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Opining on Sochi: Russian dark horses and the end of two eras

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Before we dive into the men's short program today, there's still quite a bit to analyze about yesterday's pairs' free skate. The first medals were awarded for the individual events yesterday, and as expected, it was Tatiana Volosozhar/Maxim Trankov who brought the home team its second gold in figure skating after helping their Team Event effort earlier in the week. But the podium wasn't quite what people expected.

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Play-by-play/results: Pairs' free skate

Different names, familiar results
There was something a bit deja vu about the results from yesterday's pairs' free. Volosozhar/Trankov were fantastic but not perfect, with Volosozhar putting her hand down on the throw triple salchow. It was dark horses Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov, third after the short, who stole the show, skating a flawless free skate to move up to the silver. But amid the Russian jubilation, it was Aliona Savchenko/Robin Szolkowy who fell twice and dropped to the bronze.

Skating fans will remember that a similar pattern happened four years ago in Vancouver, switch the Russians with the Chinese and keep the Germans where they are. Gold medalists Xue Shen/Hongbo Zhao were spectacular in the short but made a mistake in the free skate, overshadowed by teammates Qing Pang/Jian Tong, who skated lights out and moved up to silver. Savchenko/Szolkowy made a mistake in the free skate and dropped from second to third.

The end of two eras
I covered the end of Pang/Tong's career in my last post. Their free skate wasn't the best, but it was still very classic Pang/Tong - superb connection and wonderful musicality. And though they couldn't move up to the podium - they finished fourth - they ended their career on a high note, giving it all they got and avoiding some of the mistakes that have plagued them in the past few years.

For Savchenko/Szolkowy, however, the Olympics have not been great to them. And Sochi was even more heartbreaking than Vancouver was. Is it the end of the Savchenko/Szolkowy era? Possibly. Savchenko talked about moving on and eying the next Olympics with a different partner, indicating that Szolkowy may be retiring. But there's nothing official yet, and that could've been a knee-jerk response to the disappointment.

It's been an interesting trajectory for Savchenko/Szolkowy. During the two years after Vancouver, they looked invincible - great, innovative programs, and more powerful than ever. But once Volosozhar/Trankov came into the picture, it was as if they ended up losing their way trying to figure out how to respond to the competition from the Russians. Their programs in the past two years have been uninspired and they have looked more labored on the ice, especially when compared to what they used to put out.

The most telling thing in Sochi was that they looked like a different pair when they switched to the revamped short program version of their old Pink Panther free skate. It felt like a refresh, whereas Nutcracker felt like square-peg-round-hole.

Both pairs are great champions, and if this really is it for them, they certainly leave behind a wonderful legacy.

Two quads - one done, one so close
There were two quads attempted in the free skates yesterday, and both of them were high quality elements. Cheng Peng/Hao Zhang, who finished eighth, opened with a level three quad twist that was an absolute beauty. The fact that this competition saw a level three quad twist and a level one double twist shows just how huge of a range of pairs we had in Sochi.

The other quad was from American champs Marissa Castelli/Simon Shnapir. Their throw quad salchow attempt was oh, so close, but it was one of the closest ones that they have put down in competition. She put her free leg down on the landing, but it was still spectacular. Let's hope Castelli/Shnapir continues to skate after this season, because they definitely have the potential to move up in the pairs world.

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