2009 European Champinships, Preview

By Sandra Stevenson in Helsinki at the Hartwall Areena

Sunday, January 18

It is snowing lightly but persistently on and off with a penetrating wind here in Finland where the Europeans championships are being held for the third time (previously in 1977 and 1993) January 20-26.

Standing in this huge arena, it is hard not to recall Michelle Kwan being dethroned by Maria Butyrskaya of Russia, who became the second oldest women’s world champion ever, and Michael Weiss earned bronze behind Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko. It has a full Olympic size ice surface, but the practice rink is 2m by 2m smaller.

178 competitors from 35 countries are entered. Included for the first time is Ireland, the part which is generally known as Eire with its capital of Dublin. It is a separate country to Northern Ireland which is included in the United Kingdom. That separation has been a source of much political upheaval and violence. The current six-time British champion, Jenna McCorkell (Mrs. van der Perren), is from Coleraine near Belfast in Northern Ireland. The newcomer, Carla Peters, is trained by the Ludingtons at the University of Delaware, who placed three up from last at her two Junior Grand Prix events.

Walking around the arena, it is quickly apparent that things are progressing, uncharacteristically, in a very, very smooth fashion - which is odd for the first day of practice. Normally chaos reigns. But there is an explanation for this welcome change. The President of the Finnish Association is Susanna Rakhamo, holder of the 1995 European ice dance title and runner-up in worlds that year with her husband Petri Kokko. She has seen all too many events with problems. But this time, the volunteers are well briefed and smiles and signs are abundant.


Making defending his title a little easier for Tomas Verner, who turned 22 on June 3, is the absence of last year’s silver medalist, Stephane Lambiel. The Swiss 2006 Olympic silver medalist competed in this event seven times (2001-6 & 2008) but claimed only two medals (silver in 2006 & 2008), never the title, despite earning the golds in the world championships 2005 & 2006. This past weekend, Lambiel was finishing a tour of Japan, performing with Stars on Ice in Tokyo, and will be back touring in Switzerland with Art on Ice from January 29.&nb sp; (At the end of last season, Lambiel deserted his long-time coach Peter Gruetter and moved to Wayne, NJ, to train alongside Johnny Weir, before deciding, just before his first scheduled Grand Prix event this season, to leave eligible skating because of a chronic injury.)

But Verner, who is from Brno in the Czech Republic and is trained by Viasta Koprivova in Prague and by Michael Huth in Oberstdorf in Germany, is inconsistent. This is his sixth Europeans. He finished 14th in his debut in 2002, 10th in 2004 & 2006 and 2nd in 2007. But shortly after dominating this event last year, winning both the Short Program and Free Skate, he had a disastrous showing in the FS of the World championship in Gothenburg and finished only 15th overall. In December, he was only fourth in the Grand Prix Final after being fifth in the SP, finishing behind American newcomer, Jeremy Abbott; the season’s discovery, Takahiko Kozuka from Japan; and Johnny Weir. But Verner will not be meeting that talented trio here.

His main danger, of course, is the French heartthrob, Brian Joubert. Joubert, who is trained by Jean-Christophe Simond, has won a medal in all seven of his previous appearances in the European championships: bronze in 2002, 2006 & 2008, silver in 2003 & 2005, and gold in 2004, in which he, very unexpectedly, dethroned Evgeny Plushenko, & in 2007. But the six-time French champion, who turned 24 on September 20, was unable to defend his national title recently. The week before, he had pulled out of the Grand Prix Final during the event in South Korea, after aggravating a previous incurred back injury, which he blamed on boot problems.

In a surprise move, Joubert has trashed his this season’s Free, choreographed to the soundtrack of The Last of the Mohicans by Evgeny Platov, after performing it so poorly in Paris at the Trophée Eric Bompard. Since his most famous and successful Short Program was to music from the Matrix series of movies, he’s decided to have his long set to this, teaming it with Requiem for a Dream.

The choreographer is past British pair champion Ian Jenkins who is a long time performer in the famed Lido night club in Paris. "I had a bad feeling about the other program," said Joubert. "Using powerful music that I adore is helpful. I got tired of the repetition of the previous program. I needed something to get me fired up."


Sarah Meier from Switzerland, who has taken the silver medal for the past two years by winning the SP in 2007 and the FS in 2008, has a herniated disc in her back. She is trying to postpone surgery, hoping to still compete in Worlds which is extremely important this year because placement there determines the amount of competitors a country will be permitted in the Olympics. She told reporters that, until then, she would try to make do with pain treatment.

That leaves Carolina Kostner, who will be competing in this event for the seventh time, as the clear favorite to claim her third successive title. Her strength is her high, long triple-triple combination. Her weakness is a poor double Axel. She is the only Italian ever to claim this title and in her country, she and her family are national figures of note. Her cousin, Isolde, won an Olympic gold in skiing. Kostner, who will be 22 on February 8, is from Ortesei, in Italy but trains with Michael Huth in Oberstdorf, Germany. She was runner-up in the last world championships and third in the Grand Prix Final.

Her closest opposition is likely to spring from the host country’s skaters. Laura Lepistö, who will be 21 on April 25, won the bronze medal last year in her debut in this championship, becoming the third Finn in four years to ascend to the podium. But she did not skate well recently and lost her national title, placing seco nd to Kiira Korpi.

Korpi, who turned 20 on September 26, is making her fifth appearance in this event. She won the European bronze in 2007 but was only fifth last year. Like Kostner, Korpi comes from a sporting family. Her father, Rauno Korpi, coached the Finnish women’s hockey team to a bronze medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics, the first time this event was included in the Games.

Susanna Pökyiö, who will be 27 on February 22, is making a comeback of sorts. By 2007, she had been Finnish champion four times and was the first Finnish lady to win a medal in the European champion when she gained the silver in 2005. She has been the bronze medalist in the Finnish championship for the past two years and did not compete in Europeans last year.

In the mix is Jenna McCorkell (Mrs. Kevin van der Perren), who looked good winning her sixth British national title last Tuesday. Although she finished eighth overall in the European championships last year, she gained the highest technical score in the SP in that event.

A sentimental favorite is Julia Sebestyen, who won the title in 2004 when Europeans were in the capital of her home country, Budapest. She first competed in this event in 1995 finishing 15th. This will be her 13th appearance in Europeans. Last year Sebestyen, who turned 27 on May 14, finished fourth.

The current Russian champion, Adelina Sotnikova, and the runner-up, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, are too young to compete in Europeans or Worlds. Ironically, Sotnikova is trained by Elena Vodorezova, who made her debut in the Europeans as a 12 year old in 1976. Vodorezova was 16th of 23 in the figures but this reporter clearly remembers the buzz around her practices in Geneva. Vodorezova, w ho was trained by the infamously demanding Stanislav Zhuk, had spectacularly high jumps which gave her 5th in the Free Skating. She finished a highly promising eighth overall. She went on to win a European bronze in 1978 but her bright career was cut short because she developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

Missing are Ksenia Doronina and Jenni Vahamaa who finished ninth and tenth in this event last year. Doronina, the twice Russian champion, was unable to defend her national title because she has mononucleosis. Vahamaa injured a leg in preparation for the Finnish championship and was seen later limping around on crutches at that event.


Defending their European ice dance title successfully also got easier for Oksana Domnina and Max Shabalin when the current world and Grand Prix Final champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder withdrew, due to her right shoulder injury incurred in the Exhibition at the GP Final in South Korea in mid December, which had taken them out of French nationals.

Delobel had arthroscopic surgery on January 5. It was expected to last for two hours but it turned into a far more complicated procedure which when on for three hours and twenty minutes. She was then completely immobilized for two weeks with only passive physiotherapy. She couldn’t even feed herself.

Schoenfelder, who will be in Helsinki, remains guarded about the chances of them competing in Worlds. Just before leaving for Finland, he said, "Our goal now is the Olympic Games in Vancouver. We are not ruling out participating in Los Angeles but it’s impossible to tell at this stage. For myself, I’m lightening up my own training. I skate in the morning and then in the afternoon, I concentrate on my journalism courses. We’ve had highs and lows in our career. It is harder for her. She’s usually so active."

The French Association has started a blog where news of Delobel will be posted: www.delobel-schoenfelder.fr

Domnina, who was 24 on August 17, and Shabalin, who, will turn 27 on January 25, did not do their nationals, choosing to stay in the United States, where they train alongside the US champions, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto with Natalia and Gennadi Karponosov in Aston, PA. The President of the Russian Federation, Valentin Piseev, explained in the far distant city of Kazan at the Russian nationals that Domnina and Shabalin weren’t ill or injured but had been advised by their doctors, after the tiring trip to South Korea, that they needed rest to be in top shape for Europeans. The trip from the United States to Russia and back to the United States would have been counter-productive.

Last year in Zagreb, they came from behind (2nd in CD and OD), to dethrone Delobel and Schoenfelder and gain the European title. They were competing against doctor’s orders and he paid the price. Shabalin had to have surgery on his knee. He had had surgery in 2007 on the other knee. That meant he was unable to compete in the last world championship and got off this season to a slow start.

Their closest challengers are almost certain to be their teammates, Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, who have won the Russian national championship twice in the absence of Domnina/Shabalin. They teamed up in 2001 but only got onto the international championship scene in 2006, finishing 10th in their first Europeans. They zoomed right up to fourth in 2007 and won the bronze last year. Khokhlova was 23 on October 7, and Novitski was 27 on May 16.

Fourth last year and therefore in line for the bronze are Federica Faiella, who will be 28 on February 1, and Massimo Scali, who turned 29 on December 11, the six time Italian champions. That would have been seven straight titles but Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio returned from retirement to compete in the 2006 Olympic Games in their home country.

However, this couple seems accident prone. She dropped him on his head in the 2007 Europeans. At the recent Grand Prix Final, while practicing for the Free Dance, they had a nasty collapse on their spin and her right hand got trapped under his blade. She left the ice leaving a very noticeable trail of blood drops and had to have six stitches to close the gnash which was on her palm and ring finger. Courageo usly, they refused to withdraw.

Also hoping for a podium spot at the current French title holders (in the absence of Delobel/Schoenfelder), Nathalie Péchalat, who turned 25 December 22, and Fabian Bourzat, who was 28 on December 19. After skating alongside Delobel and Schoenfelder, they moved to Moscow this past summer to train with Alexander Zhulin and are hoping this change will spark an advance.

Not to be left out of the mix are Sinead and John Kerr, the Scottish siblings who won their sixth consecutive British title last week in Nottingham presenting a free dance which was breath-taking despite a problem with=2 0a lift.

There is a new factor which may affect the results. This is the first time the Finnstep has been required in a major competition. It is a very difficult dance, and the possibilities of a fall are greater than normal. Almost all the competitors did very little training on this dance until it was drawn in mid December for this event.

However, Pernelle Carron and Mathieu Jost, who teamed up in 2005 and have been runners-up for the French title for the past two years, are the exception. One of their coaches presented a seminar in September on this dance and Carron and Jost were his demonstrators. The fact that they had worked on the dance for so much longer than the others has given them a slight advantage. In p ractice this morning, it was Carron and Jost who shone.

PAIRS - A record number?

There is a definite resurgence in pair skating. For those predicting doom and gloom for the sport, please note the 21 pairs from 13 countries are the most entries this correspondent has witnessed. The previous highest was 20 in 2000, which had been a record number of entrants since 1968 which also had 20 entries.

That Europeans in 1968 witnessed the debut of the legendary Irina Rodnina and her first partner Alexei Ulanov. They=2 0finished fifth in the snowy recesses of Sweden, Vasteras, which is not that far from Helsinki, and has not hosted an international since then. The fabled Protopopovs won in Vasteras with now famed coaches, Tamara Moskvina and Alex Mishin, taking the silver.

The nadir in pairs in Europeans was six in 1981, the year after Rodnina/Zaitev retired. At that point, Rodnina with her two partners and other pairs from the Soviet Union had so dominated the sport taking it to such athletic heights that other countries, saddled with confining rules forbidding sponsorship, had stopped sending entries. The ISU was forced to bring in rules promoting artistry to encourage the lesser countries to send entrants. The European pairs championship started in 1930 and though it had few entries in that decade, the previous smallest number of entries was 1950 when there were five.

There were a host of new entries but none are expected to make the podium. The world champions Aliona Savchenko/Robin Szolkowy from Germany, are defending the European title they have held twice before. Though they were only third in the Grand Prix Final in South Korea in December, behind two Chinese pairs, they remain the clear favorites here. Prior to their first win in this event in 2007, their coach, Ingo Steuer, and his partner Mandy Wörtzel were the last non-Russians to claim the European title, which they did in 1995. The last time a non-Russian or non-German pair won was in 1958!

Their main rivals are expected to be the 2008 runners-up for this title, Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov from St. Petersburg. In the mix are the twice Russian champions, who won bronze last year, Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, also from St. Petersburg. Kawaguchi was Japanese and trained in New Jersey for several years. She is now a Russian citizen.

Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov from Ukraine were fourth last year in this event. They now train alongside Savchenko and Szolkowy in Chemnitz. Morozov, who was 29 on February 1, won the 2000 world junior championship with Savchenko but he battled injuries and they broke up. He returned to the sport teaming up with Volosozhar, who turned 22 on May 22, in 2004.

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