STOCKHOLM — The expected was seeing two Russians and a Japanese woman in the top three after the short program at the World Figure Skating Championships.
Less predictable was the two American skaters, helped by the struggles of other contenders, putting the United States in range of the maximum three berths at next year's Olympics.
Anna Shcherbakova, Russia's three-time national champion, won the free skate Wednesday. Shcherbakova’s balletic performance flowed in a way none of the other competitors managed. Her triple lutz-triple loop combination was the most difficult of any tried, and she wore a huge smile leaving the ice.
“I am most satisfied with my combination, it was the hardest jump in my program and the most important one,” Shcherbakova said.
Her 81.00 points placed her nearly two points ahead of Japan's Rika Kihira, whose score was damaged by two under-rotated jumps, including a triple axel that only one other skater hit in the short program.
That was Russia’s Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, whose last appearance at worlds came when she won it in 2015.
“A lot has happened in these past six years,” she said, “but I think during these past few years I have become way more confident in this (triple axel) and today’s performance I consider to be a little better than the one six years ago.”
Madeline Schizas of Oakville, Ont., was ninth, while Vancouver’s Emily Bausbeck was 27th and did not qualify for the final.
Several medal threats, including Russia's other dynamo, Alexandra Trusova, struggled with falls and incomplete combinations. For the U.S. to get three spots in the women’s field at the Beijing Games, Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen must finish a combined 13th or better.
Right now, they have a total of 11th place.
“I want to deliver the free skate that I know I’m capable of,” Chen said after coming in fourth with a personal best 74.40. “I’ve yet to show that at Skate America or nationals, so I feel like this is the time.
“I’m really happy with how my performance went. I gave it my all.”
Chen was the bronze medallist at nationals but was placed on the U.S. team ahead of runner-up Amber Glenn because of her international experience.
Tennell, who has won two U.S. titles, was energetic but flawed in winding up seventh.
“I think my timing was just a bit off,” Tennell admitted. "It’s very strange because my (triple) lutz combo is one of my most solid jumps so I’m pretty disappointed with that skate. I’ve been skating a clean short program every single day since nationals, so to come here and put out a program like that is very surprising to me and I’m pretty unhappy with it, actually. I think I really let myself down there.”
Trusova, coached by 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko, seemed nervous and rushing through her program. She only attempted a double axel, but more significant was a major error on her jump combination, stepping out of her triple lutz and failing to complete the combo.
It was a surprisingly weak showing for a Russian woman — they have dominated the sport in the past seven years — and dropped Trusova to 12th.
"I think I didn’t manage with my nerves; lately I feel very nervous at the competitions,” she said.
The women's free skate is Friday. There are no fans at the Ericsson Globe for worlds, which were cancelled in Montreal last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shcherbakova was thrilled to simply be competing at a world championship.
“The best moment is that we’re here, because it’s the first international competition this year," she noted. “I was very sad when the previous international competitions were cancelled.”
France's Maé-Bérénice Méité withdrew after tearing her left Achilles tendon during her program.
With an exquisite short program to “Merry Go Round Of Life,” Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii of Russia took the short program by 2.54 points over two-time world winners Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China.
Russia's other two pairs were third and fourth: Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, followed by Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov heading into Thursday's free skate.
Kirsten Moore-Towers of St. Catharines, Ont., and Michael Marinaro of Sarnia, Ont., were 10th, while Evelyn Walsh of London, Ont., and Trent Michaud of Trenton, Ont., were 12th.
The U.S. tandems are not in contention for the podium against the Russians and Chinese, but fared very well. National runners-up Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc were sixth, followed by U.S. champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in seventh. No American pair has won a world medal since 2002.
“It’s very exciting to be back amongst all of the other international athletes,” said Knierim, who went to the 2018 Olympics with husband Chris, now retired. “This is our first competition like this as a pair, so we’re just learning as we go and enjoying it together.”