Skaters come to their own at wildly varying times within their careers. Some languish about in the bottom of the elite ranks for years, unknown and unrecognised, only reaching their peaks (relatively) later in life--e.g. Maria Butyrskaya, Jeremy Abbott. Others show prodigious talent from an early age, making their debut in a blaze of glory on figure skating's largest stage in the regular season--the World Championships. For various reasons, ladies figure skaters (particularly after the abolishment of compulsory figures) tended to be more likely to make such a larger splash early in their lives compared to their male counterparts--for example, note that ladies skaters such as Oksana Baiul and Kimmie Meissner have won Worlds on their first try, a feat that has yet to be accomplished by any man since Hans Gerschwiler in 1947--but some men have nonetheless had their place in the sun from an early age. Let's take a look back at some of the men who have managed to win a medal at their first Worlds:
Alexei Yagudin, 1997
Even the most die-hard Yagudin worshipper (e.g. myself) has to admit that his debut Worlds bronze in 1997 was a bit of a fluke...and it most certainly was. Indeed, the men's event 1997 was rather dreadful--it all seemed so well in the short program, but everything fell apart by the long. Gold medal favorite Alexei Urmanov and leader going into the long suddenly withdrew before the long program with an injury, significantly shuffling all the ordinals. Other top men such as Ilia Kulik, Viacheslav Zagorodniuk and (to a lesser extent) Todd Eldredge all imploded, making it a perfect storm for Elvis Stojko to win the gold with yet another one of his kung fu programs and a young Alexei Yagudin to sneak in for a bronze medal at his first Worlds.
Objectively....Mr. Yagudin didn't skate very well at all in his 1997 Worlds long program. He made some major mistakes on his jumps (fall, pop, messy landings, etc), left out his planned quad, back-pumped his crossovers like mad and had the finesse of a particularly stolid block of wood. His style at the time, in true Mishin style, was of the "pose and move your arms up and down at opportune times" variety. But the boy (also in true Mishin style) could jump very well, and that was of the utmost importance during that particular era of men's skating...
Evgeni Plushenko, 1998
Ah, that year when Alexei Mishin's "garbage and rubbish" first occupied two-thirds of the World Championship podium, setting the tone for the following quadrennial....
Though fifteen-year-old Evgeni Plushenko's long program at his first Worlds was in many respects a complete disaster as he had three falls and started improvising the program after he botched his first quad, if you asked me who I thought would eventually prevail as the superior skater between Mr. Plushenko and Mr. Yagudin when looking at their Worlds debuts, I would have unequivocally said Mr. Plushenko. Why? While Mr. Yagudin motored about on the ice like a small truck, Mr. Plushenko had much more of an ease of movement, a greater fluidity and corresponding effortlessness to his skating at that early age despite being younger. The jumps (when landed) were impressive for one so young, and it is amazing how tolerable Mr. Plushenko was before he fell under the pernicious influences of Edvin Marton, excessive poseography and the "upper body movement" bulletpoint.
Evan Lysacek, 2005
Remember Evan Lysacek before the Mystic Tan overdose, before the shellacked hair, before the oppressive parade of monochrome costumes, before the unrepentant abuse of figure skating's musical warhorses? How far we have fallen....it seems difficult to imagine, but long ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was an Evan Lysacek who wore color, did not flail his arms like a windmill on crack and had a plausibly charming program to Singing in the Rain. Indeed, this was Evan Lysacek before he skated to Carmen in 2006 and followed the same formula in every program he had thereafter. True, Mr. Lysacek was still juniorish in 2005, but there was a sort of an emotional sincerity and charm to his skating that wasn't always there later in his career. That being said, Mr. Lysacek's performance of Singing in the Rain at 2005 Worlds was far from his best--aside from all the jump errors (including that truly dreadful "triple axel"), he was a bit flat throughout and did not sell the choreography and performance as well as he did in other performances such as at Marshalls that year. But given that the men's long programs at 2005 Worlds were a steady parade of mistaken-ridden performances, it was enough to win a medal on that rather mediocre night of skating (particularly after the withdrawal of Evgeni Plushenko).
Artur Gachinski, 2011
Artur Gachinski's bronze medal in his debut at 2011 Worlds represents an interesting blip in the career of the young skater. While the vast majority of skaters (including everyone else highlighted in this particular blog post) manage to medal in at least a Grand Prix event or two (or at Euros, 4CC, etc) before medalling at Worlds, Mr. Gachinski's bronze medal at Worlds was literally his first significant senior international medal ever (for obvious reasons, I am excluding B-events such as Coupe de Nice). Fluke? Perhaps, but no more a fluke than Alexei Yagudin's, Evgeni Plushenko's, or Evan Lysacek's first bronze medals at Worlds. Though he was definitely helped along by Nobunari Oda's Zayakking issues, Daisuke Takahashi's skate problem and perhaps a pinch of home cooking, to his credit, Mr. Gachinski did have the skate of his life that night, wonky jump landings notwithstanding. What fails to impress, however, was the questionable choreography, very noticeable lack of speed and power in between the jumps and the over-abuse of O-faces as a vehicle of expression.
Yuzuru Hanyu, 2012
Assorted grumbling about the scoring aside, the men at 2012 Worlds displayed some very strong skating. Yes, there were definitely some meltdowns (e.g. Javier Fernandez) but overall, the long programs at 2012 Worlds were very impressive both in terms of technical content and artistic ambition. So many of the men skated so well--Brian Joubert resurrected himself from the dead, Florent Amodio's actually managed to hit his 4S and had easily his best skate of the season, Daisuke Takahashi also managed to land his 4T and actually skated clean for once, and Patrick Chan, er, landed two quads and a 3A. On a night of such high quality skating, it's not surprising that bronze medallist Yuzuru Hanyu skated very well to overcome a subpar short program performance. Even with the random splat, Mr. Hanyu easily has the strongest debut performance out of all the men featured in this blog post. Excellent speed and flow, strong and fairly complex choreography, impressive jumps and he even brought the house down with a standing ovation. A very fine debut overall.
Observant readers may have noticed one significant detail in this blog post: the fact that every male skater who made the podium at their first Worlds since Alexei Yagudin has gone on to become a World Champion and, perhaps more significantly, Olympic champion. If this pattern holds....either Artur Gachinski, Yuzuru Hanyu or the possible debut medallist at next year's Worlds will be the Olympic champion at the upcoming 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. You heard it here first!