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Germans hold off Russians in thrilling pairs finale

Savchenko and Szolkowy escape Nice just 0.11 points ahead of surging Volosozhar and Trankov

Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy edged their Russian rivals by a mere 0.11 points.
Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy edged their Russian rivals by a mere 0.11 points. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(03/30/2012) - Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, from Russia, had let the gold medal fly away to Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy at their last encounter, the Grand Prix Final last December, by a minimal 0.18 points. This time, at the 2012 World Championships, they did even worse, as the German won their fourth world gold medal by 0.11 points (201.49 for the Germans, 201.38 for the Russians).

Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran, from Japan, confirmed their third-place finish from the short program and took the bronze medal with 189.69 points. Caydee Denney and John Coughlin finished eighth and Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker, 10th, as both teams competed in their first worlds.

Savchenko and Szolkowy had mentioned right since the start of the season that they wanted to push the limits and "always be ahead of competition." Savchenko and Szolkowy had to give up their throw triple Axel along the way and withdraw from the European championships in January because of a thigh injury. Yet they did not let go of their other technical innovations nor their aim at perfection.

Their Pina free was, however, as sober as their costumes (a simple dark green unitard, in consistency with their theme), and not nearly as emotional as the Russians' program.

They landed their trademark triple toe-triple toe combination and a throw triple Salchow at the last second of their program. One area of research they have explored more than any other couple is their entry and exit into their lifts. Their only two mistakes were a singled Axel and a missed pair combination spin (on Szolkowy's part).

They got the second-best mark for the free skate, yet scored eight points behind Volosozhar and Trankov, who had skated in the preceding group because of their poor placing in the short program (eighth).

"Our performance was enough," Szolkowy conceded afterward with a not-so-happy smile. "We know what we have to work for. I did not know I could miss that spin, really."

"We definitely need to show our very best," a disappointed Trankov said earlier after he and Volosozhar skated their less than stellar short program.

They came back with a surreal free program of goose-bump intensity, in front of an 8,000-person crowd. They landed each one of their elements with both precision and emotion. Their triple Salchow and toe loop were perfect, just like their throw triple loop and Salchow. Both their lasso lifts earned them 8.55 points, and their throw triple loop sailed across the rink. Volosozhar and Trankov won the free by almost eight points, but that was not enough to catch the points they had lost Wednesday.

"We feel something special today," Trankov said. "We were eighth after the short program, and I don't think that it ever happened to anyone to catch back from there.

"Now, we have double feelings. We have won all short programs this season, and here we never skated so badly. But today we were not that couple who had skated such a bad short program," he said.

"Just like Max said," Szolkowy said, "It's never over until it's over. And even when you think it's over, you can also pull up. Today we were lucky."

Takahashi and Tran held on in their free skate to André Mathieu's "Concerto de Québec" (in French Canadian). Skating in light beige with their Asian grace and North-American precision, Takahashi and Tran landed a clean parallel triple toe-double toe, and throw triple Salchow and toe loop, even though both double-footed their parallel triple Salchow.

They skated last, but the show was not over as they left the ice. Takahashi's eyes, as big as round pebbles when she discovered that she had made the podium, were a show in themselves. She jumped all over the kiss and cry zone.

"We were not expecting this tonight, but here we are," Tran said.

"We had two great performances, and it will be a good memory for my skating life." Takahashi added.

Takahashi and Tran are only 20 and 21 years old, and they have become forever the first Japanese pair to ever medal at a senior world championship.

"I hope many other skaters in Japan will be willing to skate pairs after us," Takahashi said.

Qing Pang and Jian Tong, from China, dropped to fourth place after he fell heavily on their opening parallel triple toe and she two-footed their throw triple loop. Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, from Canada, skated what may have been the best program of their season, landing every element. Their program was as emotional and strong as a relation between two human beings can be. They finished fourth in the free and fifth overall.

Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov were skating in the second group, after their disastrous short program (they finished 11th). These two seem to have a crush on classical, popular romantic tunes. Their free skate to Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune" was fluid and emotional. They would know how to skate to pure silence. Their skating seemed a bit outdated, however; they garnered 122.83 points for their free skate and 182.42 points overall, landing in a distant seventh place (and fifth in the free).

Denney and Coughlin offered a beautiful "Nessun Dorma" to the audience. They started off with their trademark incredibly high triple twist and successfully landed all their elements: throw triple loop, parallel triple toes, double Axel-double Axel sequence (she singled the first one, though) and a beautiful throw triple flip. Their powerful lifts were acknowledged by the audience and the judges alike. The audience went wild on their last lift, where Coughlin carries Denney throughout the entire length of the rink, as if she were a queen to her people.

"At that point, I said to myself that I really needed to remain focused," Coughlin said afterward, laughing.

"It was such a lot of fun," Denney added.

"We skated in a group where most teams could stand on the podium (Volosozhar and Trankov did, eventually)," Coughlin said, "And it's good to feel that we belong to that group. There is a lot more ahead of us. We will remember this forever".

"Of course, our goal No. 1 will be the Olympics in Sochi," Brubaker said prior to the competition. "Each competition until then will be a stepping stone toward that ultimate goal. But whatever the big ideas you may have, you should never be too far ahead of yourself."

Marley and Brubaker's program to Rachmaninoff's music was one of these milestones. They skated it at an amazing speed. They hit their opening triple toe-double toe combination perfectly, as well as their throw triple Lutz. Marley had to endure a fall on their parallel double Axel, and she two-footed their throw triple Salchow. The team posted 111.28 points for their performance and 170.90 points in total, which led them to a deserved 10th place for their first worlds together.

"We felt pretty good," Brubaker commented afterward. "We've been skating together only one and a half years. This season has been really good for us."

"I really tried to stay focused throughout and not let anything go," Marley said.

"Doing those lifts and elements at that speed requires a lot of control, and this is what we try to do in practice," Brubacker said. "Now we need to work on the way we finish our lines and movements. This, combined with our speed, should lead us to the results we want to achieve."

Worth mentioning also is the performance of ninth-place finishers, Wenjing Sui and Cong Han from China. She two-footed their throw quad Salchow and parallel triple toe, but they landed their quad twist and throw triple flip, and inspired strong enthusiasm from the crowd. Pairs skating may be entering into the quad world for good.