Canada in battle to reach figure skating team event final as U.S. takes early lead
Canadian team 6th while missing men's national champion Messing, top 5 advance
The U.S. surged to an early lead in the team event as figure skating began on Friday morning at the Beijing Olympics.
Victories for three-time world champion Nathan Chen and ice-dance duo Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, along with a career-best performance by pairs skaters Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, propelled the Americans to a surprising advantage over the Russians and Chinese.
Canada sits sixth of 10 competing nations after ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were fourth in the rhythm dance, pairs team Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro finished fifth in the short program and Olympic rookie Roman Sadovsky placed eighth in the men's short.
Sadovsky learned Thursday night he'd be stepping in for Canadian men's champion Keegan Messing, who remained in Vancouver as he awaited the necessary COVID-19 test results to travel to China.
"I was told to just stay ready, be prepared," Sadovsky said on the late notice. "All season I've been working towards the Olympic Games. I know the Games have a team event. It's a little bit of an endurance kind of weekend after all the programs. I came here prepared to do anything, really."
Schizas will make her Olympic debut in the team event women's short program on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET.
The U.S. tops the overall table with 28 points, followed by the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) at 26, China at 21, Japan at 20 and Italy at 18. Canada sits two points behind the Italians. Competitors are ranked by their performance, with the best score receiving 10 points, the second-best nine points, and so on. The team that finishes with the most combined points in all events wins gold.
Gilles, Poirier with solid skate
Gilles and Poirier, who won bronze at the world championships last March and placed eighth in their Olympic debut in 2018, earned a score of 82.72, slightly off their season-best 85.65.
The 30-year-olds skated to Elton John's I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues. They grabbed their top mark on their final element of their dance, the midline step sequence 2.
"I think we're really pleased with our performance today. It's our first time competing back on the Olympic ice and that's always a really big deal for any athlete, so I think we're really happy to have this team event to get our legs under us. I think we're really proud of the skate we did today. We felt really settled and confident," Poirier said.
Coach Carol Lane said on the CBC broadcast that for Toronto's Gilles and Poirier, of Unionville, Ont., it was the "best they've skated this season."
WATCH | Gilles, Poirier 4th in rhythm dance:
But the American duo of Hubbell and Donohue, dancing to a trio of Janet Jackson songs, wowed judges off the top with their midline step sequence 3 to earn the top score of the day and a career-best of 86.56.
The ROC, favoured to win gold in the event, placed second in the rhythm dance with reigning world champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov scoring 85.05. Italy's Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri were third at 83.83.
Moore-Towers, Marinaro overcome mistakes
In the pairs event, Moore-Towers, of Oakville, Ont., and Marinaro, of Sarnia, Ont., overcame a shaky early triple toeloop to rebound for a season-best score of 67.34.
Skating to Hold on Tight by Forest Black, the Canadian pair appeared to find their groove as the skate progressed, executing a flawless lift to set the tone for the back half of their performance.
"We felt great and very comfortable. I'm bummed about my jump. It had been going extremely well in practice this morning and in warmup, so I think that will be a good little reminder for the next time I complete a short program here," Moore-Towers told CBC's Elladj Balde.
WATCH | Moore-Towers, Marinaro 5th in 1st skate of Olympics:
If Canada advances to the free programs, Vanessa James and Eric Radford will replace Moore-Towers and Marinaro in the pairs, since substitutions are permitted.
It appeared as though Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier held that flow throughout, wiping away their career best by five points with their score of 75 to finish third.
But, as expected, China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han and Russians Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov proved a cut above the rest.
With 82.83 points, the Chinese pair set a world record on home ice to barely edge the Russians at 82.64 for top spot.
Messing stuck in Vancouver
Chen gave the U.S. the early edge with a short-program score of 111.71, while Canada's Sadovsky scored 71.06.
Sadovsky, from Vaughan, Ont., was a late replacement for Messing, who despite feeling healthy is still in Vancouver unable to produce the two negative COVID-19 tests required to board a flight to the Games.
Messing, who lives in Girdwood, AK., tested positive for COVID-19 in Vancouver. He then needed to produce four negative tests before being permitted to travel to Beijing. He had two negative tests on Friday, and Skate Canada told The Canadian Press it was hopeful he'd test positive twice more in time to board a flight Saturday to arrive in time for the men's singles event which begins Tuesday.
"The biggest challenge ... is trying to get him on a plane to get here. It's not easy to get here," said Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada's high performance director.
Messing has been in a Vancouver airport hotel since testing positive. The hotel provided him a security guard, and he ran up and down the hotel stairwell to keep fit. He's been given private ice time to practise the past few days.
Messing's presence has been missed in Beijing.
"We're heartbroken," said Moore-Towers. "We hope he can get here. I've been in communication with him every day. Just recently he sent me a video of his son Wyatt standing up. I think he's in good spirits. I think the best person to deal with this kind of crisis is Keegan Messing."
"We definitely miss him but he's handling it 100 times better than any other member would have on Team Canada," Marinaro added.
'Disappointing' skate for Sadovsky
Competing as the second skater, Sadovsky, 22, rebounded from a downgraded quadruple Salchow with a solid triple Axel, followed by a flying camel spin, sit spin and a change foot combination spin.
WATCH | Sadovsky 8th in men's short:
"Kind of disappointing honestly," Sadovsky said. "Only because those are mistakes that I don't usually make. The quad Salchow is a comfort jump for me. It was very successful this season. There was just a slight mishap on the takeoff that didn't allow me to pull in.
"Definitely your mind races a little bit [after an early mistake]. Like, right after it happens. But I know from experience that you've got to throw that away and really stay present in the moment and that's what I did after the first jump."
The 22-year-old, who was part of the American team that won Olympic bronze in 2018, skated to a personal-best score, barely missing Japanese star Yuzuru Hanyu's world record of 111.82, who chose not to compete as he saves himself for the singles event.
The ROC's Mark Kondratiuk finished third (95.81), followed by Georgia's Morisi Kvitelashvili in fourth (92.37) and Italian Daniel Grassl in fifth (88.10).
Sadovsky, the Canadian silver medallist last month behind Messing, hasn't been told whether Messing might arrive in time for Sunday's men's free program — countries are allowed to substitute skaters between the long and short program.
WATCH | Chen stands atop men's short:
But Sadovsky, who's making his Olympic debut, said he's preparing as if he'll skate.
Canada claimed silver in the event's Olympic debut at the 2014 Sochi Games before capturing gold four years later.
Because crowds are limited at the Games, only about 300 fans were permitted in the Capital Indoor Stadium on Friday. They sat evenly spaced in every other seat, resembling a checkerboard. They clapped politely, as cheering isn't permitted.
The teams have their own rinkside booths to cheer on teammates, and rather than await scores in the traditional "kiss and cry" area, skaters rejoin their teammates when they've skated.
WATCH | Meet the Canadian Olympic figure skating team:
With files from The Canadian Press