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Mukhortova, Trankov pull off upset in Paris

Russians take advantage as Germans falter

Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov claimed their first senior Grand Prix Series gold in Paris.
Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov claimed their first senior Grand Prix Series gold in Paris. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(10/17/2009) - People will remember the shocking meltdown from two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy that helped give Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov their first senior Grand Prix title.

What may be lost to history, though, is how well the Russians skated.

Savchenko and Szolkowy, who led by a healthy 6.10 points after the short program, were considered a fairly safe bet to bring home gold. Mukhortova and Trankov, second after the short, were known for disastrous free skates.

Tonight, the roles were reversed.

Taking the ice last, the two-time German world champions opened their inspirational "You'll Never Walk Alone" program with a downgraded triple toe loop sequence and superb throw triple flip. The real trouble began with a seemingly simple element, the spiral sequence. Taking their first position, the skaters' grips slipped and Savchenko crashed to the ice.

"The spiral, we cannot predict things like that," Szolkowy said. "It never happens, not even in practice. For two-time world champions to do that is not easy.

"We don't know what happened today. Sometimes it's easier [to explain mistakes] if one of the skaters is not feeling so well, but today, we don't know what happened."

After that it was downhill. Despite encouragement from the crowd, the Germans fell out of a death spiral and missed their final element, a throw triple Salchow, entirely. They ended up fourth in the free and third overall with 174.42 points.

"Everyone saw us yesterday; it was one end. Everyone saw us today, and it was the other end," Szolkowy said.

While the Germans sputtered, the Russians were sublime, reaching new heights in their free skate to the theme from Love Story.

Their opening triple twist elicited gasps. Their double Axels and triple toe loop, double toe combinations were in sync. Triple throws, a loop and Salchow, were elegantly executed and softly landed.

The performance was highly reminiscent of their coach Oleg Vasiliev's previous students, 2006 Olympic champions Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin.

Mukhortova and Trankov won the free and took the title with 192.93 total points.

"Using this music was a dream of Maria's," Trankov said. "Two years ago we picked this music for the free program, but another Russian pair [Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov] picked the same music. This is the Olympic season, and Maria thinks when Jamie Sale and David Pelletier used Love Story [at the 2002 Olympics], and it was a great program, so she wanted to use the same for the Olympics in Canada."

Mukhortova has been ill with flu and fever for several days. Maybe that works for her: when the team won their junior world title in Kitchener, Canada in 2005, she had a similar malady.

"They did seven competitions last season, and seven times they did a clean short, but never a long," Vasiliev, who won the 1984 Olympic pairs title with former wife Elena Valova, said.

"It was not a stamina issue, it was more a psychological issue. Tonight it was different."

Canadians Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison turned in a fine performance to "The Way We Were" highlighted by side-by-side triple Salchows and Level 4 spins done in good unison. They won the silver medal with 180.97 total points.

"We did what we wanted to do, which was to get our programs out in front of everybody," Davison said. "We weren't worrying too much about the technical elements; it was more the performance quality we wanted to keep high, to let everyone know we have two great programs."

Two-time U.S. champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, who celebrate their birthdays on Oct. 17 and 18, respectively, gave themselves a big gift: Not only did they place fourth overall and third in the free, they landed their first throw triple Axel in nearly three seasons.

"It's a good present, and it's quite a confidence booster to skate that program [to Tchaikovsky's Concert for Piano No. 1] as well as we did the first time out," Baldwin said. "That was the best throw triple Axel we ever did, better than at the 2006 Olympics."

"Our thinking about the throw changed last season," Inoue said. "We didn't try it, because the rules changed and we could lose up to four points if we missed it.

"Also, we were getting information from people who said we needed to do a spiral or lift right into our throws, and the triple Axel is hard. If I fall on it, it hurts. So we thought, we have two other good throws, let's do them."

Adding the Axel back earned the team 8.25 points, with a bonus for doing it in the second half of the program. Their other triple throw, a loop, was strong, although Baldwin doubled the opening triple toe.

"We got all the levels we were looking for, except of course for the double toe," he said. "It's a great program and we'll go back and work to get it better."

Making their senior Grand Prix debut, world junior bronze medalists Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir had a solid outing to music from Michael W. Smith and the soundtrack of Elizabeth the Golden Age, placing seventh in the free and seventh overall with 133.01 points.

"It went pretty well," Castelli said. "We didn't really expect too much, competing with these top pairs. We just wanted to go out and skate the best we could and learn from the experience.

"This has definitely inspired us. In our rink [Skating Club of Boston], we're the top pair skaters, so being around these teams gives us something to strive for and pushes us to skate better."