by Alexandra Stevenson
This yearís Challenge, a made-for-television event which will be shown on ABC Saturday, April 16, 4-6pm EST, was all-American, a radical policy change from previous years when the event included an array of medalists from the World Championships. There was speculation this had something to do with the strained relations between USFigureSkating and the ISU, which Ottavio Cinquanta alluded to in a press conference at the recent European championships.
Cinquanta, the President of the ISU, blamed the lessening television interest and revenues in the Grand Prix Series on the non-participation of Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen. He lambasted the USFS for not forcing them to take part. Of course, at Worlds, he also said the Russian federation should have forced the injured Evgeny Plushenko to complete that championship. That certainly could have been achieved if Mussolini or Stalin were still around but, today, in a democracy, people decide their own actions.
Val Belmonte, Executive Director of USFS, said the reason this year to exclude other countriesí skaters was because they wanted to promote the next level of home-grown skaters. "The staff (of USFSA) talked to me about an all-American event. It is a great opportunity, from the point of view of exposure, to introduce the public to some of the less well known skaters. It is very important they get more publicity and get some financial help."
What was the television officialsí reaction to this change of format? "It was very favorable, very supportive," Belmonte said. "They liked the idea of something different."
Val Belmonte said the decision has not yet made whether this US-only policy will follow through to the fall invitational, or where and when this event will be held although the decision is expected soon.
It was determined that it was fairer to go by ranking and not to just pick skaters on potential. Six of the seven top US men and the six top women took part and the dance and pairs champions gave exhibitions.
Michael Weiss, the former US champion and world bronze medalist who finished a disappointed 5th at Nationals, chose to join the "Stars and Ice" tour for the whole month of February and March 2, instead of taking part in the Four Continents Championships and was never announced for the Challenge. On March 7, Derrick Delmore was added to the field in Weissí stead.
The fans call these events "Cheesefests" since the results have no real importance in the skating world. But it is a great opportunity to see the stars of the sport in person doing their full competitive routines, with the bonus that, when it is shown on television, you can impress your friends by pointing out where you were in the audience.
All the competitors and officials said they loved being in Florida. Just about everything was in complete contrast to the Moscow experience. Almost everybody took time to have at least one session stretched out by the pool. The official hotel, the Wyndham Harbour Island, had expansive rooms, great amenities, and a lovely view of the water where the many varieties of birds and muscular rowers raced into view.
Comfortable automobiles and friendly members of the Tampa Bay Skating Club were always on hand to run people the short journey back and forth to the arena, which was within easy walking distance. It was literally a world that was opposite in every way to Moscow. Of course, running a far shorter event with so few competitors is a far, far easier task than running Worlds.
It wasnít a huge audience Ė 3,434, which possibly would have been larger had "Stars on Ice" not played the same arena only five weeks previously (February 20).
With ISU prize money taking a nose dive, the purse of $200,000 was a good income source. Winners got $50,000, second place was worth $25,000, third $15,000, fourth $5,000, fifth $3,000 and sixth $2,000.
Half of the competitors and those who gave exhibitions had been fighting the cold and snow in Moscow at the World Championship just over a week previously, so this yearís location, sunny Tampa, was a welcome change.
The eight-year-old St. Pete Times Forum, home of the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Lightning, with its 21,500 blue seats reflecting the colors of the ice hockey team, was a far cry from the crumbling, half-century-old Luzhniki Sports Palace.
All the world team members except Lysacek flew back from Moscow to the U.S. immediately. They rehearsed for a week in Springfield, MA and then did the initial two "Champions on Ice" shows in Hartford and Boston, hopping on another plane to Florida. Lysacek, who was not booked for all the stops of the CoI tour, made a detour to Plushenkoís hometown, St. Petersburg, where he took part in a sold-out charity event on Monday.
After the Marshallsí Challenge the top skaters were due back with CoI immediately. They were to do a show in Washington DC on Friday and Philadelphia the next day. The tour continues until May 2.
The event was held under the 6.0 system with five judges (Kitty Delio, Brett Drury, Lori Dunn, Kathleen Harmon and Lorrie Parker) supervised by referee Lucy Brennan and her assistant, Chip Ludlow. There was no draw. Skaters competed in the reverse to their placing at Nationals.
Weather problems well away from the Florida area caused flight delays, and some competitors missed the previous dayís practice. There was a moment of stunned puzzlement when the announcer said, "There will be two minutes reserved silence for Jennifer Kirk," as if she had passed away. The referee stepped in immediately and arranged for general music to substitute for the eerie gap in which Kirk would have run through her routine.
The skaters all used this seasonís competitive free programs.
As ever, it was obvious from the cheers and the standing ovation at the end of her routine that Michelle Kwan was the skater the crowd had paid their money to see. There had been speculation she might not skate when, in the afternoonís practice, she did not run through her routine and left the ice early.
It turned out she had hurt her back but, like the trooper she is, she never considered withdrawing and gave the audience exactly what it came for - a superb showing of her Bolero dressed in a purple dress. (She also has a Vera Wang gold outfit for this number.) Every judge gave her first place and the second set of marks consisted of all 5.9s.
It was vintage Kwan, delightfully fast flowing and just plain enjoyable. She looked content and comfortable, obviously pleased to be back in the 6.0 system. "This system is what made me," she explains. Certainly she would have got 6.0s had there not been one flaw. Her last jump, a triple toe, fizzled out to a double.
The nine-time U.S. and five-time World Champion began with a double Axel followed by a triple flip to double toe and triple Lutz to double toe. Then came footwork into a second triple flip. Later there was a triple Salchow. A few seconds after, the place erupted into huge cheers as she sped into her trademark spiral. She topped that with a second triple Lutz.
The 24 year-old was obviously far more relaxed than at Worlds, where she missed the podium for the first time since 1995, when she was just 14.
"The beautiful, sunny weather was great coming from minus 10 Celsius. I felt really good and the audience was great." About returning to the 6.0 system she said, "It was nice not having to think about and count rotations. I was much more at ease. Moscow was definitely a learning experience."
Kwan agrees with one criticism of the new system. When your muscle memory has completely taken over and is interpreting the feeling the composer sought to convey, with each note vibrating through your body and each fingertip extending to interpret the emotion created by the music, you ascend into a zone where you are not thinking. Your body is completely taken over by, and is a conduit for, the sound. Only a few are able to reach that ultimate "zone" and that has become more unlikely now that your mind must constantly process the more mundane mechanics. You have to add up the seconds the spiral and the spin changes of edge are held. You have to constantly think about racking up the points, and figure out how to compensate for any error. Skating is becoming more of a quantifiable sport under the new system, but the moments when it transcends into a sublime art form will be rarer.
"The music sometimes tells you what to do. The composer didnít have the precise instructions from the Ďcallerí in mind. The Ďcallerí and the computer see the performance very methodically as opposed to lyrically," Kwan explained.
The previous day she had shown a very noticeable forward outside edge on her camel spin in practice, a variation which was seen only rarely in the past but is now being attempted by almost everyone because it is being rewarded. That demonstrates that Kwan is getting serious about the new system.
About the future, she is as tactful and cautious as ever. "I have yet to decide anything right now. I have to finish the tour and then I have to sit down with my coach (Rafael Arutunian in Lake Arrowhead). I was frustrated in the beginning by the new system because the point system didnít make sense. I have my eyes open now and I know what it takes. When Christopher (Dean) choreographed ("Bolero") I didnít know what level the moves were. I guessed. Now I can determine them. Fourth at Worlds was pretty neat considering. I didnít look at it as just missing the bronze by a tiny margin. I did badly in the qualifying. I have no choice but to accept the system. The system is there and so I say the system is great. I canít be retro. They change so I just have to evolve. I canít talk about the Olympics because first I have to qualify."
Second was Sasha Cohen, whose book Fire and Ice was released on the day of the Marshallsí Challenge. She skated with an injury. "Iím happy I stayed on my feet considering everything. It was no where near what I can do. I pulled my groin on Friday (four days previously) during "Champions on Ice." I could hardly walk that day. Itís not that itís painful, but it just doesnít work. When I pull in, my body doesnít do what itís supposed to, so my jumps were lower and that meant a couple of them (the triple Lutz and the second triple flip) were two-footed. (She also put her hand down on the double Axel.) On the tour Iíve just been doing doubles and I took yesterday off. I compensate for not doing seven triples with spirals and other moves the audience loves. The (triple) loop is really hard on the inner thighs."
She doesnít like the 6.0 as much as the new system because, "you donít know what a mark is for. The new system is really good because you get the break down of exactly what theyíve given you, and you can see what you can work on to get more marks."
She is a gorgeously graceful skater and, despite the mistakes, her Tchaikovsky Nutcracker routine was beautiful. Released from the constraints of the new system, she had time to include her high-kick skid spiral with change of edge.
In December she returned to John Nicks with whom she trained for many years until she decamped from California and crossed the country in the summer of 2002 to be taken under Tatiana Tarasovaís wings. After 18 months, she changed coaches again and trained for a year with Robin Wagner.
Nicks was delighted to come out of semi-retirement. "I was out of the elite business for one-and-a-half years, spending a lot of my time fishing on my boat. It was very pleasant. I certainly didnít miss the 6 am starts in a 40 degree rink, but I did miss competition."
The reason Cohen gave when she left was that the rink was too crowded. Tarasovaís agreement in Connecticut with the rink manager meant she had more ice time with fewer skaters. "Success is a problem," Nicks admitted. "Once Sasha came back to the rink, other skaters wanted to sign up and skate on the same ice as her. Frank Carroll, Ron Ludington and Richard Callaghan will tell you the same thing: The more successful you are the more skaters want to get on your ice. Fortunately, the ownership has another rink where we will be able to get some time by ourselves."
After decades of holding onto his British citizenship, Nicks has finally become a U.S. citizen. But he has not lost his dry, tongue-in-cheek British sense of humor. He gives the reason he did so as, "They have laws in this country that protect the right of us Ďoldiesí to work." He also joked that his advancing age Ė he is 76 Ė means his relationship with Sasha has got much easier. Before, they kept up a bantering adversarial position that was beloved by journalists, with press conferences never failing to evoke laughter.
"Sasha is more mature now, of course, but I think part of the smoothness of our current situation is my age. I tell her something and then, the next day, I donít remember exactly what I said. So I donít know whether sheís repeating what I said exactly or adjusting it a little. Our relationship is definitely more mellow. I hope itís not just been a three-month honeymoon." But his twinkling, blue eyes betray the fact that he is having the time of his life.
"She didnít skate perfectly at Worlds but she seems to have regained her confidence. She kept fighting. She understands the new system better than most and sheís one of the ideal skaters for the new system (because of her unrivaled flexibility and attention to detail). It has become apparent that it isnít absolutely necessary to have that but, if you donít have it, you look vulnerable, although thereís not much point in getting a Level 3 with a Grade of Execution of -1 when that can be beaten by a Level 2 with a GoE of +2.
"I though Sashaís component marks were under marked in Moscow. Of course, Iím biased. I do like the new system. Iíve taught for 43 years and Iím having to redo my method of coaching. At school, I was never any good at languages but I did shine in mathematics. I like the way you can analyze the marks and get the bigger picture better than you could before. But there was no room in the routine for Sasha to put in her gorgeous Charlotte spiral and the spread eagles."
As will many coaches, they will wait for the decisions from the summer ISU council meeting before setting next seasonís routines. "Iím told there will be changes so it doesnít make sense not to, although that will make a late start for the Olympic season." After they have selected the music and Ďblockedí out the order of elements, Nikolai Morozov will put the polish onto the choreography.
"Next yearís nationals using the new system should benefit her. Everyone knows Sasha will do it (win) one day. Itís just a matter of hoping itís sooner than later."
Cohen will be in at a book signing on Friday, April 22, downtown near Disney in Anaheim, and, the following day, she will appear at the Los Angeles Times book festival on the stage of Target Stores.
Jennifer Kirk was third giving a shinning performance to the Beatles concerto that coach Frank Carroll declared, "undoubtedly her best all year. Iím absolutely delighted." In light of her error-ridden showings at Worlds, it was completely unexpected. The 20 year-old wove a spell of enchantment, dancing through triple Lutz to double toe, triple flip to double toe, double Axel, triple loop, a second triple Lutz, a second triple flip and a triple Salchow.
Her marks, which comprised four third and one fifth places, were the only instance when the audience booed. They thought they should have been higher. The actual marks for the first set were one 5.3, two 5.5s and two 5.6s for the first set. The second set contained a 5.4, two 5.5s and two 5.6s.
Kirk skated immediately before Kimmie Meissner who finished fourth. In practice the day before the event (while wearing crash pads on hips) she tried her triple Axel but landed on two feet. In the warm-up for the event, just as the announcer called for the competitors to leave the ice, Meissner flew to center ice to attempt another of these 3Ĺ rotation feats. Had she succeeded, the audience would have been left on a high, eagerly anticipating that she would again land the jump in competition as she had at Nationals.
But that was not to be. Her routine uses Ravelís soft, soothing, ethereal Daphnis & Chloe, which was a brave choice. Not many 15 year olds could show the musicality this complex piece demands, and it accentuated her mistakes. After her first triple flip, she fell on the second jump of a triple-triple combination, Lutz-toe loop. She landed and then collapsed into a sit on the triple Axel. The triple loop had a strange, rather ugly take off right by the judges. However, she accomplished a triple Salchow, a second triple Lutz and a 3-jump combination that was very low Ė triple flip to double toe to double loop. After a great combination spin, she finished right up by the judges. Although one judge gave her third place, the other four put her had in fourth.
Meissner, who turned 15 last October, finished 3rd at US nationals but was too young to be entered for the World senior championships and Kirk went in her stead.
However, she, and her father, were invited to Moscow as guests of ESPN. The broadcast showed her and Peggy Fleming in the commentary booth watching a future rival, Miki Ando of Japan, go through her short program. Asked how she felt commentating, a bubbly Meissner said, "It was easier than I thought. I didnít really mess up. I also enjoyed sitting with Paul Wylie."
USFS entered Meissner for World juniors but a couple of popped jumps kept her from medaling this year. She had won the silver the year before. Coach Pam Gregory said she learned a lot from that. "She now knows that the computer has to fill every box and that you donít let it fill any slot with a single jump. If only sheíd done a double flip or toe loop instead of the singles, she would have got the bronze."
In Moscow, Meissner saw the very experienced Irina Slutskaya improvise a third triple loop, which got no marks. "Of course," said Gregory, "In that case Irina had such a lead, it didnít make a difference, but it could have." And she witnessed the dethroned champion, Shizuka Arakawa, throwing away points by substituting a triple toe for a required double Axel.
Gregory said, "Kimmie did a great job in Moscow. She looked adorable, very composed and comfortable. She loved all of it. Any time she goes to a new venue, she learns from it. It will help her in the future. But there were times when she was torn because she wanted so much to be out there herself. Sitting on the wrong side of the barrier was hard."
Emily Hughes was fifth. She has had a wonderful season, unexpectedly taking sixth in her first senior Nationals, after some disappointing years as her junior. She turned 16 two days before skating in her first-ever international, the World junior championship, and won the bronze medal. And in Tampa she beat Liang, who had finished ahead of her at Nationals in Portland.
She and her coach, Bonnie Retzkin, and their choreographer Nathan Birch could not have been more pleased and buoyed up. Hughes said, "This season was so exciting because there was no expectation because this was my first year in seniors."
She was watching the others intensely and learning from her rivals. The World juniors was her first time using the new system. "After the qualification round we changed my long program to get more points."
Using Tchaikovskyís Sleeping Beauty for the four minutes, she opened with a double Axel, executed triple Lutz-double toe followed by a triple flip-double toe-double loop, a triple loop and triple toe. She fell on her second triple Lutz but then completed a triple Salchow. It was an energetic, nice performance which gave her unanimous fifth places.
"Now we will have a break and go back and get new routines made. We go one step at a time. There are no plans for tomorrow," said Retzkin.
On the sidelines watching was Emilyís father, John Hughes, whoís been through it all before with the 2002 Olympic champion. "Sarahís delighted Emilyís doing so well," he explained. "They never competed against each other, which made it a lot easier.
"Sarahís year at university was terrific. It was what she always wanted. She didnít want to miss out on that experience. It was a very enlightening year. It made her see how much she wanted to skate. Iím sure sheíll go back (to Yale). Iím happy sheís been able to combine both at such a high level. Itís a difficult route but very rewarding to be able to do both."
Beatrisa Liang, ĎBeBeí, was sixth after sitting down on her triple loop and aborting her second triple flip in her program set to Black Earth and Tango music by Astor Piazzolla. Although it is music that has been used by ice dancers, it was a very difficult choice for a free skater who is only just approaching her 17th birthday.
She is back from a period when she suffered a series of injuries. Although Liang is still living in Los Angeles, she and her mother have driven up to San Francisco for the whole past season so she can train Monday through Friday with Kristy Ness. Although her routine was not choreographed by former US champion ice dancer Rene Roca, she was with Liang in Tampa and was putting polish on the routine.
"Rene helps tells me what to do. Itís very dance-y. I have to get into it," Liang explained.
Although this event was comfortably with the old system, Roca has been studying all she can about the new system. She is aware that there is great criticism that the dancers are beginning to look all alike. "Itís going to happen with the free skaters, too," she predicts. "Everybody wants to get the top level footwork. Since that is pretty set, theyíll do what they have to, to get the top marks. What choice is left? After all the elements are done, you are left with very little time.
"Iíve never seen so many people whipping out the rule book. Weíll have to see how it pars out. I have to go on the ice and literally count while they are doing the moves so they hold it. Itís very hard in competition when your leg gets tired to hold a position for the full three seconds but I have to drum it into their heads so that itís second nature. Itís hard and itís hard on me."
Roca and her first partner, Donny Adair, were stymied in the "concrete" system where the only way to advance was to wait in line. "It would have been interesting to see what the new judging system would have done in our time. Itís great to see a U.S. dance team finally do something. Tanith & Benís silver medal was great."
Later, she was the first multi-nation couple, teaming up with Russian Gorsha Sur. Galit Chait and her original partner crashed into Rene, breaking her arm, during the warm-up for the original program in the 1994 U.S. Nationals. "I canít remember his name," said Roca, "but Iíll never forget he was this big, big fella."
Roca and Sur had a hard time gaining acceptance. "Now there are many, many couples with different nationalities; look at Belbin and Agosto. But then they didnít know what to do with us and there was a lot of disapproval."
Evan Lysacek proved his bronze medal win in Moscow was not a fluke by winning this event in a 4-1 decision. One judge gave Lysacek 5.7 and 5.8 and Weir 5.6 and 5.9. This tie was broken on the second mark.
Lysacekís Singiní in the Rain is a lovely number and he performed it far better than in Russia. He began with a triple Axel to double toe followed by a triple flip to triple toe. Then came the second triple Axel, a triple Lutz-double toe-double loop, a double Axel, triple Salchow, triple loop and triple Lutz. It was interspersed with great spins and complicated footwork, although the interesting back loop change loop at the beginning almost surely would have been fortunate to gain a 1.8 from a school figure judge.
The 19 year-old had started the season in poor shape, with a stress fracture of the hip. "He just trains too hard," says coach Frank Carroll. "You canít get him off the ice but you have to pace yourself. You canít over train at this level. The body wonít take it."
But his third place in Portland earned him a journey to Korea for the Four Continents, which he won, despite the airline losing his skates. He had finished tenth and third the previous two years. Then came the trip to Moscow. Laughingly, he revealed his goal in Russia, "pathetic as it seems in hindsight, was to make the final cut of 24 but it was neat to see the payoff after ten years hard work. It was wonderful to have my parents there to witness it." Now he has his sights set on next yearís Olympics. "I was aiming for 2010 but Iíll take 2006."
Lysacek, having traveled from St. Petersburg back home and to Phoenix to spend Easter with family, arrived in Tampa "at 3:30 am. My body is at odds with the rest of me and the second half of the routine was kind of blah." His plans now are to develop his quad plus level 3 footwork and more difficult spins. "I do have the quad but it hasnít been in put in the program." Asked what he planned to do with the prize money, he sensibly replied, "I should put it in a savings fund for college."
Twice U.S. champion Johnny Weir didnít seem too down at finishing behind Lysacek for the second time in two weeks. He presented his admirers with a treat. For the first time in the past two seasons he tried the quad in competition, getting a huge amount of distance but hitting the ice before the four rotations were completely finished. He did not fall, however.
Analyzing his performance, he said, "I havenít had a lot of time to prepare. There was no pressure on me. It wasnít that bad of an attempt. Iím so thrilled for the season to be over. Iíve been under the weather and Iím so exhausted."
His career-long coach, Priscilla Hill, revealed that they are finally going to have X-rays taken of his foot, which caused him grief at Worlds although he still finished fourth, one place up from last year.
Skating with his usual superlative lightness to Raul di Blaioís lovely Otonal, even the initial fault and a strained landing on the first triple Axel plus a fall on the second could not mar the elegance and quality of this routine.
The 20 year-old was as interesting and wonderfully off-the-wall to talk to as ever. He revealed in Moscow he went looking for shoes, and bought six pairs. Since Moscow may not be the most obvious choice for shopping for this item Ė Italy comes immediately to mind for such goods Ė I asked why. It turns out Moscow is a hot bed of the outrageous and Weir enjoys such journeys into the novel. "One pair is silver," he said. Maybe they reminded him of his first love, his silver skates.
What will he do for next season? He said, with a straight face, heíd like to use feathers. "A shirt and tie isnít me. I like to be my own person. I could scatter the feathers at the end of the routine." An image of the Ballet Trocaderoís "Dying Swan" comes to mind. I do know this: If this comes to fruition, Cinquanta will have a heart attack.
The 24 year-old Timothy Goebel had a very upsetting season. Although he made it to Worlds, which he didnít do the previous season, he finished tenth. "I came straight home, did the "Champions on Ice" two stops and got sick and rundown. I havenít been able to train."
Neverthless he pulled himself together and made a lot of effort in his Queen Symphony routine. He brought off triple Salchow, triple Lutz to double toe, triple Axel to double toe, double Axel, triple flip, a second triple Lutz, a triple loop and a superb closing blur spin, but he fell on the second triple Axel.
The judges gave him four thirds and a fourth. The errant judge preferred Matt Savoie who fell twice, on a triple Axel and a triple flip, and barely held his first triple Axel.
The 24 year-old Savoie, who finished fourth, performed to three pieces of music, Intro by B Tribe 5; Earth from Cirque due Soleilís Xotica; and Church Shootout from the soundtrack of Once Upon A Time in Mexico.
He graduated with a degree in political science in 2002 and has been accepted into Cornell law school. He is planning to delay his entry so he can continue through the Olympic season. "If things donít work out with the skating, my career is all in place," says Savoie, who is obviously a very sensible person.
Derrick Delmore, a 26 year-old, was delighted to be unanimously fifth beating Shaun Rogers who finished ahead of him at Nationals. He was over the moon at his first invitation to one of these events. "For me, itís a new experience. Iím having a blast. Of course the format is a little bit different Ė just a long program Ė and other events have more than six competitors, which makes it unique. Itís kind of like a rematch from Nationals. Iím so relaxed and happy, I guess, because Iíve nothing to lose."
After Nationals, where Delmore finished 7th, he was chosen for the 4 Continents Championships. "Itís been great because my year has kept extending, with the trip to Korea and now this."
He was 11th in Seoul in what was only his second contest under the new judging system. "The other one was in Oberstdorf and the system went down just before I was to do my short. There was a lot of confusion and I spent 12 minutes on the ice waiting. But, Iím loving every single experience. Itís a challenge for myself."
Delmore began with a triple Lutz to triple toe. He just held his triple Axel then completed a triple flip and triple Salchow before singling his second Lutz and putting a hand down on his triple loop. He had a bad fall on a triple toe loop right before his final spin.
The 19 year-old Shaun Rogers, who was 8th in the recent World junior championships, trains alongside Meissner. In Tampa, he finished unanimously last. Although he had terrific speed over the ice, he fell on his first move, a very high quad toe attempt. He executed a triple Axel-triple toe loop but stepped out of a triple Lutz, landed and then fell on his second triple Axel and singled a flip.
Florida does not have a long history of ice skating. This event was hosted by the Tampa Bay Skating Club, which was formed in 1987 but moved into their primary base when the Tampa Bay Skating Academy rink opened in Oldsmare in 1992. In addition they currently use two associate rinks: the Brandon Sports Forum on the other side of town and the nearby TBSA/Countryside Mall in Clearwater, where they develop grass roots skaters. There is no rink actually in Tampa, although plans are in the air to remedy this situation.
The club previously hosted the 1992 and 1997 South Atlantic Regionals and the 1998 Easterns. The clubís coaches include Jim Millns, Petr Barna and Pauline Williams Gasparini.
Marshall's U.S. Figure Skating Challenge - A reader sets us straight on skating in Florida.
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