- SKATING - Slutskaya tops Kwan to win Grand Prix final

Sunday, February 18
Slutskaya tops Kwan to win Grand Prix final

TOKYO - - Russian Irina Slutskaya topped American rival Michelle Kwan to win the ISU Grand Prix Final on Saturday and establish herself as the favorite for the Olympic gold-medal in Salt Lake City next year.

Slutskaya scored better than Kwan in the short program and first free skate before the two were paired for the championship in a playoff competition for the gold.

That pitted the top skaters in the short program and first free skate in head-to-head matches for medals.

Irina Slutskaya
European champion Irina Slutskaya of Russia bested rival Michelle Kwan to win the ISU Grand Prix Final.
Slutskaya tumbled in her first combination jump as she failed to get enough rotation on the tail-end triple loop and went crashing to the ice.

Despite the fall, the European champion rebounded quickly as she landed a nearly flawless string of triple jumps and dazzled the audience with a dizzying array of spins.

"It seems like I am always up against her (Kwan)," Slutskaya said. "There are many events between now and the Olympics and I have to concentrate on them."

Three-time world champion Kwan, performing to Bartok's "The Miraculous Mandarin" landed her first combination, which was a pair of triple jumps. Kwan was trying out new routines in Tokyo.

On her next jump, the five-time U.S. champion committed the faux pas of bailing out of a triple jump while skating in front of the judges, who ended up giving her lower technical marks than Slutskaya, despite the Russian's fall.

American 15-year-old Sarah Hughes showed strong jumping ability as she took the bronze.

Hughes may be a challenger for a medal next year at the Olympics in Salt Lake City if she develops greater poise and fluidity on the ice.

Russia's Yevgeni Plushenko flew high, landed well and leaped past rival Alexei Yagudin after the men's first free skate. The two will go head to head for the gold medal on Sunday.

Skating in the penultimate position, three-time world champion Yagudin left the door open for his compatriot when his hand touched the ice on the tail-end of a triple-double combination in an otherwise exceptional performance.

European champion Plushenko, who was second after the short programme, seized the opportunity and opened his routine with an aggressive quad-triple-double combination.

His only fault in the high-energy performance was pulling up short on a triple salchow in a down-tempo portion of his routine.

Plushenko moved past Yagudin into first place as he picked up one 6.0 for presentation and mostly 5.9s across the board. "To win tomorrow, I just have to skate as well as I can, to do what I can do," Plushenko said.

"I saved some energy. I didn't go for the second quad because I still have to skate tomorrow," the Russian added.

The Italian ice dance pair of Barbara Fusar Poli and Maurizio Margaglio showed their victory in last month's European championship was not a fluke as they easily took gold in Tokyo.

Their European crown was the first for Italian skaters since 1954.

The Canadian pair of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier overtook Russian rivals Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze with their strong lifts and throws in the first free skate. The two pairs will face each other for the gold on Sunday.

The Canadians dominated the Four Continents Championships last week in Salt Lake City and look ready to challenge their Russian rivals for gold next year at the Olympics in the same venue.

"Last night, we were a bit too calm. So, today we wanted to be more aggressive," Pelletier said.

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ISU Grand Prix Final results

Russians Yagudin, Slutskaya power to early Grand Prix lead

Friday's ISU Grand Prix Final results

Plushenko leads Russian charge

ISU Grand Prix Final participants

 Irina Slutskaya falls to the ice during her opening combination of jumps.
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 Irina Slutskaya executes a triple toe loop and ends her routine with a layback spin.
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 Michelle Kwan struggles while attempting her new long program, "The Miraculous Mandarin."
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 ABC Sports' Susie Wynne speaks with Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya.
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