Russian Pair Strikes Figure Skating Gold in Redemption for Nation's 2010 Failure

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2014

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For any athlete, performing before a home crowd as a heavy favorite in the wake of previous failures looms as a dangerous, double-edged sword.

The scenario includes support from the locals that can make souls soar, but it comes at the high price of an enormous amount of additional pressure to succeed.

No two athletes at the Sochi Olympics have appeared to embrace this more completely or more effectively than Russian pairs figure skaters Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. They soaked in the support without bowing to the pressure while skating to a flawless gold-medal performance in the figure skating pairs free skate on Wednesday.

"I think tonight all of the country will celebrate this beautiful victory," Trankov told reporters in Sochi following the event.

In winning gold, Trankov and Volosozhar erased the disappointment of the unprecedented failure of Team Russia in the 2010 Winter Games at Vancouver. Heading into those Games, pairs skaters from Russia or the former Soviet Union had won gold in 12 consecutive Olympics, dating back to 1964.

Volosozhar and Trankov, left, are joined as new Russian figure skating royalty by Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, right.
Volosozhar and Trankov, left, are joined as new Russian figure skating royalty by Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, right.Darron Cummings/Associated Press/Associated Press

Much to the self-professed embarrassment of Trankov, among others in the Russian camp, that streak came to an end in Vancouver—where Russian pairs skaters not only failed to win gold for the first time in 46 years but also failed to win a single medal of any kind.

"It was a hard time, but something must be broken before you make it new," Trankov recently told The New York Times' Jere Longman of Team Russia's failure in 2010.

The Russian rebirth was made complete on Wednesday at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, where Volosozhar and Trankov floated around the ice, or above it, with a rare combination of power and grace. They did so with such ease that it disguised the difficulty of the tricks they were performing.

The boisterous crowd seemed to move with them, responding favorably to every superbly executed element and anticipating almost in silence what was to come next in between each monster moment during a routine that earned a whopping 152.69 from the judges.

 Noted Longman of the Times:

Their spins were slow and occasionally out of sync, and Volosozhar’s right hand scraped the ice on a throw triple loop. But, ultimately, the Russians built decisively on their lead from Tuesday’s short program, prevailing on their reputation as defending world champions, their power on throws and lifts and their infusion of athleticism with a classical style.

The gold-medal effort, based on a total of 236.86 points in combination with the pair's short program, came after a spectacular performance in its own right by the Russian pair of Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov. They earned the silver medal, finishing with a total of 218.68, to give the Russians a one-two Olympic finish this time. The German pair of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy was left with the bronze when the skaters faltered and fell from second after the short program, posting a total of 215.78.

Even the greatest figure skating skeptic, who may scoff at the tears that flow all too freely following many performances, cannot find fault with Trankov for getting emotional after this one.

After all, he once lived in a rink that was sponsored by the Russian army, according to the Times, where only one free meal a day was provided. Sometimes, he survived on pickles that his skating partner was able to score for him.

As he endured these miserable conditions, he no doubt wondered how a prodigy of his considerable talents might have fared in the old Soviet Union, where prospective Olympic heroes often were regarded as national treasures and treated as such. Instead, he watched as talented coaches who might have trained him left to pursue lucrative deals to coach skaters from other countries. Dollars that might have been designated for his family in different times flowed elsewhere or disappeared altogether.

Feb 12, 2014; Sochi, RUSSIA; Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov (RUS) perform in the pairs free skate program during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Iceberg Skating Palace. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

"In the time of the Soviet Union, there was a river of money in the sport," Alexei Mishin, who coaches Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko, told the Times.

It routinely turned into a waterfall of gold medals at the Olympics, initially surviving the breakup of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Russian Federation in 1991.

Until Vancouver in 2010.

Now Trankov and Volosozhar have restored order to the Russian figure skating orbit and to the skating's world hierarchy. They did so under the kind of pressure that tests—often even breaksthe most hardened, talented and experienced athletes on earth.

No one could have said it better than Trankov did even before these Winter Games commenced.

"The Olympic Games in Sochi is not only big pressure for Russian athletes, it's a big dream and a big happiness," he told the Times.

All of that was wrapped into one fine Olympic moment on the ice on Wednesday.


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