6 Takeaways From Worlds 2017

7:18 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

The World Figure Skating Championships just wrapped up this weekend in Helsinki, Finland, and pretty much everyone is slightly confused and slightly happy. Here are a few lessons to be learned when all is said and done:

The logo for Worlds 2017 (helsinki2017.com)

1. Defending a title ain't what it used to be

Last year at Worlds in Boston, three of the four disciplines had repeat champions from 2015. Only ladies saw a changing of the guard, with Evgenia Medvedeva taking over for fellow Russian Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (who didn't even make it out of the bloodbath that is Russian ladies' nationals). In Helsinki, the opposite was true: Medvedeva was the only champion from 2016 able to defend her title, while new champions were crowned in men's, pairs, and ice dance.

So what's changed? For men, at least, it's not hard to figure out. Only a couple of years ago, top skaters only attempted a few quads, and they could be unreliable even among the top tier. But in the past year or two, a handful of men have begun pushing the technical boundaries of their sport to an almost supernatural degree. Reigning Olympic champ and newly crowned world champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan has led this contingent for this four-year cycle, but he's been joined by his countryman Shoma Uno (this year's silver medalist), two-time bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China, and reigning U.S. champion Nathan Chen. These men, affectionately known as the "s(QUAD)" among some fans, attempt so many quads that their high base value gives them room to make a mistake or two and still be out of reach of the veterans who can't quite keep up.

Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) in the men's free skate (photo: Ivan Sekretarev, AP)

2. Even the very best have their bad days

One of the biggest differences between ice dance and the three other disciplines is the lack of jumps. While some might think this makes it the most boring discipline, the opposite is true: because the riskiest elements are not present, ice dance is the most precise and unforgiving discipline of all. A small mistake on a turn or an edge that would go almost unnoticed elsewhere can make all the difference in the world in ice dance. The expectation is that ice dance will be relatively free from major errors and splats.

If there's one thing to be learned from the free dance in Helsinki, though, it's that nothing is impossible. Even though the final podium was exactly what most predicted, among the teams generally considered the best in the world, three had major mistakes during the free dance, and for two of those teams, the mistakes were utterly fatal. Returning team Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada managed to hang onto gold even with a slip by Moir during a step sequence that was not called a fall (with the attendant deduction), but came awfully close. Meanwhile, disaster struck two of the top American teams, widely considered the best ice dance country in the world. Evan Bates botched their twizzle sequence, leaving him and partner Madison Chock out of the running for a medal after medalling at the past two Worlds.

Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir (CAN) spin in the free dance (photo: theicedancekingdom Tumblr)

But it was Zach Donohue who made the most heartbreaking mistake of the day, with the kind of bizarre accident that almost never happens at the elite level. Sitting in third place after the short dance, Donohue and partner Madison Hubbell had a world bronze medal within sight - quite a feat for a team ranked third nationally - and only had to skate about a point above their current top score of the season to get that medal. But Donohue caught a toepick on the first set of twizzles, taking a fall so hard and unbalancing that he couldn't rebound at all, invalidating the entire element and landing them in ninth overall.

None of these teams are prone to errors, though each have shown their vulnerabilities throughout the season (Virtue/Moir struggle to salvage twizzles, while Chock/Bates and Hubbell/Donohue have both had freak falls one other time this season). While this doesn't mean these teams will be less respected next season, it just goes to show that anyone can mess up - and in this field, someone will always be waiting to swoop in if you do.

3. Don't count out the American men just yet

Only a few months ago, skating fans were lamenting their prospects for the upcoming Olympics and beyond. Despite finishing sixth, eighth, and tenth at last year's home Worlds, the top two men failed to get placements that added up to 13 or less, meaning the U.S. only got to send two men to Helsinki. This year, the pressure was on to try to regain those spots for the Olympic season. With last year's champion Adam Rippon out injured and 2015 champion Jason Brown still unable to land a quad cleanly, the prospects looked dim.

Enter Nathan Chen. The teenager burst onto the international scene this season with an arsensal of quad jumps that could hold their own against the Japanese and Chinese men who dominate the scene. Even with falls on a few jumps and his relatively underdeveloped artistry, Chen did enough for a sixth-place finish. That, combined with Brown's seventh-place finish on the strength of his exquisite artistry and component scores, brought #3SpotsWatch to a happy finale.

U. S. champion Nathan Chen (photo: Markku Ojala, EPA)

The lack of depth in U.S. men has been a problem in recent years, but if this season has proven anything, it's that American men are flying under the radar and are ready to climb. Chen beat Hanyu at this season's Four Continents; Vincent Zhou won Junior Worlds and will compete senior next season; former favorite Joshua Farris, who retired young after a series of concussions, announced his comeback and has already been spotted landing gorgeous quads in practice. Add Brown and Rippon in the mix, and the competition for those three Olympic spots is going to be fierce.

4. Small federations have more to offer than ever

Canada, Russia, the United States, Japan, China. The powerhouse countries of figure skating overwhelmingly dominate, with each having its specialties: the U.S., Canada, Russia, and Japan in ladies; Japan and China in men's; the U.S. and Canada in ice dance; Russia and China in pairs. France, Italy, and Germany are the mid-size countries that turn out a few top-tier skaters at a time. But smaller federations are starting to put themselves on the map, and it would be a huge mistake to ignore them.

Carrying the small-federation banner is undoubtedly Spain, boasting a two-time world champion in Javier Fernandez, as well as a pair of competitive dance teams, Olivia Smart and Adria Diaz, and Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin (the latter of whom did not compete in Helsinki). Israel has also surprised many by qualifying two men's spots for the Olympics on the shoulders of Alexei Bychenko, while Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan landed ninth in ladies.

Javier Fernandez (ESP) won the short program (photo: Golden Skate)

Although there's a pile-up from the top federations in ice dance, smaller federations provided some of the most popular and emotionally satisfying moments of Worlds 2017. Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorenson of Denmark skated two lovely programs to land in 13th, while Natalia Kaliszek and Maksym Spodyriev of Poland became fan-favorites this season for their charming Dirty Dancing free dance. Don't write off the non-powerhouse skaters: when the top tier falters, they'll surprise you.

5. Weird music is both a blessing and a curse

Ask a non-skating fan what kind of music they associate with figure skating, and they'll probably say classical. While it's true that many skaters still choose programs to warhorses such as The Nutcracker, Carmen, Scheherazade, and variations on those grumpy European composers who stared out from your elementary school music books, others have launched themselves full-force into the realm of the truly bizarre.

Some of these choices are questionable, at best. Ladies' champ Medvedeva skated her free program to the soundtrack of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Yes, folks, we finally got a 9/11 skating program, with the added bonus of screaming noises on the audio track. It was the controversial choice of the season, to say the least. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, was Jin Boyang's hilarious and charming choice of short program music: a Michael Buble performance of the Spider-Man theme song, complete with web-shooting gestures.

Spider-Boyang! (gif: milquetoasted, Tumblr)

Ice dance saw perhaps the weirdest music choices of the season, because one of the rhythm choices for the short dance was hip-hop. Hubbell/Donohue attempted to craft a "history of hip-hop" program that sampled several songs, resulting in a divisive program that nevertheless earned them a small medal for the short dance here at Worlds. Bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani threw shade at the habit of bad music cuts with an announcement on their audio track that "we're gonna be skating to one song, and one song only" before cutting from Sinatra's "That's Life" to a Jay-Z remix of the same song. But no one can compete with Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier in the weird department. They've built an identity for themselves as the most bizarre team in ice dance - so, naturally, they were the sole team to find the rule that says "disco" counts as a swing/blues/hip-hop rhythm. Hence, the only time you'll probably ever hear "Disco Inferno" in an ice rink. Complete with porn-stache. See for yourself:

6. Age is only a number

With all the focus on the young, up-and-coming skaters at this competition, it's easy to think that the veterans have all but ceded the scene to the wunderkinds. Not so fast. Some of the veteran skaters at this competition, while they didn't medal, turned in top-notch performances that prove they're not out just yet.

The fourth-place finishers in men's and ice dance both are former world medalists whose careers are nearing an end, yet who still put together some of the most satisfying and engaging programs in the sport. Spain's Javier Fernandez, a two-time world champion, fell to fourth after botching a couple of jumps in his free skate - something he can't afford, with fewer quads than the young skaters from Japan and China. But his short program was a masterpiece, a perfect blend of technical mastery and the charisma that has made him one of the most popular skaters in the world. Similarly, Canadian ice dancers Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje lost political clout with the return of Virtue and Moir, but put together a pair of delightful programs - a sharp Michael Jackson short dance and an elegant, passionate "Aranjuez" free - to climb into fourth as other teams slipped.

Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje (CAN) celebrate after the short dance

Meanwhile in pairs, silver medalists Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany put together a pair of moving and technically stunning performances to snag Savchenko's tenth world medal. It's easy to pay attention to the fast-moving young skaters, but these veterans proved they aren't ready to give up quite so easily.

What a way to end the season! With the Olympics next season, all eyes will be on the top skaters as they fight for the podium in Pyeongchang. It's going to be a great ride!