by Alexandra Stevenson
(21 January 2012) Sun and melting snow greeted the Russians, who, early Sunday afternoon, were the first team to arrive in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city, and head for the Four Points Hotel which overlooks the event location, the old Dom Sportova Arena. That seemed appropriate since Russia qualified to send the largest team. They were the only country to qualify for the maximum of three berths in all four disciplines.
Understandably missing on the bus picking up skaters and their coaches at the airport was the defending Men's champion, Evgeni Plushenko, who won the 2006 Olympic gold medal and silver in the Games of both 2002 and 2010. The 30-year-old wanted to spend time with his new (second) son and his event doesn’t start till Thursday. His first son, Egor Kristian Plushenko, was born in 2006 to first wife, Maria Ermak, but that marriage did not last long. He married Yana Rudkovskaya in 2009 and Alexander Evgenevich Plushenko is their first child.
On Russian television, Plushenko said he was so excited, he couldn't even think about the European championships where he will perform his Short Program set to "Storm" which was devised by Pasquale Camerlengo and his Free to “Best of Saint-Saens” which has been set by a Japanese choreographer.
Practice begins early Monday morning with the ice dancers who will open the competition late Wednesday afternoon with their Short Dances, which, this season, must include the Yankee Polka.
This discipline is generally an event in which there are few surprises. With the 2011 & 2012 champions, Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat, from France, missing due to his injury, it is possible, Anna Cappellini, 25, & Luca Lanotte, 27, who were fourth in last year’s European Championship, could fracture Russian hopes.
In the Grand Prix Final in December, which was held in the Iceberg Arena in which the 2014 Olympic figure skating will take place in Sochi in Russia, Cappellini & Lanotte, who train at the Detroit Figure Skating Club, earned their best score of 165.64. They placed ahead of the top two Russian couples who are competing in Zagreb.
Ekaterina Bobrova, 22, & Dmitri Soloviev, 23, who were runners-up to Pechalat & Bourzat for the past two years, are hoping to turn silver into gold. Their Russian teammates, Elena Ilinkh, 18, & Nikita Katsalapov, 21, who were third in this event last year despite a major mistake in their Short Dance, are aiming, at least, for silver, while Ekaterina Riazanova, 21, & Ilia Tkachenko, 26, the third Russian couple on the team finished fifth last year, are also hoping to be promoted.
Cappellini & Lanotte had the nerve to compete in the Skate Canada Grand Prix with a Free Dance using music from the opera, “Carmen”, which is also being used by the Canadian, Olympic and world champions, Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir.
Although they didn’t beat the Canadians, they finished second and their version stood up. (The Canadians, who are not eligible to compete in the European championships, subsequently changed that routine to include a “feminist” ending.)
Four times European (2007, 2008, 2009 & 2011) and World (2008, 2009, 2011 & 2012) Champions Aliona Savchenko, who turned 29 on January 19, & Robin Szolkowy, 33, from Germany, traveled to Sheffield last year for the 2012 European championship but had to withdraw due to her illness, leaving the title undefended and easily claimed by Russia’s Tatiana Volosozhar, 26, & Maxim Trankov, 29.
The Russians would dearly like to hold onto that title. The two rivals have not faced off this season because the Germans were not able to compete in their second assigned Grand Prix event. Savchenko developed flu while they were competing in Canada, and lost too much practice time before their second assignment and had to withdraw from it. So, they did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final, which Volosozhar & Trankov won despite being beaten in the Free Skate by their teammates, the Grand Prix Final silver medalists, Vera Bazarova, who turns 20 on January 28, & Yuri Larionov, 26.
This younger couple was forced to withdraw from the recent Russian championship due to a problem with one of his blades, and then couldn’t compete here in Zagreb have been forced out of this event due to his hand injury, which prevents him from giving her the support she needs in lifts. They have been replaced by Ksenia Stolbova, 20, & Fedor Klimov, 22, who won the European bronze last year.
The 2010 European and 2008-2010 Russian Champions, Yuko Kavaguti, 31, & Alexander Smirnov, 28, who did not compete in last year’s European championship, have been fighting a downslide, aggravated by injuries.
Perhaps the three time Italian champions, who finished Stefania Berton, 22, & Ondrej Hotarek, who turns 29 on January 25, have a chance to better their fourth place from last year.
In the Men's singles, thirty competitors from 22 countries have entered. There was a lot of controversy in the recent Russian championship. Sergei Voronov, the silver medalist, who placed more than ten points behind Plushenko, was Russian champion back in 2008 & 2009 but the now 25-year-old was only 10th in last year’s European championship. He and last year’s European silver medalist, Artur Gachinski, had bad performances in the last world championship, in Nice, with Gachinski an inexplicable 18th, just behind Voronov, who was injured.
Gachinski, 19, was second to Plushenko in the 2012 European championship, but is not on this team after placing only fourth in nationals behind the bronze medalist Konstantin Menshov, 29, who, in a very controversial decision was also left off the team for Zagreb in favor of the young Kovtun, 17, who finished fifth nationally but won the Junior Grand Prix. (See previous news story).
Defending European champion, Evgeni Plushenko, still says he’s in pain and not completely fit, but seems to have great pain tolerance, and a will to win. In the mix for second place are a fleet of what you could call “has beens” along with some very promising youngsters.
There is French heart throb Brian Joubert, who is competing in his 11th European championship. The sexy 28-year-old French competitor has won medals in every one of those occasion except last season, when he was 8th. (He won in ’04, ’07 & ’09; along with three silvers and four bronzes.) He won the French championship for nine straight years but did not compete in this season, allowing his teammate Florent Amodio to claim the national title.
Amodio, 22, who was adopted in Brazil by a French couple when he was only a few days old, is 22. In his first entry in the European championship two years ago, he won the title. Last year he finished with the bronze medal.
There is also Spain’s Javier Hernandez, 21, who was sixth in the European championship last year but managed to completely outskate world champion Patrick Chan by winning both sections of the Skate Canada Grand Prix near Toronto at the beginning of this season.
And then there are the Czech rivals, Michal Brezina, 22, who has finished fourth in this event twice, in 2010 and last year, and the 2008 European champion, Tomas Verner, 26, who has won the Czech championship nine times and been second twice. He was beaten in his first senior nationals and then again in 2010, this time by Brezina. Verner has competed nine times in the European championship winning in 2008, getting silver in 2007 and bronze in 2011. But last year he was fifth.
With last year’s runner-up for the Ladies title, Kiira Korpi from Finland sidelined due to injury, the defending champion, Carolina Kostner from Italy, should, theoretically have an easy time of it. However, with 36 Ladies from 29 countries, she faces a lot of unknown potential, particularly from the Russians.
Kostner, who turns 26 on February 8, is an extremely graceful woman with great speed and flow over the ice. She is the current world champion and has competed in the European championship ever since she became Italy national champion in 2003. She has kept that title in all but three years. She did not compete in 2010 and was second twice, in 2004 and 2010.
If she wins this time, it will be her fifth European title. She claimed gold in 2007, 2008, 2010 & 2012. She received silver in 2004 & 2011, and bronze in 2006.
Last year’s bronze medalis is Elene Gedevanishvili, who represents Georgia, a country she left, first for Russia, and then for the U.S.A. Her family lives in New Jersey, but she now trains in Canada.
Kostner did not compete in the Grand Prix series this season faces competition from two 16-year-old Russians, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, the current national champion and Adelina Sotnikova, the runner-up, are making their debut in this event.
The first reserve is Polina Korobeynikova, who turned 16 on December 4. She made her debut in this event last year, placing fourth, but was only tenth in the recent Russian championship.
The 22-year-old Alena Leonova, who has represented Russia in the past four European and World championships, and was second last year in world championship to Kostner, was only ninth in her nationals and is only the second reserve, which must be devastating.
The 2010 Russian champion, Ksenia Makarova, who was born in Russia but brought up in the United States, is third reserve. She placed ninth, fourth and sixth in the past three European championships.
This is the fourth time that the Zagreb Dom Sportova has hosted the event. The first time was in 1974 when Zagreb was the second city in the former Yugoslavia, before that country violently split apart forming separate countries.
In 1974 East Germans, Jan Hoffmann and Christine Errath, won the singles’ divisions, and Russians, Irina Rodnina & Alexander Zaitsev and Ludmila Pakhomova & Alexander Gorschkov won the pairs & ice dance championships.
The city again hosted the event in 1978 and then in 2008. In 2013, 151 competitors from 34 countries are scheduled to compete.
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