Monday, March 3, 2014

Caviar and Vodka on Ice: Volosozhar and Trankov Return Russian Pair Skating to Gold Standard

What a pleasure it was to watch the pairs competition in Sochi. The event had its share of ups and downs, but overall, it ended with a positive feeling: no epic scandals, no epic upsets, but yes, a few surprise twists. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia entered the event as the favorites. They were the reigning World Champions and the kind of gold-standard that Russian pair skating had been missing for awhile. This pair is phenomenal. Their lines are clean and classic, the height on their throw is obscene, and Volosozhar has exceptional extension and posture. Ever since they burst onto the scene in 2011, I knew they were something special, but I still felt a favoritism and sentimental pull toward the 4-time World Champions, Aliona Savchenko and Robin
Szolkowy of Germany. In Sochi, the Russians had the definite edge, not only with the home-ice advantage, but in terms of track record. The duo had begun to rise out of the Germans' shadow the season before and never looked back.

While Volosozhar and Trankov are as fine, elegant, and classy as they come-- the caviar and vodka of Russian skating royalty--I felt underwhelmed by their freeskate to "Jesus Christ Superstar." I do not dislike the program, but I was left wanting more. The program felt a bit hokey and one-dimensional for such an important Olympic year. This was the year that Russian skating rose out of the ashes and reclaimed its rightful spot at the top of the podium on home soil; the least Volosozhar and Trakov could have done was to skate a classic, traditional Russian pairs skating programs of all Russian pairs skating programs, to solidify their place in Russian skating royalty. Okay, I know that sounds kind of stereotypical and boring, and perhaps credit should be given for Volosozhar and Trankov going outside the box, but I don't think being non-traditional is necessarily a good thing when the material is lesser than your talents and potential. Bottom line: I wouldn't have minded if the two had strayed away from Russian traditions if their program had been fresh, complex, and memorable (think the German's avante-garde performance to "Pena" a couple of seasons ago). "Jesus Christ Superstar" was not particularly interesting or memorable. But nevertheless, Volosozhar and Trankov skated well enough, with only one small hand-down on a throw, under immense pressure, to win gold.

The real stars of the night were Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov of Russia, who electrified the crowd and finished second. I had never even heard of this team until the team event and was totally blown away. I find them athletic, exciting, and entertaining. While I echo Sandra Bezic's point that their "Adam's Family" freeskate is not as good as they are, I still think it suited them and they performed it with astounding energy. I have never seen such speed going into and out of the individual jumps and throws. Their excitement and zeal was practically radiating through the television. They were sensational. Hands-down the best performance of the freeskate and the most crowd-pleasing. I can't wait to see them at the World Championships and in the upcoming season.

The biggest disappointment of the competition was the bronze-medal finish of Savchenko and Szolkowy. They've struggled to find good material in the last season (I've heard horror stories about their Spanish Bolero freeskate from last year), which makes it exceedingly difficult to pick up any momentum and make a run for the top. They scrapped their original short program from this season and created a new one that was roughly based on their highly successful Pink Panther freeskate from 2010-2011, with which they won their third World title. No one was sure what to expect, but the veterans pulled off an athletic and charming short program to The Pink Panther, putting them in second place behind the Russians.

In the freeskate, I was surprised to see that Aliona and Robin were opting for a more traditional look, skating to a traditional Russian piece of music by Tchaikovsky, and wearing elegant, classic costumes. I understand that they were trying to pay homage to the Olympics being held in Russia, not to mention that Aliona has Soviet roots (she was born in Ukraine), but it certainly was different from their usual style of being slightly quirky, angular, and innovative. They were skating to something that I really would have liked to see Volosozhar and Trankov skate to, but besides my initial misgivings, I think the program is lovely, soft, and thoughtful. It features terrific highlights on the crescendos of the music. Savchenko and Szolkowy proved their versatility by embracing the classic style so beautifully. What they didn't handle as beautifully was the nerves. Robin fell on a side-by-side triple toe loop, and Aliona crashed to the ice on the final element: a throw triple Axel. One has to question why they would go for such a high-risk element, that I have never seen them land, at the end of a program that already contained a major mistake. Maybe they could have finished second if not for the fall at the end, but one will never know. Despite the heartbreaking third-place-finish, they certainly earn points for not giving up, and for giving their best shot to fulfill their Olympic dream.

Some may argue that the heartwarming Pang/ Tong should have won bronze, but either way, I feel so lucky to have witnessed the Chinese champions delivering such a stunning freeskate to Les Miserables. What an amazing career and such generous performers!

Hats off to the two American teams. Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir skated very well to their high-flying "Skyfall" program, finishing 9th, and Nathan Bartholomay and Felicia Zhang finished 13th. I did not see Bartholomay/Zhang because they were not broadcast in prime time, but I heard they did a great job. Both American teams did a fine job and I'm proud of their efforts!

What a great night of pairs skating!!

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