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Russian ladies 'back to Soviet times'

Ladies' program suffering through dark period

Elena Sokolova appeared uninspired and out of shape in 2007 and wasn't included on the Russian national team.
Elena Sokolova appeared uninspired and out of shape in 2007 and wasn't included on the Russian national team. (Getty Images)

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By Tatiana Flade, special to icenetwork.com
(12/24/2007) - There was a time when any of the top six Russian ladies at Nationals was a good bet for at least a medal at the European Championships and competition was stiff. The Russian Federation had to make tough choices about who to send to the big championships and who to leave at home.

In 1999, Irina Slutskaya, the 1998 World silver medalist, was even left off the team. Maria Butyrskaya became Russia's first ladies world champion that year and Julia Soldatova, a former junior world champion, took the bronze.

In looking ahead to 2008, The Figure Skating Federation of Russia still has tough choices to make about who to send, but this time they have to wonder if the selected skaters will qualify for the free skate.

In 2007, Russian champion Ksenia Doronina went to the European Championships and finished 28th in the short program, not even making the cut for the free skate. "We are back to Soviet times", a Russian official joked sarcastically, referring to the fact that ladies singles was the weak spot of Soviet figure skating for decades.

Only in the 1980s did the first ladies from the Soviet Union make it to World podiums; first Elena Vodorezova, then Kira Ivanova and Anna Kondrashova. But they never were as strong as the wave that started in 1996, when Slutskaya won the first European ladies title for Russia, when Russian ladies swept the podium at the European Championships four times.

The crisis of Russian figure skating has hit the ladies even harder than the other disciplines. Irina Slutskaya retired after the 2006 Olympic Games. Elena Sokolova, who was a strong second to Slutskaya at the 2006 European Championships and finished fourth at Worlds the same year, appeared uninspired and out of shape in 2007 and wasn't even included on the national team. She now is performing in shows. Who is left?

Russian champion Doronina had a less than stellar start to the season. She finished sevent with subpar performances at the Coupe de Nice, a second-tier fall competition in southern France. She recently switched coaches and went from Tatiana Mishina and Alexei Mishin to Alla Piatova. The now 17-year-old didn't skate much better in some national events leading up to Nationals and was replaced on the team for the Cup of Russia Grand Prix event in November.

National silver medalist Alexandra Ievleva was 11th in her debut at the European Championships last year. At least she had a strong short program where she placed sixth, mostly thanks to her excellent spins, spirals and strong presentation. The jumps, however, are not her forte. The 19-year-old so far only has a consistent triple toe, Salchow and loop. At Skate America, she finished seventh, without a Lutz and flip in her programs. After weak performances at some national competitions in November, she was not sent to the Cup of Russia either.

Nina Petushkova and Katarina Gerboldt replaced Doronina and Ievleva. Petushkova, who is a good jumper, but needs to improve her presentation and her spins, did surprisingly well and finished sixth. She was the top ranked Russian lady. Petushkova is a tall 15-year-old who is coached by Slutskaya's long-time coach Zhanna Gromova.

Gerboldt, a student of Mishina and Mishin, still is plagued by inconsistency, although she has improved since she competed at the 2006 World Championships in Calgary, where she finished a distant 26th.

Recently, Russian Federation President Valentin Piseev set his hopes mostly on Arina Martynova. The 17-year-old has a lot of energy and a strong will. She has a triple Lutz, flip and has even landed triple-triple combinations in competition (toe-toe), plus she has a nice style. At the 2007 World Championships, she performed very well in the short program, setting a new personal best. However, the Muscovite has problems staying focused during competition and tends to make a lot of mistakes. She is not always easy to deal with and created a little scandal when she insisted on switching coaches in the fall of 2006 against the will of the Federation.

Now she is coached by Marina Kudriavtseva and feels much happier than she did with her previous club, but she has struggled this season, and her results have gone downhill. At the Cup of Russia, she finished in last place.

"We really have a problem with the ladies," Piseev admitted. Indeed, none of the girls is consistent. Petushkova did well at the Cup of Russia, but just two months earlier she finished 20th at the Moscow City Championships for juniors.

There is some talent in juniors, with skaters such as Jana Smekhnova and Alena Leonova, who both medaled at the Junior Grand Prix, or Margarita Tertytchnaja and Ekaterina Kozyreva, both of whom looked promising but are now fighting typical puberty problems and need to adjust to their new heights and weights.

However, none of these girls is right now at the same level as the top junior skaters such as Mirai Nagasu, Rachel Flatt, Yuki Nishino or Jenni Vähämaa. Veteran coach Alexei Mishin is pessimistic about the situation. "We have to build up the young generation. I only have modest hopes for those who we have right now", he said when asked how Russia can become strong again in figure skating.

Mishin is doing everything in his power and is educating young skaters in St. Petersburg, including 10-year-old Elizaveta Tukhtamysheva. She not only does triple Lutzes, loops, toeloops and Salchows in competition, but also has good spins and a soft, beautiful quality to her skating.

"I never had a girl as a student that could jump so high", Mishin pointed out proudly. He wants to build her up for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sotchi, but it's a long way until those Games. Nevertheless, the young skater has been entered for the senior level of the Russian Nationals this January, though she isn't even age-eligible for juniors internationally. Maybe she'll be at Nationals to get some experience and to put the pressure on the others. After all, when Elizaveta competed at the Coupe of Nice as a novice (which she won), her score was higher than Doronina's, who competed in seniors.