Takahashi surprise winner; Sokolova leads women


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Japan's Daisuke Takahashi couldn't
have chosen a better time to break onto the international skating

Ranked 15th in the world and an extreme outsider entering Skate
America, Takahashi won the event in sweeping fashion. He clearly
was the best performer Friday night in the free skate, just as he
was the previous day in the short program.

And just like 24 hours earlier, he reacted with a smile and an
"I'm surprised" look.

"I can land almost everything," he said in halting English
when asked what pleased him most about beating France's Brian
Joubert and American Evan Lysacek, both of whom have more
impressive international credentials. "I thought I do a good

He did indeed, landing seven triple jumps and displaying strong
footwork, particularly near the end of his routine to Rachmaninov's
"Piano Concerto No. 2."

Takahashi was the 2002 world junior champion, but he's made
little progress on the top level -- until now. He finished with
218.54 points, with Lysacek, the 2005 world bronze medalist, second
at 193.71. The American was third behind Takahashi and Joubert in
the free skate.

Joubert, the 2004 European champion and world runner-up, had
190.28 points.

"I thought I stayed with the program and with the character,
and the audience was great," said Lysacek, 20, of Los Angeles, who
performed to music from "Grease."

"Obviously, this year there are some expectations on me to
perform, but this is only my third Grand Prix of my life."

The opening competition of the Grand Prix series was a disaster
for Tim Goebel. The 2002 Olympic bronze medalist barely completed
any elements in his free skate and wound up sixth.

"I have no explanation, I don't know what to say," Goebel
said. "I've never done that before. I guarantee it will not happen

With none of figure skating's big stars on hand, Elena Sokolova
seized control of the women's event.

Sokolova, coming off a poor season but considered slightly below
the top rank of women's skaters, won the short program by nearly
four points. She was hardly spectacular, but there is no need for
utter brilliance quite yet in an Olympic campaign.

The Russian, second in the world in 2003 and winner of two
national titles, hasn't done much the last two years. Although her
chances of making the Turin Olympics are strong, she needs a string
of solid showings before she can expect to challenge countrywoman
Irina Slutskaya, the current world champ; Americans Michelle Kwan
and Sasha Cohen; and a slew of Japanese and European competitors.

After Kwan and Cohen withdrew from the Grand Prix series opener
because of injuries, Sokolova was left as the favorite. She didn't
disappoint with a flowing, clean program to Puccini's "Turandot."

"I think I did the best I can do right now," she said, "and
hopefully it will get better every competition. I'm satisfied with
today's program."

Heading into Saturday's free skate, Sokolova led Japan's Yoshie
Onda 57.94 points to 53.98. American Alissa Czisny, who replaced
Cohen when she dropped out earlier this week, was third at 52.82.

Emily Hughes, younger sister of 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah
Hughes, had a rough time and was eighth.

"This program was not the one I really wanted to do," Hughes

Sokolova plummeted to 10th in the world in 2004 and was seventh
a year ago. She is hoping she's overcome her erratic performance,
which will be critical in an Olympic year.

"The part of my life of last season is finished," she said.
"I try to forget it and have a new part, beginning with this
competition. This is the beginning of the great season."

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto built on their lead in ice dancing
by taking the original dance Friday with 58.37 points. Their salsa
routine was plenty spicy.

"The salsa is a wonderful rhythm to skate to," he said. "We
had a chance to go to Mexico on vacation do some authentic salsa
dancing. It was a fabulous experience and something I think we can
take onto the ice."

The free dance is Saturday.