After dominating the skating circuit for two seasons only to come up short at the World Championships both times, Irina Slutskaya quipped that one day she would have a world title, even if she had to stay in until everyone else had retired and she had gray hair. Never fear, Slutskaya did not have to wait that long. With the most inspired, if not quite the most technically difficult, performances of her career, Slutskaya won all three phases of the competition to claim her first world title at age 23.
The third time was the charm for Slutskaya, who has had a Goldilocks-type career at the World Championships since her comeback three years ago. In 2000, the performance was too soft, as Slutskaya left out technical content that she had been planning to include. In 2001, the performance was too hard, as Slutskaya tried too much technical content and ended up making a costly error on a triple lutz-triple loop combination that she did not need, since she had already landed the most difficult combination of the competition, a historical triple salchow-triple loop-double toe. Even though Slutskaya also left out some of the technical content in Nagano, the performance was just right this time around. Skating wish a sense of polish and control that she often previously lacked when the big prize was on the line, Slutskaya dazzled the audience with high, technically perfect jumps, blindingly fast spins, and delightfully improved musicality and line. Two judges even awarded perfect 6.0s for presentation in the short program. OK, so the judges were from Russia and Belarus, but the rest of the judges still awarded a majority of 5.9s in both the short and free programs. Slutskaya, whose rivalry with Michelle Kwan is the friendliest of sorts, beamed as she ascended the top step of the podium following her free skate to “Tosca” in which she landed six triple jumps, two in combination.
Four-time World Champion Kwan’s error in the short program made the final free skate a bit anti-climactic because she not only had to beat Slutskaya to win, but also had to have someone else beat Slutskaya– an unlikely occurrence without newly crowned Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes in the competition. (Hughes withdrew citing a lack of time to train amidst the media appearances after the Olympics.) Nevertheless, Kwan skated her best two free skates of the season at the World Championships, even landing her triple toe-triple toe combination in the qualifying round for the first time in a year. The triple-triple didn’t materialize in the final round, which probably would have won her the free skate over Slutskaya, but in the end it made no difference. The silver medal ended a difficult season for Kwan, which began six months ago at the Goodwill Games, on a high note.
Completing the podium– which was incidentally the same as the podium at those Goodwill Games six months ago in Brisbane– was Japan’s Fumie Suguri. Skating to “Moonlight Sonata,” Suguri landed five triple jumps, including two lutzes. Her medal was the first for a Japanese woman at Worlds since Yuka Sato took gold in 1994, which was also won in front of a Japanese crowd. The pair of bronze medals won by Takeshi Honda in the men’s event and Suguri in the ladies event mark Japan’s first-ever multiple medal finish at Worlds.
Fourth at the Olympics, American Sasha Cohen was expected to move up to the podium at Worlds in the absence of Sarah Hughes, but a missed double Axel in the short program landed the seventeen year old from Laguna Niguel, Calif. in fifth place and with little chance of making the podium. Her free skate was gutsy and included the only attempt at a triple-triple combination of the top group, but two falls kept her off the podium, although her presentation marks helped move her up a spot to fourth overall. Since Cohen is widely thought to have the most potential of any skater in the field, it is easy to forget that this is only Cohen’s first World Championship and second major ISU Championship– a very respectable debut that seems disappointing only in light of the magical performances she put out to make the Olympic team.
Japan’s excellent finish at these World Championships continued with relative newcomer Yoshie Onda taking home fifth place and qualifying three Japanese ladies for next year. The most ambitious jumper of the field, Onda stood up on a two-footed triple Axel attempt in the qualifying round– the closest any lady has come to landing the jump since her countrywoman Midori Ito retired. Onda landed seven triples in her free skate, the most of any lady in the competition, but her weak presentation marks held her back in both the short and free programs.
The third American entrant, Jennifer Kirk, entered the World Championships as a replacement for Sarah Hughes, who had inadequate time to prepare, and Angela Nikodinov, who dislocated her shoulder. Breaking in new boots and coming off a two-week old coaching change, Kirk made it through the qualifying round with a respectable skate, but fell twice in the short program and placed fifteenth. Known for her grit and competitive ability, it was unusual to see such mistakes from Kirk, who later announced that she was suffering from a hip injury and withdrew from the competition.
The most mysterious withdrawal, however, was Russia’s Maria Butyrskaya. After the former World Champion struggled to a sixth-place finish in her qualifying round, she withdrew from the competition and immediately returned home without providing a reason. The 29-year-old Russian will retire from eligible competition.
Kwan and Slutskaya both have tentatively committed to retaining their Olympic eligibility, though not necessarily to competing the entire eligible circuit. Sarah Hughes intends to come back to seek a national and world title to go along with the Olympic title that she won in Salt Lake City last month. With newcomers like Onda and Cohen pushing the technical envelope, the rush for the podium could become quite crowded in the years to come.