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European skaters suit up for Sheffield showdown

Plushenko returns, but faces fresh challenge from Fernandez

Frenchman Florent Amodio won Euros in 2011, but he has an uphill climb in 2012.
Frenchman Florent Amodio won Euros in 2011, but he has an uphill climb in 2012. (Getty Images)

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By Klaus-Reinhold Kany, special to icenetwork.com
(01/22/2012) - For more than 110 years, top skaters have flocked to the 2012 European Figure Skating Championships, which hold almost as much prestige for them as the World Figure Skating Championships. While some top North American skaters may skip the Four Continents Championships, only injury keeps leading European skaters from vying for their continent's crown.

For the first time since the event was held in Birmingham in 1989, Europeans are in Great Britain. Sheffield, about 200 miles north of London, plays host. One of the world's leading skate blade manufacturers is located in this city of around 500,000 inhabitants.

The competition has the same format as worlds, the only difference being there will be no pairs qualification because only 19 pairs were entered, and up to 20 may skate the short program. The ladies, men and ice dancers qualify on Monday and Tuesday, and the main competition begins on Wednesday.

Qualifying events rarely cause much excitement, but Sheffield is an exception. Three-time Olympic medalist Evgeni Plushenko, who has won six European titles, will compete in qualifying. Two Russian men are qualified directly into the main draw, but under ISU rules, the third Russian must participate in qualifying, and the 2006 Olympic champion -- who has not competed internationally since winning Olympic silver in 2010 -- has the lowest world ranking.

The ISU has already made one exception for Plushenko, allowing him to compete despite his not having attained the minimum technical score required. However, the 29-year-old skater won his ninth Russian title three weeks ago and is one of the medal candidates for the event. But his quadruple toe loop did not look stable at the Russian championships, and his steps and transitions between elements are not as difficult as some of his younger rivals'.

"I know that I am behind some of the younger skaters," Plushenko said after the Russian Championships. "I am prepared to lose because I am not in top shape."

Plushenko will face many challengers. First are the two much younger Grand Prix finalists, Javier Fernandez of Spain, who does quad toe and Salchow in his free skate, and the entertaining Michal Brezina from the Czech Republic.

Two Frenchmen, defending European champion Florent Amodio and longtime Plushenko rival Brian Joubert, cannot be counted out. Amodio, the defending European champion, was out of shape for his fall events but may have since improved. Joubert, who won silver last season, was injured last fall but recovered to win the French title. He has won a medal in each of his 10 European championships.

Verner beat Brezina at Czech nationals some weeks ago and is another medal candidate. Belgian Kevin van der Perren has said he plans not only to show quad toe loops, but also a quad Salchow for the first time. Plushenko's training mate Artur Gachinski, the world bronze medalist, and Italy's Samuel Contesti are other top candidates.

In the ladies competition, Italian Carolina Kostner, who won the Grand Prix Final, is a clear favorite. Last year's winner Sarah Meier has retired from competition, and the two top Russian hopes, Elizaveta Tuktamisheva and Adelina Sotnikova, are too young to be allowed to compete in Sheffield. (They placed first and second at the first Winter Youth Olympic Games in Austria some days ago.) Other medal contenders include the Grand Prix Final bronze medalist Alena Leonova of Russia, Finland's Kiira Korpi, the two Helgesson sisters from Sweden and Italian Valentina Marchei, who trains in Detroit.

In pairs, the reigning world champions and Grand Prix Final winners Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy from Germany, and Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia, are favorites for gold and silver again. But both couples had some problems lately. Savchenko fell hard in practice last week on a throw triple Axel and has a muscle injury in her upper thigh. Trankov missed Russian nationals because of groin problems which occurred since November.

The second Russian pair, Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, will miss Europeans because Smirnov had an appendix surgery two weeks ago. The two other Russian pairs, Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov, and Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, will therefore fight for a medal, as will the Italian team of Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek.

In ice dancing, the French team of Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat, third at the Grand Prix Final, look like good bets to defend their title. The two relatively young Russian teams -- Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, who won silver last season, and former world junior champions Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov will compete for medals. However, Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, German champions Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi and 2011 Skate America bronze medalists Isabella Tobias and Deividas Stagniunas of Lithuania, who train under Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband in Canton, Mich. also have medal hopes.

Sinead Kerr and John Kerr of Great Britain retired after their European bronze medal last season, and are ambassadors in Sheffield, featured on many posters. The best and the only British hope for a top-10 finish are British ice dance champions Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland, who train with Evgeni Platov in New Jersey.