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Level 5 needed for virtuosos Volosozhar, Trankov

Russians break world record, again; Canadians shrug, take second
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Setting a new standard for pairs under the international judging system, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia racked up 83.05 points, giving them a cushion of more than 11.5 points over the second-place team. -Getty Images

Last season, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov arrived at Skate America jet-lagged and cranky. They didn't like the schedule. Trankov couldn't find any bottled water. Soon, he tweeted his longing to return to Moscow.

What a difference a year, and about two weeks of pre-event training in New Jersey, makes.  

The Russian world champions, who set a new world record score at Nebelhorn Trophy last month, reached new heights with a magnificent performance to Khachaturian's Masquerade Waltz that had it all: speed, flow and strong characterizations, plus huge tricks including a monster triple twist and throw triple loop.

Their elements gained Level 4's, as well as positive grades of execution (GOEs) from all nine judges and program components ranging from 9 up to a perfect 10. Their 83.05 points bests by 1.4 points what they earned last month at Nebelhorn, and they lead by 11.54 points at 2013 Skate America.

"We don't care so much about world records; we care about our personal records," Trankov, 30, said. "Figure skating is not like other sports. [There are] different judges, different referees, different scores. It is a big pleasure to skate good and [make] the audience love it and stand up from their seats and clap. That is more important than scores."

The Russians were so near perfect (Volosozhar had a small trip on a connecting step) that Kris Wirtz, coach of Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, could only shrug.

"It's beautiful skating, and then it's bracketed by the huge triple twist -- bang -- followed by that throw triple loop," Wirtz said. "You could take the lift out entirely, take away those points, and they'd still win. Take another element out and they'd be right in there. How do you compete with that?"

The now gregarious Trankov gave several reasons for the team's record-shattering start this season.

"We didn't skate much in the ice shows (during the offseason); we only did a short show in Korea and a short show in Japan," he said. "We also had a good vacation. We went to Mexico just after World Team Trophy."

He cited the benefits of training in coach Nina Mozer's group, alongside Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, who sit third here; 2012 Russian champions Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov; and two top junior pairs. The group has trained extensively on the Olympic rink in Sochi, as well as in West Orange, N.J., and Italy.

Good as they were, Trankov thinks there is plenty of room for improvement.

"There were not comfortable feelings in some elements," he said. "We got lower levels than we planned."

Since Level 4 is as high as the judging system goes, perhaps he wants the International Skating Union to add a Level 5, to serve up a new record-breaking challenge for the team's next event, NHK Trophy.

Moore-Towers and Moscovitch had a near-perfect outing to their quirky and charming Micmacs short, punctuated by a solid triple twist, side-by-side toe loops and a big throw triple loop. Still, their score -- 71.51 points, a new personal best -- put them well behind the Russians.

This is their second season using the short, created by Vancouver choreographer Mark Pillay.

"We have a full season of mileage on it, so it's not about the jumps and throw any more," Moore-Towers said. "It's about telling story, which I hope we do successfully."

And what is that story?

"I'm a little bit innocent and clueless, looking up at the birds and tress, and along comes Kirsten and she steals my affections," Moscovitch said. "We play cat and mouse, and in the end, I think I get her but I'm not really sure."

"It's a play on our real personalities," Moore-Towers said. "He's more carefree and goofy, and I know what I want."

Stolbova and Klimov had a stylish and intensely performed short to Jesse Cook's "Surrender." Their 64.80 points is also a new personal best.

Italians Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek are fourth.

The three U.S. teams skated strong programs, but each made a mistake on one element.

U.S. champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir skated with attack and confidence to their Santana short, hitting a huge throw triple Salchow and closing with an intricate lift with many changes of position. Although they lost most of the base value of their side-by-side triple Salchows when Shnapir popped his into a double, they are still within striking distance of the podium with 62.56 points.

"Obviously, there was a mistake on my jump, but we've been working hard to compete this program with a lot of energy and really sell it," Shnapir said.

"We're not looking to be perfect now but be perfect at the end of the season," Castelli said. "Every competition, every mistake, we learn from, and it just builds to us being stronger."

2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin opened their Tosca short strong, with a soaring triple twist and solid triple toe loops. They made an uncharacteristic error when Denney fell on the landing of a throw triple loop and sit just a half point behind Castelli and Shnapir in sixth place.

When Denney and Coughlin debuted Tosca at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City last month, they did a throw triple flip. After re-choreographing the middle section to include a new transition out of the death spiral, they decided the music called for a throw loop, typically a bigger jump for them.

"It's the one part in the program where the judges asked us to continue growing, and the way the transition worked out, it kind of led itself into the loop," Coughlin said. "We like the concept; we just need more than a few days to work on it."

Denney was pleased with the rest of the program.

"I think it's grown a lot," she said. "Even the things we did well [in Salt Lake City] were more comfortable because we have more mileage on the program."

U.S. bronze medalists Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay skated a light and entertaining program to "Carousel Waltz," including a solid triple twist and throw triple Lutz. Both skaters missed their triple toes, with Zhang taking a fall, and they sit seventh with 55.83 points.

"Well, I fell on a triple toe," Zhang said. "The main thing is that after Salt Lake, we've been working on the quality, and even with the mistake, we were still able to show everything we've been working on."

"We definitely want to be peaking right around Cup of China (their second Grand Prix event) and then come down a little bit before the push for U.S. nationals," Bartholomay said.

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