They Spun Gold
Glittering performances lit up the World Figure Skating Championships
In addition to stoking old rivalries and whetting the appetite for the forthcoming Salt Lake City Olympics, the 2001 World Figure Skating Championships, held last week in Vancouver, should be remembered for dishing out some flippin' hot skating. It didn't hurt that Vancouverites are a little loopy when it comes to this sport. Nine thousand people paid to watch a men's practice on Thursday, and sellout crowds of more than 17,000 had the General Motors Place rocking at every event. However, when even bronze medal performances are earning full-throttle standing ovations, there's a good chance you're sitting in on something special.
Certainly that was the case last Saturday night, as Michelle Kwan became the first to win back-to-back ladies' championships since Kristi Yamaguchi did it in 1991 and '92. The U.S. champion was utterly Kwanlike—elegant, confident, smooth—but it was her flawless triple toe, triple toe combination that allowed her to edge her nemesis, Russia's Irina Slutskaya, who'd beaten Kwan three times in the previous 13 months. In winning her fourth world tide in six years, Kwan earned a psychologically important victory, since the last four ladies' Olympic gold medalists have gone into the Games as the reigning world champion. "I was gutsy," Kwan said. "I did everything I planned. No backing up, adding things, subtracting things. I just let myself go."
That was a good recipe for success, as 15-year-old Sarah Hughes of Great Neck, N.Y., showed in finishing third. Hughes's coach, Robin Wagner, told the uncommonly poised teen not to skate safely, that if she wanted a medal, she had to grab it. "I gave everything I had," Hughes said after her buoyant free program brought the crowd out of its seats. "I couldn't even bow after the performance because I couldn't breathe."
As for Slutskaya—who has now finished second three times at worlds without a championship—all she did was become the first woman to land a triple Salchow, triple loop, double toe loop combination in competition, a three-jump sequence of such technical difficulty that a collective gasp filled the building when she landed it. She botched a second three-jump combination, though, a misstep that probably cost her the crown.
It was another Russian, 18-year-old Evgeny Plushenko, who gave the performance of these championships, however, capping a breakthrough year with a skate so nearly perfect that the knowledgeable crowd booed when the judges failed to award him any 6.0s. The spidery-armed Plushenko, who has dominated men's skating this season with $227,000 in International Skating Union prize money, landed his trademark quadruple toe loop, triple toe loop, double loop combination early in his program, and then built on the moment to whip the fans into a frenzy with more moves than an acre of snakes. He camped it up with his shaggy hair and gold lame gloves and tango moves, but there is a quality to Plushenko's skating that goes beyond show.
So flexible that he's the only man who can perform a Biellmann spin (in which the skater reaches back and holds his foot behind his head) with either leg, Plushenko is pushing men's skating to places it has never been. "Today was my best skate," he said. "It's been my dream to be world champion since I was four years old. I'm so happy."
Nearly as tickled was 29-year-old Todd Eldredge of the U.S., who returned to Olympic-style competition after more than two years of touring and finished third, becoming the oldest man in 70 years to earn a medal at the world championships. He, too, brought the crowd to its feet each time he finished one of his spectacular spins, but without a quadruple jump Eldredge has little hope of beating Plushenko or three-time world champion Alexei Yagudin, who finished second. Yagudin was hobbled by a sore right foot in Vancouver, though he had been healthy when he lost to Plushenko three times earlier this season, and he'll be the underdog against his countryman and former training partner in Salt Lake City. "Evgeny improved a lot this year in his jumps, his technique and his presentation," Yagudin said. "I knew it would be hard to be first again."
Perhaps ever again, if Plushenko continues to skate as he did last week.
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