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Khokhlova, Novitski hope to impress at worlds

Team now leading Russian duo after Shabalin's injury

Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, known for their acrobatic spins, are always a crowd favorite.
Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, known for their acrobatic spins, are always a crowd favorite. (Getty Images)

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By Tatiana Flade, special to icenetwork.com
(03/12/2008) - They haven't won any international gold medals or titles yet, but Russian ice dancers Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski have still had a large impact this season. In January, the dynamic duo medaled at the European championships for the first time, taking the bronze. The general perception from the crowd, though, was that the Muscovites should have been on top of the podium in Zagreb. The crowd booed the judges loudly when the scores were posted, and Khokhlova and Novitski received more applause than both their victorious teammates, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, and the silver medalists, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France.

"The crowd was awesome. When they started to clap along during our side-by-side step sequence, it gave us so much energy," Khokhlova said.

"It's our first medal at the European championships; we still didn't completely realize it. The air on the ice was full of electricity. The audience was magnificent; there was so much support," Novitski added.

With the withdrawal of Domnina and Shabalin from the 2008 World Championships due to his knee injury, Khokhlova and Novitski are now the top Russian team in Gothenburg -- and probably the only Russian hope for a medal in Sweden next week.

For this year, the Muscovites already fulfilled one goal by medaling at Europeans. Now they hope to continue their ascent on the world stage. Aside from Delobel and Schoenfelder and U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, Khokhlova and Novitski will have to contend with two more teams that beat them at last year's worlds -- Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S.

"I think we are able to compete with [those teams] at the same level," Khokhlova said. "They are strong and worthy competitors. ... But we're now also putting a lot of emphasis on the technical side of our programs. Our step sequences are really focusing on the technique this year. I think if we skate clean, then we can, with our lifts and spins, compete with them on the same level."

Since their bronze-medal performance at Europeans, the couple has been working hard at home, honing their "Argentine Tango" compulsory dance and fine-tuning their original and free dances.

"Fortunately, they have been healthy," coach Alexander Svinin explained to icenetwork.com. "Everything is going well. After Europeans, we changed the steps in the side-by-side footwork in the original dance a bit to show the edges more clearly. We've worked on the elements, on the artistry and on the compulsory dance."

"Our preparation went well, and we've worked a lot on the compulsory dance," Novitski added. "We changed some steps in the side-by-side [part of] the original dance but didn't make any other changes to our programs. The goal we set for worlds is the same as usual -- we want to show our very best."

It's mostly thanks to their spectacular free dance that the Russians drew so much attention this year. It is probably the most exciting free dance of the season. Skating to "Night on Bald Mountain" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King," they portray a witch and a demon wildly celebrating Walpurgis Night, and these roles suit them perfectly. The red-headed Khokhlova is a dynamo on ice. Her amazing flexibility allows her to bend her body into all kinds of positions for their acrobatic lifts and spins. Novitski is much calmer, while still being very expressive, and he complements his partner perfectly with his solid technique.

The 22-year-old Khokhlova and 26-year-old Novitski have been skating together since October 2001. Their first breakthrough season came in 2006, when they made it Europeans, worlds and the Olympics. "To be honest, I even now don't completely realize what happened at the Olympics. ... When we got there as the third team, we were just happy. Only now we start to realize that it was cool to be there and that we made it," Khokhlova explained. Before they made it to Turin, the team had to fight for their place in the Russian ranks and were held back by some intrigues that kept Tatiana Tarasova's students, Svetlana Kulikova and Vitali Novikov, ahead of them until that pair split up and retired in 2005.

Khokhlova and Novitski proved right away that they were a promising team, placing 10th at Europeans and 12th at both the Olympic Games and world championships in their debuts. In 2007, the Muscovites moved up to eighth in the world and fourth in Europe. They've already improved their standing in Europe, now they hope to make a similar leap on the world stage.