by Alexandra Stevenson
This is the first time that Estonia has hosted the European Championships. The country did not have an artificial ice rink until 1959. It is a small country with a population of about 1,300,000 of which 440,000 live in the capital city of Tallinn. The country is north of Latvia. Tallinn is on the north coast, directly south of Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland.
The country is extremely old. Remnants of civilization from the bronze age were discovered here. Today, Tallinnís Medieval Old Town is a touristís delight. The country blossomed after gaining independence from Moscow after the Soviet Union collapsed. Today it is one of the most "wired" cities in Europe. The technologies behind Skype, Kazaa and Hotmail were developed in Tallinn, and you can pay for your bus ticket with your mobile phone!
There is snow on the ground and although the sun shone, it is very, very cold. But there were smiles inside the arena. On the day before the championships began everything ran smoothly and on time.
Missing were the 2008 world champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, who have not competed since the Grand Prix Final in December 2008. "It was a strategic decision," Delobel told French reporters as their reason for withdrawing very shortly before this event. "We are ready but we have a move we prefer to unveil at the Olympics." Delobel has struggled with fitness after incurring a bad shoulder injury at the Grand Prix Final just over a year ago and then getting pregnant, delivering a baby boy, Lois, on October 1.
Neither they, nor Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, the Grand Prix Final bronze medalists, who won the French title in Delobel and Schoenfelderís absence last season, took part in the French nationals in December. Bourzat was resting his right ankle. That allowed Pernelle Carron, who was ninth in the last worlds with Matthieu Jost, to win the national title with her new partner, Welshman Lloyd Jones. At 21, Jones is two years her junior. He was twice British Junior champion and is in his first season as a senior.
The internet boards have been roasting the 2009 world champions, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia, who have not competed since winning that title due to his knee. (They pulled out of last yearís Europeans after he fell on his knee during the Finnstep compulsory.) Their Aborginal Original is definitely different. Their outfit calls for ropes around their bodies, leaves around their knees and darkened faces.
There is also controversy over the legality of acrobatic hand holds which are part of Domninaís costumes in their lifts in their Free which uses music from the soundtrack of The Double Life of Veronique by Zbigniew Preisner and Requiem for a Dream. However, Gorshkov, the referee, who is also the Chairman of the International Skating Unionís Ice Dance Committee, has told them they are not doing anything illegal. He is also the first ever Olympic ice dance champion with his late wife, Ludmila Pakhomova, and the inventor of the compulsory being used here, the Tango Romantica.
Despite not competing in the Grand Prix, Domnina and Shabalin held the ISUís top ranking for the competitors here. The draw is made using that rankings list so they were called first by Gorshkov. But, although they had practiced, they did not attend the draw. An official, who drew for them, pulled out 23rd of the 27 couples from 20 countries.
Somewhat surprising, the Scottish siblings Sinead and John Kerr, who were seventh in last seasonís Worlds and European bronze medalists, are the ISU second ranked couple (for this event). They drew to skate 19th.
That turned out to be immediately following the
defending European champions, Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski,
whose ISU ranking dropped to only third for this competition after
they unexpectedly finished off the podium at Skate America. Even
though they still qualified for the Final, they opted not to compete
in Japan or in their Russian nationals. They spent the time, instead,
working on a new Free Dance which is set to Stravinskyís Firebird.
(Maybe they were inspired by Evan Lysacekís performance to this
music at Skate America.)
Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali of Italy won silver in this event last year by only 0.97 over the Kerrs. However, they withdrew from the Skate Canada Grand Prix due to her illness and were only the fifth ISU ranked couple. They will skate 25th, immediately following Pechalat and Bourzat.
Alexandra and her brother Roman Zaretski, from Israel, hold the ISUís sixth ranking. They drew to skate 26th.
Twice world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy from Germany have won this title three times and should easily retain it. However, they were forced to pull out of their national championship because she developed glandular fever. This varies in intensity but can be extremely debilitating. It may have led to their bronze in the Grand Prix Final where they were beaten by the returning twice Olympic bronze medalists, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao and their Chinese teammates, Qing Pang and Jian Tong.
Likely silver medalists are Russiaís Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov, who have been second and third in the last two European championships. In December in the Grand Prix Final they beat Savchenko and Szolkowy in the free skate and finished fourth overall. Last year their teammates Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov edged them for the silver medal.
Evgeni Plushenko won this title five times 2000-2006. He was beaten by his Russian teammate Alexei Yagudin in 2002 and by Brian Joubert of France in 2004. He retired after winning the 2006 Olympic gold medal. However, in his preparations for a second Olympic gold, he is striving to add a sixth European title to his total tally. (Dick Button was the last man to win successive Olympic golds, 1948 and 1952.)
Plushenkoís win in the Moscow Grand Prix showed he has lost little of his technical abilities and crowd appeal. However, he suffered a knee injury in December. There were varying reports of the severity of this setback. His agent said it was not that bad. His coach said it was that bad.
Joubert won this title for a second time in 2007 and again in 2009. He first competed in the European championships in 2002 when he won the bronze. He has medaled every year since then. But he, too, was injured in December. He slammed the back of his blade deep into his landing foot coming down from a triple Lutz. Itís an injury he has had before, though not as seriously. Joubert had a bad beginning of this season in his own countryís Grand Prix finishing fourth.
Tomas Verner from the Czech Republic, who, like Plushenko and Joubert, has a great number of female fans, won this title in 2008. But his performances this season have been very erratic. In his national championship, he was beaten by the up-and-coming Michael Brezina.
This will be the last championship, finishing on Saturday. The reigning champion, Laura Lepisto from Finland, is definitely vulnerable. But there is no clear favorite. Carolina Kostner of Italy won the title in 2007 and 2008. She was second last year and has also won a bronze (2005) and silver (2008) in world championships. But last March she imploded and finished 12th in the Los Angeles Worlds. In an effort to turn her skating around, she moved to California to train alongside Evan Lysacek with coach Frank Carroll. But, so far this season, she hasnít been able to recover her previous prowess.
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