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China's Sui, Han grab slim pairs lead in Helsinki

Savchenko, Massot on the heels of Chinese pair; Russians take third
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China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han were nothing short of magnificent throughout their Eddy Louiss short program, and by setting a new personal-best mark of 81.23 points, the reigning two-time world silver medalists find themselves in prime position to repeat that feat or even claim their first world championship. -Getty Images

When you look at the standings following the conclusion of the pairs short program at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, you begin to realize that many teams endured some variation of injury during the season, and that seeing them on the top of the world is nothing short of a sports miracle.

China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, who missed most of the season leading up to the Four Continents Championships, won the short program by narrowly edging Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massota and the Russian pair of Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.

Sui -- who returned from surgery on both her ankles earlier this season -- and Han delivered an impressive program, which they skated with their trademark perfection. Skating to Eddy Louiss' "Blues for Klook," the Chinese pair landed their side-by-side triple toes, throw triple flip and triple twist with ease, earning Level 4 grading for their twist, spiral and step sequence as well. They amassed 81.23 points for their routine, which was enough to top their season's best by 0.48 points.

"I felt it worked very well today," Han said after the performance. "Wenjing had to learn to walk, run, jump, and then skate. We need to thank the Chinese team for all the support they provided as well as the doctors who helped us return earlier to competition."

Savchenko and Massot's season was heavily impacted by Savchenko's ankle injury, from which she only fully recovered in late January. Their program, which was set to Carl Emerald's "That Man," included the highest triple twist of the field, well synchronized side-by-side triple salchows and the only throw triple axel of the night, the landing of which she had to fight for.

The Germans were an instant hit with the audience, even before they began to skate. They managed to set each one of their elements -- from the major ones to the smallest tricks -- to full light, including their original death spiral. They garnered 79.84 points to set a new season's best.

Many wondered if Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov would be able to skate at all, after the pair endured a fall during their morning practice.

"Our short was not perfect, mainly because of our morning accident," Morozov explained. "Evgenia fell in the step sequence, and I fell over her and cut her leg with my blade. She had to have 10 stitches under the knee. We wondered if we could compete at all throughout the day, so we did all we could."

The 2017 European gold medalists managed to skate at the superlative level they have displayed all season, landing each one of their elements perfectly, from their high triple twist to side-by-side triple toes. Their twist, spiral, lift, steps and spin were all rated Level 4.

They skated their routine with more caution than they normally do but were able to amass 79.37 points, which placed them just 0.47 points behind the Germans.

China's second pair, Xiaoyu Yu and Hao Zhang, were not injured this season -- but this was their first season skating together as a team. They delivered a perfect program that included side-by-side triple toes, a triple twist and a throw triple loop. The duo sits in fourth place with 75.23 points.

Russia's Natalia Zabijako and Alexander Enbert delivered a flawless program of their own, which was set to Georgi Sviridov's "Snowstorm." By earning 74.26 points, the Russians topped their season's best by 1.88 points, a score that places them fifth entering the free skate. 

Pairs skating not for the weak

The rankings outside the top five show just how brutal this sport can be, no matter who you are.

Reigning world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford settled for seventh place, behind Canadian teammates Lubov Iliushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch. The latter skated clean, garnering a new season's best of 73.14 points for their routine.

Duhamel and Radford, on the other hand, endured several small mishaps throughout their program. They opted for side-by-side triple toes instead of their trademark triple lutzes because of Radford's ongoing hip problem. Their spin, step sequence and spiral were rated Level 3 by the technical panel, and their components were subpar.

"The lower spin can be attributed to Eric's hip injury," Bruno Marcotte, the pair's coach, explained. "He obviously lacked the flexibility required (for the sitting position). Also, a spin lasts several seconds, when a jump lasts just one. That's terribly long. A poor spin affects components."

They earned 72.77 points, a mark that is surely far from their best.

"They are so angry," Marcotte continued. "They will be even more angry when we get back home. They'll come back stronger from this."

Team USA's Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim offered their best skate of the season, which amassed 72.17 points to top their previous season's best by 3.07 points. Their program included a high triple twist, side-by-side triple salchows and a throw triple flip. The triple twist was rated Level 3, but their lift, spin, step sequence and death spiral all earned Level 4 grading.

"The Level 3 on the twist was expected," Scimeca Knierim commented following the performance. "After the surgery, the major elements were put on the back burner so we could concentrate on the other elements. We are well aware that if we want to compete with the best, we can't let one level slip by."

"We are very happy with the opportunity our association gave us to be on the team," said Chris Knierim, who will enter the free skate in eighth place with his partner. "This is such a big honor for us, and a huge blessing."

The second U.S. pairs team, comprised of Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, had an off-night. Denney fell on their throw triple loop and Frazier endured a fall on their subsequent side-by-side triple salchows a few moments later.

"This was nowhere near our full potential," Frazier said as the team left the ice.

"It was a bad skate," Denney said. "These were stupid mistakes, actually. But we had a good fight for the rest of the program."

Despite regrouping near the end of their program, the Americans finished 20th in the short program, a mark not good enough to qualify for the 16-team free skate.

All three top teams acknowledged the toughness of their sport in the post-event press conference. All three also acknowledged that they had to fight hard to come back, and that they did so for the love of their sport.

"I couldn't imagine my life without skating," Sui said. "I knew that the most I would practice, and the sooner I would resume skating, so that helped me."

"An injury is like a stone in your path, and you have to leave it aside," Savchenko added. "This is sport. It happened this year to all of us, as it happens in many other sports. Many of us tried to do new things. But if you love something, then you fight."

"Skating is more than sport," Morozov concluded: "It's our life!"