Behind sublime skating, Anna Shcherbakova skates into lead at world figure skating champs

Surprises were aplenty in the ladies' short program, where Alexandra Trusova finished outside the top 10. Kihira Rika and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva hit triple Axels and sit in second, third.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Anna Shcherbakova would like to celebrate her birthday weekend with a world title.

Set to turn 17 on Sunday, the three-time and reigning Russian national champion skated into first place at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships on Wednesday (25 March) in Stockholm, Sweden, scoring a 81.00 with a picturesque short program.

Triple Axels were hit by both Japan's Kihira Rika as well as Elizaveta Tuktamysehva, who sit in second and third, respectively, with scores of 79.08 and 78.86.

That sets up what will be an intriguing ladies' free skate, which will take place on Friday evening local time.

Rounding out the ladies' top six: American Karen Chen in fourth (74.40), South Korea's Kim Yelim in fifth (73.63) and Sakamoto Kaori in sixth (70.38).

One of the favourites for the ladies' title, Alexandra Trusova did not complete a combination in the short program, sending her into 12th place with a score of 64.82. Trusova does have an unprecedented five quadruple jumps planned for the free skate, however.

Also of note: American Bradie Tennell is in seventh while fellow 2018 Olympian Miyahara Satoko sits in 16th.

Worlds are being held for the first time since 2019 having been cancelled last year, though no fans have been allowed inside the arena.

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Crowded at top: Leaders separated by less than 3 points

While it's Shcherbakova who leads after the short program, anything is possible in the free, especially after exquisite short programs from both Kihira and Tuktamysheva.

Shcherbakova, in her senior worlds debut, scored 14.07 points off of her difficult triple Lutz-triple loop combination, which she said was the focus of the program for her.

"In general the whole skate was full of nerves," she told reporters in Russian after her skate. "I had to watch every move, in general I am very satisfied that it all worked out. I am most satisfied with my [combination], it was the hardest jump in my program, and the most important one."

Shcherbakova spoke about getting back in shape after being off ice during the pandemic: "We had two months training at home. I understood that I needed to train as hard as I could. ... Without ice there are no chances to be in perfect shape. I was happy to come back to it. It was more difficult to get back into good shape."

Her combination gave her the cushion she needed, while the judges also awarded her in the program component marks with a 37.14, the highest of any skater. It's a surprising "win" in that department over Kihira, who scored a 35.40 in program components.

"Undoubtedly, the performance of the day," said Meryl Davis, the Sochi 2014 Olympic champion in ice dance. "From her fingers to her toes, Anna's elegance was on full display throughout that short program. From the moment she hit that opening position, there was a confidence to her performance and it was such a pleasure to watch."

Kihira's skating was not to be discounted, either. The Japanese star, still just 18 herself, hit her trademark triple Axel - though it received a quarter-rotation call - before hitting a triple flip-triple toe in combo (also called for a q) and triple Lutz. Her program proved mesmerizing - and included the much-talked-about one-handed cartwheel she showed off at Japanese nationals.

Coach Stephane Lambiel said to her as she left the ice, "Wow, you are a fighter."

Added Davis on Kihira: "Rika is such a brilliant skater and has set herself up really nicely heading into the long. She's expected to incorporate a quad Salchow into her free, the goal for Rika will be to maintain focus and composure as she pushes herself technically to challenge for that top spot on the podium."

Ladies' short program: Expect the unexpected

The final groups produced plenty of drama, starting with the American Chen besting her previous personal record by some seven points to score a 74-plus and once again appear to be on the verge to helping the U.S. earn back three spots for the coming Winter Olympic Games next year.

"I'm really happy with my performance. Coming here I felt a lot of pressure and I know that I haven't been to worlds in such a long time," Chen, at worlds for the first time since 2017, said. "To be here and skate such a solid short program is such a huge confidence boost for me. I'm looking forward to taking that momentum into the free skate."

In the penultimate group, Tuktamysheva, back at worlds for the first time since her triumph for gold in 2015, nailed her patented triple Axel, then eased her way to the highest score of the day, putting the pressure on the final six skaters to come.

"A lot has happened in these past six years, but I think during these past few years I have become way more confident in [my triple Axel]," said the 24 year old, the oldest among the top 10. "I was nervous about how it would feel to skate worlds without people, but when I came to the ice, I had only one thing - I had to do the program, so it wasn't strange for me. It was more calm, I think, without the whole audience and I feel maybe not as nervous as if there was 1000 people around me. So I think it was okay for me."

Tuktamysheva confirmed she will not do her quad toe in the free, opting instead for two triple Axels. "I've already won by being here. I'm so happy about it."

Trusova comes unglued

Skating first in the final group, however, Trusova played her Axel safe, going for a double versus the triple she had shown in practice this week. She was then off-balance in her triple Lutz, over-rotating in the jump, which cost her the combination.

Coach Evgeni Plushenko shook his head from the sideline.

"I think I didn't manage with my nerves," Trusova said. "Lately I feel very nervous at the competitions. I don't know [why that is]; I have to think about it. I will try to skate clean."

"While that wasn't the short program Alexandra was looking for, the technical content she has planned for the free can really help her to reclaim lost ground," explained Davis, a nod to Trusova's five planned quads in the free.

Trusova has the highest-ever score in a ladies' free skate, 166.62 at Skate Canada in 2019.

A big week in Stockholm

After a season of stops and starts for international figure skaters, the world championships are being held with Covid-19 protocols in place, and skaters looking to earn their countries allotted spots for next year's Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

Davis was in awe of the level of skating on Wednesday.

"I was so impressed with the ladies today," the Olympic champ told the Channel. "It's all too easy to forget how difficult getting here has been for each of these athletes in this particularly trying year. While we saw a number of mistakes scattered throughout this event, it's incredible to witness the resilience and determination of these skaters.

"To be in Stockholm delivering such excellent and technically difficult performances is amazing regardless of the obstacles they've faced to get here, but considering the circumstances, it's almost superhuman. They are to be commended." - Meryl Davis to Olympic Channel

With the ladies and pairs underway on Wednesday, the men will start on Thursday morning and the ice dance on Friday.

Also of note on Wednesday:

  • The breakout performance for Canadian teen Madeline Schizas, who is in ninth after the short program. It's just her second senior international event.
  • A strong performance for Korea, with Kim in fifth and Lee Haein in eighth.
  • And spare a thought for French veteran Mae Berenice Meite, who injured her left ankle in her opening jump, leaving the ice mid-program in pain.

Reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova did not skate this season, nor did two-time world champ and Olympic silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva, who has struggled with both her health - due to Covid-19 - and a back injury this season.

Tuktamysheva is the lone former world champion in the field.