World Preview Part 2
Pairs and Dance
by Alexandra Stevenson
Alexandra Stevenson continues her musing about the prospects of the top skaters in the 2004 World Championships in Dortmund.
Along with Evgeni Plushenko, other skaters in the Grand Prix series have learned from misunderstandings of the CoP system. In Mississauga at Skate Canada, the world pair champions, Xue Shen & Hongbo Zhao, were beaten by their main rivals, Tatiana Totmianina & Maxim Marinin, possibly because of misreading the CoP directions.
The Chinese presented fewer elements than their rivals and seemed to be operating under the assumption that lifts later in the program receive a CoP bonus similar to jumps for singles, which is not the case.
They also got off to a late start this season because of the SARS outbreak. To cut down on crowds possibly spreading contagion, all the ice rinks, along with most other facilities, were temporarily closed. So they missed some practice time.
However, their performance later in the season in the Grand Prix Final in Colorado Springs was superb, matching their splendid showing when they successfully defended their title in the 2003 Worlds.
That Worlds performance in Washington D.C., to music from the opera, Turandot, will live in the annals of the greatest moments in our sport. Shen was competing with several pain killing injections in her injured ankle which, she said, "felt like wood".
Zhao was so in awe of his partner’s incredible effort that he said she should not only have her own gold medal but half of his.
This season their free is to Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet, The Nutcracker, choreographed by Lea Ann Miller. It is gorgeous. Unless they do something silly like messing up the free routine with an unsuccessful attempt at a throw quad Salchow, they should retain their title.
For their short, they have returned to the routine they used two seasons ago, Kismet by G.Y. Werterhoff performed by Bond.
They have skated together since 1992 and are trained by Bin Yao, who was part of the first team to represent China in a world championship. That was in Dortmund in 1980. (They finished 15th and last but his efforts were groundbreaking.)
Shen & Zhao, who were born in Harbin, in the very north of China, took part in their first worlds in Chiba, Japan, in 1994 when they finished 21st.
Maria Petrova & Alexander Tikhonov, who are expected to be on the podium in Dortmund, also took part in that 1994 worlds held just outside of Tokyo. However, the Russians were skating with different partners then.
Petrova finished eighth with Anton Sikharulidze, who went on to win with Elena Berezhnaya the 2002 Olympic gold (which they shared with the Canadians). Tikhonov, who had been traded by the Russian Federation for a Zamboni machine, competed for Japan in 1994 with Yukiko Kawasaki to finish 15th.
Tikhonov subsequently toured with the Torvill & Dean show before deciding to return to competition. He teamed up with Petrova in 1998. In 2000 they won the world title after Berezhnaya & Sikharulidze, who were stripped of their 2000 European title after Berezhnaya’s test specimen showed she had taken cough medicine before Europeans, withdrew. (The cough medicine was classified as an illegal drug.)
Petrova & Tikhonov won the world bronze medals last year and were second in the 2004 European championships.
Shen & Zhao were not entered in the 1995 worlds but the following year they finished 15th (18th in the short, 13th in the long).
In 1997 they were eleventh. They rocketed forward the following season, placing fifth in the Olympic Games in 1998 and fourth in that year’s Worlds.
For the next two years they were second at Worlds. In 2001 Jamie Sale & David Pelletier jumped in front of them winning the world title and the Chinese were relegated to third place. However, shortly after taking the Olympic bronze medal in Salt Lake City, the Chinese won their first worlds.
The only other Chinese person to win an Olympic medal in figure skating is Lu Chen who gained bronzes in 1994 and 1998.
Recently, the 30 year old Zhao, confided, "Probably the 2006 Winter Olympic Games will be my last competition. I have won everything but an Olympic gold medal and this is the reason I have not retired. I wish to own a perfect career.
"It’s difficult. A small mistake could cost your chance to win. Shen (who is 25) and I are still working hard. We both feel happy working together for a dream.
"I have a lot of things to do after retirement. I will study in a foreign country first and then may become a coach."
There is a wonderful in depth look into the background of Shen & Zhao in Joy Goodwin’s book, The Second Mark, published this year by Simon & Schuster.
Totmianina & Marinin showed great form winning their third straight European championship in January, despite her knee problems. The Russians’ new free uses music from the same CD by E. Marton from which Plushenko took his long.
The twice Russian champions are the only pair skaters to do two triple jumps (toe loop and Salchow) with the toe loop combined with a double toe. Other pairs do a triple to double in sequence, which means steps between the two jumps, instead of getting airborne again immediately after landing the first jump, which is, of course, much harder.
Their short is to Variations on a Theme of Paganini.
She is a 22 year old who was born in Perm in the Ural Mountains. He is 26 and was born in Volgograd.
Neither partner had done pair skating before the Russian Federation deemed they should try out together with coach Natalia Pavlova in St. Petersburg in 1996. For Marinin, going into pairs was an act of desperation. He saw his singles’ future as pretty bleak after he was beaten by Plushenko, who was five years his junior.
They were seventh in their first worlds in 1999, then sixth, then fifth in 2001 and for the past two years they have won the silver medal.
The first of their three European titles was claimed without the support of a coach, since they had made the decision to leave Pavlova and train in the United States with Oleg Vasiliev, but had not yet made the move.
Vasiliev, who won the 1984 Olympic pair gold with Elena Valova, should have been with them in Vancouver at the 2001 Worlds but his passport was stolen. It is remarkable that they did so well in both events without the support of a coach.
Their transition to training at The Edge in Bensonville, Illinois, was difficult. In January at a press conference in Budapest, Totmianina explained, "We feel the training conditions and availability of ice are much better in the United States, but we miss working every day and being pushed by pairs of our standard."
At first they felt isolated because neither spoke English or drove. Vasiliev arranged for them to stay with American families. Eventually they became more independent as they found friends with other Russians in the Chicago area. However, both skaters and their coach, said when the new rink in St. Petersburg is opened, possibly they would return there.
Competitors from the former Soviet block often can not comprehend the fascination of western journalists with their personal relationships. Vasiliev, having lived in the United States for much longer than his current star pupils, understands far better the value of publicity.
He reveals, "At first they hated each other. He was so thin, but he worked hard adding muscle and still does. Being so close every day, they fell in love. But now it is just a working relationship. They are just good friends striving to do their best for their mutual good."
Two other Chinese pairs, Quin Pang & Jian Tong and Dan Zhang & Hao Zhang, who were fourth and sixth in last year’s Worlds, have made progress gaining artistry, and it is a sure bet that the medals will go exclusively to Russia and China.
Poland’s Dorota Zagorska & Mariusz Siudek, who competed in their first worlds together in 1995, were only seventh in 2003. They always had great lifts and have improved in other areas after training this season in Canada with Richard Gautier. They took the bronze medal in the 2004 European championships.
The battle between the two Canadian pairs will be interesting. Valerie Marcoux & Craig Buntin caused an upset in their national championships taking the title and then gaining the bronze in the recent Four Continents Championships. Anabelle Langlois & Patrice Archetto have had problems this season but were fifth in Worlds last year.
Although Marcoux & Buntin are competing in their first worlds together, Marcoux previously finished 12th at this level with Bruno Marcotte.
Rene Inoue and John Baldwin, Jr., had an uncomfortable nationals despite winning the U.S. title. However, they proved the judges made the right decision in Atlanta when they again beat the two other leading American couples in the Four Continents Championships.
Inoue has had experience competing in both singles and pairs in Worlds for Japan. Her and Baldwin’s goal is to improve last year’s worlds standing of tenth. Teammates Kathryn Orscher & Garrett Lucash have similar ambitions – to advance on last year’s 16th place finish.
If Skate Canada has their way, and their proposal is passed at the ISU Congress, this Worlds will be remembered as the last to have a compulsory dance section.
The draw for the one compulsory in Dortmund will be made between the Ravensburger Waltz and the Midnight Blues. The Midnight Blues has been drawn for some minor competitions but, if picked, this will be the first time it has been seen in a world championship.
It was devised by Roy Bradshaw, a former British champion, who has trained in Canada for thirty-odd years. The initial framework was done on a roller compulsory, the Icelandic Tango, but only about six steps from that source remain.
It has an interesting lunge, and the Hungarian ice dance champions, Nora Hoffmann & Attila Elek, (who placed 11th in the 2004 Europeans but were very disappointed to finish second in the recent world junior event) look forward to the Midnight Blues being drawn in Dortmund.
Hoffmann said, "We like it. It looks easy but the steps are difficult. You have to have good knees."
The dance event at Worlds is the only event in which the title is not being defended. Shae Lynn Bourne & Victor Kraatz, the only North Americans ever to win an ice dance world title, retired and have split their partnership.
Irina Lobacheva and her husband Ilia Averbukh, who finished second after winning the championship the year before, quit to start a family. (Martin Ilyich Averbukh was born on March 3, weighing a little more than seven pounds and measuring 19 and a half inches.)
Because of their win in the European championships, Tatiana Navka & Roman Kostomarov, Russians who train in New Jersey and have never won a world medal in this event, are the favorites.
Their free dance is an entertaining routine to music from the Peter Sellers’ movie The Pink Panther which really shows off Navka’s grace and flexibility.
Albena Denkova & Maxim Staviski of Bulgaria are the ranking competitors since they won bronze medals last year. However, in addition to being overshadowed in the European championships, where they finished second, a misstep in the original gave them third place in that portion of the event. They also were beaten by the Russians in the Grand Prix Final.
Television introduced skating to five-year-old Navka, who was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. She watched Irina Rodnina & Alexander Zaitsev win their second Olympic gold spellbound. When the event finished, Navka told her parents, "I, too, will skate. And, I, too, will become a champion.
"I begged my mother to buy me skates. She couldn't find blades but she bought me boots. I slept in my boots, dreaming about skating. Finally she found me a place to skate and was able to get some blades and I started lessons."
When she was 13, Navka started to develop and lost her ability to jump. Her coach took her to Moscow along with other skaters to audition with Natalia Dubova, who was looking for youngsters who might become good ice dancers.
Dubova chose Navka and teamed her with Samuel Gezalyan, with whom she would skate for six years.
Natalia Dubova brought the couple with her when she emigrated to the United States. Representing Russia, they finished fifth in the 1994 worlds.
However, at 18, Navka fell in love with another of Dubova’s pupils, the handsome Alexander Zhulin, who had won the 1993 world title with his wife Maia Usova.
Zhulin was also being pursued romantically by Pasha Gritchuk, who, with Evgeny Platov won the 1994 and 1998 Olympic gold medals. There was an ugly, much reported incident at Spago’s, a very fashionable restaurant in Los Angeles where Usova and Gritchuk had a cat fight at the bar and Usova slapped Gritchuk’s face.
Trying to defuse an unfortunate situation, Dubova dispatched both Navka and her partner back to Russia. Their partnership broke up after they lost ground and dropped two places at the 1995 worlds.
Later Navka returned to the United States and started skating with Nikolai Morozov. They were coached in Simsbury by Zhulin. But that partnership broke up.
Navka eventually teamed up with Roman Kostomarov, who was trained by Natalia Linichuk.
Kostomarov, who was born in Moscow, started skating when he was nine. "It was something to do," he said. "I tried swimming but I wasn't good at it so my mother took me to the rink. When I was eleven, a coach saw me and took me for dance."
Kostomarov won the Junior world championship with Katya Davydova in 1996. When the possibility of teaming up with Navka arose, he was decidedly cautious. He told a journalist from Sport Express, "I felt like a little child who is forced to skate with an older ‘aunty’. I felt awkward, not so much as the age difference (he is 22 months younger) as the difference in experience."
After Navka & Kostomarov placed 12th in the 1999 worlds, Linichuk dropped a bomb shell, telling Kostomarov to break with Navka and skate with Anna Semenovich, who had finished 15th in the 1998 worlds with Vladimir Federov, who had been third in the 1993 Worlds with Angelika Krylova.
Kostomarov remembers, "I was very upset partially because I don’t like change in general. It didn’t work with me and Anna from the start. She was stunningly beautiful but didn’t think much of the actual skating.
"I did my job mechanically and kept reminiscing of how easy and wonderful it used to be with Tanya. I had betrayed her."
Meanwhile Navka, who will turn 29 on April 13, married Zhulin and had a baby, Sasha, in the summer of 2000. Shortly afterward, Kostomarov, 27, telephoned. It didn’t take them long to agree to get back together.
"The first two years were tough," Kostomarov remembers. "At first I thought it was the two of them against me."
Zhulin says they chose to do their free to Pink Panther to stand out from the rest of the field. "The hardest thing is to make people laugh. I am sure Tanya and Roma could do a dramatic program with more ease and expression than any other couple in the world, but everyone is doing that style. This was a risk. Two years before the Olympics is a time to experiment."
Usova & Zhulin won the 1994 Olympic silver medals, ahead of Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean, when the legendary Britons made their comeback ten years after winning Olympic gold with a record number of sixes.
Today, there is no hint of that intense rivalry as Zhulin reflects that he and Dean have the same outlook on the sport.
Zhulin says, "Chris likes to present a lovely picture and I agree with that. There is too much rush from one move to the next in today’s ice dancing. With CoP all the ice dancers are struggling to add a shoot-the-duck position in lifts so they get a higher level but they don’t do it well.
"I prefer something that is held. It could be classed as less difficult but in fact it can be more difficult to hold a beautiful position."
Their leading rivals, Denkova, 29, & Staviski, 26, won the first ISU championship medals for Bulgaria in skating. They have a free dance that is far more difficult but somewhat frenetic and less graceful than the Russians.
They teamed up in 1996 after her partner, Hristo Nikolov, retired. She was born in her country’s capital city, Sofia, but he is from Moscow. When he first came to Bulgaria he didn’t speak a word of that language although he is now fluent.
Not one to condone injustice, Denkova was one of the principal agitators in getting the petition at the world championships in 2002, which protested the judging of the Lithuanians, delivered to the ISU. The ISU completely ignored the document which was signed by two thirds of the ice dance competitors in that event.
She was the victim of a terrible accident at the world championships in Nice in 2000 when, during a warm up, Peter Tchernyshev’s skate slashed her leg through to the bone and she had to have an operation.
She could not move for three months and it was not clear whether she would be able to walk again. Naturally she became depressed. Staviski’s constant support and encouragement led to romance and they will marry after the 2006 Olympics.
After her recovery they decided to move to Odintzova, just outside Moscow, to take advantage of great practice facilities.
However Staviski says when they marry, they will settle down in Sofia, near the family fish restaurant ‘Sea Eye’ which they co-own. He says they have very different personalities and that Denkova is serious, introverted and hard working, while he is more cheerful and easy going. She leads the practice sessions with strict discipline.
However, in competition, their roles change. Then, he takes charge because Denkova gets very nervous. They hope eventually to work as coaches and set up a figure skating school in Sofia.
Last year, their unusual ‘baroque waltz’ original and clever free won great plaudits. But in Budapest, their free, set to music by Handel, had some very original lifts which some dismissed as ugly.
Ukraine’s Elena Grushina & Ruslan Goncharov won the bronze medal in the European championship, although they were second in the original.
Despite a major error, France’s Isabelle Delobel & Oliver Schoenfelder were fourth with Israel’s Galit Chait & Sergei Sakhnovski fifth.
How the U.S. Champions’ West Side Story free dance will fit into this mix is difficult to say. They were seventh in the 2003 world championships, two places above Delobel & Schoenfelder but below the other four couples mentioned above. A top five finish for Belbin & Agosto seems possible and some believe there is a serious possibility for bronze.
Marie-France Dubreuil & Patrice Lauzon, the Canadian champions, were tenth last year and, naturally, hope to advance. Melissa Gregory and her husband, Denis Petukhov, runners-up for the U.S. title, will be making their worlds debut this year.
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(15 March 2004)