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A Cheat Sheet for the World Figure Skating Championships

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Winter is almost over, the summer Olympics are looming, but there’s still one more chance to catch my favorite sport — one that blends effortless grace, astounding athleticism, Broadway-level performance skills, and the terror of getting sliced by a blade. On March 20, the 2024 World Figure Skating Championships kick off in Montreal, showcasing almost 200 of the world’s best skaters across four disciplines: men’s, women’s, pairs, and ice dance. Whether you’re a casual viewer tuning in to check out the wacky costumes and bizarre music medleys, or a die-hard fan who knows the difference between a “toe-loop” and a “lutz,” this year’s event promises to be a particularly gripping watch.

Skaters from Russia — known for their doping scandals, highly competitive rankings, and tendency to sweep most contests they enter — are banned from international competition due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Their absence gives skaters from other countries the opportunity to really show off. All eyes will be on U.S. champion Ilia “Quadg0d” Malinin, whose history-making quadruple axel made him the first skater to land all six possible quads in competition. There are even rumors he’s working on a “quint,” which would involve an unheard-of five rotations in the air. In the women’s category, Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto will be shooting for a third world title — a feat not achieved by a woman since 1968. Notable American skaters moving through the ranks include a TikTok star, a soon-to-marry ice-dance duo, and a seasoned Olympian whose entertaining programs nearly always get a standing ovation.

Can’t name a single skater I just referenced? Here’s a cheat sheet to understanding the 2024 World Figure Skating Championships.

First, the basics:

Figure skaters compete in two performances: a short program of 2 minutes 40 seconds and a 4-minute free program. Much like gymnastics, their routines are made up of technically demanding elements, each with different scores attached to them. A complicated grading system doles out points not just for the difficulty of each element attempted, but for how well they’re executed, as well as for artistry and general skill. In singles’ competitions, skaters get the most points for jumps and spins. In pairs, the two athletes are scored as a unit for their mastery of jumps, spins, gravity-defying, over-the-head lifts, and a move unironically called a “death spiral.” And in ice dance — a category of skating derived from ballroom dancing — skaters gain points for complex lifts, intricate step sequences, and side-by-side traveling turns known as “twizzles.”

Who are the main characters?

Men’s: The one to watch this year is unquestionably Malinin, hotshot teen and heir apparent to Nathan Chen, who retired following his 2022 Olympics gold-medal win. Nineteen-year-old Malinin carries an impressive ace up his sleeve: the game-changing quadruple axel. To pull it off, he throws himself up in the air from one leg, rotates four-and-and-half times, and lands backward on the other leg. Malinin’s mastery of this move is unmatched, but he’s not immune to mishaps. At the Grand Prix Final in December, he fell on his quad axel (which didn’t stop him from winning gold overall), stumbled on a step sequence, and fell on his planned quad lutz jump earlier in the season. Here he is, skating to the Succession theme last year:

@iliaxquad

#iliamalinin | Autumn Classic 2023 | 16.9.2023 | free skate “Succession” | Ilia won the competition! #quadgod #figureskating #skating #iliamalininedit

♬ original sound - iliaxquad (adelka)

Malinin faces his greatest rival in Japan’s Shoma Uno — the reigning world champion. A record breaker himself (Uno was the first skater to land a quad flip jump in 2016), he’s widely considered one of the best all-around men’s skaters today, bringing a maturity and grace to the ice that gives me chills every time I see him perform. Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama has dark-horse potential, coming back from injury that sidelined him last season. And of course, there’s U.S. crowd favorite Jason Brown, whose evocative routines make him one of my favorite skaters to follow.

Women’s: This year’s gold medal is Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto’s to lose. Powerful and expressive, Sakamoto consistently earns high marks for pure skating skills, making it all look easy. However, she missed a high-scoring jump in the free skate at the world championships last year, and faces fierce competition from her Japanese teammates, as well as from charismatic and confident Belgian skater Loena Hendrickx. (Coached by her Olympian brother — so much for sibling rivalry!)

When 2023 U.S. champion Isabeau Levito burst onto the world stage, she seemed like the answer to the wave of untouchable Russian teenagers dominating the ice. But for me, perhaps the most exciting skater to watch, thanks to her edge-of-your-seat, anything-can-happen style, is Amber Glenn, the first openly queer women’s U.S. champion. She’s one of the few female skaters who can land a triple axel, and if she puts out a clean program this week, she has a realistic shot at the podium.

Pairs: Pairs teams often train together for years to get the symmetry needed to snag a gold medal. But this year, there is a very real chance that a team could follow a World Junior Figure Skating Championship title with a senior-level one. Georgia’s Anastasiia Metelkina and Luka Berulava haven’t even skated together for a full year yet, but already, their ability to move seamlessly in unison and their jumping technique make them a team to watch. To win, they’ll have to beat out last year’s world champions, Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, plus two seasoned teams from Italy.

But the story of the event is that of Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps from Canada. At 40, Stellato-Dudek is one of the oldest skaters to compete on the world stage. In a discipline where female athletes are thrown high up in the air and lifted pretzel-like above their partner’s head, she is proof that even at the highest levels, skaters can thrive well past their teenage years.

Ice Dance: In this discipline, passionate performances meld with an especially exacting scoring system. (For example, ice dancers are judged on which side of their blade they use while turning, as well as how they hold onto one another in the process.) Favorites for gold are reigning U.S. and world champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates. The on-and-off-ice couple will aim to defend their title, skating to Queen and Pink Floyd, in costumes designed by Chock. In my opinion, they’re always the best-dressed team out there.

They’ll be challenged by Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier — Canadians hoping for a home-crowd win — and Italy’s Charlène Guignard and Matteo Fabbri. Another super-fun team to check out is Britain’s Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson, who gained the moniker “the Disco Brits” for their club-style, tongue-in-cheek routines. I’m also keeping my eye on U.S. national silver medalists Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, trained by two-time Olympic gold medalist Scott Moir.

How to watch:

The 2024 World Figure Skating Championships will be streamed live on Peacock from March 20 to the 24th, and will air on USA Network. (In addition, the International Skating Union will stream the competition on its YouTube channel for free, but those inside the U.S. will need a VPN to watch.) Make sure to tune in to the women’s free program on Friday at 6 p.m. ET. You can watch the ice-dance and men’s free programs on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively.

A Cheat Sheet for the World Figure Skating Championships