By Johanna Bear
For the second year in a row, Wenjing Sui and Cong Han of China emerged victorious from the pairs competition at the ISU Four Continents Championships, this year held in the newly-built ice arena in Gangneung, Korea, the figure skating venue for the 2018 Winter Olympics Games. China’s top pairs team was returning to competition for the first time this season following a 10-month layoff as a result of Sui’s foot operation.
“Today we performed the emotion and story of the program,” Han said. “I am glad that we’ve overcome the pressure and regained confidence through this competition. We are reassured that we are able to get back what we’ve lost.”
Sui and Han performed their “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as if they had never left, clearly connecting the trials in their program’s vocals into their own experiences building confidence and experience after Sui’s injury. The 2016 World silver medalists had a total competition score of 225.03 points with the help of a huge quadruple twist, which represented a new personal best for both combined score and free skate score.
While Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford bested Sui and Han last season at the World Championships, the Chinese team’s continued Four Continents dominance, left Duhamel and Radford in second place with the silver medal and a total score of 212.23 points. The two-time defending World Champions had a series of small mistakes throughout their free skate including Duhamel putting her hand down on their side-by-side triple Lutz-double toeloop combination, and Radford turning that intended triple toeloop into a single, as well as Duhamel putting her hand down on their attempted throw quadruple Salchow. However they were able to move up from third place after the short program to second overall, increasing their confidence going into the World Championships.
“I think today was one of those fighting skates for us, which is kind of the feeling for us so far this season,” Radford said. “Considering how we were feeling going into this long program, we’re both very proud of ourselves that we fought through and managed to stay on our feet. It’s always a bit of an up-and-down feeling throughout the season, and we’ll take this as a positive step toward the world championships in March.”
Fellow Canadians Liubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch won their first ISU Championship medal, bronze, with a total score of 205.31 points. They were able to move up from fourth place after the short program to third at the conclusion of the free skate. Ilyushechkina and Moscovitch skated a tender program to “When You Say You Love Me,” performed by Josh Groban, and their only mistakes were shaky side-by-side triple Salchows and a fall on their throw triple loop.
“We’re very happy with how today went and this competition as a whole,” Moscovitch said after the free skate. “Each event this season has seen us improve, and we’ve been moving in the right direction throughout the season.”
“It is very exciting for me to win the medal for the country which I love the most and which I am passionate about,” the Russian-born Ilyushechkina added. “This is my third Four Continents and the first championship medal. It gives me a nice feeling when thinking about the improvements we’ve made as a team and about the way I went to get to this point. It definitely sets up the excitement for the next big steps.”
Recently wedded Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim had an emotional return to competition following Scimeca Knierim’s illness last summer and subsequent stomach surgery in the fall. In their first competition since their wedding in June, they debuted two romantic programs to “Come What May” from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack (SP) and selections from the musical, Ghost (FS), and finished in sixth place with a total score of 193.91 points. Their free skate was highlighted by their trademark sky high triple twist and big triple throw jumps.
“I think it feels different, I really do,” said Scimeca Knierim of competing as a married couple. “And I think it might have to do with everything we’ve been through this year with my illness. It was coincidentally around the same time that we got married, but with all we’ve gone through together, it really is a different place. It feels like nothing can harm us.”
“We’re more connected,” Knierim added. “Being married hasn’t really changed our off-ice or our training at all. As far as skating, it didn’t change much of that. But competing now, married, I feel more connected to her while I’m skating. I’m not listening to the noise that’s going on all around me, I’m just looking at her.”
2017 U.S. Champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had issues with their side-by-side jumps, but skated with good connection to each other and their music, finishing eighth with a total competition score of 179.45 points.
“There were some good things and some things that need to be better,” Denney said. “There were technical issues. I held back a little bit on my jumps, and that was the biggest thing today. We’re going to take the experience of getting out there more and skating under pressure with us. We took almost a year off with the injury [to Denney’s right knee], then came back, relearned our stuff and got right back into competition. We’re trying to work through everything the best that we can and really take our time to do things well.”
Making their Four Continents debut as a team, 2017 U.S. bronze medalists Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc had two solid performances despite minor deductions on the landings of ambitious side-by-side jumps (triple loop and double Axel-half loop-triple Salchow combination) in their free skate. They placed ninth overall with a total score of 168.87 points.
“We’re so happy and so excited to be at this competition. This has been an incredible season for us. In our first year coming together, getting three Senior Bs in the fall, medaling at nationals and then being able to come here and perform in the Olympic venue is fantastic,” LeDuc said. “In every competition we want to take a step forward in any way that we can. Overall, pushing through the elements and skating them the best that we can is a step forward for us. Obviously the elements are going to come in time… We understand that this is all part of the evolution of our partnership and the elements will come in time. Learning how to compete and push through everything is the biggest step for us here.”
Though they had never competed at Four Continents before, it was not the first time that Cain and LeDuc had been in Gangneung, as they both competed in the 2011 World Junior Championships with different partners.
“Timothy and I both competed here in 2011,” Cain said. “We actually made up the whole U.S. pairs team, just with different partners. [Cain competed with Joshua Reagan, LeDuc with Cassie Andrews.] We actually ended up getting three spots for the next year’s World team, which hadn’t happened in a really long time. It was a really cool experience that we were able to share together. Now being back together, it’s crazy. So many years have passed. I think we’re different as skaters and even as people. We’ve really grown up a lot, but we’ve stuck to skating. We’ve stuck to this sport for this long, and I think that shows how much we love it. We’re very excited to be back here, together, at the senior level.”
Scimeca Knierim and Knierim and Denney and Frazier will represent the United States in Helsinki, Finland at the World Championships, March 29-April 2, 2017.