by Klaus Reinhold Kany
Photos by Robin Ritoss
(29 January 2016) This year, the European Championships took place in the Ondrej Nepela Ice Arena in Bratislava, about 45 miles east of the Austrian capital of Vienna. Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, a state which was founded in 1993 after former Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia and is now part of the European Union and has the Euro as currency. The rink is named after Bratislava’s most famous skater Ondrej Nepela who was Olympic Champion in 1972, three times World Champion, five times Europeans champion between 1969 and 1973 and died in 1989. The rink was completely renovated for an ice hockey world championships in 2011, but has a great figure skating tradition. The European championships were held here in 1958, 1966 and 2001, and Worlds took place in 1973.
Most famous from Worlds 1973 are the minutes when famous Soviet pair Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev was skating the free program. After about 1:30 minutes, when Irina was just in the air for a lift, the Cossac music stopped. The referee signaled to ask the pair to stop, but their coach Stanislav Zhuk, who was standing near the place where the lift ended, shouted to them to continue. So they continued for more than three minutes and instead of the music the public was clapping loudly for the rest of the program. At the end Rodnina skated to the judges and told them to judge what they had seen: “We do not want to show our program a second time.” So all judges gave a 5.9 and they won. The director of the rink was questioned all night be security police. He denied suspicions that a sabotage might have occurred against Soviet athletes. Finally it was found out that it was just a local electric outage as a result of network failure in the audio booth.
During the men’s competition in 2016, there were no such technical problems. The short program had an excellent general level, but in the free program, many skaters made several mistakes, which happens more and more often in men’s competitions. Three of the best four skaters had prepared Europeans in North America. For the fourth time in a row, Javier Fernandez from Spain won, this time with a new European record of 302.77 points. He is the skater with the second highest marks at international events ever behind Yuzuru Hanyu, who is his training mate in Toronto. For the first time, Fernandez included a second quad in the short program. In his combination, the quad toe loop was very good, but he stepped out a bit of the triple toe loop. The quad Salchow and all other elements were excellent. All four level elements had a level 4 and many +3 for the Grade od Execution. His interpretation of a very authentic and in parts vocal version of the famous "Malaguena" music was outstanding. Therefore his components had an average of 9.3, with eight perfect 10.0 as highest ones.
Later he explained: “Me and my coach Brian (Orser), we had thought about including a second quad right in the beginning of the season. After the Grand Prix Final, we sat down and talked more about putting extra difficulty in the program. Certainly because I want to be competitive to Yuzuru who did it as well. Brian said we try it in practice and then try at Spanish Nationals, there is no risk. If it goes well we put it in at Europeans and Worlds. It was in our mind but we did not think it was necessary this season but then I changed my mind. I thought let’s practice it, and no I have it.”
After each short program this season, Fernandez had a moustache which had emphasized his Spanish short program music. For his “Guys and Dolls” music by Frank Sinatra it was not useful, so he shaves it every time. He began with a quad toe loop with a little touchdown. His two quad Salchows were the best in world again. Four triple jumps were very good, but he fell on the second triple axel and the loop was a bit shaky. Step and spins were world class again. “I feel good”, he commented afterwards. “There is still a little it to do on the program. We added the triple axel and I thought it was really too slow in the program. So I have to go back to training to make it more confident for Worlds which will be my next competition. I have to raise the level of skating because sometimes there is a Japanese or Canadian wall in front of me.”
The gold medal for Fernandez could be expected but the silver medal for Israeli skater Alexei Bychenko after being fourth in the short and fourth in the long was a big surprise, although he had been fourth at last year’s Europeans. It is the first medal of an Israeli man at an ISU championships ever. Only the Israeli ice dancers Chait & Sakhnovsky had won a world bronze medal in 2002. Bychenko had trained mainly under Craig Maurizi in Hackensack, New Jersey, for years until a few months ago. But in the summer and fall he was not in good shape and switched to Roman Serov, Galit Chait and Nicolai Morozov. Two weeks before Europeans he won the Nestlé Cup in Torun in Poland with 228 points and showed that he is back.
In Bratislava the 27-year-old earned 242.56 total points. His short program (to “All Alone” by Geir Ronning) with a quad toe loop, a triple axel and a combination of triple flip and triple toe loop was clean. His expression and skating skills have improved a lot since the summer. The work with the ice dance coach Chait and choreographer Morozov showed, also in the free program to the musical “Les Miserables”. His components were around 7.7, much higher than last season. His first element in the free was a combination of quad toe loop and single toe loop, followed by a very good triple axel. Then he fell on the second quad toe loop, but all further elements were clean. At the press conference after the event he was speechless at first and overwhelmed, then said: “I don’t know what to say about coming second, I’m beyond excited. I secretly hoped I would be on the podium, but I didn’t think I could get second place. It feels nice to make history.”
Three times Russian champion Maxim Kovtun was third (242.21 points), but many observers thought that he did not merit this medal. In the short program, he nailed a combination of quad Salchow and triple toe loop as well as a quad toe loop, but he fell on the triple axel. His second place there was well merited. But the first minute of his long program was bad: He stepped out of the first quad Salchow, fell on the quad toeloop and singled the second Salchow which was planned quadruple. Then he pulled together and performed five clean other triple jumps, but he looked disappointed throughout his Beethoven program, and certainly did not interpret the joyful last music from the Ninth Symphony in a convincing way. He commented: “I am so sad after my free skate because before this competition I was working a lot on my practice. I remember doing a lot of full programs clean in my practices. I don’t know what is wrong but I remember that I felt so nervous before the free skate, before the short I felt better. I don’t understand yet what went wrong in the free skate.”
After a bad short program at the Trophée Bompard, Florent Amodio from France had announced that Europeans would be his last competition in his career and we would skate only in shows afterwards. For two months the European champion of 2011 went to Nicolai Morozov who worked with him a few weeks in Hackensack, New Jersey, and the few last weeks in Novogorsk near Moscow in Russia, interrupted only by French Nationals where he was not very good and second behind Chafik Besseghier (who was not at Europeans due to a strained ankle ligament). Amodio had split from Morozov in 2013 on a bad note, but said now he regretted to have split form him three years ago. Morozov gave him back the self-confidence which he had lost in the last couple of years.
In the short program, he tripled the Salchow which was planned quadruple and stepped out of the triple toe loop after the triple l
Lutz of his combination. “The quad was my problem throughout my career”, he said after the short program. But in the free program the next day to his favorite music from his Brazilian birth city of Sobral, he began with excellent quad Salchow. From that moment the crowd of about 7,000 were cheering and he flew over the ice, performed seven triples and did not pop anything which had been his major problem in the last few years. He got the biggest applause of the whole competition and moved up from eighth to fourth place with 240.96 points. Many people thought he should have won a silver or bronze medal, because he had the second best free program. In the kiss and cry corner he held up a sign saying thank you to his fans in several languages. Skater and coach were overwhelmed after the program. He said: “This was the best program of my life and it was the last one I will ever do. It is a dream. I certainly do not want to go to worlds even if the federation asks me. The gap to the best skaters with several quads is too big.”
Newcomer Mikhail Kolyada from St. Petersburg finished fifth, stepping out of the quad toe loop, but performing otherwise a good long program with six triples after making two mistakes in the short program. Since 2014, Ivan Righini skates for Italy, where his mother comes from and he finished sixth with 236.36 points. His former name was Ivan Bariev when he still skated for Russia. He trains in Oberstdorf, Germany, with Michael Huth, the longtime coach of Carolina Kostner, and always calls himself the “Gypsy King”. He has an excellent presentation, but not all his triple jumps are clean. He did not try any quadruple jump.
The second Israeli skater Daniel Samohin finished seventh with 232.08 points. He had competed for the USA on the novice level, lives in Southern California and recently moved from Ontario to a new ice rink in San Diego with his father who also is his coach. He landed three very clean quadruple toe loops and two shaky quad Salchows, but missed the triple axels. Michael Brezina from the Czech Republic ended up only tenth after being third in the short program, but his free program was full of mistakes.