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Stolbova, Klimov jump ahead in quest for Euro gold

Kavaguti, Smirnov in second; James, Ciprès rejuvenated by new short
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Owners of silver and bronze medals from this event, Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov are in search of their first European title in Stockholm. The reigning Olympic silver medalists garnered 71.38 points for their 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'/'House of Flying Daggers' short, giving them a small lead over Russian teammates Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov. -Getty Images

Russia's 2014 Olympic and world silver medalists, Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, reaffirmed their dominance of the European pairs field Friday afternoon in Stockholm, winning the short program at the 2015 European Figure Skating Championships.

They amassed 71.38 points and sit 1.52 points ahead of their teammates, Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, who head to the free skate with 69.86 points, a new season's-best score.

France's Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès are in third with 60.13 points, also a new season's best. The newly formed Italian pair of Valentina Marchei and Ondřej Hotárek sit in fourth. They skated a clean program in their first European championships together and garnered 57.95 points.

Only 14 pairs took the ice for the short program, but the quality they displayed was quite impressive.

Stolbova and Klimov delivered a flawless performance of their Chinese folk dance set to the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers soundtracks. Their opening triple twist was unusually low, however, and was rated Level 2. They landed their subsequent side-by-side triple toes and throw triple flip right on point. Their spin, spiral, lift and step sequences were each rated Level 4.

"This was a good performance for us," Klimov said. "We'll see what happens the day after tomorrow, but right now, it all felt good. I don't know if this was our best skate, but the marks were fine."

The second part of their program, which consists of Stolbova and Klimov skating to drum and stick percussions only (which means lots of silence in between), was particularly impressive. Stolbova and Klimov may skate perfect and already be on top of the world, but they nonetheless took the time to densify their programs since the Grand Prix Final. Their last step sequence was just incredible.

"It's true that it's not easy to skate to such music," Klimov conceded. "You're looking for some kind of a rhythm, and those drums do not provide it. But our choreography adjusts to it, and allows for fast skating, so we feel confident with it."

Kavaguti's and Smirnov's technique was up to par and underlined the purity of their clear skating. They landed their side-by-side triple toe, triple twist and throw triple loop easily. Their total element score (36.42 points) even came close to that of Stolbova and Klimov's (36.76 points).

"We are very satisfied with our performance," Smirnov said after leaving the ice. "The only thing I was worried about was hurting my back this morning, but Yuko helped me throughout the whole program. This morning I could not lift my left arm. After my injury, each competition feels new and I experience a second youth!"

Kavaguti did not seem too pleased as she left the ice.

"No, I was not disappointed!" she clarified. "I just had so many things going through my mind."

Smirnov had a broad smile, however.

"Yes, he was smiling for me also!" Kavaguti added...with a smile.

Kavaguti and Smirnov skated light, fluid and deep, as only they could do on a good day -- floating over the ice like a bow on the violin strings of French composer Jules Massenet's "Méditation" from Thaïs. Kavaguti chose the music at the start of the season, Smirnov said. Yet, the team needed to change its approach to the music about 10 days ago.

"I started feeling that this music was sad -- it was not my personality," Kavaguti explained. "I am more of an optimistic person. That made me feel not so confident anymore. So we changed it on an emotional standpoint. We made it more romantic and flying, and now it is much easier for me to skate to."

James and Ciprès decided to change their short program after their experience training in Moscow. Skating to the "El Tango de Roxanne" from the soundtrack Moulin Rouge, they landed their triple twist, side-by-side triple toes, and throw triple flip. Their levels were far from the top, however, as their program was still so new. (Their lift earned Level 4, but their spin and death spiral were rated Level 3, and their twist and step sequence Level 2.) 

"We're so happy about this new program," Ciprès explained. "We felt we needed to devise a new program, as the one we had created before did not suit us too well. We asked the help of Fabian [Bourzat] (their former teammate who is now a coach with Igor Shpilband in Detroit), especially to help us on the transitions and pairs movements, and we created the program with our coach. We did not have much time, so it meant a lot of work, but it was worthwhile."

A great (and nonetheless excellent) surprise came from Marchei and Hotárek. Skating to crowd-pleaser "Malagueña," Marchei and Hotárek landed a beautiful side-by-side triple Salchow, which was followed by a throw triple flip and a double twist. They were impressive with the unison they displayed -- quite a rare feat for a singles skater who has recently transfered to pairs, as is the case with Marchei. Their throw flip was certainly the most ample of the field, as she landed several meters away from him. Most of all, they skated at an incredible speed throughout their program.

"This is exactly what I have dreamt of skating throughout all my life," a radiating Marchei claimed after she left the ice. "Not skating pairs precisely -- but skating like this. I feel very grateful to Ondřej, as he has accepted to start from scratch again, although he had already medaled at the Europeans (with Stefania Berton). He was very patient, very humble and...a great teacher. Technical movements you can always learn, and that's what I am doing. But the feeling between the two of us is something that has to be built. Take the adrenaline, for instance: I know mine, but I need to learn about his!"