As amazing as it sounds that Alexei Yagudin has won the Grand Prix Final, the European Championships, and Olympics, what’s even more amazing is that he won all of them in a span of approximately nine weeks. Add to that a trip to Australia last September for the Goodwill Games, two Grand Prix events in Canada and France, and an appearance at the Russian Nationals (where he would later withdraw with injury), and Yagudin would seem insane for wanting to travel from his training base in Newington, Conn. all the way to Nagano, Japan for the World Championships, a title that he had already won three times previously.
But that’s the type of competitor Yagudin is. Perhaps the only thing more evident than his love for competition is his love of performance. Yagudin was simply showered with rare 6.0s in short program. He received one perfect mark of 6.0 for required elements, the first awarded since 1989 and the only one awarded to a man for as long as anyone can remember. He racked up five more perfect marks for presentation in the short in addition to two in the free. His total of eight perfect marks in the same World Championship leaves him second to only Torvill and Dean in the history books.
These days, the emphasis in men’s competition is on quadruple jumps. Yagudin does them, too. He opens his short program with a quad toe-triple toe, and the first two elements in his free skate are back-to-back quadruple toe loops, one with a triple toe–and in this case, also a double loop–tacked on the end. But Yagudin truly shines when the quads are finished. The crispness of his footwork, the effortless glide to his stroking, and the captivating performance ability that never fails to bring an audience to its feet all make Yagudin the most decorated and arguably the best skater of the past two decades. Perhaps even the best of all time. Throughout the world, from Salt Lake City to Nagano, Yagudin has left nary an audience unmoved.
What’s even more spectacular is that this great champion has indicated he would like to remain in the eligible ranks. In fact, he and coach Tatiana Tarasova spent the precious few weeks between the Olympics and World Championships choreographing a new short program for next year. Yagudin has won everything there is to win in skating– except, as he reminds us, Russian Nationals– yet he chooses to stay in. For love and for glory, Alexei Yagudin.
If anyone can stage a challenge to Yagudin in the next few years, the two men to do it would be Russian teammate and archrival, Evgeny Plushenko, and U.S. Champion Timothy Goebel. Plushenko, the 2001 World Champion and 2002 Olympic silver medalist, was a late withdrawal from the World Champions due to a nagging groin injury. After going through three different free skates in an attempt to defeat Yagudin, Plushenko came up short in Salt Lake City, where his attempt to make history with a quad toe-triple toe-triple loop combination eluded him. Earlier in the season, Plushenko became only the third man to attempt a quad lutz in competition, but that, too, eluded him. If he is to defeat Yagudin, Plushenko needs to come back healthy and with a trump card next season.
Goebel is generally referred to as the “Quad King,” for his mastery of the quadruple jumps that plague so many of the other men. While many of his competitors struggle to complete one quad in their free skate, Goebel performs three–two salchows (one in combination) and one toe loop. The brilliant technical mastery that Goebel displayed en route to winning the bronze medal at Salt Lake City was not quite as perfect in Nagano, but the bigger story was the nod he received for presentation. Though still not an elegant skater, Goebel has taken steps to clean up his line and improve his choreography, and those attempts resulted in marks of up to 5.8 for presentation. Whereas even a year ago, Goebel may have lost the free skate to skaters like Takeshi Honda and Alexander Abt on the second mark, he can now hold his own. As one of the few skaters who has beaten Yagudin at one point or another (2000 Skate America, for Goebel specifically), the 21-year old American’s skills will surely keep Yagudin on his toes in the years to come.
In a decision thrilling to the home crowd, five of the nine judges awarded third-place ordinals, and hence the bronze medal, to Japan’s own Takeshi Honda, 21, who trains with Doug Leigh in Barrie, Ont., Canada. A sophisticated skater long thought to be among the best in the world, Honda has had an erratic series of finishes in the 5-10 range at the World Championship because of inability to lay down back-to-back clean programs. Honda’s free skate was not flawless– he fell on a second quadruple toe and fell out of a triple lutz later in the program– but he did complete an all-important quadruple toe loop-double toe loop combination, something that eluded Russia’s Abt, who did have eight triples to Honda’s five. Boosted by presentation marks that reflected his attention to musicality and fluidity, Honda stood on the world podium for the first time in his career.
Rebounding from a disastrous 2000-01 season where he did not even qualify for the World Championships, former U.S. Champion and world bronze medalist Michael Weiss’s sixth place was a victory of sorts. After all, he finished a miserable eighth in a field of eleven at Nations Cup in November and barely made the U.S. Olympic Team after what some perceived as overly generous judging. In both the qualifying round and final free skates, Weiss attempted the rare quadruple lutz for the first time since 1998. Though he did not land either try, even the attempt was gutsy for a skater who couldn’t seem to land most of his triples just a few short months ago. The combined finish of Goebel and Weiss easily qualified three American men for next year’s World Championships in Washington, DC, which is practically in Weiss’ backyard. He has yet to decide whether he will be among those vying for a berth on next year’s World Championship team.
The third U.S. man, 21-year old Matt Savoie, made his debut at Worlds at last after a combination of poor judging and bad luck at U.S. Nationals kept him off the past three World Championship teams. Without a quad attempt, Savoie could not hope to contend for a top spot, but his twelfth-place debut shows promise for the Bradley University senior political science major.