The U.S. completed the team figure skating event at the Beijing Winter Olympics on Monday with its best finish yet—earning a silver medal. The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) earned gold, and Japan earned its first medal in the event with bronze.
Perhaps more importantly, the team competition could foreshadow a strong showing for Team USA in the upcoming ice dance events. Both pairs of Americans who competed scored higher than the current world champions from the ROC, who were widely expected to skate away with gold in Beijing.
While the focus of the final day of the team skating event was meant to be on how skaters’ skills complemented each other, all eyes gravitated toward one skater: The ROC’s Kamila Valieva. The 15-year-old, who is competing in her first season as a senior skater, set a couple of firsts; she became the first female skater to land a quadruple jump at the Games, as well as the first female skater to perform two different quadruple jumps at the Olympics. Valieva had three quads planned, but fell on the last one, and seemed more disappointed by that mistake than elated over making history.
Valieva reflected afterward on the pressure of being in the spotlight for her accomplishments, and admitted: “I do feel this burden a bit, this pressure because this is my first season among adult skaters. I believe I’m coping with this pressure; sometimes it even pushes me forward, it helps me.”
And there was even more figure skating news on an already eventful day. Minutes after the competition ended, U.S. Figure Skating officials announced that Vincent Zhou, the national bronze medalist, tested positive for COVID-19 the previous day. Zhou is undergoing confirmatory tests to determine if he will be eligible to compete in the men’s short program Tuesday. If his additional tests are also positive, he will be required to go into isolation and will be unable to participate in his individual competitions. In order to leave isolation, athletes must have two negative tests, spaced 24 hours apart.
While the first night of the team event on Feb. 4 featured some lights-out programs from most of the athletes, the longer length of the free programs—four minutes—took a toll on skaters on Monday. All of the pairs teams, who started out the day’s session, made errors. The gold-medal favorites Anastasia Mishinia and Aleksandr Galliamov of the Russian Olympic Committee had an uncharacteristic fall on a lift. Galliamov lost his balance and tumbled to the ice with Mishina in the last seconds of their program. While the mistake cost them two points, their technical and components scores created enough of a cushion to keep them in first. “We didn’t understand it ourselves. It just felt like normal skating and then that happened,” said Mishinia afterward. “But for now it [feels] like it didn’t have a tremendous effect on the overall team performance.”
The Japanese pair of Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara finished second; they lost points in their opening side-by-side jump combination for being under-rotated, and the Chinese team of Cheng Peng and Yang Jin ended up in third after Peng singled a jump in their combination and also under rotated one of her side-by-side jumps.
Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of Team USA ended up last, as Knierim struggled with several jumps, singling one of the jumps in the combination and putting her hand down in their side-by-side triple Salchows. “This was a mediocre skate for myself,” Knierim said. “Brandon was very strong today. I made some errors; we can do better. I’m frustrated.”
Next came the ice dancers, culminating in the showdown between Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, co-captains of the U.S. team, and Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of the ROC. The programs were a study in contrasts. The ROC’s performance was rich in classic and traditional ice dance techniques—down to the Rachmaninov piano concerto to which it was set. Sinitsina and Katsalapov executed their moves with smooth precision, but lost a point for holding a lift too long.
Then came Chock and Bates, whose free program was an innovative, extra terrestrial love story with Chock playing an alien and Bates an astronaut. Their creative choreography, speed, and breathtaking lifts were enough to push the real-life couple ahead of the Russians, to earn the U.S. 10 more points and pull ahead of Japan entering the women’s free program. “I had no expectations; I was very surprised at the scored,” Bates said. “I had heard what the Russians got right before we skated. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a hefty score. Alright, focus.’”
It was a huge boost for the medal-contending U.S. ice dance squad, long seen as the afterthought behind the women’s and men’s singles skaters. The two top U.S. teams in Beijing have now scored higher than Sinitsina and Katsalapov—Madison Hubbell and Zacharay Donohue, the national silver medalists, beat the Russian team in the short program, and Chock and Bates edged past the Russians in the free skate. It could be a signal that the judges are recognizing the high level of skating and innovative skills the Americans are displaying. Both now train at the hot spot for ice dance, at Ice Academy of Montreal, founded by Olympians Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon who sent 11 teams from different countries to the Beijing Games. “U.S. ice dance has proven that we are a very strong force to be reckoned with,” said Chock. “Going into our individual events, we will just continue on the path we laid for ourselves. We are very prepared, very ready and we trust ourselves and trust our training.”
The team competition could serve as a barometer for the other disciplines as well. Japan’s strong showing for bronze was based largely on its men’s and women’s skaters, but its pairs team of Miura and Kihara also gained a boost after finishing second to ROC gold-medal favorites Mishina and Galliamov, proving that they are contenders for the podium in the individual event.
For the U.S., the silver can largely be traced back to the first day of the three-day competition, in which Nathan Chen, ice dancers Hubbell and Donohue, and pairs skaters Knierim and Frazier all scored personal bests with their short programs to earn the U.S. 28 out of a possible 30 points.
Gold was never really realistic for any of the teams other than the ROC, given the strength of the Russian women’s, pairs and ice dance teams. As history-making as Valieva’s feats were, she isn’t the only skater from the deep squad who is capable of landing quad jumps; all three include them in their free programs, while none of the women from the other qualifying countries, including the U.S., do.
To earn the silver medal, Team USA had to hold off Japan, which includes a deep and talented men’s squad—from defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu to next generation talents Shoma Uno and Yuma Kagiyama. It’s telling, for example, that despite the fact that Hanyu did not participate in the team event, Japan was still able to finish on the podium, owing to near-perfect performances from both Uno in the short program and Kagiyama in the free.
They will have another opportunity to make their mark on Olympic ice when the men start their individual competition with the short program on Tuesday.
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