I am tempted to call the 2019 world figure skating championships the "wild card worlds."
The event in Saitama, Japan, which begins with CBC Sports' live stream coverage on Tuesday night at 9:30 p.m. ET, is almost impossible to predict.
Although I fully expect the sublime French ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron to claim their fourth world title, what will happen with the rest of the podium is anyone's guess.
Between injuries, unexpected performances, and the emergence of new skating superstars, things have not gone according to plan at more than one event this season.
Reigning world silver medallists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue of the U.S., were dumped off the podium at the Four Continents championships in favour of fellow American world medallists Madison Chock and Evan Bates. The reigning world bronze medallists from Canada, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, took the Four Continents silver but were beaten in the free dance by teammates and eventual bronze medallists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier. There's no doubt that trying to put these world championships in any kind of context is complicated.
WATCH | Papadakis, Cizeron claim 2018 title with record-setting performance:
The pair from France set a new ice dance world record by scoring a total of 207.20 points, on their way to their 3rd world title at the ISU Figure Skating World Championships in Milan, Italy. 8:19
Frankly, ice dance may be too close to call. When you add into the mix two very talented Russian ice dance teams, Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin and Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, we are looking at an event where medals will be won and lost on the smallest of errors.
The chaos continues in the women’s event. Way back at the beginning of the season, I was impressed enough by former American champion Bradie Tennell’s on-ice transformation that I would have put her in the mix as a contender. However, inconsistencies in competition have been Tennell’s nemesis and although she has the potential, she needs to display it in the moment.
The same could be said for two-time world champion and Olympic silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva, who had to battle through a skate-off at a recent Russian competition to earn her way into the third spot on the women's team. She had been considered unbeatable, as was her teammate and Olympic champion Alina Zagitova. Both got served at their national championships — getting beaten by a trio of fresh-faced teens who owned the podium but are too young to compete for worlds.
When we add the current crop of phenomenal Japanese women to the event, let's just say the title might be ripe for the picking on home soil. The last time a Japanese woman won this event was 2014 by Mao Asada. Leading the pack is first-year senior Rika Kihira, who won both her Grand Prix events, the Grand Prix Final, and the recent Four Continents championships. When the chips were down after the short program in Anaheim, Calif., Kihira delivered in the free skate to move from fifth to take the title. It's that kind of gumption that makes me a believer, but, if Kihira loses her nerve on home ice and in front of the most enthusiastic fans in figure skating, it could change everything.
WATCH | Rika Kihira's winning performance at Four Continents:
The 16-year-old posted a free skate score of 153.14 as she took home the top spot in the women's program at the ISU Four Continents Championship from Anaheim, California. 8:32
The men are like the walking wounded and a few of the top names have been dealing with injuries, including the incomparable Yuzuru Hanyu, Shoma Uno and even Canadian champion Nam Nguyen. It is not surprising given the level of technical skating that we are seeing in 2019, and it can certainly change the outcome of a competition.
The three men battling for the title are going to be the two-time world and Olympic champion Hanyu, who won the event when he was last there in 2017, defending world champion Nathan Chen and two-time world silver medallist Shoma Uno. The edge for me goes to Hanyu who will have home ice advantage in front of a legion of adoring fans.
Hanyu has always struck me as the sort of competitor who likes having a mountain to climb and none is more formidable than one that comes with an ankle injury; the same injury that almost kept him out of the Olympic Games a year ago. I don't expect Chen to simply hand over the world title to Hanyu, which is what is going to make this such an outstanding event to watch.
WATCH | Moore-Towers, Marinaro fall just short of gold at Four Continents:
Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro finished in 2nd place, just 0.06 points less than the winning pair of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han. 7:23
In the pairs world, the French team of Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres upset the apple cart at the European championships in January by claiming the title ahead of two-time European champions Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov. With quality material and ongoing improvement in their skills, James and Cipres have leap-frogged over the rest of the field. It has been wonderful to watch. Also making their mark this season are Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, who lost the Four Continents title by a miniscule.06 margin against reigning Olympic silver medallists and 2017 world champions Wenjing Sui and Cong Han. All the pair teams are in the hunt for a podium finish.
Pj's Podium Picks:
Women: Rika Kihira (Japan)
Men: Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan)
Dance: Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron (France)
Pairs: Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (France)
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