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Savchenko, Szolkowy win pairs short at worlds

Kavaguti, Smirnov are second; many new personal bests set

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are one skate away from successfully defending their world title in Los Angeles.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are one skate away from successfully defending their world title in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/25/2009) - Wearing bright pink hot pants and a shiny mauve unitard, skating at breakneck speed, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy made a statement.

If you want our title, you're going to have to come out here and take it. And it won't be easy.

Last season, the innovative duo won Germany's first pair gold medal since 1997, when the couple's coach, Ingo Steuer, won gold with partner Mandy Wötzel. It was the first time since 2001 that a Chinese or Russian pair had not stood atop the world pairs' podium.

Now, it looks like they may continue to set the standard. In a night of superb performances, theirs stood out. Eschewing classic elegance, they've created a dynamic style all their own. Their acrobatic routine to pulsating music from the Lost in Space soundtrack could have been tailor-made for Tinseltown, complete with eye-popping costumes and an awe-inducing lift.

"I think I can say we are really happy with our performance tonight," Szolkowy said. "We practiced very hard these last weeks. We were very concentrated."

The Germans scored a personal best 72.30 points, opening up a 3.36-point lead over the field. All of their eight elements, including side-by-side triple toe loops; throw triple flip; and triple twist, gained positive Grades of Execution (GOEs). Five earned Level 4's from the technical panel.

Driven by Steuer, their hard-nosed coach, the couple is rarely satisfied, and tonight was no exception.

"Today was maybe not our best. It was hard to skate but in the end it was enough," Szolkowy said. "Especially for me, it was hard to breath after the lift. Always every time you skate it is a different situation. I felt good, my head was okay, but my legs . . . it is end of the season and that's what I felt today."

Russia proved yet again its pairs' program is alive and well, with new citizen Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov taking second with an elegant program to Saint-Saens' "The Dying Swan" that earned 68.94 points, another personal best.

"I'm very happy with how I skated, but there is no limit to perfection," Smirnoff said rather cryptically.

Always strong technically, but not especially known for artistry and high performance quality, the team has transformed this season. Their coach, the renowned Tamara Moskvina, had a simple explanation of why.

"We have been working on adding artistry, as this is their third year together. First, we put all of the elements together and now comes the time to express emotions, to dictate the music and content of the program."

Last season's world silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang of China are third with 67.42 points, some 4.88 points off the lead.

"We feel very good. It was our best short program of the whole season," Dan Zhang said through an interpreter.

The athletic couple added a touch of ballet and improved lines to their repertoire after traveling to Michigan last summer to work with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva.

"We like our choreography very much," Hao Zhang said. "There are a lot of changes for us, especially the style. We [are] trying a lot of new things."

Another Russian pair, European bronze medalists Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov, are fourth with 66.88 points.

"It was a clean skate, we have been skating the short program clean all season. For us it was good," Trankov said. "We want to stay close to the Chinese couples and the German couple. They are the leaders for us and this is a big step ahead."

2006 world champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong, fifth last season, placed fifth here with a powerful yet graceful program. Their only flaw was lack of unison on their solo spins. They earned 65.18 points.

"We were a little tired; that's why our last element [the spins] were off," Tong said. "We hope we can do better tomorrow."

It was a disappointing outing for two-time U.S. champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, who lost ground in their Malaguena program when McLaughlin fell on a triple Salchow and lurched forward on the landing of a throw triple Salchow. They sit ninth with 53.62 points.

"Obviously, we had some mistakes," Brubaker said. "Our technical [score] really hurt us. It's an experience, our first worlds. We felt confident out there, not nervous; we just made mistakes. We lost levels on three of our elements [the death spiral, triple twist and spiral sequence]."

The team qualified for worlds last season, but McLaughlin was too young to participate.

"I'm just a little disappointed I missed that jump," the 16-year-old said. "I guess these things happen. I love that worlds is here in L.A. [her hometown] and the crowd is behind us no matter what."

Also making their world debut, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett placed an impressive tenth with 52.74 points. Barrett stepped out of an intended triple toe loop, but otherwise their program, including a throw triple Lutz, was clean.

The Floridians, who train in Ellenton under a team headed by Jim Peterson, surprised many by winning the short program and placing a close second to McLaughlin and Brubaker at the U.S. championships.

"We work very hard and we work very well together," Denney said. "We push each other as a team. We learn from every competition and will take home what we're learning here."

"We know what our flaws are and we're working on them," Barrett added. "We're planning on doing the same summer competitions we did this year, not changing a whole lot. Obviously, it worked for us this year."