2012 European Championships: Preview
By Alexandra Stevenson
PLUSHENKO IS BACK!
SUNDAY JAN 22: This is a new event for Sheffield, but the arena is familiar with skating. It has housed shows, including one featuring the men’s favorite here, Evgeni Plushenko, and Sinead and John Kerr. It was also the site of the British ice dance championship when Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean returned to competition after ten year’s absence in 1994. They hoped then to win a second ice dance Olympic gold medal, but ended up with bronze. On this Sunday evening, an episode of their hugely popular series of contests was being aired. In this version of Dancing on Ice, which is classed as celebrity reality show, Robin Cousins and Kati Witt are two of the judges.
The European championships were last held in Britain at the National Exhibition Centre in 1989, and prior to that, in 1939 in London when Britain claimed a sweep of the medals in the Ladies event. Cecilia Colledge, who taught for most of her life at the SC of Boston, won this title for the third successive year. Megan Taylor was second for the third time, and Daphne Walker took bronze. Colledge and Taylor had been second and third behind the great Sonja Henie when she won the last of her European titles in 1936 (and went on to a remarkable Hollywood career later that year after winning her tenth world title and third Olympic gold.)
Evgeni Plushenko is back – again! At 29, the blond-haired twice Olympic silver medalist (2002, 2010), who won gold in 2006, seems to have mellowed. His interest in politics waned and he stopped attending endless, unproductive meetings that are a part of that life.
Instead, he began spending more time with coach Alexei Mishin and, in late December, easily won his ninth Russian title by almost ten points, although he did not get the best technical score.
The Russian Federation immediately requested exemption for Plushenko from having to qualify for the ISU championships by posting a certain score in a recognized international. Almost immediately, the US issued a statement approving the entry of the popular, twice-married, father of a five-year-old.
Plushenko said he wasn’t bothered by having to "qualify" by skating his Free on Monday while his teammates, Artur Gachinski and Sergei Voronov, are part of the 18 "Direct" entries who get to skip the preliminary round and go straight into the Short Program. Gachinski was the top Russian in the European championships last year, dropping from third after the Short to fifth overall with a Free which was sixth best.
Plushenko must place in the top 10 of the 16 men attempting to qualify to go through to the Short. Those marks are then discarded, although the skating order draw goes according to their placement.
On Sunday afternoon, the blond tall Plushenko stepped onto the ice at the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield for his first practice. Although he stayed for the full forty-five minutes and showed that he can still do the quad toe and triple Axel, it was not an exhausting work-out and he was obviously just getting the feel of the ice. He merely "walked through" his four-minute thirty-eight second Free to Tango de Roxanne, which he skated last of the five in his group. (For the 2010 Olympic season, Plushenko used a different Tango for his Free.)
Later, in the early evening, on the practice rink at iceSheffield which is almost next door to the Arena, he showed more energy. He skated the same routine in a plain, short-sleeved, light grey T-shirt, identical to the one he had worn earlier, second of the five on that 40-minute session. He did more jumps in this run-through, in a slightly colder atmosphere than the warm arena, on ice that was slightly harder.
He was obviously well above the standard of the others in this round and he clearly wants to win a seventh European title. (He previously won in 2000. 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006 & 2010.) But he says he has yet to make a commitment as to whether he will also go to the world championships, which will be held at the end of March in April. That is a title he has "only" won three times.
His main opposition could be a surprise. Javier Fernandez, a 20-year-old from Spain, who has made a spectacular improvement this season. This is his fifth European championship. He was 8th in 2010 and 9th last year. But, this season, he won silvers in both his Grand Prix events and the bronze in the Final.
The defending champion is Florent Amodio of France, who won the Short last year and held onto the lead despite a third place in the Free. This season, he did not do well in the Trophy Bompard Grand Prix in his home country, so he has come up with two new programs for this event.
Last year’s silver was claimed by his teammate, Brian Joubert, who had a disaster in the opening round in which he placed seventh. The veteran won the Free which gained him bronze overall. He was European champion in 2004, 2007 and 2009.
Tomas Verner, of the Czech Republic, who won this European title in 2008 and has been fourth in the past two world championships, was fifth after the Short last year but pulled up to take the bronze by taking second place in the Free. Kevin van der Perren of Belgium was very close to Gachinski after the Short program, and some, including this correspondent thought her should have been third, but he was fourth and kept that place although his Free was judged fifth best.
At this point it is uncertain whether the defending champions, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, will compete. The four-time European and three-time world champions, who failed to win gold in those events in the Olympic season, plan to arrive in Sheffield on Monday. They will decide whether to compete shortly before the Short Program is scheduled to start on Wednesday afternoon.
They have been trying a throw triple Axel all season with varying results. A week ago Saturday, she fell badly injuring her left thigh. They have not been able to practice throws since then.
That leaves the way clear for Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, who are competing in their first European championship together. He won two bronzes and a silver for Russia in European championships with his previous partner, Maria Mukhortova. Voloszhar and Trankov teamed up after the Vancouver Olympics in which they competed with their previous partners. In their first world championship, in 2011, they took the runnerup spot to the Germans and just lost the recent Grand Prix Final to them by a very narrow margin.
Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, who won this title for Russia in 2010, have withdrawn because of his appendicitis.
Defending champions, Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, France, are the clear favorites after taking bronze in the recent Grand Prix Final in Quebec (behind the Olympic gold and silver medalists, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Canada, and Meryl Davis and Charlie White, USA.)
After winning the recent Grand Prix Final in Quebec City, Carolina Kostner looks likely to win her fourth European title. The Italian won in 2007, 2008 and 2010. Last year’s title holder, Sarah Meier, skating in home country, retired immediately after her win in Bern where the arena will long be remembered as the coldest indoor site ever. (It was built as with openings at its corner under the roof and had lorry and truck access roads into the basement which were never closed off to the elements. This was despite the ISU ruling that all international championships be held indoors, which went into effect after 1967.)
The 2009 winner, Laura Lepisto from Finland, has not entered due to a continuing injury which happened last summer. She has said, however, that she will be in a Champions on Ice show which will play for three days in Pjongjang, the capital of North Korea. This is the annual show for which Tomas Verner received enormous criticism in his home country, the Czech Republic. North Korea is a closed society with a strict dictatorship with many people believed to be on the border of starvation. Lepisto said Plushenko would also be on the tour.
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