The 2019 World Figure Skating Championships spawned legends, upsets, and comebacks, all crowned with garlands of cherry blossoms and the inexhaustible Japanese enthusiasm for mascots.
Wenjing Sui and Cong HanEmbed from Getty Images
Sui and Han are preternaturally engaging, effortlessly cool, and blessed with that ineffable magic that makes every element an expression of greatness. The fact Sui can stand after surgeries on both feet, multiple stress fractures, and the daily grind of training as a female pair partner is astounding. Between injury and an indomitable spirit is Rain In Your Black Eyes, surely one of the most magnificent programs in pairs figure skating. Sui and Han are proof that pairs skating need not be ice dance’s poor cousin.
Mikhail Kolyada was on the ropes for the entirety of the 2018-19 season. Sinus infection, injury, and underperformance marred a rare redeemable Carmen program. Second at Russian nationals, bumped out of the Grand Prix Final, and fifth at Europeans meant many wrote Kolyada off as a headcase this year and scrapped any chance for a meaningful result at Worlds before Kolyada touched the ice. True, fifth place at Worlds is down from 2018’s bronze medal, but Kolyada’s freeskate was a triumph of mettle. Here we saw more than a flash of what makes Kolyada a magnificent skater: that posture! The glorious triple axel position! Speed! Medal or not, Kolyada salvaged his season with four and a half minutes of willpower.
Speaking of willpower…
Evgenia MedvedevaEmbed from Getty Images
Smart money–mine included–would have bet on Alina Zagitova (the highest world-ranked Russian senior lady), Sofia Samodurova (newly-minted 2019 European Champion), and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (stealth Grand Prix Medalist and triple axel threat) for the Russian world team. The Russian Federation, however, declined to name the full team until after a post-Europeans internal test competition and a confidence vote by a Russian coaches council. Tuktamysheva and Medvedeva were pitched for the final World team spot. Medvedva won her place on the strength of her Russian Cup skate and a vote of 19 to 8.
Does an eleventh hour skate-off sound like a needlessly dramatic and complicated way of selecting a World team? Of course. Does the FSFR treat international event assignments with the political assiduousness of spymasters in a John le Carré novel? Absolutely. Did those 19 coaches make the correct decision? 100%.
Medvedeva repaid the confidence of the selection committee with her first World bronze medal. That bronze medal is still a sweet victory after Medvedeva spent the season scrapping for every jumping pass and placement. Regardless of what next season holds for Medvedeva’s technique, training, and results, she showed extraordinary grit here and will not go quietly into that good night.
Team Japan’s Lonely Sliver MedalEmbed from Getty Images
Expectations are always high for skaters when their country hosts worlds, but Team Japan’s hopes were exceptionally keen. Japan had multiple medal threats in the individual disciplines, and it was quite possible that they could have won both the men’s a ladies’ titles to boot. Rika Kihira was undefeated all season, and Yuzuru Hanyu has made a career out of unlikely comebacks, but neither was able to skate two clean performances. Shoma Uno’s quads went MIA, Kaori Sakamoto slid from second to fifth with one popped flip, and Satoko Miyahara was hit with more under rotation calls. As a final indignity, Tim Koleto and Misato Komatsubara didn’t even qualify for the free dance.
Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès Finish FourthEmbed from Getty Images
Somebody–and I’m not going to point fingers–broke the Vanessa and Morgan Catsuit Prayer Circle. James and Ciprès were undefeated all season, won their first Grand Prix Final and European titles, and were poised to win their first World title in Saitama. But their short program misfired and the competition did not falter. Their freeskate was magnificent, but it wasn’t enough to reclaim a podium placement.