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Many favorites return to the spotlight in Torino

Plushenko decides to sit out world championships

The Russian Federation stripped Evgeni Plushenko of his eligibility in June after not receiving permission to perform in a skating show.
The Russian Federation stripped Evgeni Plushenko of his eligibility in June after not receiving permission to perform in a skating show. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/18/2010) - The world championships kick off in Torino next week, and so far it looks as if most of the freshly minted Vancouver Olympic medalists will be on hand.

At the 2006 worlds in Calgary, none of the Olympic gold medalists took part. This time around, two -- Yu-Na Kim and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir -- plan to compete.

Among the men, Olympic and world champion Evan Lysacek bowed out early, as did two-time world champion Stéphane Lambiel, who placed fourth in Vancouver, and sixth-place finisher Johnny Weir.

Friday the Russian Skating Federation announced Evgeni Plushenko, who placed 1.31 points behind Lysacek in Vancouver and was favored to win his fourth world title in Torino, has withdrawn after doctors advised the three-time world champion to take a two-week break. Sergei Voronov will replace the 2006 Olympic champion.

While Lysacek, Plushenko and Weir have left the door open for competitive returns, Lambiel announced his retirement. Barring an ISU rule change, the Swiss star's plans to participate in this weekend's Thin Ice pro event will cost him his competitive eligibility.

Japan's contingent, including Daisuke Takahashi, who became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic figure skating medal, a bronze, in Vancouver; seventh-place finisher Nobunari Oda; and eighth-place finisher Takahiko Kozuka, will also be strong, especially if they can crank up their quads. Reigning world silver medalist Patrick Chan, fifth in Vancouver, will challenge for the podium if his triple Axel is solid.

U.S. hopes rest largely on Jeremy Abbott, ninth in Vancouver after a disappointing short program. The two-time U.S. champion plans to bring a new attitude to Torino.

"I want to go out and skate well; I want to give myself the opportunity to do the best I can," Abbott said. "I'm not worried about winning, I'm not worried about the podium -- obviously that's where I want to be, but I'm not putting so much weight on that. I'm putting the emphasis on the performance and just getting my job done."

Abbott is joined by Ryan Bradley, who placed 15th at his previous trip to worlds in 2007. Two-time world junior champion Adam Rippon will make his senior world debut.

2007 world champion Brian Joubert, an embarrassing 16th in Vancouver, will seek redemption in Torino after winning a test skate, arranged by the French Skating Federation, against Alban Préaubert earlier this week. He and up-and-coming Florent Amodio carry the banner for France.

The ladies event looks to be another showdown between South Korea's Kim and Japan's Mao Asada, with the Olympic champion -- who won by 23 points in Vancouver -- heavily favored to win her second world title. Miki Ando, who like Kim and Asada has a world title on her resume, will hope to improve on her fifth-place Olympic finish.

Among the top ladies, only Canada's Olympic bronze medalist Joannie Rochette -- whose mother, Therese, died suddenly shortly before her short program in Vancouver -- is skipping the event. She plans to perform an ISU-approved special exhibition, in memory of her mother, at Thin Ice later this week, then join Smucker's Stars on Ice for its Florida shows.

"With everything that has happened over the past few weeks, I have missed a significant amount of training time," Rochette said. "That means I'm not prepared either emotionally or physically to skate well at these championships and once again challenge for the podium."

U.S. ladies Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt, who placed fourth and seventh, respectively, in Vancouver, have a good chance to qualify three U.S. ladies for next season's worlds. Nagasu seeks to build on personal best programs at the Olympics, where she was credited with six clean triples, including a huge double Axel-triple toe, in her free skate.

The Olympics were a bit more of a mixed bag for Flatt: the U.S. champion had career-best program component scores, but had two triple flips downgraded in her free skate.

"They felt fine," Flatt said of the jumps. "They felt normal. I'll have to take a closer look when I get home. ... As far as I can remember, I've never gotten it downgraded."

Flatt's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, said it was the first time his skater had had the jump downgraded in senior international competition.

"It was a surprise, but we're definitely going to take a look at it and do what we need to do, so it doesn't happen again," he said. "A lot of good things happened at the Olympics, too. Rachael's program component scores were higher than ever before."

Europe's best hope is Laura Lepistö, the Finnish champion and European silver medalist, who skated a fourth-place free in Vancouver to finish sixth overall. Skating in her home country, European champion Carolina Kostner should put on a better show than her 16th-place Olympic finish.

After capping their 20-year career with gold in Vancouver, China's Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao have re-joined Smucker's Stars on Ice. Olympic silver medalists Qing Pang and Jian Tong -- who defeated their long-time teammates in the free skate in Vancouver -- and reigning world silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, both look strong for the podium.

Reigning German world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who settled for bronze in Vancouver after Szolkowy fell on a double Axel, seek their third world title in Torino. Two Russian pairs, European champions Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, and Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov, will also challenge for the podium.

The Florida-based contingent of U.S. silver medalists Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, 10th in Vancouver, and U.S. champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, who placed 13th, think they can improve upon their Vancouver finishes in Torino.

"We want to build off these performances," Barrett said. "Our big goal is to qualify three U.S. teams for [2011] worlds next season. The U.S. has a lot to offer in pairs, and I think we showed that here."

Jim Peterson, who coaches both U.S. teams in Ellenton, Fla., added that while it is an ambitious goal, "It gives us something to shoot for."

"We have a full month to train; we'll get Caydee and Jeremy's death spirals organized," the coach said in Vancouver. "We know what the weaknesses are."

Ice dance will be the rubber match of the season for Olympic champions Virtue and Moir of Canada, and their training partners, Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the two-time U.S. champions.

Davis and White defeated the Canadians at the Grand Prix Final in December, then placed 5.83 points behind Virtue and Moir in Vancouver.

With reigning world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin opting out of worlds in favor of joining a tour; U.S. world silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto also ending their season; and 2008 world champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder retiring from competition, the third spot on the podium could be face-off between European silver medalists Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali of Italy, who placed fifth in Vancouver, and French champions Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, who were sixth.

The U.S. looks strong to maintain its three worlds spots, with the other two American teams, U.S. bronze medalists Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates -- 11th in Vancouver -- and Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre both capable of top-ten finishes.