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Olympic Games - Figure Skating
JUST ANOTHER PIECE OF OLYMPIC METAL
Irina Slutskaya
Photo © Alex Wilf
Irina Slutskaya

No one in figure skating must have doubted that Slutskaya deserves Olympic gold like no one else. She was undefeated for a year and a half. But to make Olympic gold come true, Irina needed to be the best the night before not just the best. And she needed to be the best with only her own desire, the ice and her skates to make her dreams come true. She also had to know that the judges, most likely, would not have supported her.

If most of us in the stands and by our TVs yesterday needed to suck on our sedative pills, what must have she felt? And how must she feel right now, when her lifes dream did not come true?

There are plenty of skaters who sincerely believe the Olympic Games are just another competition. And failing to win gold there is no tragedy. And I cant really tell whether thats a sophisticated self-defense mechanism or a true feeling. No gold? Whatever. For instance, Canadas Curt Browning has four world championships to his name. He is also a four-time Olympian with not even a bronze medal to show for it. And does this keep Browning and the entire country of Canada to believe hes a great skater? Not in the slightest.

But there are also skaters that let their loss at the Olympics to become a disaster of their entire career. Time takes away the pain and heals all wounds. But if you take a closer look, youll see the wound is still gaping open.

This was the way the Torino games hit a five-time World champion Michelle Kwan an incredibly hard blow. All her life, the U.S. skater dreamed of nothing but Olympic gold, and she was a breath away in Nagano, but just couldnt do it.

Slutskayas life in skating was full of similar drama. She took fifth place in Nagano. She had a very real chance to win in Salt Lake, but lost it. She stayed eligible for four more years only to win the goddamn Olympic gold. But how hard must it be to compete when youre 27 years gold and realize that there will be no other chances. This is your only and last one.

Before last nights freeskate, one of the U.S. skating observers Christine Brennan reviewed the short program results in USA Today. She thought Cohen was held down to keep Russia up. According to Brennan, Cohen jumped as well as Slutskaya and was miles ahead of her in artistic impression, so translating this difference as 0.91, in her opinion, was horribly unfair. The observer thought Cohen should have been leading by a mile.

Her conclusion was simple: the judges did all they could to keep Cohen and Slutskaya close. Why? For no other reason than to humiliate America, of course.

In Russia, the opinions fell on the other end of the spectrum: we thought it was Slutskaya who was held down. The truth is that the panel was split, and Cohen took a lead due to random computer selection of 9 marks out of 12. This was confirmed by the study of John Emerson of Yale University published in NY Times. Emerson analyzed all 220 possible short program outcomes and saw this:

92 cases: Slutskaya 1st, Cohen 2nd, Arakawa 3rd

33 cases: Slutskaya 1st, Arakawa 2nd, Cohen 3rd

3 cases: Slutskaya 1st, Arakawa and Cohen tied

67 cases: Cohen 1st, Slutskaya 2nd, Arakawa 3rd

25 cases: Cohen 1st, Arakawa 2nd, Slutskaya 3rd

No other proof is required that Slutskaya was just a tad better (128 cases vs. 92). But it was also obvious that if Slutskaya and Cohen skate equally well in the free skate, the Olympic gold competition would have become a computer lottery.

Cohen skated the second in her warm-up group. She fell on her first lutz, blowing the planned 3-2-2 sequence. She tried again, and fell again. That was the end for her.

But the drama was just beginning. Shizuka Arakawa of Japan skated brilliantly like never before. She took the lead over Cohen by almost 8 points, scoring her personal best And raised the bar for Slutskaya to almost unreachable heights.

Slutskaya fell, too. She couldntt handle the nerves. And it was Salt Lake City all over again. While two main contenders were eyeing each other, the third leaped ahead and took Olympic Gold.

Russian figure skating fans took Irina Slutskayas bronze medal in Torino as a tragedy. It wasnt even a matter of making a new record, although Slutskaya had every chance to win gold. Irina took her loss as a personal disaster that was much harder to handle than losing gold in Salt Lake four years ago.

The story of Torino ladies competition followed a familiar script. When two main contenders clash in their fight for gold, a dark horse often leaps from behind their backs.

2004 World champion Shizuka Arakawa became the dark horse of Torino.

Arakawa had only one judge out of a 12-member judging panel the one that ranked her the first in the short program. There was never any plan to hold her up or keep her down. Her placement was her own doing. She completed three jump combinations, including a triple salchow-double toe loop-double loop late in the program, which brought her bonus points. Her spins and step sequences were graded Level 4 (except one). Her only slip was doubling the loop, but even with that, her technical scores were extraordinary. Without a doubt, that was the skate of her life. And the scores reflected it by placing her 8.69 points over Sasha Cohen, the skater who according to the popular wisdom was going to be crowned the queen of this evening.

Free skates like Arakawas are very hard on her competitors. They demoralize and destroy all fighting spirit. But we wanted to believe that Slutskaya wont fall prey to that. We all know how much of a fighter she is. And Irina had to know that her competitors are in great shape: she must have seen it by a thousand small things that an experienced eye picks up without trying. Still, after the morning practice on the day of the free skate, she said, offhandedly, Ill tear them all to pieces!.

Could she have? Absolutely.

Or maybe not. Slutskayas win could have become the main event of these Olympics, and no words would have conveyed how precious that win would have been. Because everything that evening played against her, including Russias three wins in men, pairs and ice dance, the endless rumors of getting jobbed like in Salt Lake City to pay for her accomplishments, and the cursed last draw number to skate. The last to skate meant forty minutes of torturous waiting after the warm up filled by applause to her rivals. There was no way she didnt hear them.

When her turn came, Slutskaya skated heavily like never before. It wasnt just the fall on her loop. Like Arakawa, she completed two combinations, but one of them consisted of only double jumps. By the end of the program, she just wilted. The spirit left her skating and it became a robotic sequence of simple elements. It was clear that Irina couldnt wait to leave the ice, and every step on that rink was like walking on hot coals barefoot.

Could she have stayed in second ahead of Cohen. Perhaps. Its hard to rank skaters when both make mistakes. Sasha fell once and managed to keep her footing after a second botched jump, which saved her a point. The difference was that after two slip-ups she was able to focus and finish the program like nothing ever happened. And the main impression of her program was not her unbridled nervousness early on, but her pure lines, crisp elements and superb choreography. It takes a hero of some sort to make all you can out of your program when you have no chances left to win.

But for Irina, the medal of any other color just didnt matter, just like it didnt to us. The fact was, it wasnt gold, and that made it tragic for Irina and all her fans.

Her feelings toward her medal were best expressed in the mandatory interview in the mixed zone. She had to be dragged there from the locker room. Her eyes swollen from crying, but her smile firmly in place (at what cost, one wonders), Slutskaya wryly said, Just another piece of Olympic metal, no more. And she cast a momentary look at her medal like it was a vile snake.

Is she going to the worlds?, - I asked her coach Zhanna Gromova. She looked at me with a blind eye. Really, it was a dumb question. How can you talk of world championships when you just ran out of sedative pills?

Someone next to her looked for more, and they were out as well.

Tatiana Tarasova commentated the ladies free skate, and she couldnt say a word when Irina skated. Only after the ceremony, when we went back to the skaters section, she said:

- I cant tell you how much I worried and rooted for Irina. I couldnt even commentate at the end. I have so much respect for her. And not just because she came back to skating and went to the Olympics after her disease. To achieve what she achieved in figure skating is to exceed your natural gifts by the tenfold. She made herself into a real athlete, a fighter, same as her coach Zhanna Gromova.

They had it very hard. Totmianina and Marinin and Navka/Kostomarov, two other winning pairs in Torino, have been living and skating in America for a long time. They had a chance to stay away from all the perils of post-USSR Russia. I had to go abroad because I realized that by the time Russia improves I will be very old and perhaps unable to work. I didnt want to lose ten years of my coaching happiness that I enjoyed working in the USA. I learned a lot, and taught others a lot.

- All these years in the USA, you worked with Cohen, Michelle Kwan, and Arakawa. Perhaps more than anyone else you realize that todays results had to be expected?

- No, they didnt have to be expected. They didnt. Arakawa did have the best practices of them all. Shes in terrific shape. When shes in that shape she can even do a 3-3-3, perhaps underrotate a bit, but in practice, she did a triple flip-triple loop, and the loop was clean as a whistle. You could see that shes not at the peak of her form yet, but shes getting there.

This season she skated brilliantly. She defeated Sasha at TEB. I think the Japanese Skating Federation made a mistake by sending her to the same Grand Prix events with Mao Asada. It was like she was left to be second. I thought they did it deliberately. I wrote to them and told them its unacceptable, particularly because they already knew that Asada would miss the Olympics. But what happened, happened. Thats why Arakawa didnt make it to Grand Prix Final. And then we parted ways.

- Because you didnt want to develop a new program for her?

- Shizuka wanted to change her free program and skate to Carmen, but I told her that I dont see her as a Carmen and wont work at that program. Although in hindsight, I should have thought why she wanted it so badly. Even my father always told me to listen to outstanding athletes because they never say anything without thinking it through first.

- Did you try to keep her somehow, talk her into staying in Moscow?

- No, I thought it would be better for her to leave. Thats a known trick, by the way, changing coaches before an important meet. A new coach can give an athlete some new blood, some additional energies. Thats the way Arakawa came to me before Dortmund from Morozov he wasnt her coach per se, but he made her programs and worked with her a lot. Changing coaches gives skaters a chance to do something new, to change their routines temporarily. Thats what Chait and Sakhnovksi did: every time they changed coaches they advanced a bit.

I dont regret parting ways with Shizuka. Just like three years ago I didnt regret parting ways with Cohen. I gave them all I could. Perhaps I just ran out of patience. And coaching without patience is a lost cause you wont achieve anything.

- Seeing how sincerely the Japanese are thanking you, looks like Shizuka and yourself parted on good terms?

- When she realized Im not going to work with her and went to the USA to work with Morozov, I wrote her a letter. I advised her to return to her old music that brought her gold in Dortmund, not Carmen. I told her that in my opinion, that music has so much positive emotion for her, it just had to help.

When we were working together, I was much more worried about her jumps. And my letter read approximately like this: No matter what routine you pick, you must do the flip. You can change the music, but you must do the flip. You may want to change your step sequence, but you must do the flip... And two and a half more pages along the same lines.

So she did the flip. Because she was ready.

Japans first Olympic gold was completely deserved. No matter how painful Slutskayas loss, the results were completely fair, much more so than in Salt Lake, where the distance between three medalists was so small that the results are still being debated.

In addition, Torino was a sad experience because we saw the end of several grand epochs. Slutskaya, T/M, Nav/Kosand perhaps, Plushenko.

Whats next?

Tarasova said, Youll have your coaches, but you have to make it worth their while to stay. You have to give them an opportunity to work with several skaters, not just one. When you work with just one skater, no matter how brilliant, you lose. But presently in Russia you can make a living only coaching rich kids. So you have to teach multiple seminars just to make ends meet. To coach someone else. Kudriavtsev and Mishin are in the same boat. We all have to coach other skaters, and you can see the results they are too good for our own Russian good.

What can you add to this? Perhaps Slutskaya will go to Calgary just to win. To slam the door, to show to the world that losing the Olympics were just a fluke. We dont need that, she does. Because it seems to me that leaving at the top of her game is the most important thing to Irina right now.

Although in reality, its not as important. In the Greece Olympics, where a four-time Olympic Champion Alexander Popop ended his career, and his fans were hurting because we couldnt find any words of comfort, I had a chance to talk to Kees van den Hugenband the father of the Dutch swimmer who took the victory away from Popov in Athens and four years earlier in Sydney. And when I mentioned that after his loss, perhaps Popov will no longer be an idol to his son, Kees suddenly said, Do you really believe that his losses here are important? Hell remain a legend all his life. He did so much for swimming that no one else is likely to top that...


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