| ||VIENNA, Feb 11--Titleholder Maria Butyrskaya faded to third place behind two team mates in the short programme at the European championships on Friday as Irina Slutskaya continued to look every inch a champion.
While Butyrskaya, who also won the world title last season, made yet more of the nervy mistakes that have characterised her season, Slutskaya and Viktoria Volchkova breathed fresh air into an otherwise error-strewn day of women's skating.
The 27-year-old champion missed her opening combination jump when she landed off balance on her triple lutz and could not continue to the second jump. After a fine triple loop, she fluffed the double axel, over-rotating when she again lost balance. |
Butyrskaya was mystified by her continued inability to produce under pressure as she did last season. She was also disappointing in the Grand Prix finals last month, when she finished third, and in the qualifying section here on Wednesday, when she won her group despite mistakes.
"I don't know what is wrong with me. I'm well prepared. I can do the elements in practice," she said.
Slutskaya and Volchkova were the last two to skate and both produced flawless routines that were in stark contrast to what had gone before.
Slutskaya captured this crown in 1996 and she retained it in 1997 before losing out to Butyrskaya in 1998.
By last year her skating had disintegrated and she could not even make the high-quality Russian team for the two major championships.
Briefly she contemplated retirement until she realised skating was the only thing she wanted to do. With the encouragement of a new husband and her family, she has bounced back in regal style.
Slutskaya, 21 two days ago, did four perfect jumps in a mistake-free routine that earned her five scores of 5.9 for artistry from the nine judges, eight of whom voted her first.
"I think I did what I wanted to do today. I have changed everything -- how I think, how I skate, my whole approach. I don't think about what I can win, only about how I skate and jumping all the jumps," she said.
Volchkova, skating just before Slutskaya, was every bit as good and was unlucky not to win more than a single judge over to her side.
She is troubled by an inflammation of the muscle on the outside of her right ankle which hurts her when she skates.
"But I have to bear the pain. What else should I do?" she asked.
Vanessa Gusmeroli of France also beat Butyrskaya in the short programme though she was fourth overall. That means that even if Butyrskaya wins the free skating on Saturday afternoon, she will need another skater to also beat Slutskaya for her to keep her title.
Slutskaya leads with 1.0 factored placements. Volchkova has 2.0, Butyrskaya 2.8 and Gusmeroli 3.4.
The final counts for the remaining 50 per cent of the marks.
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