Olympic champion Alina Zagitova is without question the heavy favorite heading into figure skating’s world championships, especially after the sprightly Russian’s training partner and rival Evgenia Medvedeva withdrew because of injury.
She won’t be the sentimental favorite, though.
That would be Carolina Kostner, the ageless Italian star who could be competing at worlds for the last time on home soil. The former champion and six-time world medalist seemed to indicate that retirement could be looming after she finished fifth at the Pyeongchang Games, where she was chosen to carry the Italian flag at the closing ceremony in South Korea.
Kostner will have a huge home crowd behind her when the event begins Wednesday in Milan.
“Decisions like that should never be taken in a hot moment. It will come naturally,” said Kostner, who no longer can compete with the sport’s high-fliers when it comes to technical marks, but whose elegant artistry and presentation often make up the difference.
“She is an example of perseverance, of a long-lasting athlete,” Medvedeva said. “I have trouble imagining how someone can stay in that shape for a very long time. When you see people like Carolina, you understand that if she can do something, then that something is possible. If you love what you do, you put all of yourself into it, like Carolina Kostner.”
When asked about retirement, Kostner brought up her cousin, Isolde Kostner, who won three Olympic medals as an Alpine skier before deciding to step away from competition.
“She stopped skiing shortly before the (2006) Olympics in Italy,” Caroline Kostner said. “Many did not understand why she wouldn’t pull through because it was her home country, and she said, ‘You will feel strongly when it is time to stop.’ And I haven’t felt it yet.”
The biggest story at the world championships in an Olympic year tends to be who is missing rather than who shows up. The grind of competing for an entire season builds toward the quadrennial event, and athletes who medal or intend to retire rarely press on to worlds. Then there are the injuries, which accumulate during the year.
Medvedeva and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu are the biggest names to withdraw, both citing long-lingering injuries. Medvedeva has been dealing with a stress fracture in her right foot that she skated through in Pyeongchang, while Hanyu returned from a right ankle injury to become the first skater since Dick Button in 1952 to successfully defend his men’s Olympic title.
The Canadian contingent was thinned considerably by retirements. Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the most decorated Olympic figure skaters ever, joined Patrick Chan and the pairs team of Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford in declining invitations. Olympic bronze medalist Kaetlyn Osmond will lead their squad.
After a disappointing showing in Pyeongchang, the American squad will be led by Nathan Chen, who rallied from a calamitous short program to win the free skate and finish fifth. Pairs team Alexa Scimica-Knierim and Chris Knierim could be competing at their final worlds, while Olympic teammates Karen Chen and ice dance bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani decided to withdraw.
Here’s who to watch in each discipline when competition begins Wednesday in Milan:
Zagitova is the runaway favorite after her record-setting Olympic romp, while Osmond will be a favorite for the podium. The U.S. is sending Mirai Nagasu, who landed her triple axel but otherwise struggled in Pyeongchang, along with fellow Olympian Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell.
Hanyu’s withdrawal makes Chen, the Grand Prix Final champion, the heavy favorite in the men’s event. But the American needs to land his vast array of quads like he did in his stunning Olympic free skate to hold off teammate Vincent Zhou, Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan, Jin Boyang of China and Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada and Dmitri Aliev.
Aliona Savchenko finally won her long-sought Olympic gold when she teamed with Bruno Massot to rally from a poor short program with a world-record free skate in Pyeongchang. Savachenko already has five world championships on her resume, all with other partners, and could add another in Milan. Their biggest competition is two-time and defending world champions Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, who were among the Russian athletes barred from competing in Pyeongchang.
Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are the favorites after the French pair took silver in a tight competition behind Virtue and Moir in South Korea. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue of the U.S. should contend for a medal after finishing fourth at the Olympics, and Russians Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin will compete after being barred from Pyeongchang.