| ||Monday, February 14|
|VIENNA, Austria -- If Michelle Kwan had a difficult time with the kiddie corps, imagine how much trouble she'll have with the experienced Irina Slutskaya.
Slutskaya is considered the favorite for the women's event in next month's World Figure Skating Championships. The Russian beat the last two world champions, Kwan and Maria Butyrskaya. She also has completed a precedent-setting triple-triple combination and won the title at the European Skating Championships.
Slutskaya was superb in all three phases of the European competition - qualifying, short and long - this weekend to reclaim the title that Butyrskaya had the past two years.
After almost quitting the sport last year Slutskaya has returned, slimmer, married and with more confidence.
"I am happy I was able to come back and overcome the difficulties I had," Slutskaya said. "My coach, my family and my husband helped me along the way," Slutskaya said.
Slutskaya did a triple lutz-triple loop combination to beat Kwan at the GP final. At the Europeans, she did not need them as a safe, sure routine was more than enough to keep her ahead of Butyrskaya, who had difficulty with her short program.Slutskaya said she was doing triple-triples regularly in practicing and is preparing even more for the worlds, such as a triple-triple-double-double which she did the morning of the free skating competition. Kwan didn't attempt a triple-triple at the American competition that she won, but with a less-than impressive performance after a third in the short program behind 15-year-old Cohen and 14-year-old Sarah Hughes.
Butyrskaya, who beat Kwan for the world title last March, came back after a disappointing short program to come in second at the Europeans. She completed six triple jumps. It could have been seven if she did not miss her second triple lutz.
Butyrskaya was one of three defenders to drop to second as the four titles changed hands at the European championships. However, all the new winners were Russians.
The Russians almost swept the men's competition with Evgeny Plushenko stopping Alexei Yagudin from winning a third straight year.Plushenko won his sixth straight competition, and his only mistake was a slight bobble at the end of his quad-triple-double.
Yagudin was hampered by a broken bone in his right hand, but vowed to be ready for the worlds in his search for the third straight win there.
He skated with a soft cast on his right hand where he broke a bone in a training accident Jan. 25. He was leading entering the free routine after taking the short program.
"A lot happened to me before the Europeans," Yagudin said. "Hopefully nothing more will happen before the worlds. But you never know."
"I have one month left to prepare for the worlds. I think one month is enough," Yagudin said.
The pairs event had Russians finish in the top two spots. Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze beat defending champs Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov.In the ice dance, there were no Russian couples in the top three for the first time in 32 years, and defending champions Angelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov were out because of her back problems. Still there were a number of Russian influences.
Moscow-born Marina Anissina took the title seven years after she moved to France to skate with Gwendal Peizerat. The second-place team of Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio of Italy are coached by Tatiana Tarasova, who had a number of Olympic and world champions when she trained them in the former Soviet Union.Margarita Drobiazko, a Russian-born skater competing for Lithuania, finished third. She and Povilas Vanagas are trained by another famous Russian coach, Elena Tchaikovskaya.
Skating's next generation
Michelle Kwan wins fourth U.S. title
Irina Slutskaya captures European title
ABC Sports Special feature on Naomi Nari Nam and Sasha Cohen
Michelle Kwan wins Nationals (Courtesy: ABC Sports)
Irina Slutskaya wins the ISU Final (Courtesy: ABC Sports)
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