Things we learned: Grand Prix Series full of twists and turns in Olympic season

With the six Grand Prix stops now complete, the exclusive Grand Prix Final is next for top figure skaters. Here’s what we learned – with an eye on Beijing 2022.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by Alex Morean/Olympic Channel

With six events held in just a thirty-seven day stretch, the International Skating Union (ISU)’s Grand Prix Series is complete, with the Grand Prix Final the next major stop on the figure skating calendar.

So, what did we learn ahead of the Winter Olympics Beijing 2022, set to begin in February?

Firstly, there is no clear frontrunner out of the series in men’s singles, with three-time and reigning world champion Nathan Chen taking his first loss since 2018 at Skate America, while two-time and reigning Olympic champion Hanyu Yuzuru was forced to sit out of both of his Grand Prix assignments due to an ankle injury.

The opposite is true for the women, as 15-year-old Kamila Valieva has emerged not only as the Olympic favourite, but also has done so in record-breaking fashion. Her 272.21 total at Rostelecom Cup this past weekend is the highest women's score ever – including for the short program (87.42) and free skate (185.29).

Elsewhere, are multiple-time world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong in pairs and Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron in dance still the leaders of their respective packs?

We break down that - and much more - while looking ahead to the Grand Prix Final below.

Men: Kagiyama heads to Osaka with two golds

The Grand Prix Final is set for 9-12 December in Osaka, Japan, and 18-year-old Japanese skater Kagiyama Yuma, the Youth Olympics Lausanne 2020 champion and reigning world silver medallist, is the lone man to enter the event with two Grand Prix golds, having stormed back from seventh place at Gran Premio d’Italia for the win before strong performances in both the short and free at Internationaux de France.

The teen has shown a hunger for quick improvement and said he understands he’ll have to bring his best for both programs come Beijing 2022, as well.

He skated to a personal best 197.49 in the free skate in Italy before registering a 185.77 two weeks later in France.

American Vincent Zhou and Japan’s Uno Shoma – the PyeongChang 2018 silver medallist – finished with a gold and silver, respectively (they flip-flopped results in Skate America and NHK Trophy), and will join Kagiyama and Chen as the men’s favourites at the Final. 

Chen's bronze at Skate America was a surprise as he had not finished off the top of any podium since PyeongChang. Though he bounced back to win at Skate Canada International less than a week later, all eyes will be on him in Osaka to see what changes he has made to his programs ahead of Beijing - having had a month off of competition ice to do so.

Veterans Mikhail Kolyada of Russia and Jason Brown of the U.S. complete the Grand Prix Final field, and while each of them showed flashes of brilliance in finishing on the podium at both assignments, there is also reason to believe their best skating could still be in front of them this season. 

While Hanyu has not appeared on competitive ice this season, the Japanese Skating Federation confirmed his entry in the country’s national championships later in December, and his ankle injury is akin to the one he faced during the last Olympic season, in the lead-up to PyeongChang.

Training at home in Japan, Hanyu said he would do everything in his power to be ready to qualify for the Games later this season.

Women: Injuries stop short an all-Russian GPF field

Could all six women’s spots at the Grand Prix Final have gone to Russian skaters? In short, yes.

Instead, it will "only" be five, with Valieva joined by compatriots in reigning world champion Anna Shcherbakova, 2015 world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, fast-rising 15-year-old Maiia Khromykh and Alena Kostornaia, the 2020 European champion.

Only Sakamoto Kaori, with her win at home in Japan for NHK Trophy, is the non-Russian in the GPF field.

Both Valieva and Shcherbakova won both their Grand Prixs, though Shcherbakova’s 236.78 is some 30 points below Valieva, due to the higher technical scores that Valieva is receiving. She does a triple Axel in both the short program and free skate, in addition to both a quadruple Salchow and quad toe (twice) in the free.

The GPF field is one that highlights the strength of the ROC women’s team for the coming Olympics. The sixth spot was up for grabs for either Alexandra Trusova or Daria Usacheva, who finished 1-2 at Skate America, but neither competed as scheduled at NHK Trophy, with Trusova pulling out due to a foot injury and Usacheva sustaining an injury during the six-minute warm-up for the short program.

Both are expected to compete at Russian nationals near the end of December. 

Regardless, the series proved something we knew ahead of the season: The race for the three spots on the ROC’s team for the women’s roster is going to be fierce. 

Kihira Rika, the 2018 Grand Prix Final champ, has also been sidelined due to injury (ankle), adding intrigue to a Japanese tussle for three spots that will also include Sakamoto, veteran Miyahara Satoko and each of Higuchi Wakaba, Kawabe Mana and Mihara Mai, who had individual standout moments during the Grand Prix.

Other international skaters showed flashes of greatness in their assignments, as well, including the Republic of Korea’s You Young earning two bronzes; Leona Hendrickx of Belgium and her third-place finish in Italy; and two top-five finishes for American Alysa Liu, who recently changed coaches.

Pairs: Olympic crescendo already building

Did you know that the pairs event will be the last of the four disciplines to compete at the coming Winter Games in Beijing? That’s partly because of the host nation’s long and strong history in pairs, having won six Olympic medals in the event over the last 20 years.

One of those medals was a silver earned by Sui and Han in 2018, and the duo looked strong in their two Grand Prix appearances, sweeping gold at both (Canada and Italy) and bringing back a revised program to their popular “Bridge Over Troubled Water” free skate from the 2016-17 season, when they earned their second of two world gold medals.

But the reigning world champions, Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov of Russia, looked equally impressive in the Grand Prix, winning at NHK Trohpy and Rostelecom Cup following Sui/Han’s gold-gold finishes. Mishina/Galliamov’s 227.28 and 226.98 barely edged out the scores of the Chinese team, 224.05 and 224.55.

Like the women’s event, pair skating at the Final is set to be heavily Russian, with two-time world medallists Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (gold Skate America; silver NHK Trophy) set to appear alongside Mishina/Galliamov, in addition to the teams of Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii (bronze Skate America; gold France) and Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin.

The breakout stars of the pairs discipline this season have no doubt been Miura Riku and Kihara Ryuichi, the upbeat Japanese duo skating in only their third season together. A silver at Skate America followed by bronze at home for NHK Trophy earned them a ticket for the Final.

The season also confirmed how tough the U.S. race will be for just two pairs spots (led by reigning national champs Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier) for the Olympics. Meanwhile, Peng Cheng and Jin Yang, the No.2 Chinese team, had just one assignment, finishing with a silver in Torino behind Sui/Han.

And while they’ve progressed as a new team, it hasn’t been the kind of results that Vanessa James and Eric Radford of Canada wanted – they finished with two fourths at their Grand Prix assignments.

Dance: Papadakis/ Cizeron make grand Grand Prix comeback

It had been nearly two years – the Grand Prix Final in 2019 – since the four-time world champion ice dance duo from France had competed on the Grand Prix, having sat out the entirety of last season as the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the figure skating calendar.

But a pair of new programs and strong scores at both the Italian and French Grand Prixs showed the team was back with a vengeance, and their 220.06 and 221.25 are safely ahead of reigning world champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia, who scored 215.44 and 211.72 in their two wins.

The Final will no doubt be a must-see in the dance, however, as Sinitsina/Katsalapov beat Papadakis/Cizeron the last time these two teams went head-to-head, at Europeans in 2020.

Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, as well as Madison Chock and Evan Bates, will head to the Final, Hubbell/Donohue winning gold at Skate America ahead of their compatriots and rivals.

Skate Canada International champions Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, as well as Italy’s Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri, round out the top six teams of the season.

In fact, no other ice dance duo broke into the top two at any of the Grand Prix stops.

GO OLYMPIC. GET ALL THIS.

Free live sport events. Unlimited access to series. Unrivalled Olympic news & highlights.