Figure Skating
Skater Bios
 Monday, February 14
French couple leads, Berezhnaya overcomes troubles
Associated Press

 VIENNA, Austria -- France's Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat were on the verge of ending the Russians' rule at the European Figure Skating Championships by winning the original portion of the ice dance event Thursday.

Anissina and Peizerat will have a solid lead entering Friday's free dance worth 50 percent of the final score.

With most of their scores between 5.7 and 5.9, they led Italy's Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio. Third were Russia's best hopes, Irina Lobacheva and Ilya Averbukh.

Anissina & Peizerat
Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat are the favorites to win the dance competition.

Russians have swept every title at the Europeans over the past three years but it is unlikely that Lobacheva and Averbukh can move up. World and European champions Angelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov are not competing because of Krylova's back problems.

The Russians were easily ahead in the other events. They went 1-2 in the pairs, with Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze winning in the first final Wednesday night.

Thursday, the men's final had Alexei Yagudin and Evgeny Plushenko vying for the gold medal in the final free routine.

For Berezhnaya, the pairs was a chance to cast aside a winter of discontent. And she seized it. A season of troubles on and off the ice was put on hold as she and Sikharulidze won their second European pairs title to go along with two world victories.

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

Since winning the world title for the second time last March the team - mostly Berezhnaya - has 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, she 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 which was caught by TV cameras and caught Sikharulidze yelling at her, throwing away his team jacket. Berezhnaya missed practice the next day.

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

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.

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

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 their routine.

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

Another Russian making a comeback, Irina Slutskaya, established herself as a favorite heading into the short program of the women's event with a solid routine to "Carmen" that included six triple jumps.

Slutskaya is seeking to regain 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 came back to successfully defend the title the next year.

Then she failed to qualify for the Russian national team last year but reemerged this year, winning the national championship, the Cup of Russia and the Grand Prix final in January, beating Michelle Kwan with two triple-triple combinations.

In the qualifying Wednesday, Slutskaya didn't need them but her performance earned her two 5.8s and four 5.7s in technical merit, and marks of up to 5.9 in artistic scores.

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

Berezhnaya, Sikharulidze capture European pairs title

French invaders threaten Russian rule