This was supposed to be another year that Irina Slutskaya was vulnerable at the European Championships after she narrowly lost to now retired Maria Butyrskaya last year. Slutskaya had not won an event since winning her first World Championships in Japan last March. She had already lost the Russian Championships to Elena Sokolova, rejuvenated after reuniting with former coach Victor Kudriatsev after a three-year absence, the Cup of Russia to four-time European bronze medalist Victoria Volchkova, and the NHK Trophy to Yoshie Onda. “This is a very tough season for me and I want it to end,” said Slutskaya, who had no holidays last summer and was sick with bronchitis for several weeks. Slutskaya was also facing a strong Finnish contingent in Elina Kettunen and Susanna Pöykiö, fifth and sixth last season, and revitalized Alisa Drei, who beat both the other Finns for the national title. With Finland’s lone spot at Worlds dependent upon the best finisher, the Finns were willing to gamble.
The qualifiers started out as expected with Victoria Volchkova winning Group B against a relatively weak field. Only three of the ladies from the group made the top ten by the end of the competition. Volchkova skated to Vivaldi’s “Air” and “Four Seasons” and showed a marked improvement in presentation over last season, but she still showed the ill effects of a bout with pneumonia that kept her out of Russian Nationals and off the ice for three weeks. She only landed a triple lutz/double toe loop combination and three other triples. She was followed by Kettunen, who landed three triples, including a lutz, and a double Axel in her “Les Miserables” program. It has been a tough year for Kettunen, who had to change coaches and training locations. Perennial contender Elena Liashenko of the Ukraine was third in the group after landing a triple lutz/double toe loop combination and two other triples while skating to “Canone Inverso“.
The second qualifying round was a lot closer. All of the eventual medalists came from Group A. The surprise winner was Sokolova, who landed a triple lutz/triple toe loop, five other triples and a double Axel in her “Notre Dame de Paris” program, which was revamped from parts of programs she has used in the last two seasons. Slutskaya was second after completing a triple salchow/double loop combination, four triples and a double Axel, but she missed both lutz attempts. Third went to this season’s most successful skater, Carolina Kostner of Italy, who has been competing at both junior and senior events, winning four golds plus a silver at the Junior Grand Prix Final. “I can’t believe I skated so well,” said Kostner, who said she simply added a spin and some footwork to change from junior to senior programs. She landed triple lutz/triple toe and triple flip/triple toe, just misses a triple salchow/double Axel when she put a hand down on the first jump, and hit two more triples.
In the short program, Sokolova again took the lead, closely followed by Slutskaya. Sokolova used “Bacchanale” from “Samson and Delilah” for her program, which included a triple lutz/triple toe, triple flip and double Axel. Slutskaya executed a triple lutz/double toe, triple flip and solid double Axel, the same jumps as Hungary’s Julia Sebestyen, who completed her first clean short at Europeans to finish third. Slutskaya skated to “Victory” by Bond while Sebestyen used Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance”. Liashenko finished fourth, Volchkova missed her triple flip and finished sixth, and Kostner, skating to a classical piece by Pachebel, finished seventh.
That set up an exciting free skate battle between the two Russians for the gold. Skating first, Sokolova landed her triple lutz/triple toe, triple loop/double toe, and three more triples, missing on only a two-footed triple lutz. Slutskaya, skating last, had watched the others and knew what she needed to win. She tried triple lutz/triple loop, but just missed on the second jump and fell. But she came up smiling and the true competitor emerged. She landed a triple lutz/double toe and four more triples, and that added to her double Biellmann spin and high presentation marks meant a fifth title for the 23-year-old. Slutskaya referred to herself as an old lady afterwards, stating, “I see my successors coming up on me. The young girls are doing triples in practice in a snap and they’re only 15 years old. It’s hard to be on the top for so many years.”
Sokolova took the silver medal in her first Europeans, while Sebestyen hung on for the bronze, landing a triple lutz/double toe plus triple salchow and triple lutz. That was the first medal for Hungary since Krisztina Czako took the bronze in 1997. Kostner moved up to fourth with a second strong free program that again included two triple-triple combinations. Liashenko finished fifth overall while Finland’s Alisa Drei was fifth in the free and seventh overall after landing seven triples in her free program. Drei had faded to tenth in the short after a heavy fall in the short that injured her knee.