Figure Skating
Skater Bios
 Monday, February 14
Russian stars redeem themselves
Associated Press

 VIENNA, Austria -- For Elena Berezhnaya, it was a chance to cast aside a disappointing winter. And she seized it

A season of troubles on and off the ice was put on hold as she and Anton Sikharulidze took their second European pairs title Wednesday to go along with two world victories.

"This whole season, we, I have had some problems with my skating, so it was very important for me to do well," Berezhnaya said. "It was a big pressure on me."

Berezhnaya & Sikharulidze
Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze took their second European Pairs title.

Another Russian making a comeback, Irina Slutskaya, was impressive in her return to the European championships in the women's competition as Russia continued to pile up medals.

The men's event, which has Alexei Yagudin and Evgeny Plushenko in the top positions, concludes today. Only the ice dance title will evade Russian rule, with France's Russian-born Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat in front. That also finished today.

The pairs was another Russian victory for Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, who have been erratic the past few months.

Since winning the world title for the second time last March, they have struggled. She has made numerous mistakes through the season, which led to thirds in Skate America and the Grand Prix Final.

Since moving to New Jersey two years ago, Berezhnaya has had trouble adjusting, which was not helped when her mother was denied a visa three times to visit her.

All these things led to a scene backstage at Skate Canada. TV cameras showed Sikharulidze yelling at her and throwing his team jacket away. Then she missed practice the next day.

But on Wednesday night they delivered a strong, emotional performance to win the long program after being second in the short program.

"I'm so glad it's over," a weary Berezhnaya said. "Now we can relax a little bit."

Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov, leading after the short program, dropped to second after a major error on the opening jump overshadowed the rest of the routine.

"It's been a difficult season, but it's not finished yet," warned Tikhonov, who won the European title with Petrova last year, vaulting from fifth when Berezhnaya became ill and had to withdraw from the event.

Third place went to last year's runners-up, Dorota Zagorska and Mariusz Siudek of Poland.

With a lyrical routine to Tchaikovsky's "Sentimental Waltz," Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze's grace and elegance earned them 5.9s across the board for artistic impression. Only Berezhnaya's scaled-down jump marred an otherwise clean routine.

Petrova, meanwhile, aborted a triple jump in the opening seconds of their routine, costing the couple dearly.

"I just didn't take off for the triple toe," Petrova said. "The rest was OK."

Meanwhile, Slutskaya established herself as a clear favorite heading into the short program of the women's event with a solid routine that included six triple jumps.

But what Slutskaya really wants is the title she lost to compatriot and two-time defending champion Maria Butyrskaya in 1998.

Slutskaya became the first Russian or Soviet woman to win a European title when she was only 16, then come back to successfully defend her title the next year.

She failed to qualify for the cut-throat Russian national squad last year, but re-emerged this year by winning the national championships, the Cup of Russia and the Grand Prix final in January, beating Michelle Kwan with two triple-triple combinations.

In the qualifying Wednesday, Slutsksaya's performance to "Carmen" earned her two 5.8s and four 5.7s in technical merit, and marks of up to 5.9 in artistic scores.

In contrast, Butyrskaya appeared shaky, completing only three triple jumps and making as many major blunders.

Butyrskaya will not only have to contend with the determined Slutskaya in Friday's short program, but also compatriot Viktoria Volchkova, who ranked second in her group behind Slutskaya.

Volchkova started with five triples in the first half of her routine before fading slightly.


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