Russian's comeback has a golden luster

Irina Slutskaya won her second world championship despite a heart problem. Michelle Kwan finished fourth.

By wire services
Published March 20, 2005

MOSCOW - Irina Slutskaya had skated stubbornly through the world figure skating championships, through the noise and the expectations and the nagging fatigue that has tugged at her limbs for the past year. And in her toughest moment on Saturday, in front of a hometown crowd hanging on every turn of her long program, stubbornness won the day.

Slutskaya charged into her routine, immediately launching a triple-triple combination where she had planned a triple-double, and did not give an inch until her music ended.

Only then did it all seem like too much. The crowd's catharsis washed over her as stuffed animals and flowers rained onto the ice. She doubled over, hands on her knees, and let herself go.

"I almost couldn't stop crying," Slutskaya said. "I am still crying now. I'm very happy because I think nobody else in this championship had to come back so many times and through so many hard moments like I did."

At 26, she continues her career far beyond the usual age for female skaters partly because her income pays for her mother Natalya's medical treatment. She missed the 2003 worlds to be with her ailing mother, who suffers from kidney disease, requires dialysis and is awaiting a transplant. One of the joys of Slutskaya's victory here was having her mother in the stands to watch.

The only indication of Slutskaya's health problems - an inflamed heart lining for which she's taking medication - was an apparent ebbing of energy in the steps sequence near the end of the program. Her confident skate to jazzy piano music was in striking contrast to the worlds a year ago in Dortmund, Germany, where she was low on energy and uncertain, finishing ninth.

"She is amazing," said five-time world champion Michelle Kwan, who finished fourth. "She's a fighter."

American Sasha Cohen won the silver medal for the second straight year. Carolina Kostner of Italy beat Kwan by less than half a point for the bronze. For Kwan, it was the first time since 1996 she finished a world championship without a medal.

Cohen was within three points of Slutskaya after the short program, but she was penalized for flaws in some jumps and for an off-balance landing on a triple flip. She finished more than eight points behind Slutskaya.

Cohen said the International Skating Union's new scoring system, used at the worlds for the first time this year, will help her refine her skating. The system gives precise scores for each technical element, rather than one general technical rating.

"You understand what's going on," she said. "You know the points mean something."

Kostner was the first Italian woman to win a worlds medal since Susanna Driano's 1978 bronze. She capitalized on the new system's stronger technical emphasis with a triple-triple-double cascade that earned substantial points to help offset small problems.

Kwan was out of competition for most of the season, appearing only in a pair of invitationals before the worlds. Her free program, in which she fell on a triple salchow, lacked verve, although it was well above her qualifier, in which she skated the same program and ended ranked seventh.

"Ooh, bummer!" Kwan exclaimed after leaving the ice. "I was working on that salchow, too."

Japan's Shizuka Arakawa, the 2004 world champion, finished ninth.

Russian skaters won gold in three of the four events, failing only in the men's after defending champion Evgeni Plushenko withdrew because of a groin injury. Switzerland's Stephane Lambiel won the title. American Evan Lysacek took bronze in his debut appearance at the worlds.

In pairs, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin won their second consecutive gold.

Ice dancers Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov defended their championship. Tanith Belbin's and Ben Agosto's silver was the first medal for Americans in the event since 1985.