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Figure Skaters to Watch at the Olympics: Nathan Chen, Yuzuru Hanyu and More

Olympic figure skating began Friday morning in Beijing with the team event, in which men’s and women’s singles skaters, pairs and ice dancers all compete and combine their scores for their countries.

Once that event concludes on Monday, the marquee events begin. Here are the favored skaters to watch in the individual, pairs and ice dancing competitions:

Nathan Chen of the United States and Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan were the favorites at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But Chen appeared overwhelmed by the moment during the short program in the individual competition, finishing a distant 17th place. He recovered to win the long program but could hoist himself only to fifth place overall, while Hanyu won his second individual gold medal.

In the years that followed, Chen became a three-time world champion and the first to complete five types of quadruple jumps while on a long unbeaten streak. But nerves seemed to strike again last fall when he stumbled through the short program at Skate America, an international Grand Prix event, and he finished third overall. He won the United States championships last month but fell twice in the free skate.

He may have to skate cleanly to defeat Hanyu, a more elegant skater who is seeking to become just the second man, and the first in nearly a century, to win three consecutive gold medals. Hanyu is expected to attempt a quadruple axel, the sport’s most difficult jump, and could become the first person to land one in competition. Chen has defeated Hanyu in their last three head-to-head matchups.

Short program: Tuesday, Feb. 8 in Beijing; Monday, Feb. 7 in U.S. (evening)
Free skate: Thursday, Feb. 10 in Beijing; Wednesday, Feb. 9 in U.S. (evening)

Long known for its kitschy vibe, ice dancing has been taken in a more ethereal, lyrical direction by the French couple Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who are four-time world champions. Papadakis experienced an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction during the short program at the 2018 Olympics and the couple finished less than a point behind the eventual champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, for the gold medal.

This season, Papadakis and Cizeron have taken acute measures to avoid the coronavirus pandemic, including skipping the European championships last month in Estonia. But, if they are at their best in Beijing, the French couple may be the most engaging of all the skaters in any discipline with a style described as “music floating around the ice.”

Rhythm dance: Saturday, Feb. 12 (evening in Beijing; early morning in U.S.)
Free dance: Monday, Feb. 14 in Beijing; Sunday, Feb. 13 in U.S. (evening)

If there is a seeming lock for a skating gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, it’s 15-year-old Kamila Valieva of Russia, who has become the European champion and world-record holder in points accumulated in a competition during her first year on the senior skating circuit. She is developing maturity and an ease to her skating as she seems to nonchalantly land triple axels and quadruple jumps, often holding her arms above her head to add difficulty to her routines and to straighten her body, making her position in the air more consistent.

Russian teenagers are favored to sweep the medal podium, with Valieva’s 17-year-old training partners, Anna Shcherbakova, the reigning world champion, and Alexandra Trusova, expected to challenge for silver and bronze. All three are coached by Eteri Tutberidze, who has built the equivalent of a skating factory in Moscow. Another Tutberidze-coached skater, Alina Zagitova, won the gold medal in 2018.

Russia is seeking to win the women’s competition for a third consecutive Olympics. Adelina Sotnikova took the women’s title in 2014.

Short program: Tuesday, Feb. 15 (evening in Beijing; early morning in U.S.)
Free skate: Thursday, Feb. 17 (evening in Beijing; early morning in U.S.)

Perhaps the most anticipated event for China at the Beijing Games is the pairs competition, which has been moved to the final days of the Olympics to give it prominent visibility. The Chinese pair of Sui Wenjing and Han Cong led the 2018 Games after the short program before slipping in the free skate and taking the silver medal.

To prevail, they will have to outperform three Russian pairs, including the reigning world champions Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, who are consistent and assured. They are tutored by the world’s most renowned pairs coach, Tamara Moskvina, who, at age 80, is seeking to lead a fifth pair to a gold medal since her first Olympic title as a coach in 1984.

A victory by any of the three Russian pairs would give Soviet/Russian skaters gold medals in the event in 14 of the 16 Winter Olympics held since 1964.

Short program: Friday, Feb. 18 (evening in Beijing; early morning in U.S.)
Free skate: Saturday, Feb. 19 (evening in Beijing; early morning in U.S.)

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