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Volosozhar, Trankov play in league of their own

Russians shatter own world record; Denney, Coughlin move up to fourth
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Just when it seemed Russia's Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov could not be any better, they one-upped their total from Nebelhorn Trophy by nearly six points and claimed Skate America in a rout. The world champions finished with a spectacular 237.31 points. -Getty Images

It was another win and another world record for Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, who took home their second consecutive Skate America title with an astounding 237.71 points, raising the standard they set at the Nebelhorn Trophy last month by more than six points.

Some don't like the program's concept; a few quibble about the taste level of Trankov's yellow pants. But when it comes to athleticism and performance, no superlative is too strong for the Russian world champions' free skate to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar at Joe Louis Arena on Sunday. It is in a league of its own.

"I think we did a good job here in Detroit," the 30-year-old Trankov said with uncharacteristic understatement. "We did two clean programs, short and free, [both] season's bests. Now we just need to keep working."

Work on what? Every element, from an opening triple twist, to two side-by-side triple jump combinations, on through to two triple throws and three glorious lifts in the second half, looked perfect. The judges agreed, awarding an avalanche of +3 grades of execution (GOEs). Trankov's magnetism and performance intensity lent added gratis to each move, and they gained nine perfect "10's" for performance, choreography and interpretation. The only flaw was that their death spiral, although well done, gained just Level 1.

"This was our plan for the season: We must do what we have in our [technical] arsenal and need to skate very clean," Trankov said. "We really need plus marks for each element [because] we don't want to learn quad throw or triple Axel throw or quad twist."

Here, Trankov alludes to their main rivals, four-time German world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who have said they plan a throw triple Axel in both of their programs. The move seems like figure skating's version of a "Hail Mary" pass, as it is hard to imagine the Germans equaling or surpassing what the Russians did here.

If Volosozhar and Trankov continue their victory march through Sochi, they will reclaim the Olympic pairs gold won by the Protopopovs, Ludmila and Oleg, in 1964 and held by Soviet, Unified Team or Russian skaters until 2010, when it was wrested away by Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China. Don't bet against them.

"It is our dream to get the gold medal back," Trankov said. "The last Russian Olympic champions were named Tatiana [Totmianina] and Maxim [Marinin], so maybe one more will be Tatiana and Maxim, too."

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, fourth in the world last season, placed more than 31 points behind the Russians, although they skated a challenging, near-clean program to music from Fellini's La Strada.

The Canadians were spot on with their triple toe-triple sequences, as well as their throws. They gained Level 4's for all of their lifts, spins and steps. Their only mistake was Moscovitch's stumble on a triple Salchow.

They earned 136.94 points, a new personal best, and were second in the free and second overall with 208.45 points.

"We are both pretty pleased with our skates here," Moore-Towers said. "We wanted to start our Grand Prix season off with two clean performances. We didn't quite get there; we left ourselves some room to grow, but this is a good stepping stone for the season."

Volosozhar and Trankov's teammates Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, who, like the world champions, train in a group headed by coach Nina Mozer, won bronze with 187.35 points. They skated a stylish program to music from The Addams Family but were the only pair in the event not to execute a triple twist.

After disappointing themselves in the short program, Caydee Denney and John Coughlin showed off their power with a commanding performance to Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, one that climaxed with a stunning carry lift.

The 2012 U.S. champions nailed most of their big elements, including a Level 3 triple twist, side-by-side triple toes and a huge throw triple loop. Denney brushed her hand on the ice landing the throw triple flip, but the most nerve-wracking moment of the program came when Coughlin landed the final jump of a double Axel-double toe-double toe combination practically in the first row of seats.

"I kind of gave those fans a wink," he said. "They got to see some very up-close-and-personal skating."

Denney and Coughlin earned 120.37 points, good for fourth place in the free, and placed fourth overall with 182.43 points.

"It was exciting after everything John and I have been through to be able to go out and skate better than we did yesterday," Denney said. "We felt we gave all we had today."

Skate America was the team's second competition, and first Grand Prix, since Coughlin underwent hip surgery late last fall.

"One of the last things Caydee and I said to each other before getting on the ice was, no matter what, we are just so grateful to be out there together, doing what we love to do, in front of an American crowd," Coughlin said. "No one guaranteed us that would ever happen again, so it's a blessing for both of us."

Italians Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek were fifth with 180.27 points.

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir came within a whisker of landing a throw quad Salchow in their free to James Bond movie themes. Castelli put her second foot down on the landing, but the move still earned more than six points.

The rest of the program -- especially the lifts -- was solid, but Shnapir doubled a toe loop and Castelli turned out of the landing of a throw triple Salchow. The reigning U.S. champions placed sixth with 177.11 points.

"Technically, we did a lot of great things," Shnapir said. "To get the score we did with what we didn't put out there still feels really good."

"The strategy is to do the throw quad in every single free skate," Castelli said. "We do it every day in practice, and we're not going to tiptoe around it -- we're just going to do it."

U.S. bronze medalists Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay had a strong performance to music from Les Misérables, landing side-by-side triple toes and a throw triple Lutz, as well as five elements -- including a throw triple Salchow and double Axel-double Axel sequences -- in the program's second half. They placed seventh with 168.42 points.

"It's our first Grand Prix, and after the short, we just felt our nerves go away," Bartholomay said. "Maybe the first time out, we had jitters. The long was infinitely better. We still have work to do, but it felt so good to throw down what we do every day."

"Being up in that final carry lift, knowing we landed our jumps and throws and everything felt really good, was the greatest feeling in the world," Zhang said.

The team's coach, Jim Peterson, hopes that as his team becomes better known among international judges, their program components scores will rise.

"They skated with heart," he said. "It was not just a clean program, it was a program that was performed."

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