Savchenko and Szolkowy land throw triple Axel; lead pairs in Nice

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy

Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy perform to music from the "Angels and Demons" soundtrack at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships.

The 2012 World Figure Skating Championships, which kicked off in Nice, France Monday with preliminary rounds, began in earnest on Wednesday with the Pairs Short Program. The draw guaranteed a suspense until the very end.

China’s Qing Pang and Jian Tong, who have not competed internationally this season, were the last to perform, right after the defending champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany.

In the end, the Germans edged out the Chinese for the lead, and the third place went to Japan’s Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran.

As three-time and defending World Champions, Savchenko and Szolkowy obviously do not plan to rest on laurels alone, and the students of Ingo Steuer keep pushing the boundaries both technically and artistically.

This season, their decision to include a throw triple Axel into their short program cost them a chance to defend their European title (Savchenko had a hard fall in practice a week before the event and they had to withdraw).

In Nice, however, the Germans proved to those wrong who said that they should abandon the risky element. According to four judges on the panel, they nailed it, while four others gave them “-2″ as a Grade of Execution (GOE), noticing that Savchenko had brushed the ice with her free foot on landing.

Even with the mistake, the element still earned them more points than Pang and Tong earned for their clean throw triple loop. They posted the highest technical score of the night (35.74) despite the fact that Szolkowy fell out of a triple toe loop landing. Their overall score, however, was rather modest (68.63).

“It was not perfect,” admitted Szolkowy at the press conference, “but it was good and we are very happy about the throw. It was the best attempt we ever had in competition, and we needed it in order to prove that we could do this element clean in the future.”

“It felt great to do it,” added Savchenko. “With this element, you first have to figure out how to do it, then you have to do it right. I am very happy to land it here, but I am less than happy that I have landed it on two feet.”

Due to the mistakes made by the other teams, Savchenko and Szolkowy did not actually need this element to secure the lead, however, the team said that it had never crossed their minds to take it out of the program.

“Our goal is to treat the throw triple Axel like any other element,” said Szolkowy. “In competition, we cannot watch other skaters then count points and decide that ‘this is enough’. For us it is 100% or nothing”.

Otherwise the team is just happy to be back.

“We are just so happy to be back on the ice after my injury,” explained Savchenko. “It has been quite some time. The program was ok, not perfect, but good enough for our first competition since the ISU Grand Prix Final.”

Pang and Tong’s comeback to eligible skating was as smooth as their performance to Chopin’s Nocturne, and it was only marred by the fact that their side by side toe loops were marked as underrotated by the technical panel. In all other aspects, it seemed that not a moment has passed since they won their second World title in Torino in 2010.

Their soft and lyrical style represented a nice contrast to the edgier and more powerful performance by the Germans, and provided a great conclusion to the event. The students of Bin Yao earned 67.10 points to finish a close second.

“Today we had a good performance,” said Tong. “However, the jump was not marked as clean, so we need to improve on it.”

“After not competing internationally all year we were quite nervous,” added Pang, “but I think it will get better and better.”

“The most important part, the free skating, is yet to come,” said Tong.

The team admitted that while they had long made a decision to take a break this season, they did not expect it to be quite so long.

“We had injuries,” explained Tong. “We needed a long time to rest and to recover, but we are ready to continue to compete now.”

The Chinese are one of very few participants of this year’s World Championships who have competed at the 2000 World Championships in Nice.

“We are very old I guess,” joked Tong, “but back in 2000 we were very young. We were different skaters; now we are simply enjoying training every day.”

Takahashi and Tran mesmerized the audience with their routine to Imagine by John Lennon in which every move seemed to resonate with the music. The Japanese team earned the third highest technical score of the event, nailing their side-by-side triple Salchows, triple twist, and throw triple Salchow. They earned a new personal best of 65.37 points.

“We got our season best today,” noted Takahashi. “It was very good performance and we are very happy to be here at the press conference with two much more experienced teams.”

“After the Four Continents there was a little gap,” added her partner. “We had a down time and we reviewed some stuff and relaxed. Our preparations went really well. I felt so good. The atmosphere here is wonderful and the crowd is excellent. I am really happy.”

The team, which had been plagued with inconsistency in the past, said that they did not make any major changes to their training regiment.

“There were no big changes,” explained Tran. “Some small, though, mostly to the way we warm up. Sometimes we tried too much during those six minutes, like we had been trying to win the warm up. We told ourselves to relax, because this is not how they judge you. We paced ourselves during the warm up and the program and it seemed to work.”

The team credits their choreographer Julie Marcotte for the quality of their routines.

“We are very lucky to have her,” said Tran. “She is the one who is looking for the music for us and it is not just something you do for one day only. She keeps listening to a lot of music and if she finds something she believes to suit us, she brings it to the ice rink.”

“Usually, we have a choice of two or three different tunes,” Tran continued. “Once we decide which one to use, we start to work on choreography. She works with us as if we are ice dancers and I believe that it shows in our skating. Usually, we start very early. Last season, for example, we choreographed the short program after the Four Continents and we had it done before the World Championships had even begun. It was the same this year.”

The old adage that ‘ice is slippery’ became explicitly true today for three Russian teams. Both partners fell in all three performances, however, Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov were lucky to do so just after they settled into the final pose, and thereby avoiding a 2.00 point deduction.

The 2012 Russian National Champions also made a mistake right in the beginning of their program when Larionov fell out of the triple toe loop landing, however, all other elements were solid. They are currently fourth with 65.02 points.

“We are lucky that they did not deduct points for the fall,” admitted Bazarova. “Overall, however, it was quite good. We even got a level three for our triple twist. Had it not been for that fall, we would have been happy with our performance, but the fall did affect the impression a bit.”

“On the other hand, we are skating to Tosca, she added jokingly. “In the end, both heroes die, so we could claim that the program was intended to end this way.”

Canadian Champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Redford also earned a level three for their triple twist, but the team was once again unable to land their ambitious side-by-side triple Lutzes (Radford fell on his). The team, who displayed a lot of character in their Concerto d’Aranjuez routine, earned 63.69 points and is currently fifth.

“I am actually a little bit disappointed about the fall,” said Radford. “This was the first Lutz I’ve missed since I came here.”

“The fall affects the components score,” added Duhamel, “so we are happy that we still got high components. The Lutz is a big risk, but it is also a big reward when you land it. We made a decision a few weeks ago that we wanted to push the development of figure skating, so we are happy we went for the Lutz.”

The three-time World Junior Champions, Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, once again ran into trouble with the side-by-side jumps as Sui went down on her triple toe loop. The mistake did not distract from their exuberant performance to country music, however, and the Chinese team elicited one of the loudest responses from the audience this afternoon. They scored 63.27 points.

“This is our first World Championships,” observed Han. “We might have lost our poise a bit, but I am sure that we will be better tomorrow.”

Caydee Denney and John Coughlin delivered technically strong routine to East of Eden soundtrack, however, they only earned level one for their triple twist and their death spiral. Nevertheless, the U.S. Champions displayed a noticeably different style than the one Denney had with her previous partner, and the students of Dalilah Sappenfield seem to be well on the way to becoming major contenders on the international level. They finished sixth with 62.48 points.

“I think it was the best short we’ve done all year,” said Denney. “We put out what we’ve been training and it felt really awesome. We want to enjoy the long program like we did the short today.”

“We almost felt more at home than at Four Continents in Colorado Springs where we had the pressure of skating for friends and family in our hometown,” added Coughlin. “It was more relaxing here and comfortable.”

One of the favorites of the competition, Russia’s Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, are only eighth with 60.48 points. The 2012 European Champions had a minor flaw at the catch of the triple twist, two-footed the landing of throw triple flip, and then both partners fell while executing a death spiral.

“We do not understand what happened,” said their coach, Nina Mozer. “We had no reason to expect any problems here. In fact, they were so well prepared that they were not even out of breath at the end of the program. It will be hard to fight back after getting such a score, but we are still going to do our best tomorrow.”

“We made small mistakes on other elements in the beginning of the program,” noted Trankov, “but then we had a very strong step sequence and we really got into the program. So during the death spiral I thought ‘I had an excellent entry into this element, perhaps we should do four rotations to ensure not only a good level, but good GOEs as well, to make up for the loss of points. The moment this thought crossed my mind, I slipped off the toe pick. I do not know why.We ended up with twelve points less than usual.”

“The ice is a bit weird here,” Trankov added. “It is soft in some places, brittle in others. I guess it is ok if you skate right after ice resurfacing, but if you are the last one to skate in the second group, it is quite another story.”

His teammate, Alexander Smirnov, shares his concern about ice quality. He slipped off the edge during the dismount from the lift, bringing his partner Yuko Kavaguti down with him in a rather scary looking fall. The team, who had delivered a rather strong performance otherwise, ended up in a eleventh place with 59.59 points.

“I fell because my blade cut into the ice,” Smirnov explained. “The ice is very new here, very fresh. Sometimes it simply crushes under your blades like glass. I did not expect this to happen. The mistake cost us a lot, but we are fully committed to fighting our way back in the free skating. We have a very good program.”

“I do not understand why they deducted two points,” he added. “Yuko did not touch the ice, she fell on the top of me. It should have been one point, in my opinion.”

Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek of Italy are currently ninth with 60.39 points ahead of USA’s Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker (59.62).

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