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Volosozhar, Trankov lead Russian pairs sweep

Champions have off day; Germans withdraw because of illness
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Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov made a mess of their 'Jesus Christ Superstar' free skate, but the Russian dynamos still easily won their third straight European title. -Getty Images

Russia took the European podium by storm Sunday afternoon in Budapest and added one more winning strike to its already impressive track record. Even more noticeable was the fact that all three pairs medalists train under the same coaching team.

Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov won the title, as was widely expected, but their performance was marred by several big mistakes. Their teammates, Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, narrowly won the free program (137.08 points compared to 136.40 for Volosozhar and Trankov), holding a four-point advantage in the technical element mark (69.21 to 65.20). Vera Barazova and Yuri Larionov took the bronze medal (129.91 points in the free), also edging Volosozhar and Trankov on the technical side (65.97). Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, who were ranked second after the short program, decided to withdraw after the morning practice.

So the "Battle of the Titans" -- a clash between two of the major contenders for Olympic gold -- did not happen. The Germans had mentioned earlier in the season (though unofficially) that they could skip Europeans, especially after their victory at the Grand Prix Final, ahead of the Russians. They had decided to come to Budapest, but Savchenko caught a cold and had to fight during the short program. Their morning practice seemed excellent, but Savchenko's sickness may have taken its toll enough that they made the decision to leave the competition. Their presence, given the outcome of Volosozhar and Trankov's free skate, could have changed the final rankings significantly.

Volosozhar and Trankov ended their program with mouths and eyes wide open in awe and disbelief. How could their program include so many mistakes at once? Their triple twist lift was superlative (Level 4 and 8.30 points), but Trankov had difficulty landing their side-by-side triple Salchow, and he also fell on their side-by-side triple toes. She then fell when landing their throw triple Salchow. The team has the most powerful lifts (9.05 and 9.10 points for their Group 5 lifts), they have the longest throw loop, but Sunday they did not have the landings. Trankov graciously acknowledged that "all the mistakes are my own responsibility."

"I don't understand what happened yet," he explained. "Today was many surprises for me. I was not tired; I was not nervous. We did not have much pressure, as we were so much ahead of our competitors before skating. Avoiding such surprises will be a question for our coaches to solve, in order to prepare best for the Olympics."

Volosozhar and Trankov were awarded Level 4 for each of their elements, except the choreographic sequence. This, plus their superior components (9.2 average), kept them in the lead (220.38 compared to 207.98 for Stolbova and Klimov and 201.63 for Bazarova and Larionov). The 9.21 awarded by the judging panel for the team's skating skills might seem a bit overvalued, however, considering the two falls.

Stolbova and Klimov certainly got the wildest appreciation from the crowd. Their elegant program to The Addams Family was perfect and underlined their chiseled choreography. Stolbova's miming throughout the program, especially in their choreographic sequence, was a show in itself. The team was awarded an average component mark of 8.5, the second best in the field, which was consistent with its final ranking.

"We beat our season's best," Klimov said at the end, "And we are glad that the Russian team has won the three first places of this championship."

Bazarova and Larionov, who stood in third place before the free skate, had some difficulty with the landing of their side-by-side jumps (triple toe and double Axel).

"Our goal was to skate clean today, and we did not quite succeed," Larionov commented afterward. "So we can't say that we are happy, but we can't say that we're dissatisfied either, given the result."

The team may, however, lack the unison that once was theirs, when they were younger.

"We are older now, and the connection between the two of us is not perfect yet," Bazarova acknowledged. "And yet, we have worked a lot on our position on the ice with Nikoli Morozov."

The following teams were also quite interesting to watch. Was it because the pairs competition was finally recognized as a most essential one and given the final spot of the Championships (Sunday morning)?

Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek, the Italian pair, skated to their Dracula program with amplitude and ease. Berton fell on their side-by-side triple Salchows, but otherwise, their program was of high quality. The relatively slow music suited their style quite well. They amassed 126.39 points for the free, a new season's best (195.61 points overall), and took fourth place, one spot lower than last season.

Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès also skated a near-flawless program, even validating their side-by-side triple toe-triple toe combination (although James fell at the end of it), which they landed for just the second time in competition.

"That was our objective here," Ciprès explained. "We have landed it every day in practice, and we did it again during practice. Everybody could see that. On the ice, it was a bit rougher. I am really proud of my partner. After she fell, she managed to recompose and skate the rest of the program perfect."

James and Ciprès have achieved a new unison, and that was most visible through the theme of their program. They were skating to the Angels and Demons soundtrack (with Requiem for a Dream as a second part). James had always pretended that "[she was] the angels and Morgan [was] the demons." During their skate, it felt that it was, in fact, the two sides of the same person -- so, Ciprès can be reassured!

Their final Group 3 lift, when Ciprès kneeled down while still carrying James above his head, got "whoas" from the audience. They garnered 122.25 points for the free, a new season's best, and 185.48 points overall, and finished fifth in one of the strongest field in the world.

"The level was simply incredible today," Ciprès said. "Everybody seems so fit and ready!"

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