2011 European Championships Preview

By Alexandra Stevenson

ISU Loosens Rule as Lambiel and Biellmann Bring Much Needed Star Presence to Exhibition Program
"This isnít a Beach Party," replies Official, to Criticism because Rink is Unheated
Atmosphere so cold you can see skatersí breath; spectators given horse blankets with ticket

Full Disclosure: In keeping with todayís stringent journalism requirements, the worker ant writing this preview has been bribed with a box of excellent Swiss chocolates. Any praise given the Organizing Committee may have to be viewed with that in mind.

While it is true that the PostFinance Arena is unheated, according to the eventís Press Chief, Urs Frieden, this is a normal situation in Switzerland. He said, "This is no beach party. It makes more sense ecologically. Bern is the government capital of Switzerland. We set an example. We do winter sports in winter and summer sports in summer. We are a country known for winter sports. (They invented bobsleigh competition.) We arrive at an arena in coats. And the audience itself gives out heat. The practice rink (in a tent outside the arena) is heated."

The Arena, which was completely refurbished in time for the 2009 world hockey championships, is normally used only for that sport. There were no complaints when 17,000 for that event. The figure skating capacity has been brought down to 7,500. The problem is made worse because of the design in which there are areas which are open 24 hours a day to the elements.

Keith Horton, Chief Executive of the National Skating Association of GB, who is in Bern shadowing the organizing committee, an ISU requirement because Sheffield will host next yearís Europeans, said with a shiver, "Itís the coldest rink Iíve ever been in. Of course, ours will be heated. We wouldnít think of not doing so."

ISU championships are required to be indoors. The last outdoor event was the world championship in 1967 in Vienna when Peggy Fleming, winning the second of her third world titles fell, possibly due to bad ice conditions, and the Protopopovs warmed up with an umbrella to protect them from the rain. In 2006, the arena used for the World Junior Championships in Ljubliana, when Yu-na Kim dethroned Mao Asada, was not heated. The ISU representative said when he had done his inspection to make sure the facilities were in order the previous June, he had never even thought that it wouldnít be heated in winter. He promised it was an assumption he would never make again. However, maybe that item was left off the check list.

On the positive side, they will have an enormous crowd of children, part of a government course in figure skating, which has taken place over a period of months. The children received a ticket for the Tuesday program as a "graduation" present. The big story on the local television news on the day before the event involved a woman in a wheelchair objecting to the placement of her wheelchair for the event. "No, no, no," said Press Chief Frieden. "That happened because she and her husband had bought two tickets but not explained she was in a wheelchair. As in all arenas, wheelchair access is only at certain spots. The situation has been resolved."

Next crisis: The local paper had a full page story on the Protopopovs, the legendary Soviet 1964 & 1968 Olympic gold medalists, who became Swiss citizens after they defected. They claimed they do not have the money to buy tickets. The mayor stepped in and rectified the situation. In 2001, when Ludmila was 66 and Oleg 69, they sought to compete in the 2002 Olympics representing Switzerland, since the country had no pairs competitors at that time. That request was denied, but they were invited to give an exhibition that year at the European Championships which were in Lausanne. Incredibly, despite their advanced age and slowness of their skating, their exhibition was mesmerizing and they earned a standing ovation. They invented three of the four death spirals. The original back outside version has been around since the show skater, known only as Charlotte, presented on an ice tank in a theatre in her touring show. The Protopopovs spend their summers in the US, in Lake Placid where they are often seen skating.

The best news has been the ISUís decision to allow Swiss stars, Stephane Lambiel and Denise Biellmann, to perform in the Exhibition which brings the 101st European championships to a close on Sunday. Permission was not easily obtained and negotiations were not completed until January was underway. The President of the Swiss Union of Skating, Roland Wehinger, pleaded his case because this year is the 100th anniversary of the Swiss association.

The ISU has a rule excluding "ineligibles". The very flamboyant and popular 25 year old Lambiel, who was nine-time Swiss champion, fell into that category after the Vancouver, Games, where he finished fourth. He lost his eligibility by taking part in Thin Ice, a minor non-ISU-sanctioned, made-for-US TV competition, instead of continuing to the World championships.

Lambiel won the 2005 & 2006 world titles and 2006 Olympic silver. Although he never won the European title, he earned three European silver medals, in 2006, 2008 & 2010. He will commentate for a Swiss television program in French and act as a Goodwill Ambassador promoting the event.

Biellmann has been a professional since winning the 1981 European and world titles. In the 1978 European championship, she became the first woman to successfully execute a triple Lutz in an ISU competition. The British judge Pauline Borrajo promptly gave her the maximum of 6.0 for the technical merit mark. Although, 6.0s were given occasionally for artistic impression, this was the first presented to a woman for the other marking category. Although the then 15-year-old Bielllmann won the Free Skate with this ground-breaking routine, she was only 12th in figures and finished fourth overall.

Biellmann did not invent the back breaking spin which is named after her, in which the foot is pulled over the head so it obscures the skaterís view of the ceiling. However, the long-legged, extremely flexible Swiss missís version was particularly spectacular. The demand for her professional appearances continues. However, she was already suffering back pain induced by that move during the later part of her competitive career. She still does the spin beautifully but must place it at the end of her routine and ice down her spine immediately she leaves the ice.

The Swiss brother and sister pair Gerda and Ruedi Johner ,who were second in the 1965 European Championships in Moscow behind the Protopopovs but ahead of another Soviet pair, Tatiana Zhuk and Alexandr Gorelik, will also make an appearance as will Jamal Othman, the 2009 Swiss champion and five-times runner-up to Lambiel.

The initial European championship was held in Hamburg in 1891 with only two nations, Germany and Austria, competing in compulsory figures. Ladiesí and Pairsí divisions began in 1930 and ice dance in 1954. The event has been held many times in Switzerland. In the early years Davos was one of the principal sites, dating back to 1899 when Ulrich Salchow, the originator of that jump, took his third straight title.

Davos was also the host in 1947 when Hans Gerschwiler won, becoming the first Swiss to gain the title, beating Dick Button who took the world title a month or so later, and dethroned Gerschwiler the following year in the European championship, before the rule confining entries to Europeans was passed. Gerschwiler eventually went to the United States and was a successful coach in New Jersey for decades.

St. Moritz, which, like Davos, was outdoors, Zurich and Geneva have also played host. Most recently, Lausanne organized the event in 1992 & 2002. Bern has never hosted a figure skating international but the skating club of Bern was founded in 1917 as the fourth ice skating club in Switzerland. Reaching Bern, the fourth largest city in Switzerland, located on a central plateau, is very easy. Both Geneva and Zurich have fast train service from stations located inside those airports.

Built in a near loop of the fast-flowing River Aare, the old section of Bern dates back to the 12th Century. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bern is Swiss-German for bear. Back in the mists of history, the Lord of the settlement decreed the site would be named after whichever animal his men could find and kill for food. Bears have been kept captive in a pit since then although recently, their accommodation has been upgraded to more friendly, humane quarters.

Albert Einstein worked out his theory of relativity while living in Bern, employed as a clerk

at the patent office, and there is a museum here devoted to him. He might have been amused by the current relativity situation in which the ISU, trying to cut down costs by restricting number of entries. However, the event is now a day longer and the additional expense is being charged to the national bodies.

NEW ISU RESTRICTIVE ENTRY RULES

Despite an unsuccessful effort at Congress to get this changed, each ISU member is still entitled to one entry in the championships in World (Seniors) and (if their country is on the European list) in these championships. However, that entry must have earned a a specified point title in any recognized international.

Those with high ISU rankings go straight into their "Short" routine. The others must execute their Free in the qualifying round, and those expenses are billed to the national associations not the ISU. Those who donít qualify are expected to go home immediately. Obviously, it is possible to judge approximately the level at what the point total could be set in order to eliminate the necessity of qualifying rounds. Such a policy may be pursued in the future but would eliminate most competitors from countries who are in the development stage of the sport.

LADIES: 38 entries from 30 countries. In single skating (Ladies and Men), 18 skaters now qualify "directly" for the Short Program on the basis of their countryís performance in last yearís Europeans. The other ten available spots are filled from the qualifying round which will take place on Monday and Tuesday. The remaining competitors (ten in the Ladies, eleven in the mens, will be homeward bound by the time the event really gets underway on Wednesday.

Local hopes of a medal rest with eight-time Swiss champion, Sarah Meier, who was a close second to Carolina Kostner in the 2007 & 2008 European championships. In 2007, she was the first Swiss woman to medal at Europeans since Biellmann won in 1981. However, the 26-year old has suffered through numerous injuries. She missed the í09 season because of a herniated disc. Last year, she finished fifth.

Meier explained, "I delayed ending my career because the event is in Bern, but I have to be realistic about my hopes. Iím hoping to get into the top six for the Free Skate. My first Europeans was in Vienna in 2000. I am looking forward to the next stage, becoming a professional." Her whole family skates. Her mother is President of their local figure skating club in Bulach. She is coached by her aunt, Eva Fehr. Her sister is a twice Swiss champion and world competitor in Starlight, the synchro team, and her father is President of the local hockey team.

Defending champion, Caroline Kostner is the clear favorite to earn her fourth European title in five years. The six-time Italian champion recently was named the most googled athlete in Italy. When sheís on, skimming over the ice with tremendous speed, her skating can be breath-taking. Television does not do justice to her sheer speed and flow over the ice. The quality of her soaring triple-triple was a major factor when she won the silver in the 2008 Worlds, despite several small mistakes later in the routine. However, she can also be dreadful as in Los Angeles at the 2009 worlds when she was reduced to executing single jumps, which dropped her to 12th place overall and produced a hysterical crying fit.

In 2007, she became the first ever Italian woman to win the European championship. The 23-year old successfully defended her title in 2008 but was dethroned in 2009 by Laura LepistŲ of Finland. LepistŲ, who was second last year, withdrew from every competition she has entered this season due to an Achillesí tendon problem.

In 2005, Kostner became the first Italian woman to win bronze in a world championship since the Italian-American Susan Driano was third in 1978. Another first for an Italian woman was Kostnerís bronze in the 2005 World Junior Championship. She comes from a very athletic family. Her mother was a nationally ranked figure skater. Her father is a hockey Olympian, playing for Italy in 1984 in Sarajevo. Her cousin and god-mother, Isolde Kostner, won an Olympic silver and two world golds in Alpine skiing.

When her home rink in Bolzano in the north of Italy was destroyed in a landslide in 2001, Kostner began training in Oberstdorf, Germany. After her disaster at the 2009 worlds, she left her long time trainer, Michael Huth, and became a pupil of Frank Carroll in Los Angeles but that was not a success. Kostner said, "Michelle Kwan was my idol since I was a little girl, and he was her coach. But I was homesick.

"Los Angeles was wonderful - the rink, the training conditions, the coaches, but Europe is about tradition. I love my small alpine town. I missed the snow. I missed the people who knew me as a girl who grew up in front of them and was a person, not a famous skater." She also missed her boyfriend, Alex Schwazer, Olympic 50Km walk champion.

In the Torino Olympics in 2006, she was picked to carry the Italian flag in the Opening Ceremony, a great honor, primarily because of her medal prospects. But she finished a disappointed ninth. She was even lower, 16th, in the Vancouver Olympics. She readily confesses, "Remembering Vancouver hurts."

But this season, after leaving California to return to training with Huth in Oberstdorf, she has done well, despite a foot injury which does not permit her to do triple flips or Lutzes. She freely confesses, "I was very surprised I could win a gold medal (in the Grand Prix in Japan) without those jumps." She also won a medal, bronze, in Skate America, and was second only to Alissa Czisny in the GPFinal.

PAIRS This is the only division not to have a qualifying round because only 18 entered, and that subsequently dropped to 16 from 12 countries, who will compete in the Short Program on Wednesday evening. Aliona Savchenko, who turned 26, on January 19, & Robin Szolkowy, 31, the seven-time German champions, are highly favored to win back this title, which they held 2007-2009. The Olympic bronze medalists have been unbeaten this season winning both their Grand Prix assignments, Skate America and Trophee Bompard in Paris, and the Final in Beijing by a considerable margin.

They decided to continue competing almost immediately after their disappointing showing last season when they lost their European title to Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov of Russia, and their world title to Qing Pang & JianTong of China. They were third in the Vancouver Olympics behind the gold medalists Xue Shen & Hongbo Zhao, who were then 31 and 36, and Pang & Tong. Shen & Zhao had come out of retirement explicitly for this goal and retired a second time immediately after the Games.

Before the 2010 season started, Savchenko & Szolkowy were the twice world champions, 2008 & 2009. "Nothing seemed to go right last season," admits their coach, Ingo Steuer, who imported Savchenko from Ukraine to partner Szolkowy. Steuer said, "At that point, Robin had no partner. We were having him skate with the Synchro team, just to keep him coming to the rink. We nearly lost him to the sport." They were immediately successful and are now seven times German champions.

Steuer continued, "This year, we changed our policy. We got a late start and didnít do the Nebelhorn Trophy, a situation which did not please their national association, and it seems to be working. We have also lightened up. The Free is to Pink Panther. Losing their titles, and not winning at the Olympics, was incredibly disappointing. But, if they had won in Vancouver, they might have retired. Now, they have dealt with their disappointment and want to reassert themselves at the top."

Not competing are the new Russian champions, Tatiana Volosozhar, who is Ukrainian, & Maxim Trankov. Skaters must sit out a year when changing the country they represent. Before teaming up with Volosozhar, Trankov and his former partner, Maria Murkatova, were the 2007 Russian and 2008 European champions. Volosozhar & Stanislav Morosov were Ukrainian champions with a best place finish at Worlds of fourth, in 2007. Representing Ukraine, they were fourth in the 2008, 2009 & 2010 European championships. Before Volosozhar, Morosov partnered Savchenko, who was Ukrainian before she became German.

The defending champions, Yuko Kavaguti, 29, & Alexander Smirnov, 26, have competed in this event for the past three years, finishing third, second and first but it will be very difficult for them to keep the title. They finished third in the past two world championships but were fourth at the Olympics, in part because their planned throw quad Salchow became a double.

This April, Kavaguti had surgery to tighten her shoulder which had been continually dislocated. They had to pull out of this seasonís Grand Prix series. In December, they lost the Russian national title they had won three times, to the new partnership of Volosozhar & Trankov. They teamed up in 2006. She gave up her Japanese citizenship to become Russian, since Japan does not recognize dual citizenship. The spelling of her last name was changed from Kawaguchi to Kavaguti. She graduated from the University of St. Petersburg in 2007 with a degree in International Relations. Kavaguti first competed in pairs for Japan with Russian Alexander Markuntsov 2001-2003 with a best place finish in Worlds of 13th in 2002. Her current partner, Smirnov, married Ekaterina Garus in August 2010.

Likely medalists are their Russian teammates, Vera Bazarova, who will turn 18 on January 28, the day after their event is completed, & Yuri Larionov, 24, who train in Perm with Ludmila Kalinina. They have been the third ranked Russians for the past two seasons, and were fifth in this event last year, 11th in the Olympics and eighth in the world champions.

Bazarova is a loyal partner. When Larionov was sidelined after they had won the silver at the 2007 World Junior championships because he had used a diaretic which was detected during an at home visit in Perm, she refused offers by other prospective partners. The initial suspension was for two years but it was reduced by six months in time for them to make the Olympic team.

MEN 39 Entries from 27 countries: 18 skaters were to qualify "directly" for the SP on the basis of their countryís performance last year. However, Slovenia, which was entitled to a direct entry, did not field a mens entrant. That meant that 11 instead of only 10 skaters progressed from Mondayís elimination round.

Last season, Evgeny Plushenko, who retired from ISU competition after winning the 2006 Olympic gold for Russia, returned and flamboyantly took back this title which was his in 2000 & 2001; 2003; and 2005 & 2006. In 2004, he was beaten by Franceís Brian Joubert, who was third last year with Lambiel taking the silver. After the Olympics, Plushenko was declared ineligible for future ISU competition, because he had gone against his Associationís wishes and taken part in professional shows without their permission, instead of continuing to the world championship.

Ignoring his ban, Plushenko, who is from St. Petersburg, contends he will be back for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi in his home country. However, Joubert is not at all sure he will be there. He is committed to competing through next season when the world championships will be in Nice. In December, Joubert won his seventh French title in the past nine years, after withdrawing from the 2009 and 2010 events.

However, he did not show off his trademark quad in his nationals, because "I wasnít 100% fit," and he was beaten in this section by Florent Amodio, who finished with silver overall. Amodio, who is only 20, was French champion last year and 12th in the Olympics, beating Joubertís disastrous 16th, and 15th at Worlds. The 26-year-old Joubert, who won the 2007 world title, is committed to competing through the 2012 world championships which are in his own country, in Nice.

Some are predicting the winner will be Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic, who has been training in Canada with Robert Emerson in Toronto. Verner, 24, won silver in this event in 2007 and gold the following year, the first Czech to take the title since Petr Barna in 1992. But he was only sixth in 2009 and tenth last year, which was where he also finished in 2004 and 2006. He made his debut in Europeans in 2002.

Vernerís best standing in Worlds was 4th, which he earned in 2007 & 2009, but he was 15th in 2008. Last season, he was completely eclipsed by his younger rival, Michal Brezina, 20, who dethroned Verner at the Czech nationals. Brezina was fourth in the 2010 European Championship, 10th in the Olympics and fourth in the 2010 Worlds. Like Joubert, Verner has collapsed under Olympic pressure. He was 19th in the 2006 and 18th in 2010. Verner was so frustrated after Vancouver that he did not go to Worlds. However, this season he sprung back winning bronze and gold respectively in the Chinese and Russian Grand Prix events and taking fifth in the Final, while Brezina has had surgery for an injury.

Not to be ruled out is Kevin van der Perren, 28, Belgium. In 2007, he became the first Belgian male in 50 years to win a medal at Europeans, and repeated his third place in 2009. The previous Belgian medalist was Fernand Leemans, who also earned bronze. That was in a small field following the reintroduction of the event which had not been held since 1939 due to World War 11, which closed off all international competition.

Surviving the elimination round on Monday were:

1.Jorik Hendrickx, Belgium, 118.46 (These marks are not carried forward.)

2. Kim Lucine, Monaco, 115.12

3. Denis Wieczorek, Germany, 111.96

4. Zoltan Keleman, Roumania, 106.57

5. Javier Raya, Spain, 100.82

6. Moris Pfeifhofer, Switzerland, 100.73

7. Justus Strid, Denmark, 100.42

8. Maxim Shipov, Israel, 98.84

9. Maciej Cieplucha, Poland, 97.14

10. Stephane Walker, Switzerland, 95.51

11. Ali Demirboga, Turkey, 92.58

BRING ON THE LONG JOHNS Hendrickx, 18, who finished 20th last year in this event and 15th in the world junior championship, opened with a +0.70 GoE triple Lutz to triple toe loop. He received his seasonís best score and said, "Iím very satisfied with my performance. The beginning was almost perfect. I did all my jumps and I got credit (Level 4) for all my spins and (Level 3 circular) step sequence (all with positive GoEs). I knew that this could be possible. At the NRW Trophy in Dortmund (in December) I beat Samuel Contesti (four-time Italian champion, silver medalist in the 2009 Europeans and fifth last year, and fifth in the 2009 Worlds) I was well prepared for this event. Quite challenging was the cold in the rink. I was freezing in the practice in the morning so I decided with my coach to wear long underwear for the competition. But this meant that at the end of the four-and-a-half minutes, I felt a little too warm."

DANCE Last year, the 2008 & 2010 European Ice Dance champions, Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin, made headlines around the world with their Aboriginal Dance and her brief costume. It was a controversy which lasted through the Olympics. The Australian native community protested because they believed that the couple was being disrespectful of their ancient traditions. The skaters, who trained in the United States in Aston, PA, adamantly denied they had meant any harm.

There was also controversy over her belt, now banned, which her partner used for a hand hold to swing her around in their Free routine. And there was surprise among the fans that the Russians could win in Tallinn despite placing first only in the initial section. The Original and Free sections were won by the Italians, Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali, who finished second overall.

Later, after winning the Olympic bronze, Domnina was asked if all the fuss had disturbed their concentration and made their Olympic appearance more stressful. She said, "Well, actually, it certainly gave us a lot of publicity. I donít think the Washington Post would have written so much about us if there hadnít been such a story." They retired after the Games. He had gone through operations on both knees. She and boyfriend, 2006 Olympic gold medalist, Roman Kostomarov, produced their first child, Anastasia, who is to be called ĎNastyaí, on January 2.

This season, the Italians have been plagued by problems. In their first Grand Prix event, the Cup of China, Scali stepped on her costume in both Short and Free programs and left the ice, telling her, "Only mini-skirts in the future!" They withdrew half way through their second Grand Prix, Cup of Russia, due to her back problems which also kept them out of their national championships.

Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski, 2008 and 2010 European bronze medalists, won the European title in 2009 after Domnina & Shabalin had to pull out due to his injury falling on his knee in the Finnstep. They were forced to withdraw half way through the 2010 world championships. Like Shabalin, Novitski has had problems with his knees. Khokhlova is now skating with the Russian born son of coach Marina Zueva, Fedor Andreev, and training in Canton, Michigan. They were fourth in the recent Russian championships.

Favorites for gold are the French Natalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat, who train in Moscow. They were fourth last year. In the running for a medal despite her shoulder injury are the Scottish sister and brother, Sinead & John Kerr.

This season, dance has only two sections. Twenty couples, plus the host countryís entry, will be allowed to execute their Short Dance, on Wednesday. Twelve gained "Direct" admittance based on their countryís placing last year. The rest of entrant-applicants (14 couples plus the Swiss) presented their Free Dances in the elimination round on Monday.

Lucie Mysliveckova & Matej Novak, Czech Republic, won the event earning, 80.54 points. She said, "It was good for our first Europeans." Although they have competed twice in Worlds, last year placing 16th, they have not taken part in Europeans because she broke her elbow. "I didnít feel so comfortable here in the beginning because of the low temperature. But it wasnít so bad. We are used to training in a rink with low temperatures at home in Prague." He said, "The performance was all right. We made some little mistakes in the twizzle and were slightly out of unison in the steps. The low temperature was quite challenging for me, because of my asthma."

The other qualifiers were:

2. Nelli Zhiganshina & Alexander Gazsi, Germany 79.27

3. Penny Coomes & Nick Buckland, GB, 73.79

4. Federica Testa & Christopher Mior, the new Italian champions who teamed up in 2009, 67.90

5. Sara Hurtado & Andria Diaz, Spain, 67.20

6. Irina Shtork & Taavi Rand, Estonia, 66.38

7. Alison Reed & Otar Japaridze, Georgia, 66.24,

8. Isabella Tobias & Deividas Stagniunas, Lithuania, who were the first to skate and therefore opened this championship, 65.36

The host countryís ice dancers, Ramona Elsener & Florian Roost, were 12th. He said, "The performance wasnít good. I stepped out of the twizzle. My foot got caught in a rut and my upper body continued to turn. It was very difficult because this happened very early in the program. We are very disappointed because the training went very well. Our goal was to get into the short dance without the wildcard." She said, "We are used to skating in the cold but today my hands were really, really cold. It was difficult to grab each other."

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