Mukhortova, Trankov surge to surprising lead

World champs relegated to second after short program

Russia's Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov won the short program at Skate America with a career-best performance on Friday night.
Russia's Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov won the short program at Skate America with a career-best performance on Friday night. (Paul Harvath)


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By Mickey Brown, special to
(10/25/2008) - Being the reigning world champions doesn't guarantee you a thing.

That's what Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy learned Friday night in the short program at Skate America, where they finished second to Russians Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov. Americans Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker are in third.

This is the second time this season the top teams here in Everett, Wash., have met, with Savchenko and Szolkowy easing to a 15-point win over their Russian adversaries a month ago at the Nebelhorn Trophy. That margin was close compared to the 33 points by which the Germans whipped the Russians at the 2008 European Championships.

"We are the world champions," Szolkowy said, "But even we are human."

The Germans showed their human side on their opening element, side-by-side triple loops that Szolkowy doubled.

"My body was on the ice, but my mind was somewhere else," Szolkowy said.

The rest of their Lost in Space program was first rate, with a high-arching throw triple flip and four other Level 4 elements -- a combination spin, a Group 3 lift, a spiral sequence and a forward inside death spiral. They outscored the Russians in the program components mark by a point, 29.92 to 28.92.

"The world championship was last season. We've started a new season, and each season is different," Szolkowy said. "As you saw today, anything can happen."

Skating to a classical (and mostly unrecognizable) version of Pink Floyd's "Nobody Home," Mukhortova and Trankov beat their personal best, set at the 2008 World Championships, by more than two points. With his lean but strong frame, Trankov is able to launch Mukhortova seemingly into orbit, which he nearly did on their opening triple twist and ensuing throw triple loop. They earned Level 4s on the same four elements the Germans did.

The team splits its training between St. Petersburg, Russia, and Chicago, where their coach, 1984 Olympic pairs champion Oleg Vasiliev, lives. They set up camp in the latter in the two-and-a-half weeks prior to this competition.

"We've got an Olympic coach," said Trankov. "We just need to follow him and listen to what he says."

Trankov said the team is going back to Russia after this competition and will resume training there.

McLaughlin and Brubaker's "Malaguena" program was marred by a fall on the throw triple loop and an extra turn on the landing of his triple Salchow.

The Colorado Springs-based team has their work cut out for them if they want to equal their two silver-medal finishes at last season's Grand Prix events. They are nine points out of first and seven out of second.

"Our big goal is getting to the Final in the last half of the season," Brubaker said. "When you watch the first Grand Prix of the year, everyone's still kind of getting their feet under them. We're just like everybody else."

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Craig Buntin, who placed sixth in the world last year, are fourth after a 54.26-point short program. The two other American entries, Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, and Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, are fifth and sixth, respectively.

Inoue and Baldwin missed their first two elements. He doubled his opening toe loop, and she hit the ice hard on their attempt at their signature throw triple Axel. The pair has had a busy offseason and hasn't had as much time to polish their programs as they would have liked.

"We wanted to [compete at Skate America], but we weren't sure if we would be ready," Inoue said. "It felt good for the first competition of the season. I thought I'd be panicky, but I was calm."

On the other end of the spectrum from Inoue and Baldwin, who are in their sixth season competing in the Grand Prix Series, are Yankowskas and Coughlin, the Dalilah Sappenfield-coached pair making their Grand Prix Series debut in Everett. They took part in their first senior international event last month at Nebelhorn, finishing sixth.

They skated tentatively, and she fell on her triple Salchow, but they were relieved to get that first Grand Prix skate out of the way.

"We train with Rockne and Keauna every day. We're on the ice pushing them, and they're pushing us," Coughlin said. "We've been on the ice with the Germans; we're not star struck by anybody."