Is there something in the water of Nice, France?
Those soft breezes over the azure waves of the Mediterranean Sea are perhaps toxic to figure skaters, judging by what happened Wednesday in the pairs short program.
Twelve years ago, when the world championships were last in Nice, odd things happened, just about every day. French pair skater Stephane Bernardis complained of an intruder slashing him at his hotel. Russian pair skater, Elena Berezhnaia – later to become Olympic champion – tested positive for a cold medication, and was forced to withdraw with partner Anton Sikharulidze. Bulgarian ice dancer, Albena Stenkova – later to become a world champion – suffered a severe slash in a leg during practice. That crumpled her career for a year. Ukrainian pair skater Dmitri Palamarchuk of Ukraine fell to the ice during competition, suffering a head injury that ended his career, just before Canadians Kristy and Kris Wirtz were to skate, visibly shaken.
On Wednesday in Nice, during the very first competition, the Russians tumbled like tenpins, and a Japanese team that includes a skater from Regina, Marvin Tran, sits in third place. Japanese pair teams have never ruled the world. Interesting that they reached out to Regina to correct that shortfall.
Most remarkably, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia, one of the favourites to win this week, fell to eighth place after making a silly rare mistake: Trankov fell onto his butt during a death spiral. That meant Volosozhar went down with him, and a fall by both skaters cost them two points.
The Russians had been off the ice since finishing second at the Grand Prix Final in Quebec city in December while they worked to mend injuries.
Another highly regarded Russian team, Yuka Kavaguti and Alexei Smirnov, are also in trouble, sitting in 11th place after a host of errors, the worst of which was Smirnov falling gracefully onto his back in the final stages of a lift, when, fortunately for Kavaguti was not high in the air. Kavaguti fell on top of her partner. They too, lost a couple of points because both went down. And they had other little troubles, too: she touched the ice with her back on a death spiral that is one of the easiest, but required in this event. Landings on a triple jump didn't come with ease. Neither did a triple twist.
Even the Russian No. 3 team, Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov fell afoul of the Nice mystique (mistake?). They both had troubles on a triple toe loop, and just as they reached the end of the program and were taking their final pose, Larionov lost his balance and went down. Did it count? Was the program considered essentially over? It wasn't a required element after all. The judges were lenient with these Russians, perhaps looking on them with forgiving eyes in the winds of such shifting sands as Nice. They did not penalize them for the fall. That allowed them to finish in fourth place, the stars of the Russian team today.
That left three-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany careful when they finally skated, next-to-last. They skated with caution and clever to do so, because a wreck-up in the short program can destroy your chances for the rest of the week. Still, they had their little issues, with Savchenko landing a rare throw triple Axel solidly on two feet, and Szolkowy stepping out of a triple toe loop.
Still, it worked, and they are in the lead heading into the long program. Mission accomplished. Safe for now.
And just to prove how crazy the event is, two time world champions from China, Pang Qing and Tong Jian, skating in their first competition of the year (what a way to start) while they tended to injury, finished second with an elegant routine that seemed to some a bit slow, but effective at the end of the day. They are in second place.
In third place are Montreal-trained Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran, a little more than three points away from gold behind veteran world champions. They are coached by Bruno Marcotte and Richard Gauthier, who put the team together.
Canada's top team, national champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, seventh at the world championships last year in their debut, are in fifth place, helped by the demise of the Russians. They, too, made mistakes (Radford fell on a triple Lutz, something no other team does), but delivered on the other elements in spades to be only about five points away from a gold medal and only 1.68 away from a bronze.