Slutskaya wins record 7th European skating title

LYON, France -- Irina Slutskaya never dreamed of topping Sonja Henie or Katarina Witt. Now the Russian stands above both greats.

Slutskaya won her record seventh title at the European figure skating championships Thursday, breaking the mark she'd shared with Henie and Witt.

"Katarina Witt, for me, was the best skater in the world. I never, never thought I could beat her, of course," Slutskaya said. "Maybe in 10 or 20 years, somebody will beat the record and they will say, 'Oh! You know you beat the record of Irina Slutskaya.'"

Slutskaya finished with an overall score of 193.24 points, easily beating fellow Russian Elena Sokolova. She clapped her hands on seeing the scores and said "Seven, seven, seven" into TV cameras.

Sokolova was second with 177.81 points. Italy's Carolina Kostner, who will carry the Italian flag in the opening ceremonies of the Torino Games next month, won the bronze medal.

"I love this pressure. It is not interesting when nobody skates well," Slutskaya said. "I like it when the atmosphere is really competitive like tonight."

Slutskaya's victory puts Russia halfway to another sweep of the European titles. Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin won the pairs crown for a fifth straight year Wednesday. Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov lead the ice dance competition going into Friday's free dance. The men's final is Saturday.

Henie dominated the sport in the 1930s, also winning 10 titles at the world championships and three Olympic gold medals (1928, 1932, 1936). Witt won her six European titles in the 1980s, along with four world crowns and Olympic golds in 1984 and 1988.

Slutskaya won her initial European crown in 1996, becoming the first Russian or Soviet woman to win the title. She won again in 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2005.

"You know, back then, I was just thinking this is the beginning," she said. "Now I am thinking it is maybe the end."

First, though, there are the Torino Olympics, where Slutskaya will be the heavy favorite to win gold.

Slutskaya has been almost unbeatable since returning from the heart ailment that sidelined her for most of the 2003-04 season and for which she still takes medication. Her only loss since the 2004 world championships was to Mao Asada of Japan at last month's Grand Prix final.

But the 15-year-old is too young for Torino, making Slutskaya a favorite to upgrade the silver she won four years ago in Salt Lake City.

"You never know what can happen," she cautioned. "It's ice. It's slippery. It's life."

Slutskaya put her hand to the ice on a triple flip, one of five triple jumps she did Thursday. But it was a minor mistake, and she easily won the free skate to beat Sokolova.

"I made a small mistake; I don't know why it happened. I was off-balance [but] I was sure I could skate well," Slutskaya said. "I saw all the other skaters -- all the other girls skated well -- and I'm pleased with my second mark; it was better than yesterday."

Sokolova did six triples and was thrilled with her program to a modern version of "Romeo and Juliet." Kostner did five triples but fell once.

"I did all my jumps and did everything for a high level," said Sokolova, who was the silver medalist at the 2003 world championships. "I am happy, but it hasn't sunk in yet."

Earlier, Navka and Kostomarov regained the lead after the original dance. The couple are two-time world and European champions but they were a surprising third after Tuesday's opening segment.

"It was hard to sleep for two nights after the compulsory dance," Navka said.

Kostomarov raised his fist in a winning pose when he saw the scores that put them back into first. They scored 60.79 points for their combination of cha cha, rhumba and samba for a total of 99.00 points.

Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov of Ukraine, who led after Tuesday's compulsories, dropped to second at 97.61.

Lithuania's Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas, who last skated at the Europeans in 2002, were third with 95.79. They are the oldest skaters in the competition with Drobiazko at 34 and Vanagas a year older.