Figure Skating

Hanyu and Zagitova face stern tests at 2019 World Figure Skating Championships

Olympic champs Hanyu and Zagitova to meet Grand Prix Final winners Nathan Chen and Rika Kihira in Saitama.

By Scott Bregman ·

One year and one month after the end of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, the stars of figure skating bid for more glory at the World Championships in Saitama, Japan from 20-24 March.

Injury permitting, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu will compete on home ice to try and claim his third world title.

For PyeongChang gold medallist Alina Zagitova, it will be a test of her mental strength after some error-strewn performances including at January’s European Championships.

Olympic Channel will be on site at the event in Japan, bringing figure skating fans news, exclusive interviews and more. Read on for our essential guide to the event with the competition schedule here.

Yuzuru Hanyu talks about his ankle injury in Moscow

The double Olympic champion reveals how he desperately wanted to perform hi...

Can Hanyu find his form in time?

As in Korea, Hanyu comes straight into this competition after an injury setback.

And once again, it is his right ankle giving him trouble.

In November's Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, the 24-year-old fell practising a quadruple loop and re-injured the ankle which plagued his build-up to PyeongChang.

After considering withdrawing, Hanyu decided to continue and claimed his second Grand Prix win of the season.

"I was thinking to stop this competition after my injury but it's my choice. I trained hard to pay tribute to Russian skating and Russian choreography. I am satisfied with how I could skate here,” he said afterward.

Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) - Gold Medal | Men's Free Skating

The men's free skating competition took place at the Gangneung Ice Arena on...

But the damage was done, and Hanyu sat out of the Grand Prix Final, Japanese nationals and Four Continents.

He will be watched closely in the opening days of official practice in Saitama, though coach Brian Orser believed he would be fit to take this third title when Olympic Channel spoke to him during the European Championships in January.

"I’m very confident that he’ll be ready, of course,” said Orser. “He is a good strong competitor and the Worlds are in Japan, so he wants to be on top form."

Russian ladies in waiting

Hanyu's female counterpart Zagitova has had an up-and-down season thus far.

It started a week later than expected after an issue with travel documents forced her to miss the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Bratislava.

Instead, she competed at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, setting world records in both the short program and free skate.

The 16-year-old carried this form over to both her Grand Prix assignments, securing comfortable wins in GP Helsinki and the Rostelecom Cup.

But she was second in the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver behind Rika Kihira.

Then Zagitova was only fifth in the Russian nationals having led after the short program.

The top three in Saransk, led by Anna Shcherbakova, were all juniors and too young to compete at the European and World Championships.

Zagitova was fancied to win at the Europeans in Minsk, but again had to settle for second with Russian team-mate Sofia Samodurova taking victory.

It's all a far cry from when Zagitova, then 15, stunned training partner and double world champion Evgenia Medvedeva in the European Championships before repeating the feat at PyeongChang.

Alina Zagitova (OAR) - Gold Medal | Women's Free Skating

The women's single free figure skating competition was held at the Gangneun...

Stanislava Konstantinova was Russia's third representative in Minsk and took fourth place in the European Championships.

She looked most likely to miss out on Saitama with Medvedeva and 2015 world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva having what was billed as an unofficial skate-off at last week's Russian Cup.

Medvedeva just came out on top in what has been a difficult first season in Toronto with new coach Orser, having left Eteri Tutberidze's squad in Moscow.

And it was Olympic silver medallist Medvedeva who got the nod from the Russian selectors, joining Zagitova and Samodurova in the team for Japan.

Orser confident Medvedeva will return to form: "There's no quick fix"

Evgenia Medvedeva has gone over a year without winning a competition. She's...

The 19-year-old is back to somewhere near her best and says she will go to Saitama, as she does every competition, "thinking of victory".

The defending champ

American Nathan Chen goes to Saitama as the reigning world champion.

Chen went to Milan last March on something of a redemption mission after a poor short program left him down in 13th place in PyeongChang.

His quad-filled free skate earned the best score of the competition in Korea, higher even than Hanyu, which moved him up to fifth overall.

And he made amends with victory over Olympic silver medallist Shoma Uno for his first world title.

Nathan Chen, world champion

Nathan Chen has completed his remarkable journey from 17th after the short ...

Fast forward a year and Chen could not be in better shape after an impressive victory at January's U.S. Figure Skating Championships, executing four clean quad jumps in the process.

"The first jumps it's: check, check, check," he said after his free skate which opened with a quad Lutz, quad flip and quad toeloop.

"Everything came together at the right moment," Chen said.

He’ll need to produce similar exploits in Japan to hold off home favourites Hanyu and Uno.

Chen has had a superb first year balancing coursework at Yale University with elite figure skating.

With the exception of the free skate-only Japan Cup in early October, the 19-year-old is unbeaten this season.

And in December, he joined Evgeni Plushenko, Patrick Chan and Hanyu as the only men to win consecutive Grand Prix Final titles.

Ahead of the U.S. nationals, Chen benefited from a tune-up with longtime coach Rafael Arutunian and hopes to do the same during his break prior to the Worlds.

Nathan Chen with coach Rafael Arutunian after his free skate to win the 2019 U.S. National Championships in Detroit

Chen says Arutunian "brings a completely new and different atmosphere to the rink".

He added, "His presence really forces us to be much more alert, be much more on top of what we’re doing.

"Having that and a little more guidance from him just in terms of how to structure practice, what my emphasis should be on the ice was really beneficial.”

Uno heads into the Worlds on the back of his first major championship triumph at the Four Continents, where he posted a new world record free skate despite battling an ankle injury.

With Hanyu and Chen both missing in Anaheim, Saitama will be see the big three go up against each other for the first time since the PyeongChang Games.

Rika Kihira, already the comeback queen

While Zagitova and Medvedeva have struggled this season, Rika Kihira has excelled in her first senior campaign.

The 16-year-old first came to worldwide attention when a fine free skate lifted her up from fifth to first at November's NHK Trophy.

Like Zagitova, she won both of her Grand Prix series assignments.

But it was Kihira who came out on top in the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver, breaking the Russian's world record in the short program before shaking off an early error on a triple Axel to take victory.

16-year-old Rika Kihira hopes to improve quad jumps for next season

The Japanese teen stunned the figure skating world winning the Grand Prix f...

Kihira suffered her first senior defeat in the Japanese nationals, finishing behind Kaori Sakamoto.

But she returned to winning ways at this month's Four Continents in Anaheim.

As in the NHK Trophy, Kihira was down in fifth after the short program with her triple Axel again giving her problems.

But she produced another fine comeback in a flawless but reserved free skate – she only performed one of two planned triple Axels – to take gold.

Having struggled with her skating boots all season, Kihira will need to hold her nerve with the home crowd sure to add to the pressure on her shoulders.

If she can, she will complete her first senior season undefeated in international competition.

Sakamoto and Skate America victor Satoko Miyahara - who took fourth at PyeongChang 2018 - complete a strong home challenge.

Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond, champion 12 months ago in Milan after taking bronze in PyeongChang, will not defend her title after deciding to take the whole of the season off.

The battle for dance and pairs titles

The competition for the medals in the ice dance competition looks to be fierce.

France's Olympic silver medallists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are the defending champions and took victory at last month's European Championships.

Papadakis and Cizeron (FRA) - Silver Medal | Free Ice Dance

The free ice dance competition took place at the Gangneung Ice Arena on Tue...

Their season hit trouble early on when an injury to Cizeron’s back saw the team to withdraw from their first Grand Prix assignment, ruling them out of December’s Grand Prix Final.

That seems like a distant memory with the pair setting the highest scores this season at the Internationaux de France in all three categories before easily taking the European title.

However, they’ll face competition from two U.S. dance teams who have traded recent victories: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates.

Hubbell and Donohue are the reigning world silver medallists and triumphed in the Grand Prix Final and U.S. nationals this season.

But a mistake on a lift at the Four Continents opened the door for Chock and Bates to claim their first major title.

The pairs looks wide open with Germany’s reigning world and Olympic champions Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot on an indefinite break from competition.

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France are among the leading contenders after victories at the Grand Prix Final and the European Championships.

An impressive free skate saw James and Cipres to gold at the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver ahead of China's Peng Cheng and Jin Yang and 2018 Worlds runners-up Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.

And last month in Minsk, they beat Tarasova and Morozov by less than seven points to deny the Russians a third consecutive European title.

Peng and Jin were only third in the Four Continents with gold going to another Chinese duo, Olympic silver medallists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong.

A stress fracture in Sui's right foot ruled the pair out of the Grand Prix series, but they returned to international competition with victory in Anaheim despite a number of mistakes.

And an improvement on that showing could see them regain the world title they won in 2017 in Helsinki.

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong (CHN) - Silver Medal | Pairs Free Skating

China's Sui and Han skated to Puccini's "Turandot" in hopes of maintaining ...

Don't forget to follow the Olympic Channel's daily live blog from Monday, 18 March, from the World Championships in Saitama.