Wenjing Sui, Cong Han – and a statement of love

1 Wenjing Sui and Cong Han gold medalists 2017 Worlds Helsinki

There’s happy, coloured laughter on the pairs podium at 2017 Worlds: Bruno Massot and Vladimir Morozov look at each other, and decide to lift Cong Han in the air – so that people in the audience and photographers altogether see his happy, golden smile: this Chinese young man, exuding joy, and his amazing partner, Wenjing Sui, have just won the first World title of their career; and the generous arms of their colleagues have been the only help they got – and that, to savour victory. They did the rest by themselves, by taking their most difficult season ever and turning it into their best one so far: Wenjing’s major surgery on both legs, and her long, painful rehabilitation only made them discover how much they love to be on the ice. And so their two performances in Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena, at the end of March, were just that: a statement of love for the sport. And they also happened to earn them gold in the most important event preceding PyeongChang.

by Florentina Tone/Helsinki

“After the surgery, I had to learn to walk, just like a baby after leaving a baby trend expedition jogger stroller. It was such a hard time, and I still fight every day. But I know I love skating, I can’t bear it if my life does not include skating”.

She’s a tough cookie Wenjing Sui, recovering from a major surgery on both her legs last May, and fighting to get back on track ever since. But now, in Helsinki, in the press conference room, half an hour before midnight – she and Cong Han are leading after the pairs’ short program – you sense Wenjing is getting emotional when talking about her journey in the last ten months; and the changes it brought to her, to them, to their skating.

“When I came back to the rink I felt happy: I just wanted to enjoy skating”. She stops, and then says it again: “I just want to enjoy it every day”.

Sitting at her left, Cong feels the urge to add a couple of things, the other half of the story: “During her time in the hospital I had no holiday, I practiced alone every day. Sometimes I worked with little girls from other pairs, I borrowed them to do the lifts…” He smiles, just like everyone else in the room, and then continues: “On the ice I was just by myself, watching the other pairs. I missed her and I wanted her to come back so badly. It was a very difficult time. Our coach let me do a show – a solo number for the audience; I did the lift and the twist alone, and, at the end, I took her out on the ice to say Hello to the audience. Many people cried”.

Many people might have cried watching them skate in Helsinki also – their comeback, with a victory, has been one of the biggest stories of these Worlds. Not that you would have expected less from this incredibly talented pair, two-time World silver medalists and four-time Four Continents champions.

Blues for Klook. Take two.

It’s 21:53 on the first day of Worlds – and Wenjing Sui and Cong Han are ready to take the ice for their short program. The figure skating fans know their story by heart, the surgery, the rehabilitation, but they also know the Chinese won the gold just a month earlier, in South Korea, at 2017 Four Continents, in the exact same arena that is about to host the Olympic event next season. And so the expectations are high, especially when Wenjing and Cong are performing to a piece of music that has already imprinted some World history on it: skating to “Blues for Klook” at 2012 Worlds in Nice, Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi won the silver medal, and people’s hearts; a performance that entered the history of skating, becoming classic.

But then there’s a reason why Wenjing’s fans call her The Empress. She has this queenly air on ice, owning the music from the first second till the very end. And if you’re able to unglue your eyes off her, you’ll notice that Cong has star qualities himself. Their arms, their heads, their shoulders, even their strands of hair move to unison – and their scores tell, in short, the story of a glorious performance that offers them the overnight lead in Helsinki: 81.23 points. On twitter, ice dancer Gabriella Papadakis summarizes it beautifully: “In love with Sui/Han. Could I be half as cool as she is?”.

2 Wenjing Sui and Cong Han SP 2017 Worlds Helsinki

3 Wenjing Sui and Cong Han SP 2017 Worlds Helsinki

Minutes later, in the mixed zone, I ask them about the music – and, smilingly, they render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

Wenjing: Our choreographer, Lori Nichol, said we can skate to that. And, at first, I couldn’t believe that. Yeah, that’s really [how it was]. Lori has many, many good ideas, but some things I think they’re so brilliant.
Cong: …and now we can show her what we did, and what it looks like.
Wenjing: Cool…
Cong: Yes, very cool, very sexy… And we love Lori.

Simple as that.

As for the warm response of the audience, they sensed it and clearly appreciate it, Cong acknowledges: “We saw many standing up… too many… [laughing], we heard people clapping, we heard the cheers. We showed them a good performance, and they saw that, and felt it in their hearts”. And then that, from Wenjing: “I definitely enjoy it, because last year was very hard. But I’m lucky with my partner – we help each other and work together. And we [want to] keep moving”.

That’s a figure of speech of course, their future as they see it, always improving and reaching for new heights – but they literally move here also, in the small space of the mixed zone: just two meters to their right, a smiling Charlie White, ISU interviewer in Helsinki, waits for his turn to shoot the questions. Wenjing laughs: “We can speak in English now!” – a sign she’d studied the language while being away from the ice.

They’re happy now, ecstatic even, you can tell – but they know there’s still a day ahead of them.

The troubled water and the bridge

At 21:44, on Thursday, I’m in awe: Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot have skated a marvel of a program in Hartwall Arena – maybe the best they ever skated, to the feathery sound of the piano (music: “Lighthouse” by Patrick Watson) – and I’m on my feet, in the media tribune. And so I wonder: can it get any better than this?

Well, it can. And we have Kiira Korpi’s reaction to prove it.

But first there’s an amused Wenjing, right palm above her eyes, like a hunter scrutinizing the space: she’s looking for her partner – Cong had left for the other side of the rink to start the program. He comes back to her, they smile, maybe even laugh a bit – and what follows is nothing short of extraordinary: the story of their last year, the 4-minute version of it, on the ice, in front of thousands of people in Hartwall Arena. The storms, the hardships – and the bridge to catch your breath on.

4 Wenjing Sui and Cong Han FS 2017 Worlds Helsinki

And Wenjing’s fall on her triple Salchow – exactly when the song hits “troubled waters” – becomes too a part of their story.

At the end of it, you’re like that.

5 Kiira Korpi reaction to Wenjing Sui Cong Han free skate at 2017 Worlds

Amazed, and grateful, as if you’d just experienced a confession. ‘Cause letting people in, all fences down, skating with your heart on your palms, is never an easy thing to do.

And Wenjing Sui and Cong Han won the Worlds when they least expected.

“Our coach told us not to think too much, just enjoy it”, Wenjing will say in the press conference. And maybe Hongbo Zhao’s advice was just what they needed in order to take home the gold.

Come to think of it, all three pairs medaling at 2017 Worlds had their battle, their demons to fight, prior to coming to Helsinki, or even during the actual event. Wenjing had her surgery, and then their limited time to get into competitive shape, Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot had too their share of injuries this season (her injured ankle, his injured back), lacking the “normal daily training” before both Europeans and Worlds, while Evgenia Tarasova fell and cut her leg in practice in Helsinki, and skated both programs with ten stitches under her knee. “My heroic partner”, Vladimir called her affectionately.

Three different stories, but different only in appearance. Because, in fact, in all three cases, it’s about strength, determination, wish to overcome difficulties – and, above all, love for the sport. In Aliona’s words, “If you love what you do, you come from the injury with stones in front of you, and you get them out of the way – that’s the sport. If you love something, you keep fighting”.

This joyful picture taken at Worlds – with proud Cong lifted in the air by Bruno and Vladimir, to the great amusement of the ladies – is about overcoming difficulties; about fighting and pushing in training, through hard times and injuries, so that you can be the best version of yourself in competitions.

This joyful picture taken at Worlds – with proud Cong lifted in the air by Bruno and Vladimir, to the great amusement of the ladies – is about overcoming difficulties; about fighting and pushing in training, through hard times and injuries, so that you can be the best version of yourself in competitions.

FURTHER READING

Do you know that competitions have a life even before they start? (a photo-story)

#TheCave. My ode to practice rinks

Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron: “We don’t want it to be easy, because it’s not exciting, for anyone”