Russian starts strong in bid for sixth title

Updated: January 28, 2005, 5:34 PM ET
Associated Press

TURIN, Italy -- Even after a year away, Irina Slutskaya showed who wears the pants at the European championships.

Irina Slutskaya
Slutskaya took advantage of relaxed rules to wear trousers for her innovative, carefree routine.

Skating in glittering black trousers -- allowed this year for the first time in competition -- the five-time winner took the lead Friday in the women's short program. Her jumps were high-flying and sleek, and the judges gave her extra points for every single one.

The 25-year-old is back in top form after recovering from an inflammation of the heart lining that kept her out last season. If she takes the gold after Saturday's free skate, she will match the titles of two all-time greats -- Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt.

In March, Slutskaya will be tough competition for Michelle Kwan at Moscow's world championships. Unbeaten this season, Slutskaya has already topped the nine-time U.S. champion at an invitational.

On Friday, though, she preferred to talk not of titles and rivals but of her humble debut at Europeans 10 years ago. Then, she was a 15-year-old kid in a green and red folk costume who cried after missing a jump.

"That was really scary!" she said, recalling her fifth-place performance.

"Now I'm older, more professional, smarter. Now I watch all the girls, they are really young, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, 10 years ago, I was the same age, and I know how it's hard,'" she said.

Slutskaya won her first European title in 1996 and followed with victories in 1997, 2000, 2001 and 2003. She was the Olympic silver medalist in 2002.

Skating to Shostakovich in the short program Friday, she looked carefree. Her crisp jumping including a triple lutz-double loop combination and a huge triple flip.

Another highlight was a sassy chase down the center of the rink. Then came the spins -- arching back to grab a skate blade behind her head in the midst of a whirl, Slutskaya stretches the limits of human flexibility.

Her score of 65.02 put her well ahead of defending champion Julia Sebestyen of Hungary, who has 61.28 points under the new scoring system used for the first time at the European championships.

Third went to Finland's Susanna Poykio, also skating a clean program but scoring just 56.63 points.

Slutskaya missed the championship last year because of her heart problem and various illnesses. She skipped Europeans and entered the world championships but was out of shape and finished ninth.

In these Europeans, Russia could sweep all four events for the fifth time.

Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin capped their comeback from her dangerous face-first fall to the ice three months earlier with a victory in the pairs, the fourth straight Europeans victory for them.

World champion Evgeni Plushenko also took his fourth gold in the men's competition.

Skating's new scoring system adds up the technical elements and artistry. After being tried out on the Grand Prix circuit for two years, it is being used in a major championship for the first time at the arena where the 2006 Olympics figure skating will be held.

A smaller innovation this year is the International Skating Union's decision to relax dress codes. Slutskaya has tried out her sleek black pantsuit a few times already.

"I like it because it's something new for our sport," she said.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press