Chinese take lead on Russians after pairs short program

Dave Skretta
Associated Press

Gangneung, South Korea — Sui Wenjing knows what it takes to overcome injuries.

The Chinese pairs skater underwent surgeries on both of her feet a couple of years ago, taking her off the ice entirely for several months. The painful recovery began with learning how to walk again, then getting back into skates, and finally joining partner Han Cong for world-class competition.

So when Sui and Han had a training mishap several weeks before the Pyeongchang Olympics, leaving her with five stitches in her leg, she wondered whether she would make it to South Korea.

“I cried immediately,” she said with a laugh.

Well, the pair made it to the Olympics. And they left tears in a lot of eyes Wednesday with their breathtaking, almost ethereal short program to the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” The world champions scored a season-best 82.39 points, giving Sui and Han less than a point lead over Russian rivals Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov heading into Thursday’s free skate.

“Luckily the wound was not very big, five stitches,” Han said when asked what happened during the Chinese pair’s training accident. “She recovered pretty well, pretty quickly.”

Tarasova and Morozov, skating last among the 22 teams, scored 81.68 points to a piano concerto by Rachmaninov. That was also a season best for the pair, and kept them in contention for the gold medal.

“We managed to pull off all the elements,” Tarasova said through an interpreter, “and tomorrow we’ll have to pull ourselves together. It’s a new day, a new program and a new fight begins.”

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada were third with 76.82 points, less than a point ahead of German favorites Aliona Savchenkno and Bruno Massot, whose technical scores took a massive dip when the French-born Massot did a double salchow instead of the planned triple.

That cost them about four points, possibly putting gold out of reach.

“We tried to do our best but mistakes happened, but there is nothing we can do about it now,” Savchenko said. “We have to look forward to the long program.”

Six couples are within three points of the Canadians, meaning a potential tight squeeze for the podium.

Among them are Yu Xiaoyu and Zhang Hao of China, who scored a season-best 75.58 points to “Swan Lake,” and French couple Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, whose strong program to Ed Sheeran’s version of “Make It Rain” left them pumping their fists as they skated off the ice.

“The level of pairs skating was extremely high today, as we as pairs skaters expected,” said Duhamel, who helped the Canadians win team gold. “The level of skating is incredible and the fact that you need to score 63 points to qualify for the free skate, that’s showing unbelievable depth.”

The biggest cheers of the day came earlier in the competition – and were choreographed. How fitting for figure skating.

That’s because North Korean skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik made their debut, accompanied by their nation’s orchestrated cheering section. The fans clapped enthusiastically for even the most simple of elements during their warmups, then roared when the couple finished their program to English rock musician Jeff Beck’s rendition of “A Day in the Life.”

As soon as the scores were read, the North Korean cheering section left in single file.

The only American pair, Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, struggled after helping the U.S. win team bronze. She over-rotated on their triple twist lift, he stepped out on their side-by-side triple salchow, and she put a hand down landing their throw triple flip.

Despite finishing a disappointing 14th, it hardly dampened the married couple’s Valentine’s Day enthusiasm. He gave her a giant, white teddy bear in the kiss-and-cry area while awaiting their scores, and she gave him a big kiss.

“We knew that today was going to be a special day for us,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “You never know if we will be back on Olympic ice again, so we promised each other no matter what happens, mistakes or not, that we were going to be present every single second and really to soak in the moment.”