SOCHI, Russia – Maxim Trankov patted the ice then kissed his hand.
This home rink has been very good to Russian figure skaters so far at the Sochi Games. Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar, the reigning world champions, mesmerized their countrymen and the judges today in their victorious performance in the pairs short program.
“This is a very special moment in our lives, to be skating in a Russian Olympics,” he said.
Felicia Zhang of New Jersey and Nathan Bartholomay of Pennsylvania also skated cleanly to take 14th. The top 16 teams advance to Wednesday. Zhang is a student at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and trains in Ellenton.
Volosozhar and Trankov scored 84.17 points to lead Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany by 4.53 going into Wednesday’s free skate. Fellow Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov were third, another 4.43 points back.
Volosozhar and Trankov skated a sharp short program Thursday to help the Russians win gold in the first Olympic team event. They were even better today.
“This was the perfect moment to give our best performance,” Trankov said.
Right on time to restore the country’s dominance in pairs. Russia or the Soviet Union had won gold in 12 straight Olympics in the event before the streak ended four years ago, when the Russians failed to take home any pairs medal from Vancouver.
Watching from the stands Tuesday was the pair who started the streak: Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, who won consecutive golds in 1964 and ‘68. More Russian sports royalty turned out: Olympic hockey team members including Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.
Skating to “Masquerade Waltz,” Volosozhar and Trankov’s every movement crackled with passion. As the music swelled, Trankov thrust out his arm, his mouth open in a roar that was returned by the crowd of Russian flag-waving fans.
“When all the audience is up on its feet, it gives us great energy,” he said. “We were trying to breathe together with the audience and feel the good wishes from them.”
Trankov’s long hair and the epaulets on his military uniform trailed behind him as the Russians stepped across the ice they treated as their own ballroom. Volosozhar soared high above him on the triple twist and throw triple loop.
They’ll need to match that vitality in the free skate with Savchenko and Szolkowy in range. The Germans, who skate last Wednesday, are four-time world champs, but are missing one piece of hardware from their collection.
They had to settle for Olympic bronze four years ago after he fell on their side-by-side double axels in the free skate.
Savchenko was blinding in her neon bodysuit – the Pink Panther of their music. Szolkowy wore sea blue pants to go with his take on Inspector Clouseau’s uniform jacket. He leapt over Savchenko in one playful moment, then she slid under his legs.
“The elements were great, and it was fun to skate,” Szolkowy said.
Savchenko and Szolkowy used this music for their free skate when they won their third world title in 2011. After coming into this season with two short program options, they never felt quite right with the other one.
Back to the “Pink Panther.”
“Even in practice it was easy to skate to and comfortable,” he said. “We know this program so well.”
Stolbova and Klimov took over from Volosozhar and Trankov to handle the free skate in the team event Saturday and showed that they too could be medal contenders. Their side-by-side triple toe loops Tuesday were perfectly synchronized, down to landings so light they barely seemed to touch the ice.
Pang Qing and Tong Jian, the 2010 silver medalists, were fourth, another 1.91 points back.
Four years after the U.S. had its worst showing ever in pairs, with a 10th- and 13th-place finish, both American teams were sharp in their first Olympics, though it didn’t show much in the standings on a night full of clean programs.
Two-time national champions Marissa Castelli of Rhode Island and Simon Shnapir of Massachusetts enjoyed an opportunity never afforded to previous Olympians: They got to skate their programs in competition before the pairs event. They had a few mistakes in helping the U.S. to a team bronze, but that seemed to shake the jitters out.
After they botched their side-by-side triple salchows Thursday, they landed them cleanly this time. A big triple twist and throw triple salchow Tuesday put them in ninth place.
“The team event helped so much, getting our short program and long program out there already, and then to win a bronze medal,” Castelli said. “So we were able to relax and have fun and just go for it tonight.”