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Ondrej Nepela Memorial kicks off senior season

Ice dancers Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder lead the field

Anything short of a win will be a disappointment for Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder.
Anything short of a win will be a disappointment for Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder. (Getty)

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By Klaus-Reinhold Kany / Special to icenetwork.com
(09/20/2007) - The Ondrej Nepela Memorial is this season's first international senior competition. It is named after Slovakia's most successful skater, who was the world champion in 1971, 1972 and 1973 and Olympic gold medalist in 1972. Afterwards, he toured as a soloist with "Holiday on Ice" for 13 years and then became a coach in Germany. He died in 1989, at the age of 48, of AIDS. In his country, he was chosen as the Best Slovak Sportsman of the 20th century. After his early death, this annual senior competition was created with the constant support of his longtime coach Hilda Mudra. It is held in the Ondrej Nepela Arena, Slovakia's biggest skating rink, which has seen many ice hockey and figure skating events. It is situated near downtown Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia on the river Danube.

Ice Dancing

The biggest stars of the whole competition and the only favorites in the ice dance event are Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder from France, the 2007 European Champions who finished fourth at the worlds in Tokyo. It is unusual for top ice dance couples to unveil their new programs at such a competition so early in the season. But Delobel and Schoenfelder are doing it because they have to skate at the internal Masters competition in France a week later, an event which will be televised. Before that event, they want to get back into the routine of competition, and they want to learn how the technical specialists see their elements. Their original dance music will be a traditional French country musette, played with the accordion. Their new free dance music is a classical piano piece by Michael Nyman. Anything short of a victory would be a big surprise.

Two couples lead the race for the other two medals: Anastasia Grebenkina and Vazgen Azroyan from Armenia and Barbora Silna and Dmitro Matsyuk. Grebenkina and Azroyan, who finished 22nd at last season's world championships, were a bit upset that the French couple planned to participate because they had hoped to have a chance to win their first international competition. Silna and Matsyuk are also contenders. They are from Vienna and live only about 40 miles from Bratislava, but they sometimes work with French coach Muriel Zazoui in Lyon because there is not enough ice for dance couples in Vienna.

Ladies

The most well-known skater in the ladies competition is the 2004 European Champion, Julia Sebestyen from Hungary. But in the last two years, she has never reached her championship form. So several other skaters have great chances to win the title. Hungarian skater Viktoria Pavuk, who has had a lot of injuries and other problems in 2006 and 2007, is a contender. So is Jenna McCorkell from Great Britain, who trains in Belgium, and Anna Jurkewicz from Poland, who had conditioning problems in 2006. This event could also be a chance for 19-year-old Michelle Boulos from Boston, ninth at last season U.S. Senior Nationals. The pupil of Suna Marray and Peter Johansson has never competed internationally before, but certainly wants to give a good first impression in Bratislava. Her short program music is called "The Hours", her free program Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake."

Men

The men's event promises a high-level competition with no less than 21 skaters. The most well-known of the group, at least in Europe, is Kevin van der Perren from Belgium, the bronze-medal winner of this year's European Championships. At the last two world championships, he could not compete because of back problems. His fiancée, Jenna McCorkell, will provide support while also competing in the ladies event.

Nicholas LaRoche (24) from Torrance, California, is also a medal contender, though he was only 11th at the last two U.S. Nationals. But internationally, he was more successful and had several good results, among them a fifth-place finish last year at the Finlandia Trophy. He is coached mainly by Burt Lancon.

Another strong competitor is Canadian Marc-André Craig, who was fourth at last season's Four Continents Championships and is ranked ninth in his country. Gregor Urbas of Slovenia may contend with his strong jumps. Igor Macypura of Slovakia, who lives in the USA, and the two Germans -- Martin Liebers and Clemens Brummer -- also hope for a top finish.

Pairs

Two Canadian teams headline the pairs field. Mylène Brodeur (20) and John Mattatall (24) of St.Léonard near Montreal finished fourth at the Nebelhorn Trophy last year and ninth at the Canadian Nationals this past January. They are coached by Richard Gauthier. Becky Cosford (21) and Brian Shales (22) are a new team, but both were successful previously skating with different partners. They are coached by the well-known duo, Kristy and Kris Wirtz, at Kitchener-Waterloo.