What we learned from the 2022 World Figure Skating Championships

The past week in Montpellier, France, has provided all sorts of storylines with Japan taking both singles events, the home fans having something to celebrate, and the U.S. ending a long wait in pairs

By ZK Goh

This year saw, without a doubt, a different ISU World Figure Skating Championships.

For a start, this was a post-Olympic Worlds – and two of the world's top men and Olympic champions in their own right, Nathan Chen and Hanyu Yuzuru, were not present, each opting out through injury. Pairs Olympic champions Sui Wenjing/Han Cong were absent, too. And the ISU also announced the exclusion of all Russian and Belarusian skaters.

But that didn't stop the 2022 edition, held in Montpellier, France, from delivering some of the most intense competition.

From Japan's double delight in the singles events through Uno Shoma and Sakamoto Kaori, to the U.S. returning to the top step of the pairs podium after 43 years with Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier, there were memorable highlights.

And the French crowd also had their moment, with Olympic ice dance champions Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron concluding the week with a storming victory for their fifth world title.

Here are some of the things we learned from this week's competition at the Sud de France Arena.

Men: Uno Shoma steps up; Zhou wins "meaningful and significant" medal

With neither Chen nor Hanyu in Montpellier, attention turned to the two Beijing 2022 Olympic medallists behind Chen, Japan's Kagiyama Yuma and Uno Shoma.

Kagiyama, the younger of the two, had as sparkling of a career behind him as Uno, despite having performed at the top for a shorter time – and, given he had out-scored Uno in Beijing to win silver while his compatriot took bronze, had been installed as the favourite for gold.

But it was Uno, the more experienced of the pair at 24, who delivered when it mattered.

Having previously been close to the title – he won Worlds silver in 2017 and 2018, behind Hanyu and Chen respectively, as well as finishing fourth twice – this was his big chance to finally take that step up.

And when Kagiyama faltered in both his short program and then the free skate, the opportunity was there – one Uno grasped readily, setting big new personal bests in both segments as well as total score to clinch the world title.

In doing so, he became just the fourth man – behind Chen, Hanyu, and Kagiyama – to score over 200 points in the free skate and 300 points overall under the current ISU Judging System.

"These were the last two skates of the season and I wanted to do well for coach [Stéphane] Lambiel," Uno said in the arena immediately after clinching gold, later adding in the press conference: "For him, I really wanted to make sure I delivered something."

Kagiyama has already set a high standard with his scores in two seasons at the senior level, and won three silver medals at Championships – two at the Worlds and one at the Olympic Games.

Things were not perfect for the 18-year-old in Montpellier, who admitted after his free skate that "I think I got ahead of myself. I tried to be too perfect which led to the nerves. I won silver last year at my first Worlds and probably put too much pressure on myself this year." There will be plenty more chances for the talented youngster to learn how to handle that pressure and eventually win that first major gold medal.

The podium in France was completed by American Vincent Zhou – some consolation for him after being forced to miss the Olympic Games individual event after testing positive for Covid-19. Having previously admitted he was battling demons and had no real motivation to train for the Worlds, he came through to win bronze.

"The one thing that got me here to France was the feeling inside me that I didn't want to live the rest of my life with the regret that I didn't even try," he said. "This medal, definitely, was very difficult for me to come by and is definitely one of the most meaningful and significant moments of my career.

"The decision to come here and compete, and walking away with a medal, that will help me a lot and help reinforce my faith in myself. The biggest lesson learned is I should always trust my instinct and don't be afraid to take the step forward and rise up to the challenge. There is a lot more deep within me than I think is possible at times."

Women: Sakamoto shines in deserving victory

The ISU's decision to exclude Russian skaters meant two of the three Olympic medallists from Beijing, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, were not present in Montpellier.

But one – the bronze medallist, Sakamoto Kaori, was. And she made it her show.

Understandably, she had been singled out as the favourite in France – and more than lived up to the tag, setting new personal best scores across the board in a dominant performance, including becoming just the seventh woman to receive at least 80 points in the short program with the current judging system.

There were no signs of pressure on the Japanese, who said afterwards: "I knew it was now or never this time. If I didn't win this time I'd never do it so I had to go out there and get the job done."

The race behind her for the other medals appeared pretty open, and it was Belgium's Loena Hendrickx and the American Alysa Liu who took silver and bronze respectively, each coming through difficult times to medal.

Hendrickx has battled past an injury-filled Olympic cycle – she even tore her groin barely three weeks before the World Championships after returning from Beijing – while Liu has changed coaches multiple times during the pandemic, confirming during the press conference that she had again done so.

With Liu having the triple Axel and quadruple jumps in her repertoire – although she did not perform any quads in Montpellier – it remains to be seen how her new, yet familiar, coaching set-up back in California, where she trained for years, will harness her potential in the coming seasons.

Ice dance: France salutes its champions

There isn't much to say about the now-five-time world champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, that hasn't already been said.

This entire event in Montpellier had been sold and publicised around them, the Olympic champions, whose faces adorned nearly everything from water bottles to the side of trams in the city, and with good reason.

The arena was filled to its 9,000 capacity for the free dance, with everyone wanting to catch a glimpse, and pay tribute, to Papadakis and Cizeron, who delivered with the most graceful skate to break yet more world records.

Cizeron described these Worlds as "a celebration of our journey, of [the Ice Academy of Montreal], of the sport and being able to share that with our parents, our friends, our fans, was extremely special. It was much better than we could have imagined. Having a full audience here was incredible. It's an indescribable feeling to hear this many people screaming for you. We both had chills and it was really hard to hold in our tears before the performance. It was very emotional being here with the French audience."

There was also a fond farewell for their training mates Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue, the silver medallists, for whom this was their final competition after a decorated career. Madison Chock/Evan Bates rounded out a top three of teams all trained at the Montreal school which also finished with eight of the top ten teams.

Pairs: Knierim/Frazier bring U.S. pairs joy after 43 years

With the top five teams from the Beijing Olympics absent – in addition to the Russian skaters' exclusion, China opted against sending athletes to the Worlds, which meant both Sui/Han and fifth-placed Peng Cheng/Jin Yang skipped the event – attention turned to the American teams of Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier and Ashley Cain-Gribble/Timothy LeDuc, as well as Japan's Miura Riku/Kihara Ryuichi.

With those three teams topping the standings after the short program, it looked like the U.S. would not just win their first pairs world title since 1979, but put two teams on the podium.

However, a heavy fall for Cain-Gribble during the free skate saw her taken to hospital – she was later released to rest at the hotel – meant American hopes were on Knierim and Frazier, who were sixth in Beijing.

And they delivered in a big way, adding roughly six points to their free skate personal best and nearly nine to their previous highest total, despite having to skate right after seeing what happened to their U.S. teammates.

Remarkably, all three teams on the podium – Knierim/Frazier, Miura/Kihara, and Canada's Vanessa James/Eric Radford – had all only skated together for one or two seasons. Radford, a two-time world champ with previous partner Meagan Duhamel, won his fifth Worlds medal, six years after his last.

Knierim and Frazier only teamed up after her husband and former skating partner Chris, who now helps coach the pair, retired from skating. Frazier paid tribute to Chris Knierim following the victory, saying he had "really played such a huge role in this partnership. He took a step back and trusted me to skate with his wife. Just having his support day-by-day, he's been everything we've needed him to be."

So what's next?

The World Championships marked the end of the figure skating season, with most skaters now due to go on holiday or do ice shows, with Stars on Ice tours set for Japan and the United States this summer.

For some, like Hubbell and Donohue, Montpellier marked the end of the competitive road in figure skating. For others, this is just the beginning, with a long way to go.

Competition will not begin in earnest until August or September, but new programs for the 2023 season will already be being drawn up – and next year, the Worlds will head to Saitama, Japan, with two Japanese defending champions.

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