Ice Network

Russian ladies return to center stage at Europeans

Fernández goes for third straight crown; Stolbova, Klimov heavy favorites
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Elena Radionova will look to win her first medal at the European championships, which will take place in Stockholm, Sweden, for the first time. -Getty Images

For the first time in decades, skating is returning to Stockholm, Sweden, for a major international competition: The 2015 European Figure Skating Championships.

As has been the case in the recent years, the Russian team is a strong favorite in most categories. Most of all, Russia will use these championships to assess the status of its best skaters and teams for the long run. As one Russian official once said, "Yes, we have many promising skaters, but we need to find out as soon as possible which of them can prevail in the future!"

To paint an accurate picture of the dominance of Russian skating in Europe, it's necessary to point out that of the 24 skaters and teams who skated at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, 11 hailed from Europe, and nine of them were Russian.

All of the skaters who qualified for the Final, six weeks ago, will be skating in Stockholm, with the notable exception of 2014 European gold medalist Julia Lipnistskaia.

Ladies: Russian ladies, who else?

Ashley Wagner was the only western answer to Russian dominance in Barcelona, but of course she will not be skating in Stockholm.

The biggest surprise of these European championships may actually have already happened: Lipnistkaia, the wunderkind who took Europe by storm one year ago, did not qualify for the event.

"We had three years to reach the level we reached last year, but this season we only have a few months. We'll do our best, but I don't think we'll be ready for it," said Eteri Tutberidze, who coaches Julia Lipnitskaia in Moscow, explained during November's Trophée Eric Bompard.

Lipnitskaia had even admitted as much after her second-place finish in France. Lipnitskaia faltered even more at the Grand Prix Final, where she finished last in the free skate. Her ninth-place finish at the Russian championships, one week later (she placed 11th in the free skate) put an end to her 2015 European Championships ambitions.

Meanwhile, the two best skaters at the end of 2014, namely Russians Elena Radionova and Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, finished first and second at the Russian championships, after placing second and first (respectively) at the Grand Prix Final. Their encounter in Stockholm should provide a great competition as well.

A two-time world junior gold medalist, Radionova has hit the scene with her precise and reliable array of triple jumps, winning her two senior Grand Prix assignments right away. Tuktamisheva has managed to keep the technique she mastered during her childhood and is now ready to embark into a more global career, somewhat reminiscent of the career of former Russian great, Irina Slutskaia. Just like Radionova, Anna Pogorilaya, who finished fourth in both Barcelona and the Russian championships (Evgenia Medvedeva won the Russian bronze medal), will also make her European championships debut in Stockholm.

The ladies field will, however, display far more than Russian Ladies. Besides Radionova, Tuktamisheva and Pogorilaya, Finland's Kiira Korpi will return to a major competition. She had to skip the Olympic season because of an injury, but she promised she would be ready for these European championships. Maybe Stockholm will see France's Maé-Bérénice Méité land the triple loop-triple toe combination she has been practicing for several months. Another skater that can't be counted out is Georgia's Elene Gedevanishvili. She has won two bronze medals at the European championships.

Ice Dancing: A renewed field

Many of the main 2014 winter Olympic contenders have either split or retired, so the field is wide open to newcomers. This is not the lesser interest of these post-Olympic European championships. Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, the 2014 European and world gold medalists, will certainly be the most experienced team in Stockholm. The first half of their season was, however, not at the level they had hoped, as they had to settle for third place at the Cup of China, behind France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron. Cappellini and Lanotte took the time to change their free skate after their Shanghai outing, and will be eager to rebound after their faux-pas -- certainly the worst mishap for ice dancers!

Based on the way things played out at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, the French should be their strongest opponents in Stockholm.

"We clearly had to readjust our objectives after the first half of the season," Cizeron offered laughingly after the bronze medal they won in Barcelona.

They admitted that they would aim at medaling in Stockholm, although they did not want to say which color they would fight for. Some may guess, however.

A renewed competition will come from Russia, although the Russian team may not quite set the mood of these championships. Two teams will make their European debuts in Stockholm: Ksenia Monko and Kirill Khaliavin, the 2011 junior world champions, and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, the 2013 world junior gold medalists. Newly crowned Russian champions Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin, who placed sixth in Barcelona, still have to prove that that they have found a style of their own. The European championships should, as is usually the case, provide Russia with a good test as to which team it should support most for the new Olympic quadrennial. Nikita Katsalapov, who won the Olympic bronze with Ilinykh in 2014, finished fourth at the Russian championships with his partner Victoria Sinitsina, and the team did not qualify.

Men: When the king of quad Salchows flies to Ulrich Salchow's country

If Javier Fernández has maintained his stamina from the Grand Prix Final (where he won a silver medal), there is little doubt that he should win his third European title in three years. His programs are superlative, and unlike last season, he masters them both technically and emotionally. Fernández has always been quite sensitive to the response he gets from the audience. Both of his programs do meet his needs in that respect, and he should be able to surpass himself again.

And then there is Sergei Voronov. Voronov finished second at the European championships last year, and he won the bronze at the Grand Prix Final six weeks ago, ahead of his teammate Maxim Kovtun. Kovtun did win at the Russian championships, but Voronov won the free skate, and lost to Kovtun by just one point. Kovtun, of course, can succeed in Stockholm as he is capable of brilliance and elegance when he skates.

Florent Amodio, the 2011 European gold medalist, and Michal Březina, the 2013 European bronze medalist, will return to the championships as well. Just like everyone in attendance, Amodio will have to discover what a European championship is like without Brian Joubert. Joubert retired from competitive skating after the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, and it will be the first time in 13 years that a European championship is "Joubertless."

Adian Pitkeev, the third-ranked Russian skater and 2014 world junior champion, will make his European championships debut.

Pairs: Russia should prevail again

It's hard to imagine a scenario where Olympic and world silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov lose in Stockholm. They won both of their two Grand Prix events and were only defeated in the Final by two superlative skates from Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. We will soon find out if they managed to find a Swedish version of their Notre Dame de Paris free skate music!

Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov won the bronze medal at the Russian championships, behind world junior silver medalists Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov. Both teams will skate in Stockholm. The renewal of the guard will be interesting to watch.  

France's Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès have never made their Stockholm ambitions a secret. After finishing fourth and fifth in the event 2013 and '14, respectively, they have made it their goal to medal at this year's European championships. They had a rough start to the season, as they left France to train to Russia (with Stanislav Morozov) and had to return three months later to their Paris training base. Their triple twist should, however, be much better than it was last season. The work they did on their single elements should also help them on their quest to the podium. They might be the underdog at this competition, and prevent (yet another) Russian sweep in pairs.

Valentina Marchei and Ondřej Hotárek, from Italy, are also a team to watch. Hotárek is already a European medalist (with Stefania Berton), and Marchei has a name on her own in singles. They could surprise as well.

Back in the early 1900s, Sweden was one of figure skating's world capitals. This week, Stockholm will host its first International Skating Union (ISU) championships in 68 years, and its first European championships ever. Skating is returning to its roots. May it provide us a great championship!