By Alice Park
The fifth time was the charm for Aljona Savchenko, a Ukrainian who has skated in five Olympic Games for two different countries and with three different partners. In PyeongChang, she finally realized her Olympic dream of winning gold.
Together with partner Bruno Massot, Savchenko, who skates for Germany, was in fourth place after the short program. But she and Massot were the only couple among the top three to skate a clean free program, which vaulted them to the top of the podium. Their scores were the highest ever recorded for the pairs long program and it was enough for gold. After earning two bronze medals at previous Olympics with another partner, Savchenko said of her first, long-awaited gold: “I never give up. I keep fighting.”
“We were on the ice for the gold medal and we didn’t give up,” says Massot. “I said I don’t [Savchenko] to come back with another bronze medal. She deserved this gold medal.”
The Chinese pair of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han were flawless in the short program, but Han popped jumps in the combination and Sui stumbled on the side by side jumps in the long program and earned silver. The Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford felt redeemed by their bronze, since they finished in seventh place four years ago in Sochi. “You have probably never seen happier bronze medalists,” says Radford, whose brother and parents were in the arena along with 14 other relatives sporting Olympic Fan from Canada shirts.
Duhamel and Radford also have the distinction of making history — they are the first pair to complete a quadruple throw jump at the Olympics. When told of their breakthrough, they were surprised. “It’s a fact we did not know,” said Duhamel.
Even beyond the podium, there’s likely never been more interest in skaters ranked 13th, but Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea managed to draw in both the crowd and the judges in their free program.
As their coach paced the boards by the rink and pumped her fists in the air, the North Korean pair dazzled again, skating a clean program that earned them another season’s best score. But even that didn’t satisfy them. Kim said the he and Ryom had more work to do, and that they planned to improve their score step by step in coming competitions. Bruno Marcotte, the Canadian coach who worked with them last summer, said he saw great improvement but that they still needed to work on things such as speed and technique; he wasn’t sure if he would continue to work with the North Korean pair before the next Olympic Games.
The Americans and husband and wife team Alexa and Chris Knierim finished 15th out of the 16 pairs, despite pulling off a challenging quad twist lift that only the top Russian and silver-medal winning Chinese pair performed. Chris fell on both of the side by side jumps, and Alexa was emotional after they competed, admitting that she had been sick and had heard about the school shooting in Florida just before they skated. “Even though we here in PyeongChang our hearts are with them,” says Alexa. “I hope that teams who aren’t here aren’t saying they could have done better. Everybody wants to be here, I hate to skate poorly enough that team in stands here feel like they could have done more than us.”
The Knierims were the only U.S. pair competing in the Games; the number of teams is determined by standings at previous international competitions throughout the season. It’s the first time the U.S. has fielded only one Olympic pair team in decades, which meant that the Knierims skated four times in the past week — performing a short and long program in the team event, and a short and long program for the pairs event as well.
It’s a reflection of the thin pipeline of pairs skaters in the U.S. “Pairs has been the weakest discipline in the U.S. for a long time,” says Dalilah Sappenfield, the Knierims coach. For years, the U.S. has not been focused on creating pairs teams from an early age; many teams get together when the skaters are already established, which doesn’t build great pairs chemistry. And most skaters aren’t interested in skating pairs; they want to compete as singles skaters. But Sappenfield says that is changing, as the skating federation makes a more organized effort to match new pairs teams when skaters are young, and changing people’s perspectives on pairs skating. “For a long time people looked down upon pairs,” she says. “Now I think they are looking to pairs as an opportunity. So we’re looking at strong singles skaters who can move into pairs.”
The U.S. isn’t the only country suffering from a dwindling supply of talented pairs skaters. Russian teams used to dominate the podium, but with its top pair unable to compete in PyeongChang because one of the partners is banned due to a suspected doping violation, the Olympic Athletes of Russia teams finished fourth, seventh and 12th. “We are obviously upset,” says Vladimir Morozov, of their fourth place finish. “We have worked a lot and hard but we were not able to skate better.”
While the pairs event at the Olympics are now complete, many of the teams will have another chance to make the podium — this time at the world championships in Milan, Italy in March.