Kostner working with Mishin to regain her Olympic form

EGNA, Italy (AP) Carolina Kostner is coming full circle.

The Italian has returned to her native Alto Adige region to climb back to the elite level of international figure skating after a nearly three-year absence due to a suspension for helping her then-boyfriend evade doping controls.

While the hometown fans gave her a hero's welcome during the Italian championships this week, Kostner was nowhere near her top form of 2014, when she won the bronze medal at the Sochi Winter Olympics with a near flawless free skate.

But if anyone can raise her back to Olympic levels, it is Alexei Mishin, the Russian coach who trained Alexei Urmanov, Alexei Yagudin, and Yevgeny Plushenko to greatness.

Kostner has been training with Mishin full-time in St. Petersburg since Sept. 1.

'''When she came to me, she was destroyed,'' Mishin said after Kostner claimed her eighth Italian title on Thursday.

Mishin said his first mission, after her long absence from competition, was to give her confidence ''that she is able to compete. And step by step, I think we did.''

His second task has been to radically shake up her approach to the elements. Mishin's skaters don't learn by repetition, a common approach to vanquish errors and create muscle memory. Instead, Mishin assigns them a set of exercises for each jump to create the proper technique. And she is catching on, he said.

''Carolina is one of the most precise and serious pupils which I ever had,'' Mishin said.

The technique, which in many ways is a form of creative destruction, is nothing less than grueling, Kostner acknowledged.

''He has revealed an interesting but not so simple method that has provoked many moments of frustration, some cursing, many falls, and many moments of uncertainty,'' Kostner said. '''In some ways, I feel like a 14-year-old who is learning, almost from zero. It is not from zero, it is only a change in perception, which often in life isn't bad.''

Kostner's last competitive season in 2014 was by far her finest. She won the Olympic bronze with a career-best 142.61 points in the free skate after landing seven triples, three in combination, to a fluidly choreographed ''Bolero.'' She followed that with a best-ever short program at the world championships in Saitama, Japan, where she finished third.

She always planned to take off at least part of the 2015 season to rest, but the suspension turned that into two full seasons. Kostner called it ''a period of maturation'' when addressing reporters after reaching a deal last year to return to competition. She exuded a newfound tranquility, along with a determination to get back into competition, sights set on a fourth Olympics.

During the break, Kostner kept up exhibition skating, and she started training with a dance company in Rome to enhance her expression. But she was missing critical ice hours working on top-level elements.

Fast forward to the 2016-2017 season, and her level of difficulty has clearly diminished.

In her final free program before an adoring home crowd, the former world champion skipped a simple triple toe loop jump in combination. As she came off the ice, Mishin gave her a quizzical look and pointed to his head, as if to say, ''What happened?''

The error was surprising, but Mishin played it down.

''We did not plan to be perfect right now,'' he said.

Mishin huddled backstage after the nationals with Lori Nichol, Kostner's longtime choreographer who also worked with Michelle Kwan, telling her that they needed to add more difficulty to the program to be competitive for Europeans and possibly worlds.

In both her comeback competitions over the last month, Kostner was far from her previous seven triple mark, which she will need to recover to be a factor at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. Still, the determining factor in Kostner's success has always been her artistry and grace on the ice.

Kostner's next challenge will be the Europeans in Ostrava, Czech Republic, at the end of January. Depending on the outcome, the Italian federation will make a final decision on whether Kostner gets Italy's single worlds berth, which last year went to Roberta Rodeghiero, who finished 16th at the worlds but fifth at the Europeans.

Kostner is spending two weeks at home in Alto Adige with her family for the holidays, and part of that time she will be working with Nichol to polish the programs according to Mishin's prescription and her own observations. Kostner's team claims the goal is not the podium.

`'We are just trying to have her become the best that she can be,'' Nichol said. `'Of course, I would hope her to have another moment on the ice, whether it is on the podium or not, where she feels like she has done everything she can.''

For Kostner, the experience of coming back has been nothing if not humbling.

`'I still have a lot to learn, and that is wonderful because two years ago, I thought I had learned everything in my sport,'' Kostner said. `'Instead, every day I am aware there is a whole new world.''

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