Helsinki last hosted the World Figure Skating Championships in 1999, when Russian veteran Maria Butyrskaya became her country’s first surprise gold medallist, outskating American icon Michelle Kwan. This year, the surprise will come if a Russian woman is not on the podium.
The unshakeable world champion Evgenia Medvedeva looks poised to defend her title coming off a world-record-scoring free skate finish at the European Championships (150.79). Her title defense in Ostrava, Czech Republic was Medvedeva’s eighth consecutive victory. Though criticized by some that her mature programs are not age appropriate (her free skate music, for example, is “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” which depicts the events of September 11), the 17 y.o. rarely sets a foot wrong, putting judges at ease to award positive Grades of Execution (GOE) scores and high program components. While her choreography has been questioned by some this season, there’s no denying her musicality and ability to deliver clean performances under pressure.
The battle for silver and bronze in Helsinki appears less certain, but expect a scramble at the top as the ladies strive to win a medal and gain momentum heading into the Olympic season. Medvedeva’s once inconsistent teammate, Anna Pogorilaya, has harnessed the glory of her 2016 World Championship bronze medal win in Boston by delivering consistent performances this season with panache and drama. Once known for spectacular crashes, the 18 y.o. leverages her long lines to draw exceptional performance and interpretation scores. With improved packaging and newfound consistency this season, she’s a force to be reckoned with in Helsinki.
American Ashley Wagner has had an unusual season, making her a dark horse despite her silver medal win in Boston. A golden, but conservative, opening at Skate America was followed by a disastrous 6th place finish at the Cup of China for the 26 y.o. She missed qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, but redeemed herself with a gritty silver-medal-winning showing at her national championships. Wagner is usually at her best when counted out or coming into a big competition as the underdog. The veteran may still contend, and has the performance quality to finish on the podium for the second year in a row.
This season, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond made certain that while Wagner and her teammates struggled, Russia and Japan would not dominate the ladies field unchallenged. Rebounding from a broken leg which had left her sidelined since the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, this season, the 21 y.o. has mustered pure magic with a dependable and sassy short program set to “Sous le ciel de Paris” performed by Edith Piaf. Her bugbear has been her free skate with pesky errors, but if the Grand Prix Final qualifier manages to complete her soaring triples in both programs, a podium finish is likely.
Making her return to competition, 2012 World Champion and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner from Italy could spoil everyone’s well-laid plans. Her majestic presence on the ice was on full display at the European Championships, where the 30 y.o. prevented a Russian sweep, won the bronze medal, and even outperformed Pogorilaya in the free skate. Training now with Alexei Mishin, her once-inconsistent triple jumps appear unfaltering. Since the European Championships, she’s re-added the triple Lutz and triple flip-triple toe combination to her repertoire. With clean performances in Helsinki, high program component scores could make her the biggest threat to Medvedeva for the title.
Fresh off a win at the recent 2017 Four Continents Championships, Mai Mihara from Japan is coming into Helsinki with lots of momentum. Often overlooked in favor of her younger teammates, Mihara flew under the radar this season by capturing the bronze medal at Skate America in her Grand Prix debut. Equipped with strong skating skills, knee bend, and jump technique, Mai will be a darkhorse for the podium here in Helsinki. With Satoko Miyahara out of the competition due to a stress fracture in her hip, Mai will have immense pressure on her shoulders to repeat her Four Continents performances to help Japan retain 3 spots for the 2018 Olympics.
Other ladies to watch include Canada’s Gabby Daleman, Russia’s Maria Sotskova, American newcomers Karen Chen and Mariah Bell, South Korea’s Dabin Choi, Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi and Rika Hongo, as well as Elizabet Tursynbayeva from Kazakhstan.