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Savchenko, Szolkowy win pairs world title

Germans return to top of podium for first time since '97

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy enjoy a much-deserved hug after their gold medal-winning free skate in Gothenburg on Wednesday night.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy enjoy a much-deserved hug after their gold medal-winning free skate in Gothenburg on Wednesday night. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/19/2008) - For the first time since 2001, the team atop the world pairs podium was not from China or Russia. Instead, Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy won the gold medal at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. For the European champions, it was their first world championship.

In second place after the short program, Savchenko and Szolkowy moved up to take the gold with a flawed but uniquely innovative and challenging free skate that earned 130.86 points, giving them 202.86 overall.

The gold was also the first world championship for Germany since Savchenko and Szolkowy's coach, Ingo Steuer, won the pairs title in 1997 with Mandy Wötzel.

"I hope this victory will mean a lot to Germany, both to the country and to figure skating there," Szolkowy said.

It was not a pretty win. After opening with a big throw triple flip, they bobbled the landings on a triple toe-triple toe sequence before recovering with a strong triple twist. Later in the program, Szolkowy fell on a triple Salchow, causing a one-point deduction.

Superior choreography and transitions, as well as seven Level 4 elements -- including three lifts -- gained them the title.

"After each competition, we worked on our levels," Savchenko said. "Ingo also always tried to make us get Level 4 for everything."

For the 24-year-old Savchenko, who was born in Kiev, it has been a long, hard road. Originally, she competed for the Ukraine, partnering with Stanislav Morozov to win the junior world title in 2000. After the partnership with Morozov dissolved, she moved to Germany, upon Steuer's recommendation, to tryout with Szolkowy. They've been together ever since.

"It has been a dream for me to come to Germany, and now it is just a wonderful feeling to have achieved what I have dreamed about," she said.

Reigning Olympic silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang of China, who led by 2.36 points over the Germans after the short program, settled for the silver medal after skating a flawed free program of their own. It was their second runner-up finish at the world championships (they also won the silver medal in 2006).

The Chinese, too, fumbled side-by-side jumps, with Dan singling the double Axel portion of a sequence with a triple toe. They recovered with their usual soaring triple twist and two huge throw triples, but Dan put a hand down on a triple Salchow.

The couple earned 123.46 points, placing third in the free skate and giving them 197.82 overall, more than five points behind the gold medalists.

"We made mistakes on two of our jumps," Dan said. "We really regret that we were not able to skate our best tonight."

The Chinese skaters may have been affected by an injury to Hao, who underwent surgery to remove an infected carbuncle on his left thigh two weeks before Gothenburg. After the free skate, he immediately sought medical attention.

"Of course [the injury] was a little bit of a factor for the long program," Hao said. "We feel a little bit tired in the second part, and our speed was a little bit lower."

Canadian silver medalists Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison won the bronze, the first time a Canadian pair has been on the world podium since Jamie Salé and David Pelletier won in 2001.

Their free skate, skated to "The Blower's Daughter" and choreographed by David Wilson, was the cleanest, most emotionally stirring performance of the event. Although they did not have a triple twist -- settling for a Level 2 double worth 4.14 points -- they showed strong side-by-side triple Salchows, as well as double Axels. Seven of their elements gained Level 4 from the technical panel, helping them place second in the long program with 124.12 points. Overall, they earned 192.78 points, shattering their previous personal best.

It represented a strong comeback from their frightening accident at the 2007 Four Continents, when Davison's blade struck Dubé's cheek during side-by-side camel spins. This comeback actually started in October when the couple won gold at Skate America. The season did not continue with the same success, reaching its nadir at the Canadian championships in January, where they were unable to defend their title after coming unglued in the short program. Their bronze-medal finish in Sweden, therefore, symbolized their return to top form.

"During the performance, I said, 'We just need to stay calm and take our time,'" Davison explained. "Our coach [Annie Barabé] told us, 'Skate from your hearts, but stay cold in your heads.'"

Russian champions Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov were fourth with 191.33 points.

Skating to music from Love Story, the couple opened with a rare throw quadruple Salchow, gaining 7.89 points. However, they fumbled a triple toe-triple toe sequence and made several other key mistakes, dropping a spot after their third-place short program.

2006 world champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong of China, who won the 2008 Four Continents Championships in February, had several of the jumps in their free skate downgraded by the technical panel. They earned 118.91 points for their program, putting them fifth overall with 186.78.

The two U.S. pairs competing in Gothenburg didn't come away with medals, but both achieved goals of their own.

U.S. silver medalists Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, who competed at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships with just two weeks preparation, re-affirmed their decision to remain in the eligible ranks, placing eighth in the free skate after a 10th-place short program.

"We're leaving here with a tremendous sense of satisfaction," the 34-year-old Baldwin said. "Doing those shows in Europe and Japan last summer and fall gained us a ton of performance experience; the fans just love Rena in Japan, and I wouldn't change it for the world.

"But I like competition best -- putting it all out there on the line and taking chances is scary. We really wanted to challenge ourselves and see if we could do it, and we did."

The couple, who won the U.S. title in 2004 and 2006, opened strong with side-by-side triple toe loops, a solid double twist and double Axel-double toe combos. Although Inoue fell on the landing of their signature move, a throw triple Axel, she nailed a throw triple loop later in the program.

"I'm so glad we came here," the 31-year-old Inoue said. "At first, we thought it would be impossible to do the rest of the season with just two weeks training in January. I told Johnny, 'I just hope we don't embarrass ourselves.'"

Inoue and Baldwin, who became engaged on the ice after their free skate at the U.S. championships, now plan another round of shows in Japan before returning to their home in Los Angeles to begin training for the 2009 Grand Prix season. They have other plans too: Baldwin revealed they are planning a summer wedding and hope to become parents in the not-so-distant future. They also do not rule out competing for a spot at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

"We're still here competing at our ages, against all these younger athletes," Baldwin said. "I think we're doing it pretty well too."

U.S. bronze medalists Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski, who won the U.S. title last season, missed out on their fall Grand Prix events due to Castile's injury. In their free skate here, they mis-timed the landing of their triple twist and had trouble on side-by-side jumps. They recovered with two strong throw triples though.

"We made a lot of little mistakes on stuff we don't ever miss in practice," the 21-year-old Castile said. "This is important experience for us. We've only ever done one senior Grand Prix season, and going all out, fighting and completing this season will help us in the future."

"I don't think we've had enough experience to compete well against all of these top-level teams, so this event was valuable," the 23-year-old Okolski added. "We'll be more comfortable next time."