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Verner becomes new European men's champion

Czech star knocks off former world champions

Tomas Verner surprised everyone in Zagreb by improving upon his silver-medal performance a year ago, winning the men's gold medal at Europeans.
Tomas Verner surprised everyone in Zagreb by improving upon his silver-medal performance a year ago, winning the men's gold medal at Europeans. (Getty Images)

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By Klaus Reinhold Kany, special to icenetwork.com
(01/24/2008) - The second competition to end at the 2008 European Championships was the men, which concluded with Thursday's free skate. The overall skating was quite good, but not excellent. What it lacked in flair, it certainly made up for in surprise.

Skating second in the last group, short program-leader Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic posted a score that could not be caught, not even by former world champions Brian Joubert and Stephane Lambiel.

Last year, Verner won the silver medal at Europeans and finished fourth at worlds, but his competitions this fall were not stable. He did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final, so he was by no means the favorite heading into Zagreb this week. Afterwards, he reasoned, "My form grew during the season."

The 21-year-old skater from Prague took the lead in the swing short program, in which he landed four triple jumps, however, his Axel did not have much flow. He got the highest program components because of his excellent skating skills; his elegant style; his deep edges, even in the transitions; his sparkle and his contact to the public.

In his free program, set to several pieces of Asian music, he landed a quadruple toe loop but touched down with his hand. Seven triple jumps were clean, however, he singled the second triple Axel. His spins in both programs were excellent. His sidelong step sequence even got a +3 from two judges. The judges especially liked that all his elements look easy.

He trains partly with Vlasta Koprivova and choreographer Rostislav Sinitsyn in Prague and partly in Oberstdorf, Germany, with technical coach Michael Huth.

After the competition, Verner said, "I'm feeling great. The main reason for my victory is that I kept fighting to the end. I hope this is not my last medal. I left my heart today on the ice, and the judges and the audience recognized that."

The silver medal went to Switzerland's Lambiel. He, too, had an up-and-down fall season, but the two-time world champion seemed to be heading in the right direction -- he won gold at the Grand Prix Final in Turin. But in the Tango short program here in Zagreb, he fell on the triple Axel, which has always been his hardest jump. He was shocked for a moment, and it forced him to reduce the ensuing combination, which was planned as a quadruple-triple, to a triple-double. The other elements were first class, however, including his trademark spins that all got Level 4 in both programs. His step sequences, as usual, were crowd pleasers.

In the long program, Lambiel did not have the courage to try a triple Axel again but showed only two double ones. He did land, however, a quad-double toe loop-double loop combination and five clean triple jumps. His interpretation of the hot flamenco music was by far the best of all skaters, because you feel that he really skates with his heart and sinks into the music. Therefore, the program components went up to 8.75. After the free, he said, "I am very happy with my performance, even though it was not the best. There were some mistakes on the jumps, but the program was very dynamic, and I skated it with a lot of energy and with my heart."

The favorite, Brian Joubert of France, who had won the last 10 competitions he'd entered (including Europeans and worlds in 2007), was not in good shape. He still seemed to have some problems with the mysterious virus infection that forced him out of the Trophee Eric Bompard in November. You could see that he has not yet returned to top form, because he was exhausted at the end of both of his programs.

In the short, he stepped out of the quadruple toe loop in combination and fell on the triple Axel. The other elements were good. In the long, he lacked a bit of dynamic skating, which normally is his strength. He stepped out of the quad toe loop, touched down on the triple Axel, went with his knee on the ice on the triple Lutz, but five other triples were clean. After the competition, he said, "I am very disappointed, because I am the defending champion. But this season is physically very hard for me."

Russian champion Sergei Voronov, 19th at last year's world championships, ended up fourth at his first European championships. He landed a quad toe loop in both programs, performed a shaky triple Axel in the short, but had seven good triple jumps in the long. His presentation, however, is not yet world class.

Finishing fifth overall was Kevin van der Perren of Belgium, who doubled his Lutz and touched down on the quad in the short program. In the long, he had seven good triples but only a double Axel, and he fell on the quad.

The two Swedish skaters, Adrian Schultheiss and Kristoffer Berntsson, finished sixth and seventh, respectively, and thus made three Swedish skaters eligible for next year's Europeans.

The two other French skaters, Alban Preaubert and Yannick Ponsero made several mistakes and ended up only 10th and 12th, respectively.

Nine skaters in all tried a quad: the top five, plus Preaubert (successful), Andrei Lutai of Russia (downgraded), Peter Liebers of Germany (touched down) and Ponsero (fell).