Ice Network

Pairs skaters unfazed by participation in team event

Despite concerns, team event has no adverse effects on individual short
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Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov showed no signs of a letdown following the team event, as they finished Wednesday's pairs short program in second place. -Getty Images

Four years ago, Germany's then four-time world pair champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy were co-favorites for Olympic gold with Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia. With the Winter Games in Sochi and Russia favored for team gold, Volosozhar and Trankov competed a short program in the team event, held directly before the pairs individual contest. The Germans, however, decided to pass on the team event.

"The reason back then was to save energy," Szolkowy said. "If you participate in the team event, it means you are here a couple of days more to prepare for the team event and then skate the individual event. We decided to come late, just go for individual and that's it."

Fast forward four years to PyeongChang. Szolkowy now coaches Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, the top Russian threat for gold. On Feb. 9, the pair took the ice for the team short program, putting out a crisp, inspired effort that earned 80.92 points. Their individual short on Wednesday was even better, notching 81.68 points to place second to China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han. Heading into Thursday's free skate, they are less than a point off the lead.

Now, Szolkowy sings a different tune.

"For sure it helped (doing the team short)," he said. "You get a feeling for the ice rink, for TV, for fans, for the whole package. I know what I am talking about. It's not easy."

Unlike Germany four years ago, Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) were expected to win a team medal, and they claimed silver here. And Tarasova and Morozov passed off the team free skate to Natalia Zabijako and Alexander Enbert, who placed eighth in Wednesday's short.

What if Tarasova and Morozov had been pressed to compete twice in the team event?

"It helped them to do just one program," Szolkowy said. "The team event is still something new. Let's say the officials have to find their way (and consider) technical things -- who is better in the short, who is better in the free, and is it better for the individual events to let a pair skate one program, two, or even none, like the Chinese team."

Sui and Han performed a spectacular short that earned 82.39 points, the sixth-highest pairs short-program score ever recorded and the only score in the top six not earned by 2014 Olympic champions Volosozhar and Trankov. The world silver medalists did not compete in the team event, letting Xiaoyu Yu and Hao Zhang take the honors.

"Before (Sui) came (to PyeongChang), she had 12 stitches on her left thigh and had to rest a whole week," Han said. "So our federation allowed us to make this decision."

Ten of the 22 pairs competing in the short program at Gangneung Ice Arena on Wednesday also competed shorts in the team event. Of those ten, just two scored higher in the team event, than in the individual contest.

Three pairs -- Canada's two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, and Miu Suzuki and Ryuichi Kihara of Japan -- performed short programs and free skates in the team event.

Only one of those three, Duhamel and Radford, were considered legitimate individual medal threats heading into PyeongChang. The Canadians skated a near-clean short Wednesday to earn 76.82 points to place third.

"We could have taken ourselves completely out of contention by missing a major element, and we didn't," Duhamel said. "We kept ourselves in the mix."

The Canadians also skated well in the team short program, earning 76.57 points. Their efforts were instrumental to Canada's team gold medal, and Duhamel thinks that's a plus in the individual event.

"Standing on the podium at the medal plaza inspired me," she said. "I want to be back on the podium after the pairs event. We're using that to drive us."

Duhamel's husband, Bruno Marcotte, who coaches the pair in Montreal, doesn't think participating in the team event impacts the individual event one way or the other.

"I don't think they were tired, I think maybe they were a little bit nervous," Marcotte said. "They had to overcome four years ago (in Sochi) missing the last warm-up, because that year their short program was tough for them. Mentally they were tired of what happened four years ago more than what happened earlier this week. I felt like physically they were fine."

For Scimeca-Knierim and Knierim, that answer isn't as clear cut. The Colorado Springs-based couple skated a near-clean team short that earned 69.75 points and contributed to the United States' bronze medal. Their individual short was less secure, with small glitches on the triple twist, throw triple flip and side-by-side triple salchows, and they placed 14th with 65.68 points.

"Honestly, we've just been trying to turn up each day when it comes to bedtime and then start over the next day," Scimeca-Knierim said. "I don't know if (doing the team event) was an advantage or disadvantage. Our short was better in the team event, but I don't think that means why there were more glitches today."

Dalilah Sappenfield, coach of Scimeca-Knierim and Knierim, thinks activities associated with the team medal -- media responsibilities, and traveling to the Olympic Village for presentation of medals -- were more taxing than the event itself.

"There is a little bit of emotional drain, not so much from the competing, but also for the schedule you have to do, just to go and get your medal," Sappenfield said. "It's an all-day event and it's really late at night, and very cold. There are a lot of highs and lows. I think this was fine for them. They really want redemption in the long, because they know they can skate better from what they did in the team event."

Wednesday's short program event was one for the ages, with many clean skates in the last few groups. One pair that did not go clean was Savchenko and current partner Bruno Massot, who competed in the team short for Germany "as a kind of practice," said Savchenko. Massot doubled an intended triple salchow in the individual event, putting the team fourth with 76.59 points. The Germans earned 75.36 points in the team event.

Other pairs -- including Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès of France, who sit sixth after the short; seventh-place Italians Valentina Marchei and Ondřej Hotárek; and Nicole della Monica and Matteo Guarise, also of Italy, who are ninth -- all competed in the team event, and all put out what they considered career-best short programs in the individual contest.

"Competing in the team event helped us a lot," della Monica said. "We were able to try out the ice. We had chances to make mistakes and work on them, mentally. Today we were a little tense but then were able to relax and enjoy the program, hit the big elements, and breathe."

"It was good we made our mistakes in the team short, because then we focused on everything," James said. "For me, obviously, it was a big help."

John Zimmerman, the three-time U.S. champion who coaches James and Ciprès in Florida, agrees with the consensus: If a pair skates a short program in the team event, it will likely help them the next week in the individual contest.

"We did not participate in the free, so we were fortunate to get something out there and feel the ice," Zimmerman said. "How we structured the practices afterwards was key to improving the psyche of the team, since they didn't have a great team short. We worked hard and talked about selling the performance, which they didn't do in the team, and they went out and did their best."