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Lambiel skates through pain at Swiss nationals

Swiss star hopes for better performances in Talinn

Stéphane Lambiel won the Swiss national championship despite some injury woes.
Stéphane Lambiel won the Swiss national championship despite some injury woes. (Getty Images)

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By Klaus Reinhold-Kany and Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(12/14/2009) - Stéphane Lambiel's spirit is willing, but so far, his body isn't cooperating as well as he hoped.

Although the Swiss star won his ninth national title in Lugano last weekend, the two-time world champion struggled with his jumps.

"When Stéphane trained hard this fall, his groin problems came back," Peter Grütter, Lambiel's long time coach, said. "Since then, we have to work very carefully in practice and always have to see what is going to work on that day. He can only train seven or eight hours per week."

The 24-year-old skater, who is attempting a comeback to competition after skipping last season with a groin injury, admitted he was not in top shape.

"Before each practice and competition I do a very special warming-up program," Lambiel said. "I can no longer just warm up for six or 10 minutes and then do one jump after the other."

At the Swiss championships last Saturday, Lambiel received a whopping 244.23 points (including a two-point national bonus for trying a quad), outpacing his international personal-best, 239.10, earned at the Grand Prix Final in 2008. It is unlikely a panel of international judges will be as generous.

Although he rotated quad toe loops in both his short and long programs, he stepped out of the landing in the long. He had no triple Axel, executing several excellent double Axels (with +2 and +3 grades of execution). Some triples, including the flip, were shaky, but he collected many points for his excellent spins and exciting step sequences. His program components ranged up to 9.25.

"I reached my goal here in Lugano, but I need more time on the ice," Lambiel said. "At my next competition at the European championships [in Tallinn, Estonia in mid-January], I will be better."

He is not the only European man struggling with injury. In late November, Brian Joubert injured a ligament in his right foot while practicing a Lutz. Evgeni Plushenko is troubled by a painful left knee, likely due to over-training quads and quad combinations. Both these skaters say they hope to return in time for their national championships later this month.

Lambiel, who is known for changing his mind, may have a new free program by the time he gets to Tallinn. He is not satisfied with his Tango routine, created with Brunner and Antonio Najarro back in the summer of 2008.

"You know me, I am always full of surprises," he said, adding he plans to keep his short program to music from Gioachino Rossini's opera Wilhelm Tell: "Wilhelm Tell is a historic Swiss hero, and I like the music."

"You never know with him if he suddenly wants a new free program," Brunner said. "Nothing has been decided yet, but we will discuss next week."

But coach Grütter said the matter was decided.

"We already have a new free program," Grütter said. "Stéphane might show it in Tallinn and decide afterwards if he will use the new one, or the Tango program, at the Olympics. He is always so emotional, a real artist."

Lambiel has only competed twice this season. After winning Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, and qualifying for the Olympics, he had hoped for Grand Prix events as a last-minute substitute. But no invitations came, and Lambiel elected to bypass smaller European events. In lieu of competing, he did some shows in Asia.

He also travelled to Toronto this fall to work with physiotherapist Marla Pichler, who he had successfully consulted this spring. Although he planned to practice at the Cricket Skating and Curling Club, where Brian Orser trains Yu-Na Kim, Adam Rippon and others, pain curtailed his training. Instead he went to operas and ballets to get inspired.

Lambiel, like his country's previous world champion Denise Biellmann, is famous for excellent spins, which seem to be a specialty for Swiss skaters. Although figure skating lore says they excel because hockey players leave them just a small corner of the rink, the real reason is different: For decades, Swiss coach Georgette Bühlmann taught skaters and other coaches in Switzerland how to do the best spins in the world. Although she has since retired, her influence remains.

Today, because of his groin problems, Lambiel hardly trains the spins at all.

"If you can perform a spin in such a perfect quality, you do not have to train it every day to keep this standard," Brunner said. "He just does them in competition."

Despite his physical limitations, Lambiel said he was determined to compete at his third Olympics. (He placed 15th in 2002.) He made up his mind while watching the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles from the stands.

"I saw that something was missing in my life," he said. "And it is fascinating to experience the adventure of another Olympics. If it works it is a huge satisfaction. If not, it was important nevertheless and it made sense to try it.

"Before the last Olympics [where he won the silver medal], I had no limits. Now it is different. I cannot give everything any more. But I am able to master this pain in my body. On the ice I just have to forget that it hurts. If you are willing to do this, it will work."