Hanyu and Chen to meet for the first time since 2019, each chasing a third world title

The double-Olympic champ and double world champ are the main attractions at the world champs this week, while the dance field is wide open without Papadakis and Cizeron.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2017 Getty Images

For the first time since the Grand Prix Final in December of 2019, it’s Hanyu Yuzuru versus Nathan Chen.

Hanyu, the two-time Olympic champion, and Chen, the two-time and reigning world champion, will go head-to-head this coming week at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships, set to begin Wednesday (24 March) in Stockholm, Sweden.

The event, under Covid-19 protocols, will take place without fans.

It’s the biggest figure skating event to happen in the lead-up to the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, and will happen with Olympic qualification implications. More on that here.

Hanyu and Chen lead a must-see men’s field that also features PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist Uno Shoma, 2019 world bronze medallist Vincent Zhou, 2018 world bronze medallist Mikhail Kolyada, as well as a host of other men’s skaters looking to make their mark, including American Jason Brown, Japanese teenager Kagiyama Yuma, Korean Cha Jun-hwan, two-time world medallist Jin Boyang among others.

While the men’s field is full of favourites, the ice dance is without four-time world champs Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, the duo withdrawing from the event citing lack of preparedness due to the pandemic.

That means there will be a first-time world champion team in ice dance. Each of Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia, as well as American duos Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue as well as Madison Chock and Evan Bates, have world silver medals to their names.

Here, things to know for both the men’s and dance event, with the men kicking off Thursday morning (11am Stockholm time) and dance underway Friday (10:45am local).

See our full preview of the ladies and pairs here.

Hanyu and Chen: A preview of Beijing?

Three years after Hanyu soared to his historic second Olympic gold and Chen placed fifth at the 2018 Games, the American has won nine consecutive international golds, including his two world titles.

Hanyu, like many athletes, had his training routine disrupted due to COVID-19, leaving his base – and coach Brian Orser – in Toronto to train at home alone in Japan. He should no signs of rust at Japanese nationals in December, winning a fifth domestic gold.

Chen, likewise, moved from school in Connecticut to California, where he was previously based, and back to coach Rafael Arutunian. He beat Zhou and Brown for a fifth national title himself, though voiced hope for better skating at worlds.

Their last meeting had Chen come out on top at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Dec. 2019. Chen also beat Hanyu at worlds in Saitama, Japan, in March of 2019, while last year’s worlds were cancelled.

“It’s always a great opportunity for me to compete against him,” Chen told reporters earlier this month on a pre-worlds call, referencing Hanyu. “He’s really the benchmark. ... So it's always just a big honour for me to be able to compete against an idol that I watched watch while I was growing up.”

Also to keep an eye on: The quadruple Axel. Will either man try one? Chen was spotted attempting one at U.S. nationals practice in January, while Hanyu attempted one in practice at the aforementioned GPF in 2019.

A race for bronze? Uno, Zhou, Kolyada loom

Nothing is a given in figure skating, so no doubt Uno, Zhou and Kolyada will all be chasing after a first world gold medal, but the trio are the likely candidates to be pushing Hanyu and Chen the most for the top two spots, each having earned a world medal previously, and Uno with his Olympic silver medal.

Each skater has had respective challenges over the last year, but Uno would have taken confidence from a strong free skate at Japanese nationals, where he finished in second behind Hanyu. Uno landed four quads in his free skate to Robyn’s “Dancing on my Own.”

“Thank you,” coach Stephane Lambiel told him in the ‘kiss and cry’ after his performance - a nod to the trials they had been through during lockdown.

That sort of dedication and passion are similar to what Zhou showed at U.S. nationals in January and Kolyada displayed at Russian nationals in December. Zhou has been buoyed by a return to his training hub in Colorado Springs, while Kolyada – after missing the 2019-20 season with illness – has been refreshed, now coached by the legendary Alexei Mishin. He won his first Russian national title since 2018 and captured the Russian Grand Prix for the first time in his career.

The bronze could come down to two things: Quad and gameday (well, two of them) execution. Who does it better?

Men’s field: Plenty to watch for

While the Russian and Japanese women look to lead the ladies field, one could argue that the men have the most depth – and compelling storylines to go with it.

Kagiyama, Brown, Cha and Jin lead that conversation, but also to be included are Keegan Messing, Kevin Aymoz, Daniel Grassl and Matteo Rizzo.

Kagiyama, following what has been a breakthrough 12 months for him with a Youth Olympic Gold medal, then senior medals at Four Continents, the Japanese Grand Prix (gold) and Japan nationals, has plenty of fans watching out for his next big breakthrough, too.

Kagiyama is coached by his father, Masakazu, a two-time Olympic figure skater for Japan.

France’s Aymoz will look for redemption of sorts, having had a breakout 2019 Grand Prix, winning the bronze at the Final behind Chen and Hanyu, he tumbled to 26th in the short program of Europeans, failing to qualify for the free skate. That was his most recent high-level international competition.

Also to watch: Mexico’s Donovan Carrillo, a fan favourite, who is making his third appearance at worlds.

Ice dance: An open field without Papadakis/Cizeron

It’s anyone’s guess who could emerge ice dance world champs for the first time in the absence of Papadakis/Cizeron, with no clear-cut favourite heading into Stockholm.

Sinitsina and Katsalapov actually beat the French duo for the first time at Euros in Jan. 2020, but have struggled since: Both athletes have struggled with injury and both contracted Covid-19, Katsalapov telling a Russian outlet in December that Sinitsina’s lung damage was “severe.”

Both Hubbell and Donohue as well as Chock and Bates are training partners to Papadakis and Cizeron in Montreal, where they’re under the watchful eye of Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. Yet the Americans have split the last three U.S. titles: Hubbell and Donohue winning in 2019 and 2021, while Chock/Bates won in 2020.

Much like at U.S. Championships, where Hubbell/Donohue won by just 0.63, the competition could come down to day-of execution.

“We had to just keep calm and skate on... we're happy to have accomplished this big goal," Hubbell said after their win in Las Vegas. "Each year is a different game. Today our focus was on trying to skate simple; pure skating. We had to be in control of what we could."

Canada’s Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier haven’t competed since their silver medal at Four Continents last February, save for virtual domestic events at home. While Sinitsina/Katsalapov’s compatriots, Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, are coming off their first Russian national title.

Also to watch: Team GB’s Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson; Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy; Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin of Spain; the No.3 U.S. team, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker; as well as the No.2 Canadian team, Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen.

The Olympic qualification implications can be found here, as well as TV/streaming information.