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Savchenko, Szolkowy look forward to worlds

Germans are one of the favorites for Sweden

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy have had plenty of on-ice success despite the off-ice turmoil created by their coach, Ingo Steuer (left).
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy have had plenty of on-ice success despite the off-ice turmoil created by their coach, Ingo Steuer (left). (Getty Images)

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By Klaus-Reinhold Kany, special to icenetwork.com
(03/08/2008) - Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy have had a very strong season on the ice. They have been successful against local competition, winning their fifth straight national title and cruising to gold at the 2008 European Championships by nearly 33 points, and at worldwide events, finishing first at the ISU Grand Prix Final for the first time.

With their success this year, they are the favorites for the gold medal at the 2008 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. Their main competition there will come from two Chinese pairs -- 2006 Olympic silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang and 2008 Four Continents champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong. Savchenko and Szolkowy beat both pairs at the GP Final, but their one blemish this season came at the hands of Zhang and Zhang, who won gold ahead of the Germans at the Cup of Russia.

Savchenko and Szolkowy's triple throws, lifts and steps are excellent, but they sometimes have problems with their individual jumps. What separates them most from all other pairs in the world is their sparkle, their style, and their little steps between the elements. The close spacing between the two while they skate is phenomenal, and the simulated love story they portray lets spectators dream. The British Eurosport TV commentator Christopher Howarth said during Europeans in January, "I could watch them a whole day, so lovely do they skate."

Skolkowy learned to skate when he was a kid, because his mom used it as a kind of day care. "When my single mother had to go to work in the afternoons, she took me to the ice rink near our apartment in our hometown of Erfurt in order to have me do something useful after school."

He was a club rival of Stefan Lindemann and Silvio Smalun, two of Germany's best single skaters of the last few years. But when he was 14 or 15, he could not match the others' jumping ability. So coach Monika Scheibe encouraged him to try pairs. His first three partners were either not good enough for him, not motivated enough or had gained too much weight. In order to keep his fitness, he even skated in a synchronized team for a year.

Savchenko has a different story: "I grew up 15 miles from Kiev in the Ukraine. As a little girl, I always wanted to skate. When I was four, I got a pair of skates as a birthday present. For one winter I skated on a nearby lake with my father, but then I got group lessons. When I was 13, I tried pairs. My second partner was Stanislav Morozov. I was world junior champion with him in 2000, but in 2002, he got injury and weight problems." They competed badly at the Salt Lake City Olympics that year, finished only 15th and split afterwards.

In the Ukraine, there was no equivalent partner for her, so she looked abroad. She had been at several competitions in Germany and liked the country. "Everything was so clean, so nice there. I had fallen in love with that country. And I always admired Ingo Steuer for his style as a skater."

After finally getting a visa, Savchenko made it to Germany to try out with Szolkowy. Right after a few minutes of their first practice together in the summer of 2003, both skaters knew that they'd found their match. Robin remembers, "You take the girl by your hand, and you feel at once if it works or it does not work. With her, I had a super feeling."

Until November 2004 they were not allowed to compete internationally due to Savchenko's country change, but they have not lost at German nationals since they paired together. Their international debut was as last-minute substitutes at the Cup of Russia in November 2004, and they won a bronze medal right away. They've won the last two European championships, and they finished in a personal-best third place at the 2007 World Championships.

Savchenko got her German citizenship one month before the 2006 Olympics, so they could compete in Turin. As well as skating for coach Ingo Steuer, the pair also worked with the renowned Russian coach Tamara Moskwina. The group was brought together even closer when Savchenko and Steuer were rumored to be involved romatically. But then fate began to interfere with this cohesive unit.

American skating legend Scott Hamilton said it best: "Sometimes the Germans have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot." In this case, it was the German National Olympic Committee that was doing the shooting. Two weeks before the Turin Olympics, they published that Steuer had worked for the former secret police of communist East Germany when he was 19 years old.

The worst part about it was that the Olympic committee had known about Steuer's past for years. They chose to let him win the 1997 world championship and the 1998 Olympic bronze medal for Germany, and they let him enter the German army as a coach. But they refused to accredit him for the Olympics in 2006 because of misbehavior 18 years earlier. The real victims in this scenario were Savchenko and Szolkowy, whose Olympic journey was being blurred by their coach's political controversy.

Steuer went to court, was successful and got an accreditation as a coach for the Turin Games. Since then, the German federation, the ministry of sport and the coach have been fighting for accreditations and for money. The relationship remains bad, even if Steuer was eventually excused for what he had done as a teenager. The ministry threatened to cancel all money for the federation if they supported him with taxpayers' money. This would mean a bankruptcy of the federation and of all competitive skating in Germany.

The result is that Steuer has to pay everything on his own, even his travel expenses during international competitions. He has insulted officials and will only speak to the federation with his lawyer present. So the bad relationship between Steuer and Germany has transferred to his star pupils. Savchenko and Szolkowy are not popular in their home country, and they do not have any sponsors, which is a shock considering their on-ice success.

The pair does not worry about these trivial matters, though. It is out of their control. They are loyal to Steuer, and all they care about right now is winning the world championship, which they have a good chance of doing. Maybe Germany will welcome them home with open arms if they do.