with their free dance to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake during the team free dance.
These three teams, plus European champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte and Canadian silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, are considered the five contenders for bronze.
"Nathalie and Fabian are prepared for it; they know they cannot just skate safe," Shpilband said. "They have to attack. That is all they can do. I think they have a very good focus.
"Of course, the crowd will be with the Russians, that is understandable; it's the home country, it's normal. But I think the crowd here recognizes good skating, and I think Nathalie and Fabian have a lot of Russian fans, because they trained here (in Moscow, under former coach Alexander Zhulin) for a long time. I had a lot of people coming to me in Odintsova saying, 'Oh, we are cheering for Nathalie and Fabian.'"
Last-minute maneuvering for ice dance medals
Used to be it wasn't difficult to predict the ice dance podium at the Olympics at least a season or two in advance. Teams would "wait their turn" and ascend to the medals only after the couples ahead of them retired. Nail-biting rivalries were rare.
Not in Sochi. U.S. world champions Davis and White are considered slight favorites, but Canadian Olympic champions Virtue and Moir are capable of taking home gold again. Teams from Russia, France, Italy and Canada are also fighting for the podium.
The fight will continue up through the medals ceremony. Coaches are still tweaking elements, determined to give their teams the edge. Among them: Marina Zoueva, coach of Davis and White, and Virtue and Moir.
"This was perfect, their best practice so far," Zoueva said of Virtue and Moir's Saturday afternoon session. "So much unison, so together. Very confident skating."
While Zoueva has not modified any of Davis and White's elements, she said she had adjusted the first lift in the Canadian's free dance: "We changed the position, made the lift smoother."
When a reporter asked her how she "juggled" the two top teams, she took a bit of offense.
"They are different; it is for the judges to decide," she said. "I'm not a juggler. I just work. I work 10 years with one team (Virtue and Moir), 13 years with the other (Davis and White). I'm just doing my job."
Also Saturday afternoon, Bobrova and Soloviev ran through their free dance to music from Once Upon a Time in the West and Tosca, which they also used last season.
The four-time Russian champions began 2013-14 with a free dance set to Vivaldi and Mozart, but their coach, Zhulin, scrapped it. The Russians skipped the 2014 European Figure Skating Championships so they could work on reviving last season's free dance.
"I don't know, that program was just not working," Zhulin said. "Sometimes you think something will be great, and then it is not. That was my mistake as a choreographer."
Yet another couple fighting for bronze, Weaver and Poje, have made very few changes to either of their programs since their season debut at the U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City in September. The skaters, who train in Detroit under a team headed by Pasquale Camerlengo, arrived in Sochi days before the team event, in which they did not take part.
"We've had the right periodization to be ready to compete," Weaver said. "We arrived ready to go, we went down, and then back up.
"We got here early, and I'm really glad we did. It took me a while to get used to it. The first couple of days, I was rarin' to go; I couldn't sleep. Then reality set in."