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Savchenko and Szolkowy Stake Their Claim

The 2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships opened in Los Angeles yesterday with the pairs discipline the main draw at the Staples Center. Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy won the pairs short program and staked their claim to what they hope will be their second straight set of gold medals at the global competition. Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov of Russia came in second and China’s Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang were third.

In an evening where any mistake sent the teams stumbling down the rankings, Savchenko and Szolkowy were flawless. They nailed all their difficult elements and earned 72.30 points (41.26 element score/31.04 program component score), which was a season best for them.

“Our practice went well and we were very focused on everything we had to do. In practice we never had major problems with the short program, but in competition we were sometimes nervous,” Szolkowy said.
Savchenko and Szolkowy had drawn to skate last out of the 25 couples. Their dynamic routine to “Lost in Space” was a crowd-pleaser. The Germans hit beautiful side-by-side triple toe loops, a throw triple flip and a triple twist. They earned level fours for their spins, spirals and their lift. The crowd was behind them and gave the Germans a standing ovation when their high score came up.

“What makes us sleep well tonight is that we did well and we are in first place, but we know that everything will be decided in the free program and the difference in points to second, third or fourth place is not big,” Szolkowy said.

Kawaguchi and Smirnov earned 68.94 points (38.94/30.00), which was a season best for them. “I am happy with what we’ve done tonight and the levels of our elements. Now my goal is to skate our free program with no mistake. I don’t want to think of medals now,” Kawaguchi said.

The European silver medalists performed a balletic program to “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens. They opened with a solid triple toe followed by a triple twist and a throw triple loop. The Russians produced strong spins, spirals and a difficult lift that all each graded a level four by the technical panel.

“I am very happy with the way we skated tonight but I think that there is no limit to perfection and we can still do better,” Smirnov said.

Zhang and Zhang sparkled as well in their romantic routine to “Riding on the Wings of Songs.” The reigning World silver medalists compiled 67.42 points (38.66/28.76). “We’re very satisfied with our performance today,” Hao Zhang said. “This is definitely our best short program in the entire season. Hopefully we’ll be able to perform up to our level tomorrow as well.”

Zhang and Zhang landed a big triple twist, a high throw triple loop and side-by-side triple Salchows as well as two level-four spins and a level-four death spiral.

“We love both our programs,” Dan Zhang replied when asked about working with ice dance coaches and choreographers Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband this season. “They are really different in style from what we used to do. We’re trying a lot of new things and I think it’s very good for us.”

Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov are in medal contention, less than one point out of third. They earned 66.88 points. The Russians gave a solid performance of their program to “Nobody Home” by Pink Floyd.

Reigning Four Continents and Grand Prix Final champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong (CHN) came in fifth. Their routine featured a triple toe, a high triple twist and a throw triple loop. They also performed a level-four death spiral and pair combination spin. They earned 65.18 points for their routine.

Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov (UKR) are in sixth place and impressed the crowd with their big triple twist. They earned high levels for their spins and spirals, but she did a three-turn out of the side-by-side triple Salchow and two-footed the throw triple loop (64.10 points).

The dance competition kicked off with the Paso Doble for the compulsory dance. The Paso Doble is a dramatic and powerful Spanish dance which requires good body control and precise footwork.

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin put out a passionate Paso Doble with precise footwork and matching expression.

Shabalin injured his knee at the European Championships in the Compulsory Dance. The Russian duo withdrew from that competition.

“I’m still continuing my recovery. We started almost immediately to train again after the European Championships, but there were a few moments when we were forced to leave out one practice a week because of the problems with my leg,” he said. “Thank God we went through the process of preparation. We are in the best shape of the season so far.”

Domnina and Shabalin scored 40.77 points (element score 21.10/program component score 19.67) last night. “It was good. We maintained the pattern throughout all the three sequences, which is very important,” Shabalin said. “If you are off even a little bit, you can loose points on the technical mark. Technically it was good, and we pulled ourselves together, we had to show the character of the dance, the Corrida (bull fight).”

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are on the comeback trail after his back injury forced them out of the Grand Prix Final and U.S. Championships. “We had to make sure that we put out a strong performance. We’ve been working so hard these last few months to come back and get this dance ready,” Agosto said.

The Americans scored 39.65 points (20.26/19.39). “I just think that this is a great dance to start the competition off with because our mindset is that we’re fighting,” Belbin said. “We had to fight for months to get through Ben’s injury and to get through last season with the disappointing finish at Worlds. It’s just been a fight for so long so we felt that the Paso was the perfect dance to open the door for this event. It’s only the beginning and we feel like we want even more.”

Reigning World silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir showed off their precision and speed as well in the Paso Doble and earned 39.37 points (20.48/18.99). “We were pleased with our performance. It was fun. We had a ton of fun. Our goal was to dance and really sell it. What else can you ask for?” Moir said.

“After Four Continents we had a good chunk of time to train,” Virtue added. “We love the Paso Doble.”

Four Continents champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White (USA) came in fourth with 37.73 points. European champions Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski (RUS) are currently ranked fifth at 37.34 points and Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat (FRA) round out the top six (36.54 points).