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Nebelhorn Trophy sets rhythms for the season

Carolina Kostner leads the field into Oberstdorf

European champion Carolina Kostner is the favorite in the ladies competition.
European champion Carolina Kostner is the favorite in the ladies competition. (Getty Images)

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By Jyrki Pirkkalainen / Special to icenetwork.com
(09/26/2007) - The Nebelhorn Trophy gets underway in Oberstdorf, Germany, starting Sept. 27. The event takes place at a three-rink ice sports training center at the foot of the Nebelhorn mountain in the Bavarian Alps. Among the many top athletes debuting their new programs in Oberstdorf are world medalists and reigning European champions Carolina Kostner of Italy and Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany.

The Nebelhorn Trophy has traditionally been used by the International Skating Union to experiment with new judging and scoring systems, and this year is no exception. This time, a new format of competition in compulsory dance will be implemented. The dance couples will be divided into starting groups, and the groups will skate different compulsory dances, instead of the same one. The technical elements of each dance have differing base point values, but the disparity is supposed to be evened out. For the skaters, the main difference to the traditional system is the fact that now they don't know which compulsory dance they are going to perform until they arrive in Oberstdorf.

An even wider smorgasbord of previously unseen rhythms will be served in the original dance, where any type of "authentic folk country" is allowed, ranging from African rhythms to Russian gypsy dances.

Ladies
The biggest favorite to win the ladies competition is the defending European champion and 2005 worlds bronze medalist Carolina Kostner. The 20-year-old Italian, who has been going to a boarding school in Oberstdorf since 2001, got her high school diploma in June. She has signed up at the University of Turin but will continue to train with Michael Huth in Oberstdorf.

Kostner has a strong contender in 2004 European champion, Julia Sebestyen. The Hungarian hasn't been able to regain the same consistency since her peak year in 2004, but she is clearly on the right track after a win last week in Bratislava, Slovakia, at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial.

But don't forget the veteran from Finland, 29-year-old Alisa Drei, who competed at the Nebelhorn Trophy for the first time 12 years ago and took home the silver medal at her three latest visits (2002, 2004 and 2005). She hardly wants to settle for less this time. Neither does Arina Martinova from Russia, who returns to Nebelhorn to defend last year's silver medal.

The U.S. entries in the ladies' competition are Megan Williams-Stewart from Delaware and Danielle Kahle from California. Both ladies can be considered contenders because they did well in comparable "B internationals" last year: Williams-Stewart won the Ondrej Nepela Memorial, while Kahle took second place at the Karl Schäfer Memorial in Austria.

Men
Just like the ladies competition, the top favorite in the men's field is a skater who divides his time between training in Oberstdorf and attending university in his native country. Czech Tomas Verner had his big international breakthrough this year by finishing second at the Europeans and fourth at the worlds.

Another favorite is Russian Alexander Uspenski. His compatriot Andrei Griazev and Germany's Stefan Lindemann were also supposed to compete but were forced to withdraw. Griazev, the 2007 Russian champion and 2004 world junior champion, has not yet recovered from a twisted foot, while Lindemann is sidelined with a groin injury.

The United States sends two men with previous Nebelhorn Trophy experience. Derrick Delmore of California is competing at this event for the sixth time, having medaled only once, in 2000, while Shaun Rogers of Delaware aims to improve on his sixthth-place finish from 2005. Delmore and Rogers finished sixth and eighth at the 2007 U.S. Nationals, respectively.

Pairs
The pairs event was supposed to be a confrontation between previous Nebelhorn Trophy winners, however, the reigning U.S. champions, Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski, who won in Oberstdorf last year, are not going to compete after all. So the 2007 European champions and world bronze medalists Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, who won the Nebelhorn in 2005, are the clear favorites this week.

Also, Canadians Craig Buntin and Meagan Duhamel have stood on the podium before with other partners, but they have been skating together as a pair since only May. They had to pull out of a summer competition in August because of injury, so this will be their first competition together.

Castile and Okolski will be replaced in the field by Tiffany Vise and Derek Trent. The other U.S. pair, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig from Florida, finished just outside the podium at the 2007 U.S. Nationals and hope to climb up this season.

As the current ISU World Standings leaders, Savchenko & Szolkowy are the clear favorites, especially with Castile and Okolski's withdrawal. The German pair will most likely be the most watched skaters of the weekend. They are known for interesting programs, and their controversial coach Ingo Steuer draws the German media's attention wherever he appears.

Ice Dancing
Even though there are no world top-level names in the ice dance competition, the field is led by Christina and William Beier of Germany. They were supposed to match up with Anna Cappellini and Luca LaNotte of Italy, but the Italians are no longer competing. The Germans, instead, will be vying for the ever-important top-10 placements at Europeans and worlds.

The German home crowd surely looks forward to the comeback of the Beiers, who missed the last season due to injury. The brother and sister team has lived and trained in Oberstdorf for years, but this year they had to move to Munich because of hopelessly weakening training conditions in Oberstdorf.

The U.S. sends two dance teams from Michigan, for both of which this is the first season they are eligible for international senior competition. But while Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt danced on the very same ice in Oberstdorf to 11th place at the 2007 World Junior Championships just seven months ago, a much longer gap will be closing for Jennifer Wester and Daniil Barantsev. Even though the husband-and-wife team has been skating together since 2003, finishing sixth and seventh at U.S. Nationals the past couple of years, they have only been able to compete nationally. A former two-time junior world champion, the 25-year-old Barantsev was only recently released by the Russian federation to compete for the U.S. internationally.