Thursday, February 21, 2002
Slutskaya plays it safe, ends up with silver
SALT LAKE CITY -- Irina Slutskaya was so busy keeping a close eye on Michelle Kwan she forgot all about Sarah Hughes.
Skating right after Kwan blew another chance for gold, all Slutskaya needed was a clean, solid skate and the bright, shiny medal was hers. Instead, the Russian played it safe -- and wound up with silver while Hughes skated away with the Olympic title.
"Olympic Games can't be easy for anyone," Slutskaya said. "Everyone fights and everyone wants to win."
But only Hughes skated like it.
Not only did the 16-year-old do the toughest tricks of the night, but she electrified the crowd with her joy and spunk. She skated with her heart not her feet, and by the end of the program, she had a smile so bright it lit up the arena.
But while Hughes was uninhibited, Slutskaya looked as if someone had overstarched her costume. And it showed in the marks, as Hughes got two 5.7s and the rest 5.8s for artistry, while Slutskaya got 5.6s to 5.9s.
"I was so surprised about my second mark. It's a very interesting situation," Slutskaya said. "I worked so hard this year for the second mark. In all my competitions, I have higher mark second.
"Here, I see 5.6s. I have shock, that's it."
And some anger, too. After staring blankly up at the scoreboard, she stormed out of the kiss and cry area and stood in a corner while her coach tried to console her. But Slutskaya wanted none of it, brushing aside a curtain as she stomped back to the locker room.
Still, it was the first Olympic medal for the 23-year-old, who was fifth at the Nagano Games in 1998. And when she came out for the presentation ceremony, she'd collected herself and was smiling again.
"I feel like a star," she said, giggling. "I skated good today. I'm really happy because it's so hard to skate after Michelle. I was so nervous today, so I'm happy."
The Olympics were supposed to be a battle between Kwan and Slutskaya, friends off the ice and great rivals the past two seasons. Coming into the games, Slutskaya had finished ahead of Kwan six out of the last eight times they'd met.
But Kwan won when it mattered most, beating Slutskaya at the last two world championships.
So the drama was high with the two favorites the last to skate. Kwan faltered first, two-footing a triple toe loop, the first jump in a combination. Then she fell on a triple flip, getting up with a stunned look.
That left the door wide open for Slutskaya, who is better technically than Kwan and is much improved artistically this year. As Slutskaya stood at the sideboards waiting to skate, she got some last-minute encouragement from her coach.
Skate solidly for four minutes, don't fall, don't mess anything up, and the gold was all hers.
But she skated conservatively, as if she was trying to hold onto a medal that wasn't even hers yet. She didn't do the difficult triple-triple combinations she had planned, and her jumps weren't as solid as usual. She leaned way forward on her triple flip and had to fight just to stay on her feet.
And there wasn't much else to the program besides her jumps and spins. She seemed so focused on doing everything right that she didn't have the same endearing spark she usually does.
When she finished, she squeezed her eyes shut and nodded her head as if to say, "OK, I've done it." But as she skated off the ice, there was a sign of what was to come when a picture of Hughes flashed on the scoreboard.
The crowd roared, and Slutskaya looked around, confused. When she figured out what was happening, she seemed startled. And when the marks flashed that showed she'd lost the gold to Hughes, that look turned to stunned anger.
"I didn't say anything about Sarah Hughes. Sarah skated great today, too," Slutskaya said. "I'm just surprised. Yeah, I'm a good skater, it's true. I skated good today. But judges take their choices. That's it."
It was yet another disappointment for the Russian Olympic team, though. Only a few hours before the women's free skate, the Russians threatened to pull out of the games over a string of decisions against their athletes, including the pairs controversy.
But Slutskaya said she didn't know about the complaint until after she was done skating.
"Very interesting story," she said. "They have some interesting stories, but it's not my job to talk about it."