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Slutskaya poised to win record 7th European title

1/19/2006

LYON, France -- Irina Slutskaya captured the short program
Wednesday, putting the Russian in position to win and overtake
Katarina Witt and Sonia Henie with her seventh title at the
European Championships.

Slutskaya skated early but her score of 66.04 points held up for
nearly five hours. Russia's Elena Sokolova was second at 60.88,
followed by Switzerland's Sarah Meier at 60.87.

The long program is Thursday. If Slutskaya wins, she will break
the European record she shares with Witt and Henie, two of figure
skating's greatest names.

"I don't think about it," Slutskaya said. "It is still a hard
competition I just want to give my best. It is not the reason why
I'm coming here."

Slutskaya skated third and not many saw her morning performance.

"You know I was so upset because there was no crowd over
there," Slutskaya said. "I am used to so many people in
competition."

She went with an easier combination of a triple lutz-double toe
loop. But her spins, spirals and landings were far superior to the
other competitors in her routine to "Totenttanz" by Franz Liszt.

Michelle Kwan has chosen the same music for her short program
and hopes to use it at the Olympics if she is approved by U.S.
skating officials next week. Kwan was placed on the Olympic team
but must prove she is fit following her withdrawal from the
national championships because of a groin injury.

"I wish to see her at the Olympics, and I wish to see her on
the podium," Slutskaya said.

Slutskaya might be the Olympic favorite despite her loss to
15-year-old Mao Asada at last month's Grand Prix Final. Asada is
not eligible for Turin because she missed the age deadline by 87
days.

Sokolova took second with a dramatic program to the opera
"Turandot." Meier was 10th at the last two Europeans. Newcomer
Elene Gedevanishvili of Georgia was fourth. Only 16, she did a
difficult triple flip-triple toe loop combination.

Slutskaya is trying to help Russia to a sweep of titles.

In the pairs, Totmianina and Marinin were virtually flawless
skating to the movie soundtrack of "Romeo and Juliet."

The duo took the lead after Tuesday's short program, although
Totmianina still has intestinal problems that forced them to miss
last month's Russian championships.

Their points total was 195.87 in the new scoring system.

"With each year, it has become more and more difficult to
repeat the success," Marinin said. "To win the fifth consecutive
title is something special.

"After my illness I couldn't skate 100 percent yet," she said.
"On the podium I was thinking,'Thank God I am here again.' "

But it wasn't easy for the pair, especially after an eerie
reminder of another stay in the hospital for Totmianina. In October
2004, she crashed heavily to the ice in a fall at Skate America and
was knocked unconscious.

Another pair in the final had a similar fall about an hour
before the Russians were to compete. Czechs pair Olga Prokuronova
and Karel Stefl were on the ice when Stefl lost his balance and
Prokuronova crashed heavily, face first.

Although the fall looked ugly, Prokuronova was able to get up
with some help, make her way to the rink barrier and discuss what
to do next with her coach and the referee. They eventually withdrew
and she waved to the crowd.

Prokuronova was taken to hospital for precautionary X-rays.
Aside from being shaken up, she had no serious injuries, according
to International Skating Union medical adviser Dr. Ruben
Ambartsumov.

But it caused some nervous feelings for Marinin.

"At that moment, I saw it in the skating lounge. I just heard
the audience scream and I saw the people laying on the ice,"
Marinin said. "I just tried to stay far away from that emotionally
and not get involved inside."

Marinin and Totmianina handed Russia its 11th consecutive title,
while Russians took three of the top four places.

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany broke up a
Russian sweep coming in second. Savchenko represented Ukraine at
the 2002 Olympics but recently became a German citizen.

Russia's Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov, who won the title in
1999 and 2000, were third.

Despite the distractions, Totmianina and Marinin's only mistake
was when Marinin doubled an intended triple jump at the start.

"It's better to do it now, rather than later," Totmianina
said.

Later is the Winter Olympics. The pairs short program opens the
figure skating competition on Feb. 11, the day after the opening
ceremony.

Evgeni Plushenko, whose participation is in doubt, finally arrived and attended the draw. He dropped out of the 2005 worlds because of a groin injury. Plushenko will start 17th in the men's short program Friday.

His main competition, world champion Stephane
Lambiel of Switzerland and 2004 European champion Brian Joubert of
France, will start 10th and 27th.

The ice dance original program is also Thursday, with the free
portion of that event on Friday.