Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel finished ninth at the World Figure Skating Championships. – Sports

Pair skating is more than spinning a squiggle, the core of the art of skating is making the heavy look easy. And sometimes the featherweight that your partner whirls through the air high above your head while moving on a narrow edge over the ice proves to be the least of the burdens.

US champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, for example, didn’t run for themselves at the World Championships in Saitama this week, but for their coach. The coach suffered a massive heart attack earlier this month. The decision to travel alone, confessed Knierim and Frazier afterwards, demanded a lot from them. Despite the circumstances, they almost caught up with the leading Japanese riders Riku Mirua/Ryuichi Kihara on points in Thursday’s freestyle; in the end, last year’s world champions secured the silver medal.

Many a burden weighs on figure skaters’ shoulders or weighs on their minds that nobody sees when the music starts. And sometimes it’s just her back that torments her in a very profane way.

The competition from Russia is banned – so the strongest pair skating nation is missing

The German champions Annika Hocke, 22, and Robert Kunkel, 23, have also not let on that the past few weeks on the ice have been a drudgery at times. Especially for Robert Kunkel, who had “constant back pain”, as he said after the World Championship freestyle. He had been examined in good time, “nothing critical,” as he said. But the muscle structures need rehabilitation and therapy, “it takes time, it’s very painful and unfortunately can’t be fixed for a short time”. In the weeks after the European Championships, they trained only to a limited extent and took it easy on the elements that put intense strain on the back – “and that,” adds Kunkel by way of explanation, “is almost everything in pair skating.”

In Saitama they were only fifteenth after a faulty short program; a rank that, after bronze at the European Championships in January, could not meet their own standards, especially since the competition from Russia is banned from the World Cup as a reaction to the Kremlin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. So the strongest pair skating nation was missing. Their freestyle, the rather elegiac program “Without you”, then gave them the opportunity to put the picture back in order: they made up six places and received higher rating levels for the triple twist – an element in which Kunkel throws and catches his partner awarded than at the EM, as Annika Hocke stated with relief.

Now Hocke/Kunkel, who were also third at the French Grand Prix this winter, are back in ninth where they belong statistically and artistically internationally: in the top ten of the ice elite. The second duo of the German Skating Union (DEU), Alisa Efimova and Ruben Blommaert from Oberstdorf, also achieved a respectable end to their international debut season with tenth place at the World Championships and a personal best. And because they routinely master common elements like the death spiral, they have decided to improve their individual jumps for next year. Because there, they both think, there is still room for improvement.

The Berlin colleagues Hocke and Kunkel, who have been training in Bergamo since last summer and want to stay there, are also facing future questions of a different kind. “There is no better training center for us in the world,” explains Kunkel. The problem is more of a financial nature. In the private academy in Italy, they compete daily with some of the best pair skaters in Europe, but the stay, including accommodation, ice ages, coaching sessions and physiotherapy, is expensive. “The financing issue with the DEU has not yet been concluded this year. And it doesn’t look so rosy at first,” says Kunkel. But they won prize money in the competitions, which they now want to invest in training. And they hope to find some more sponsors.

In this beautiful but unprofitable profession, making ends meet can also be a burden that puts pressure on the skids. It remains a sport that is always about overcoming gravity.


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