At its best, pairs figure skating is not only beautiful but thrilling, in a hold-your-breath kind of way.
It is a high-wire act of throws and twists and ever-more-complex lifts, moves that U.S. pairs skater Timothy LeDuc perfectly characterizes as right out of Cirque du Soleil.
Pairs skating was at its best in the short program at the 2018 Winter Olympics, where, as I wrote then, you could justifiably have exhausted a dictionary’s supply of superlatives to describe the quality of the leading performers.
The quality of the top teams in Friday’s pairs short program at the 2022 Winter Olympics was even better.
Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, fire on ice, lead with a world record score. The next two finishers, Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov and Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov, both of the Russian Olympic Committee, each had season best scores.
Fewer than two points separate first from third. Sui and Han (84.41), silver medalists four years ago, are just 0.19 ahead of Tarasova and Morozov.
“I believe over the past few years, pairs skating has improved extremely, all the elements have improved,” Mishina said. “The first four, five six pairs are almost perfect. This is fantastic.”
The top six finishers Friday did not have a single negative grade of execution among the 63 marks they received. Tarasova and Morozov received the maximum GOE for their twist.
“Spectacular,” said pairs coach Bruno Marcotte of Canada. “Our sport needed a night like tonight.”
The top three were otherworldly, with striking unison, mastery of the difficult tricks and a flow of movement that tied the elements into a connected whole.
And both U.S. teams were solidly in the mix, even if a medal for either after Saturday’s free skate is a long shot at best.
When both had finished, with six couples yet to come, Cain-Gribble figured they would be in a much better position than any of their recent predecessors.
“Seventy-four points at the Olympic Games for two U.S. pairs… we know we are ending up in a good place after tonight,” she said.
Not since the 1998 Olympics, when the U.S. pairs were fourth and sixth in the short program, have both been so high in the standings. No U.S. pair has finished better than ninth overall since 2006.
“The top three were all brilliant in different ways,” said Sandra Bezic of Canada, 1972 Olympic pairs skater and longtime TV commentator.
“Sui/Han carry the country on their shoulders. They showed their mental power, experience and partnership excellence with every step.
“The Russians were both superb. Tarasova/Morozov are a cohesive true pair. Their fundamental pair skills are pristine and their partnership and connection to each other, both physically and emotionally, are classic. Their consistency has been the only thing holding them back.
“Mishina and Galliamov are more about point collecting, yet their program today was delightful.”
Sui credited the lengthy rivalry with Tarasova and Morozov for pushing both teams. They had also finished 1-2 in the 2018 Olympic short program.
Two mistakes by the Chinese in the free skate four years ago allowed Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany to overtake them for gold by less than one-half point. Tarasova and Morozov’s generally sloppy free skate dropped them to fourth.
“We are very proud we can maintain a very high level of competition between two pairs for almost 10 years,” Sui said. “It is a wonderful thing. We are improving because of each other.”
The Chinese pair plans to raise the bar in the free skate by bringing back their quadruple twist. No team has attempted that element in international competition since 2018, partly because a change in the scoring system reduced the gap between its base value and that of a triple twist, making risk greater than reward.
Sui, 26, and Han, 29, have skated together for 16 years. Over that time, they have done not only quad twists but also quad throws.
“With enough safety measures for pairs skating, we could also go for extremes, even quintuples,” Han said. “We just want to push our limits, go stronger and higher as the body permits.”
It is a plenty extreme sport already.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.