Ice Network

Love of sport pulls past champions back into fold

Competitors returning to worlds find road back to top filled with challenges
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Maxim Trankov said he wants to be remembered as one of the greats. -Getty Images

Two years removed from the Sochi Olympics and two years out from PyeongChang, the 2015-16 season has come to be known as the season of the comeback.

Mao Asada finished her soul-searching, pulled back to the sport. Patrick Chan is still chasing that elusive Olympic gold, while Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov want another. Aliona Savchenko, for her part, would finally like to be atop the Olympic podium as well.

There are 11 world titles among them, but this weekend at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships everything has felt new, different -- even strange.

"Why do I need this? It's my love. It's my life. That's it," said Savchenko, who is skating at a world championships with new partner Bruno Massot for the first time. "I love to do what I do. I enjoy skating and competition. If I have the possibility to do competition, I'll take it."

That is the resounding chorus of those who are making a comeback: There is a love for this sport that runs deep, and it just can't be ignored.

In figure skating, things move fast. Landscapes change, new skaters emerge, rules shift. The event that someone competed in or a team faced two years ago can look and feel entirely different 24 months on.

"I think it's very difficult to jump back into things, because everything is always at a steady rise," NBC commentator Johnny Weir said. "People are learning what their competitors are doing. When you have to come back in, it's, in a sense, like starting over."

Friday night Chan no doubt would have agreed with Weir. Aiming to catch up with the multi-quad programs of rivals Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernández, the three-time world champion faltered again and again in his free skate.

The Canadian, however, is clearly aware that this is just one of many steps back. And while no skater would ever turn down a gold at worlds (or any podium spot, for that matter), the end goal for each and all of the comeback stories this year is 2018. The Olympics is the mountaintop.

"For Patrick, he wants to have his Olympic moment. He wants to put two good performances out there on Olympic ice," said Kathy Johnson, Chan's coach. "You can only control what you do. You can't worry about where the judges put you at this point."

Asada was not overwhelmed by the prospect of being back at a world championships. A three-time winner here herself, she left the sport with perhaps the biggest question mark hanging over her head as to whether she would return. She has, and if the triple axel finds its mark, she is still in the running to claim that gold medal in PyeongChang, the disappointment of Sochi now behind her.

"Mao is such a gift to the sport," Weir said. "To come back and keep the level that you were at is so hard. And with an entire country's expectation… She's handled everything with grace. She took time in her career to go back to the basics. She's very serious about the next Olympic Games. She's shown that she has the mental toughness to get where she needs to be."

Mental strength -- and the ability to perform at the highest level -- is what is hardest to attain, however; Chan, solid for much of his short program, showed that in the free skate Friday night.  

"It doesn't matter how long someone has been gone or how long they've been back, repetition and consistency play a part in it," said Tara Lipinski, Weir's counterpart on NBC and the 1998 Olympic gold medalist.

After the short program, Volosozhar was frank about her feelings and her performance: "I was a little bit nervous, having not skated at the world championships for three years. One mistake? OK."

Trankov, always expressive on the ice and outspoken off of it, brings the discussion back to an overwhelming sense of happiness in being able to compete.

"We just love to skate. We enjoy making the new programs to find our history in figure skating," he said, noting the pair's much-talked-about Bollywood short. "We are always trying to do choreography what nobody is doing before."

Weir, who had a brief comeback in 2012, said the pains a figure skater has to go through to get back to the top are nearly unfathomable, especially after having stepped away.

"I will tell you, having done a comeback myself, there is nothing worse," the two-time Olympian said. "Hanyu and Fernandez were there competing and I remember thinking, 'OK, I will try to do quads again and I'll wear pretty costumes and I'll be thin and in shape.' Nothing prepares you for what it actually feels like to be gone for a minute and have the world race by you and you have to catch up. It's a horrible feeling."

He added: "The ones that really can master it and be so strong and confident… We all need to cut them some slack if they aren't perfect all the time. It's a new learning curve. It's starting from a clean slate."

Ekaterina Gordeeva, who won pairs gold in Calgary in 1988, did what many skaters tried to do in 1994: Return to the Olympics after the professional rule change. It worked for her: She won a second gold, in Lillehammer.

"The most difficult part was to get back into the routine of training," said Gordeeva, who had daughter Daria in 1992. "We still were doing performances and shows (and) keeping up with difficult elements…it was just the training process (that was hard)."

Recently a two-team sprint, the pairs arms race is now a crowded field. The Russians (as well as Savchenko) are aware of that.

"Before, we compete only against the Germans (Savchenko and her previous partner, Robin Szolkowy)," Trankov said. "There were only two couples who fight for gold. Now there are five or six couples fighting. It's hard."

But Trankov revealed that some are skating not just for that Olympic moment (first or repeated) but also for a legacy. There are few that have etched their names so lastingly in this sport.

Can one of these comeback stories add to that short list?

"We just want to be unforgotten figure skaters," Trankov said. "We hope to be like one of the champions that stay in the history. People will say, 'Do you remember Volosozhar-Trankov? They did "Masquerade," and it was an amazing program.' Like Torvill and Dean. We don't want to be just one of the champions -- we want to be special."