Ice Network

European championships chock full of intrigue

Fernández seeks fifth straight crown; Papadakis, Cizeron hope to impress
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Spain's Javier Fernández looks to remain a dominant force at the European Figure Skating Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic. -Getty Images

When you begin to dissect the entries of the 2017 European Figure Skating Championships -- which open Wednesday in Ostrava -- you easily notice which country will once again be the most represented, as Russia is the only nation with the maximum number of entries in each category with three.

In the men's competition, Israel is the only country to present three competitors other than Russia. In the pairs division, just like in dance, Italy will enter with three competitors as well, while Russia will be the only country with three entries in the ladies division.

Such obvious domination in numbers may not necessarily add up to total success for Russia, however. One year away from the Olympics, many will strive at positioning themselves, and the highly important European championships remain one of the most coveted global competitions in figure skating.

Ladies: Kostner back, ready to compete

She promised she'd return, and now she has. Ten years after becoming the first Italian lady to win a European gold medal (in 2007), Carolina Kostner will now compete against Russian skaters who were hardly in the junior ranks when she left the competitive field following the Sochi Winter Olympics.

"I'm just here to please myself," she said with a smile and in her own humble way.

Kostner had not participated in the Italian championships since 2013. She won that competition, just as she did four weeks ago in Egna Ora, Italy.

Of course, 2016 world champion and current European champion, Evgenia Medvedeva, will be the favorite again in Ostrava, after her decisive wins at both the Grand Prix Final and Russian championships.

"My dream would be to become a role model for children," Medvedeva told icenetwork after she won her first European crown, "and to set an example for the growing generations."

Kostner is known to possess the fastest speed and purest edges in ladies figure skating, and it will be interesting to see her share the ice with some of the top athletes in the sport this week.

The Russian championships are such a tough competition that Elena Radionova and Elizaveta Tuktamisheva both failed to qualify for the European championships.

Maria Sotskova and Anna Pogorilaya won third and fourth place, respectively, at the Russian championships, and their excellent results through the first half of the season undoubtedly place them in the competition for one of the top three spots.

Men: Will Fernández aim for quints?

Spain's Javier Fernández has made himself at home atop the European podium, and he'll be vying for his fifth consecutive crown in Ostrava. His nightmare fourth-place finish in Marseille has given Fernández reason to wake up and work even harder, to make sure his star elements do not elude him again. Perhaps he will showcase a program not yet seen in figure skating.

Last year, Mikhail Kolyada hit fifth place in Bratislava and fourth at worlds in Boston. On paper, he might be the strongest opponent Fernández will face in Ostrava, especially after his superlative performance at the Russian championships, which he won in a landslide.

Maxim Kovtun was the third and final man selected by the Russian federation to represent his country, this after a nervewracking outing at the Russian championships. He managed to rally from a disastrous seventh-place finish in the short program to grab the bronze medal.

The Israeli team of Alexei Bychenko -- who won the silver medal in 2016 -- Mark Gorodnisky and Daniel Samohin could pose a threat for podium positions as well.

Ostrava should also provide interesting signs of how the cooperation between Latvia's prodigy Deniss Vasiļjevs -- who created a sensation in Boston by taking 10th place in the short program -- and his new coach, Stéphane Lambiel, is coming to fruition. Skating in the Czech Republic may also give wings to the "homeboy," Michal Březina.

Pairs: Door open for surprise medalists?

Russia's Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov are back in Ostrava. The pair sat out the Grand Prix Series and returned in time to claim their third Russian national title. 

The Russian team is as strong as ever here. Fresh off their first major victory at the Grand Prix Final, Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov will be eager to confirm their status as global leaders. Natalia Zabijako and Alexander Enbert, who took fourth place in Marseille, will also vie for a medal.

The Russian squad won't be the only one to fight for a podium spot; in fact, the pairs competition might be the most coveted one in Ostrava.

Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot have made their own statement this season: Not only are one of the best teams in the world, as evidenced by their European silver and world bronze medals, but they are also one of the most daring, as they landed throw triple axels and quad salchows in competition.

The French pairs team of Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès have fought many times for the podium, and they could finally complete their mission this year. They've made it a major goal over the years to win a European medal, and even moved to Florida to work with John Zimmerman's team earlier this season. They also locked up a bronze medal at the Trophée de France in Paris.

One should never count out Italians Valentina Marchei and Ondřej Hotárek either, mainly due to their vast experience. Nicole della Monica and Matteo Guarise have shown great progress this season as well and have steadily gained spots year after year. Their time may be coming.

Ice dance: New stage set for Papadakis, Cizeron

Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir defeated France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron at this year's Grand Prix Final, but Papadakis and Cizeron will still arrive in Ostrava as the reigning champions.

Ice dance has always been a matter of style. When one team prevails, many try to follow. The Canadians' return has shuffled the cards again, and many now wonder what global ice dance will look like this season.

Will it be the incredible virtuosity of the Canadians? The fascinating glide, yet cerebral interpretation of the French? Or, perhaps, the impressive amplitude of the Americans?

Papadakis and Cizeron have one final chance to impress before worlds and the Olympic season. That opportunity will come this week in Ostrava.

Although they didn't qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Marseille, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte -- the 2014 world gold medalists -- have proven their worth, as Cappellini noted after their fourth-place finish in Boston. They won the European gold medal in 2014, and silver in 2015 and 2016.

Besides the Italians, the Russians could provide the French with their most interesting opponents. Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin ended third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in 2016, and another all-around solid performance could have them all departing the European championships with additional hardware.

"Many teams try to copy Papadakis and Cizeron," coach Sasha Zhulin said in Marseille at the Grand Prix Final. "Same kind of music, same patterns and same ideas. Ice dance is supposed to be interesting steps and music decisions, and a man and woman story."

Bobrova and Soloviev embody their coach's ideas about ice dance, and recently won their sixth Russian title.

Yet, one may not expect the same results this time around. There was a big happening in Chelyabinsk five weeks ago at the Russian championships, as Stepanova and Bukin took the silver medal in front of Sinitsina and Katsalapov, and Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin.