Two Expected Retirements
Retirement of Chinese pairs coaching legend and other Chinese news followed by the confirmation that long retired men’s skater is indeed done.
Nowadays in skating, people can often be long-retired before they officially say they are. Often it’s simply a skater waiting until the final summer before the Olympics before they give up on the option of trying for it. We already arguably had one such American retirement this year, from 2014 Olympic ice dance champions Meryl Davis & Charlie White. Today, we had another one, which has become the talk of Western fans this week.
However, he actually isn’t the most significant figure in the recent history if skating officially retired as of this week. That came earlier in the week, from China.
Bin Yao Stepping Down Completely
Embed from Getty Images
It seems it was media week in Chinese skating. There was enough for a helpful skating fan to do some roundup translating for the benefit of the rest of the world. There is a good amount of news here, including the return of struggling ladies skater Zijun Li to the home coaching fold. But by far the biggest news is that Bin Yao, the man mainly responsible for the powerhouse that is Chinese pairs skating, has now retired completely. Former student Hongbo Zhao is now completely in charge. This is news both long-anticipated, with his long-running health problems and Zhao’s already visibly moving into his place, and hard to comprehend.
Back in the early 1980s, Bin Yao & Bo Luan were the first pairs team to compete internationally. At the time, China had no skating history, no one in the country capable of training skaters to the level they needed to be at to do anything internationally, and the closed society didn’t allow them to bring in foreign help either. The two skaters were forced to try to learn what to do from photographs. Naturally, they finished last in all their competitions, to derision from the audiences.
By 1988, Yao was off the competitive ice and working to change all that as a coach. His initial teams still came in at the back. In their first World Championships, Xue Shen & Hongbo Zhao came in 21st. But that state of affairs wouldn’t last. Yao’s first great team, and ultimately his greatest, Shen & Zhao by 1998 were making the top five at the Olympics, and then were medaling at Worlds, with many thinking they should’ve won.
Eventually they did, three times, before retiring in 2007, and then coming back for the 2010 Olympics. By then, they were universally agreed to be the best pairs team of our age. There, at the first games where Russia did not win the pairs gold, it instead went to Shen & Zhao. When they finished their free skate, even before getting off the ice, the first thing they did was hurry over to the boards to hug the coach who in less than 30 years had taken his country from last in the Olympics to first:
That was when Chinese pairs skating was at the first peak its had so far, though hopefully not the last. Finishing right behind Shen & Zhao were Qing Pang & Jian Tong, another pairs team that have reached legendary status, and a third such team was also in the top five. Meanwhile, other Chinese teams were emerging and making waves. China had even surpassed Russia as the greatest country for pairs skating in the world. Russia has since taken that position back, but it may go back and forth for a long time to come yet.
Yao is not the only coach responsible for that; China had other pairs coaches. But he was the one ultimately in charge of everything, and the one whose lead they followed. Shen & Zhao, his first protegees, are now both working to carry on his legacy, Shen as federation vice-president.
There have been quite a few coaching legends in figure skating’s history. But there aren’t too many who have not only put their country on the map, but gotten it straight to the center. Yao’s work is one of the most incredible feats in figure skating history.
Jeremy Abbott Makes It OfficialEmbed from Getty Images
Jeremy Abbott was not someone who made history. He’s not even the most accomplished or most famous American men’s skater of recent years. But he may well be the most beautiful, and the most artistic, and he’s one of the most-loved. His last official competition was the 2015 National Championships, though he has since made appearances in “pro-am” competitions that allowed officially retired skaters in. We’ve all long-assumed he wasn’t coming back, but for two and a half years, he has kept the option open of returning. However, today, while being interviewed on IceNetwork’s “Ice Talk” podcast, he officially declared himself retired.
Jeremy first broke through to make the top four at Nationals in 2007. His biggest competitive accomplishment was shocking everyone to win the Grand Prix Finale in 2008. He also won Nationals four times, and has an Olympic medal, a bronze won in the 2014 Team competition. Although his skate in that competition was actually not a good one. It was a classic skating tragedy for Abbott; great potential, but was never able to deliver properly under pressure. The 2010 Olympics was a great disappointment for him, and, despite being pretty much the best men’s skater in the country during the 2011-2014 quaddrennium, he still twice failed to qualify for Worlds.
The 2014 Olympics ended up being a different kind of story: a few days after winning his Olympic medal, he showed himself a man worthy of it, suffering a nasty fall in the men’s individual event that left him in agony on the ice, then pulling himself up and finishing the program, and finishing it well. Two days later, on a night of messy free skates, Abbott did a solid, if technically watered down, rendition of his signature “Exogenesis” program, one of the classic men’s programs of recent years. For his last appearance at Worlds, he would do it even better:
Far bigger than his competitive legacy is his artistic one. In that respect he’s been a great influence on many of the skaters who have followed since. If his interview is any indication, his work there may still be getting started.
He’s been plenty busy since his career ended in 2015, skating in shows all over the world and entertaining fans with creative and brilliantly performed programs, now with no one having to worry about competitive results any more. Obviously, he’s going to keep on doing what he’s already been doing. He’s even on the roster for the yearly “pro-am” Japan Open this fall. His farewell message, posted to Instagram after the announcement, sums it all up:
THANK YOU!!! I have so much that I want to say. I've written and rewritten this a hundred times, but nothing I say seems to articulate how I truly feel. I competed for 25 years and I honestly never thought in a million that I would have gotten to do ANY of what I actually did! It has been BEYOND a joy and a privilege to represent @usfigureskating and @teamusa for 8 international seasons at 3 Grand Prix Finals, 4 Four Continents, 5 World Championships, and 2 Olympic Games! But more than anything it was my pleasure and complete honor to share my love, my dedication, my journey, and every ounce of my heart and emotion with all of you!!! You all are the reason I love what I do more than anything, you all are the reason I was able to get up at the Olympics when I wasn't sure if I could continue, and you all are the reason I will continue to perform until I can no longer stand! Skating has been the love of my life since I was two years old and I can't believe I got to share it all with you! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart! I will miss competing more than you know, BUT I'm not going anywhere!!! I will be on the ice and a part of this sport for a loooooooong time to come! ❤️❤️❤️