The comeback of 2006 Olympic Champion Evgeni Plushenko was the headline story at the 2011-12 Russian National Championships this week in Saransk, but the depth in ladies and pairs was equally exciting.
At age 29, Plushenko is truly a dinosaur of figure skating who never ceases to amaze. Whether you like him or not, the man deserves respect for his achievements, his work ethic and his commitment to the sport.
He polarizes and attracts the attention of media and fans, which is great for figure skating. The three-time Olympic medalist had no trouble winning his ninth national title, even though he was far from his best. “I had knee surgery only six month ago and after that I had more injury problems, so I was unable to prepare the way I would have liked to,” he said.
“I started landing the quad only a couple of days ago and I was even surprised to pull off a very good one in the warm up (for the short program).
The quad toe in the short program was not as solid but though he leaned forward he still landed on one foot. The planned triple toe for the combination did not happen so he tacked a double toe on the back end of a triple Lutz later on. The triple Axel, which has always been his strongest jump, was strong.
The six-time National Champion picked up a level three for two spins and the footwork, and a level four for the combination spin. He definitely showed improvement in these areas. Most of the component scores were in the 9's, which was flattering in the transition department. Overall the program to an arrangement of music by Edvin Marton has the potential to evolve.
For the free, Plushenko returned to a Tango, this time to “Tango de Roxanne.” The quad was better than in the short, the triple Axels (one with a triple toe) were excellent again, but Plushenko grew tired in the second half, doubling a Lutz and stepping out of a triple Lutz.
Again, he earned level three and four for the spins and a level three for the footwork. Though his technical score was only third best behind Artur Gachinski and Sergei Voronov, the component score was high.
This program, too, needs more mileage, but considering the short preparation it was a good effort. Overall Plushenko scored 259.67 points. “There is still a lot of work left to do,” Plushenko admitted. “In this shape I wouldn't go to the European or World Championships. I would finish 10th or maybe fifth or sixth. This it not what I want. However, I am ready for defeat as well, especially this season.“
Whether Plushenko will be at Europeans in Sheffield next month remains to be seen. As he has not competed internationally since the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, he does not have the minimum technical element score required for eligibility to compete at ISU Championships. This score is ridiculously low for any top competitor and the rule was only introduced to preclude the weakest skaters from competing.
However, the rule is there and, unlike the Grand Prix Series, there is no exception for returning former champions and medalists. Russian Figure Skating Federation president Alexander Gorshkov announced that they would ask the International Skating Union as soon as possible for an exception. If Plushenko goes to Sheffield he will have to compete in the qualifying round as the lowest-ranked Russian skater.
Artur Gachinski has improved since his showing during the Grand Prix Series, although his quad-double toe combination in the short was shaky and he fell on the quad in the long. The 18-year-old overcame that fall quickly and landed six triples including two huge Axels in his routine to “Dracula” and “Interview with a Vampire.” He racked up 249.58 points.
Gachinski, who trains alongside Plushenko under Alexei Mishin, has better programs than in the past and his work with Stéphane Lambiel showed. “I missed the quad in the free skating but I did all the other jumps after that and my spins were strong, so I'm pleased with that,” Gachinski said.
“I was struggling with my quad toe in practice. I've put on two kilograms since Cup of Russia and now have to carry around that extra weight.” He went on to explain that he had to change his diet and take vitamins as some blood parameters were not as they should have been. Gachinski didn't mind placing second. “In many aspects my skating still isn't as good as his (Plushenko's),” he said.
Sergei Voronov returned to the podium after missing it narrowly in 2010. The quad toe in the short was under-rotated, but he hit a nice one in the long together with two beautiful triple Axels to move up from fourth to third. “This year the competition is even stronger with the return of Plushenko and the bronze medal means a lot to me,” the two-time Russian champion said. “I had a full work load at practices heading into this event and I think we'll continue this way after a short break for New Year.
He promised to celebrate New Year's Eve only with Coca Cola light. Voronov accumulated 240.79 points.
Zhan Bush stood in third following the short where he was the only competitor to land a quad-triple toe but slipped to fourth in the free after he two-footed and under-rotated the quad. Defending champion Konstantin Menshov was plagued by inconsistency again and came 7th.
SOTNIKOVA CAPTURES TRIPLE CROWN
The depth in Russian ladies is overwhelming and the fact that 17 out of the 18 girls who competed attempted triple-triple combinations in at least one segment of the competition is telling. There were, however, many mistakes in the free skating.
Adelina Sotnikova captured her third national title with 193.71 points ahead of rising star Julia Lipnitskaia who claimed the silver with 191.65. Alena Leonova earned the bronze.
Sotnikova has improved since the Grand Prix Series. Though the triple Lutz-triple loop combination was under-rotated in the short (and downgraded in the long) the rest of the “Bolero” program in a new all-red costume was strong.
In the free, the 15-year-old tired in the second half, stepped out on a triple Salchow, touched down on the triple loop and popped an Axel. “I haven't even realized yet that I am a three-time Russian champion now, but I feel a great joy inside that I can't express with words,” she said. Sotnikova is slated to compete at the Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria next month.
Lipnitskaia, 13, is famous for her flexibility and consistency. At Russian nationals she made not a single mistake. Lipnitskaia hit seven triples in her free program to “Romeo and Juliet” by Nino Rota. Other than a minus on an edge call on the Lutz her jumps were rock solid and her spins impressive.
“I wasn't nervous, I was completely calm today. I think this was my best performance of the season so far,” the Junior Grand Prix Final champion said.
Leonova missed her triple toe-triple toe in the short but saved the combination with a triple flip-double toe. She stood in fifth place but moved up to take the bronze in the free with a total of 178.15 points. She too, was not error-free, popping a flip and stepping out of the opening triple toe-triple toe. But she never gave up. “I have done everything I could,” Leonova said at the press conference.
“I am relieved that I survived till the end of the program. I am completely exhausted, both emotionally and physically.”
In spite of that she said she did not regret competing, although her coach Nikolai Morozov wanted her to skip the event. “In Canada (at the Grand Prix Final) I had heard that my coach almost withdrew me from nationals,” the 21-year-old said. “I was very surprised. I had always intended to compete at nationals. I wasn't coming here for a placement. I just want to show good skating.“
Ksenia Makarova sat in second after the short but dropped to fourth when she fell on the triple flip and under-rotated three more jumps.
Elena Radionova, 12, finished fifth in her debut at senior nationals. She landed at triple Lutz-triple toe in the short, but missed it in the long.
Elizaveta Tutkamysheva looked tired and overall fell three times in both programs. She finished sixth. Polina Korobeinikova did not skate as well as she did at the Junior Grand Prix Final but still had a few good moments including a double Axel-triple toe in the free skate. She ranked seventh.
BAZAROVA AND LARIONOV CAPTURE PAIRS TITLE
Vera Bazarova and Juri Larionov won their first national title in the absence of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov and Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov. Both couples withdrew to recover from injuries.
Bazarova and Larionov were strong in their “Tosca” short program, showing solid side-by-side triple toes, a nice triple twist and throw triple flip. However, Bazarova struggled with the solo jumps in the “Doctor Zhivago” free program, stumbling on the triple toe and popping the second Axel in the double Axel sequence. She was so upset at her mistakes that at first she couldn't even enjoy the victory.
“We are not too happy with our performance, we didn't do everything and this was my fault. I missed the jumps,” she said. “We'll have to continue working on the jumping elements.” The duo still won comfortably with 194.86 points.
On the other hand, silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov and Anastasia Martiusheva and Alexei Rogonov who captured bronze were very excited about their performances. Their performances showed that the level of Russian pairs skating is on the rise.
Stolbova and Klimov had a little error in the short when she touched down on the throw triple flip, but their innovative free to a modern version of “Polovetsian Dances” was clean. The program included a double twist, an excellent triple toe-double toe double toe as well a throw triple flip and Salchow. “That was an almost clean performance, everything worked, there were just a few little errors. It was our best performance of the season,” Klimov said. The team scored 182.13.
Martiusheva and Rogonov were once a very promising junior pairs team who won silver at 2009 Junior Worlds, but they have struggled since moving up to the senior level, mainly because of her jumping inconsistency. But it was different this time at nationals.
The short to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was almost perfect with a triple Salchow and triple twist, but Martiusheva put her hand down on the throw triple flip.
Performing to “Tristan and Isolde” in the free, the Muscovites executed a triple Salchow, triple twist, throw triple flip and loop. The only glitches were a singled Axel on her part and losing unison in the side-by-side combination spin. With 179.94 points, they dropped one spot to third.
“We only had a mistake on the double Axel, so we could have skated better, but overall we did our job,” Rogonov said. “This was our first step back to serious (high-level) performances.”
Katarina Gerboldt and Alexander Enbert turned in their best performances of the season as well to finish fourth. She had trouble with the side-by-side triple Salchow in both programs, and their triple twist still is not pretty, but the other elements went well.
The new junior team of Vasilisa Davankova and Andrei Deputat was the discovery of the event. They earned the highest technical score in the free skate, executing a triple toe-double toe, double Axel, triple throws and earning level four for the lifts and spins.
On the other hand, Lubov Iliushechkina and Nodari Maisuradze were disappointing. Iliushechkina looks alarmingly thin, almost anorexic, and has no power to land the jumps. The 2009 World Junior champions placed sixth.
BOBROVA AND SOLOVIEV DANCE TO GOLD
Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev repeated as ice dance champions while Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov captured silver and Ekaterina Riazanova and Ilia Tkachenko danced to bronze.
Bobrova and Soloviev looked somewhat shaky in the Latin short dance. Especially the twizzles were not well executed and there were a few wobbles in other places. Their lead of almost five-points over the other two couples seemed generous. The European silver medalists looked better in the free dance and earned the highest levels with all elements earning a level four except the footwork that garnered a level three.
“Technically it maybe wasn't our best skate, but emotionally it felt really strong. Maybe we were a little more nervous because defending a position is always harder“, Bobrova admitted.
“Now we want to prepare well for Europeans to be able to avoid the little errors that marred our performances before,” her partner added.
Ilinykh and Katsalapov started out with great speed and attack in their passionate Latin dance but Ilinykh fell basically on nothing in a standing position. After that she looked a little rattled but they finished without further mistakes.
The dramatic “Ave Maria” free dance easily was the best performance of the season. It had more flow and looked more polished than at the Grand Prix events. However, Katsalapov stumbled on the second twizzle. The twizzles and the combo spin were graded a level three, the diagonal steps were a level two while the lifts all earned a level four.
Riazanova and Tkachenko turned in a strong performance in their Latin short dance but a level two for the first Rhumba pattern held them back. The fluid free dance to “Snowstorm,” a romantic and soft program, was beautiful to watch. There was a wobble on the combination spin and the circular steps were only a level two. Riazanova and Tkachenko lost the free dance portion to World Junior silver medalists Ekaterina Pushkash and Jonathan Guerreiro.
However, considering that Riazanova had suffered a concussion and broken nose in a practice accident on December 13 and was in hospital for a week, before being released at her own risk on December 20, the couple did very well. “We knew that we would not get any benefit of doubt and we had to come (in order to qualify for Europeans),” Riazanova said. “There was no choice.”
Tkachenko celebrated his 25th birthday the day of the free dance but said he had not had time to celebrate. Pushkash and Guerreiro were technically improved since their Grand Prix appearance, but their “Variations of Paganini” program looks a little too frantic in parts.
Nationals was the first competition of the season for reigning World Junior champions Ksenia Monko and Kirill Khaliavin, following his bout with mononucleosis in the early fall. They looked a little rusty but were solid overall to finish fifth.
Originally published in December 2011