Ice Network

Volosozhar, Trankov head and shoulders above rest

Russians break own world record in short; Germans solidly in second
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Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov skated about as perfect a program as one can in winning the short in Budapest. -Getty Images

Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov won the pairs short program Friday at the 2014 European Figure Skating Championships, six points ahead of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy (83.98 to 76.76 points for the Germans). The two other Russian teams, Vera Barazova and Yuri Larionov (71.70), and Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (70.90), hit the 70-point mark as well and are sitting in third and fourth place, respectively. Last year's European bronze medalists, Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek of Italy, are fifth, ahead of France's Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès. All of the top six pairs skated without major mistakes, proving that most of the major contenders are now getting ready for the Olympic Games.

The pairs competition is providing one of the major thrills of these European championships, and the short program looked like an Olympic pre-final, with Savchenko and Szolkowy locked in a struggle for first place with their perennial rivals, Volosozhar and Trankov. There was no real battle Friday night, though, as the Russians skated perfect and the Germans slightly faltered on the landing on their throw triple flip. But looking at such different styles, it was obvious that the battle is far from over.

Skating to their now famous "Masquerade Waltz," Countess Volosozhar and General Trankov (after Lermontov's poem) displayed power, unison, and long and various edges, flying on their feet from one edge to the next, just like a Jeremy Abbott or a Patrick Chan does in singles skating. Each of their elements was not only perfect but superior. Their triple twist was impressive, their triple toes in sync, and their throw loop a thrill. Each element was skated at an incredible speed, and all five were rewarded with a Level 4. They seemed to be so much above their sport that they could create art.

They amassed 38.32 points for their components, with an average of 9.60.

"We're pleased with our performance, of course," Trankov said after their program, "But you have to work always when you want to have a gold medal. We need to avoid any surprises, as we had some in the past."

Savchenko and Szolkowy were also striving for on-ice and in-air perfection, as they always are. Their emotional rendition of "When Winter Comes," arranged for the violin, was so different from the Russians' program. The Russians appeared powerful and impossible to stop; the Germans, by contrast, as angelic humans.

The structure of their program was, however, similar to that of the Russians (and to most pairs), as they started with their three triples (throw flip, twist lift, toe loop) before going into the death spiral, lift, step sequence and spin. Savchenko two-footed their opening throw triple flip, but from then on, their program was as pure as crystal, until an exquisitely romantic combination spin that seems endless, where he covers her protectively with his strength and size.

"Aliona has struggled with a cold," coach Ingo Steuer explained afterwards. That may be the reason why the team did not attempt its trademark throw triple Axel.

Savchenko and Szolkowy seem to have changed tremendously this last season: They smile. Until last year, they seemed always so concentrated on skating perfectly. Is it the age? Savchenko will be celebrating her 30th birthday on the ice Sunday, and Szolkowy, at 34, is the oldest competitor in Budapest.

"This is their last competitive season," explained journalist Tatiana Flade, who knows the pair quite well. "They have decided to better enjoy what they are living in that special season."

The main problem, when a sport is so much dominated by two titans, is that there is only one spot left on the podium. The main problem becomes even bigger when the four main contenders for that third spot skate flawlessly, as was the case Friday afternoon.

Bazarova and Larionov skated an entertaining routine to Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Diminutive (though gracious) Bazarova flew in the air like a Tinkerbell around the ice -- from their opening side-by-side triple toe through their powerful triple twist and throw triple flip.

The third Russian couple, Stolbova and Klimov, concluded the event and presented the most contemporary program of the field to Jesse Cook's "Surrender." They were a bit less brilliant than Bazarova and Larionov were, maybe, even though their components mark was slightly superior to that of their teammates (31.91 points for Stolbova and Klimov versus 31.60 for Bazarova and Larionov).

Berton and Hotarek were one of the few pairs to place a lift in the middle of their triples. Their triple toes were superb, and their throw triple loop flew high. Most spectacular was their reverse lasso lift, as Berton stayed straight, in a 2-p.m. position, in the corner of the rink. ("I was almost frightened when I saw it the first time!" coach Jason Dungjen said half laughingly afterward!)

"The European championship is really the main goal of our season," James and Ciprès had said at the start of the year. The team has reached a new level in their unison, and they skated to Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" with amplitude and power.

"We love this program," Ciprès said. "It's exactly the syle we were looking for: It's jazzy, and we can play, move and dance to it. The number of elements does not allow for an intricate choreography, but the music allows us to go directly to our point."

There is no better competition than when all competitors are in top form and skate at their best. In that respect, the free program should be exciting -- even more than the short!