by Klaus Reinhold Kany
(29 January 2017) The menís competition at the 2017 European Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, had a good but not excellent level. Unfortunately it has become normal that even the best skaters make some mistakes because they risk much more than five or 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 30 years ago. And all programs are now more intricate; not only the jumps, but the spins and steps and even the linking steps are also more demanding, therefore there is no more rest during a program.
For the fifth time in a row, Javier Fernandez from Spain won the title.
The last skater who had won this title five times in a row at Europeans was Ondrej Nepela from Czechoslovakia who was first between 1969 and 1973. Evgeni Plushenko even won seven times between 2000 and 2012, but never five times in a row. But in Ostrava like in the Grand Prix Final in December 2016, Fernandez was not at his top in the free program and quite overmarked with overall 294.84 points. It is no question that his victory is well merited, but the points were too high. The short program to Malaguena, however, was very good and got 104.25 points. There he landed a combination of quad toe loop (a bit deeply landed) and triple toe loop plus an outstanding quad Salchow out of steps. The triple Axel was ok, the spins very good and in the step sequence he cold interpret the Spanish character of the music in a stellar way. The judges liked his charming style very much, and awarded him with components of around 9.5, with two 10s for Performance and Interpretation from the Swedish judge.
Later he said: "This was the first clean short program of the season. Half of the work is done and all practice paid off. I just have to stay focused for tomorrow. Itís a longer program, a very hard program with a lot more elements. I am glad people enjoyed it and my coach was also happy about that. I hope for the next season best tomorrow in the free program, hopefully to win the title one more time. As an athlete I consider every competition special. All titles are important. The motivation is to skate my own best program. It is true that it would already be the fifth title but have not won it yet. I still have to concentrate myself and it is my goal to do it. Five titles in a row Ė it did not happen for a long time, so it is a nice goal. Instead of looking at the titles, you have to trust yourself and your training. I always want to improve my personal best what keeps me calm. I am not thinking about winning. It is not like I would go crazy if I do not do it. The key word is the trust. The first title was the most special as it was not expected. This is already my tenth championships so I had to work hard and it took me quite long until I won it. Then, the second title, when I wanted to repeat it, which was the toughest one. It was hard and I was nervous as there were high expectations on me. Training hard, working hard in a good environment, thatís really the whole secret. I saw Maxim Kovtunís score today, he got 94 points, so he probably skated clean. But Iíve seen skaters that were 10 points ahead and then not first after the free program. I cannot relax and I need to deliver a good performance. You need to stay focused on yourself, try to do your job and skate for yourself. And do not listen to too many people."
The Spaniard from Madrid, who trains in Toronto with Brian Orser, began the long program (to a medley of Elvis Presley songs) with an outstanding quad toe loop (eight GOEs of +3), but the quad Salchow was a bit stepped out, so that he did not add a triple toe loop, but a double one. The combination of triple Axel and triple toe loop was good and he later said if he could have had added a triple toe loop to the quad Salchow, then the toe loop after the Axel would only be double. His choreographic steps were excellent, but then he fell on the second quad Salchow very hard. He stepped out of the second triple Axel. The next three triple jump were good but he touched down with his hand on the triple loop. His components were around 9.3 and he had even three 10s for Composition and Interpretation, all of which were too high and certainly a bonus as reigning European and World Champion. If you fall once and land three other jumps not in a clean manner, you should not get a 9.75 or a 9.5 for performance, which several judges did.
"It was definitely not the best free skate of the season,", Fernandez commented. "It is hard to chase your season bests and records all the time even if we want it. I did not think I would fall that hard. After you fall, it takes a second until you set up your mind back and you go on with the other elements. I am just a normal skater, not a machine. I do not consider myself a showman, I would rather say entertainer. I enjoy when people like what I do. The fans were very supportive in Ostrava. I know that atmosphere from some European competitions and also in Canada, where I train. People know me there already and the volume of the crowd depends on how many Spanish people sit on the tribunes."
When he came to the press conference he was limping and explained: "Yesterday I said I want to do a personal best. I didnít do that, but I still fought from the beginning to the end even after the fall. I tried to keep my mind and brain in the same place, but of course it hard right after you fall and you hurt yourself. Overall it still was a good performance. Iím saving it for Worlds, I guess. Iíll keep training hard to deliver a better performance. The world championship is a far more difficult event. Concerning the fall, I thought I was going to land the jump but my skate stopped in the ice. My body was twisted, half of my body went one way, the other half the other way. I hurt this (right) side of my hip and my rib. It is skating, sometimes you hurt yourself, and sometimes you donít. It was one of my worst falls in competition I ever had. But I am still in one piece. As for the triple-triple-triple, itís definitely not for this season, maybe next season. If I do a triple-triple-triple I might be repeating one jump too much. I might be not able to do it because of the rules. I would need a quad loop to add that triple-triple-triple."
Due to his hip pain he skipped the Gala Exhibition and explained to the public in a charming way in English why he could not perform. Czech marketing boss Tomas Verner translated into the Czech language.
He was also asked about the situation in Spain and commented: "If you go back five years, we had 10-11 rinks, and now, there are around 17. There are more kids in the trainings, more people coming to competitions. The media is more interested. To create a new sport and make it famous in a country that has so many sports Ė weíre fighting against tennis, soccer ... It is hard. It is hard to make somebody from soccer watch figure skating, because it is a totally new sport. You have to change your brain, your mind. We try to do it. I think these two other guys on the podium did a great job but sometimes itís so hard. I was not at this level before. You think ĎI cannot do thatí but at some point you can. Itís about not giving up and try to work hard. If you work hard everybody can be beaten. That is for sure."
Maxim Kovtun, second at Nationals in Russia six weeks ago, won the silver medal with 266.80 points in the best competition he ever did. The 20-year old skater exceeded his international personal best by almost 20 points. He had often popped jumps or did one good and one bad program, but this time both programs were almost faultless.
His first element in the short program to the folk music "Bahamut" by Hazmat Modine was an excellent combination of quad Salchow and triple toe loop, followed by a clean quad toe loop. The other elements were good as well and his components had an average of 8.3. He is not a big entertainer, but more a solid skater.
He commented: "I was so happy about my performance that I almost carried my coach to kiss and cry. I had a lot of energy inside that I needed to go into the right direction. The crowd welcomed me warmly and supported me from the very beginning. This is worth all the effort weíre putting in every day. What changed today was that I was much more relaxed before this performance. I did not pay attention to things like I forgot something in the room and need to go back or I didnít put on the right skate first. I just focused on enjoying the program and pleasing the fans and the people that support me. I think it was worth putting the main focus on the mental preparation rather on the physical operation. I am really pleased that I got highest level on all the elements, I do not think I have ever gotten that before. A huge thanks to (choreographer) Sergei Verbillo, who has worked with me on improving my skating technique. This is a kind of "boring" routine work, but it gives so much improvement. Also, thanks to (choreographers) Elena Maslennikova and Ilia Averbuch, who did my program, I enjoy skating it."
In the long program he used the music "Iron Sky" by Paolo Nutini which included a part of Charles Chaplinís famous freedom speech from the film "The Great Dicatator", but denied that he wanted to make a political statement. He began with another excellent quad Salchow followed by a very good quad toe loop. His Lutz was only double, but then he added two good triple Axels and three more triple jumps. His spins and steps were good.
"I am really happy for today because I feel I broke the barrier between the two programs," he explained later. "Many times before I did one program good and the second one was so bad and I didnít know why. But we worked on the ice and I also started to work with a mental coach. And something inside now, I think, improved. I am happy also about the levels I got in both programs. My coach (Inna Goncharenko) is also happy about it so today is a good day. I will work on consistency for the next competitions and the future. I found this music by accident. I liked it and suggested to us it. The idea was at first to do a show program. But when we wanted to choreograph it, Ilia Averbukh (choreographer) said, why donít we do your free skating to it, when you like it so much and gives you so much energy. It means in fact a lot to me. However, you donít have to see the context like it sounds in the program, the lyrics are about dictatorship. At the beginning I set a bird free which symbolizes that I want to be a free man and not part of some system, but in the end I realize that the world for all of us is a prison you have to come to terms with it and take life as it is and the most important thing is love. There is a deep meaning to this program and everyone can find their own meaning in it. It is a big gap between my and Javier's score, but I missed the third quad and did only a double Lutz. Javier is already a super name in a figure skating world. I have to work more, add in jumps, and my big scores will come."
The new Russian champion Mikhail Kolyada won the bronze medal, earning 250.18 points. After being fourth at the 2016 World Championships, he had hoped to come near Fernandez, but he remained far away. In the short program, the combination of quad toe loop and triple toe loop was very good, but then he popped the Axel, which cost him about 10 points. The rest of the program was excellent and his components were around 8.4.
He said: "Popping the Axel hasnít happened to me in a long time, not in practice, not in competition. It is a big shame and unforgivable at this level. I expected more from myself. The program was good emotionally, but the technical part has to be done, too. I donít know what happened, when I just watched the video replay, the jump looked right. I just didnít rotate. I didnít have any practice in the main rink, but I donít think that played a role."
He planned to open his free program with a quad Lutz, but he fell, but still won 8.60 points, more than for a very good triple Lutz. Next he stepped out of the quad toe loop, then five triple jumps were good, but the second Axel was only single. The components were around 8.5. "As for the free skating, not everything went as planned," he said. "The fall on the quad Lutz had to be expected. But popping the Axel really threw me off and after that it was hard for me to pull myself together. Overall emotionally I was able to entertain the crowd, make the audience, my coach and myself enjoy the program. But there is still a lot to work on and to improve. To be honest, it is a big risk to do the quad Lutz in the program when it is not so consistent in practice. But I think you have to risk it and if you donít try it in competition, it wonít work. It is about 50/50 in practice. Something happened today, I do not understand yet what. I will get home and work hard so it wonít happen again. My practice went well, the warm up was good, too. It is difficult to say something now. Iím upset about the Axel, I should have rotated it at least. I am not that happy with my bronze medal. I would have been happier if I was fourth but had skated well."
Jorik Hendrickx from Belgium finished fourth, earning 242.56 points. His short program was almost clean and included three triple jumps and four level 4 elements. He commented: "This is the first time I am at the championships with my sister because she had the stress fracture and was out for the 6 months last year. I also had a knee surgery two years ago. It is very good to be here together Ė we encourage each other, give us some tips. My performance was not perfect, there were some small mistakes but in overall, I am quite pleased with it. In the free skate, I am one of the last skaters who does not do quads but I work on it and want to show a clean program with two triple Axels."
In his free program he included eight triple jumps, two of them a bit shaky, but otherwise clean. Afterwards he explained: "This is my maximum of what I can show now as I am not doing a quad yet in competition. I am working really hard on quad toe and Salchow, but it is not there yet. It is still very risky to put it into competition context. I am really happy that I could demonstrate good skating in both short and free programs. I am very pleased."
Alexei Bychenko from Israel ended up fifth with 239.24 points after having won a silver medal last year. His short program was clean and included a quad toe loop, a triple Axel, a combination of triple flip and triple toe loop. "I hoped for such performance and I hope and I felt that people enjoyed it, too. It is a nice motivation for tomorrow." But his free program was not that good and he dropped from third to fifth place.
His first quad toe loop was good, but he stepped out of the second one and fell on a triple Axel. He commented: "It was really tough to skate last. I felt good at first in the program, but the mistake on the second quad toe threw me off and the fall on the triple Axel really affected everything else. I know what I need to work on and what I have to improve. It was still an experience. The audience was great and one of my first international competitions was a Junior Grand Prix here in Ostrava and it was nice to come back here."
The sixth place of Georgian skater Moris Kvitelashvili was a surprise. He trains in Moscow under the tutelage of the Medvedeva coach Eteri Tutberidze and had competed for Russia until the 2015-16 season in minor events. But then he was released from Russia because he has Georgian roots.
He performed three quads in the free program, two of which were clean. He commented: "At first I was really nervous at my first ISU championships, the whole setting was unusual for me and my first practice was bad. Now Iím very glad that the programs worked. The competition inside Russia is very strong and it is tough to get through. I suggested that I could skate for Georgia and we decided it with my coaches end of December 2015. I contacted the Georgian Federation and they welcomed me warmly. Then I had to sit out a year. My parents are from Georgia, but emigrated to Russia in 1993 and I was born in Moscow."
Deniss Vasilievs from Latvia, who trains with Stephane Lambiel in Switzerland, finished seventh, earning 235.20 points. The third Russan skater Alexander Samarin finished eighth with 230.87 points, Chafik Besseghier from France ninth with 227.59 pionts and Paul Fentz from Germany tenth with 225.85 points. They all beat three renowned skaters which gave more or less bad performances: Alexander Majorov from Sweden finished 11th, Michal Brezina from the Czech Repuiblic (who trains with Rafael Arutunian in California) 12th and Ivan Righini from Italy 13th.
The most unlucky skater was Daniel Samohin from Israel who was a medal candidate. His suitcase with his skates got lost on the way from San Diego, California, where he trains, via Los Angeles and Frankfurt/Germany and Katovice/Poland. Nobody could tell him where the piece of luggage was and when it would arrive.
He bought brand new skates in Ostrava, but the first practice did not work at all. His brother came from Switzerland and loaned him his skates, but it did not work either. But he did not give up and skated the short program. In the short none of his jumps were clean and he even popped two of them. He finished 33rd and therefore did not reach the final.
He said: "I did what I could. I did OK triple Axels at practice this morning and I also did some good quads even though I fell on them. Anyway, I feel that, if Iíve had one more day, it could have worked."
This is a sad story because in Europe skaters are not allowed to take their skates on board airlines. His teammate Alexei Bychenko said: "Itís totally weird to skate in other skates. I am impressed with what he did. In his place, I probably would just gone home. I hope heíll get many other wins in the future."
The Turkish ice dancer Alper Ucar, who is a candidate for the ISU athletes commission, said if he is elected, the first thing he plans to do is to convince the airlines to allow skaters to take their skates in the cabin or give them to the flight attendants before the beginning of the flight and pick them up at the end of the flight. The ISU should negotiate this with world wide security and airlines.