They Spun Gold
Glittering performances lit up the World Figure Skating
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
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 title 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
Radcliffe First, At Last
Paula Radcliffe's reign as running's unlucky Princess Valiant
ended in a glorious mud bath last Saturday when the 27-year-old
Briton won the women's long-course (8-km) race at the World
Cross-Country Championships in soggy Ostend, Belgium. Radcliffe
led for most of the race, was passed with 200 meters to go by
two-time champion Gete Wami of Ethiopia and then passed Wami in
the final 50 meters to break the tape in 27 minutes, 49 seconds.
Radcliffe, a popular athlete who insisted that her four-year,
$214,000 promotional contract with Nike include $21,000 in grants
to young female athletes in Great Britain, had built a reputation
as a courageous front-runner forever disappointed at the finish.
At the 1997 world cross-country meet in Turin, Italy, Ethiopia's
Derartu Tulu outkicked Radcliffe, leaving her with a silver
medal. She was second again in '98. In the 4-km race at the 2000
worlds in Vilamoura, Portugal, an exhausted Radcliffe watched
Wami and two others go by her in the last 200 meters and
collapsed across the line to finish fourth. In the 10,000-meter
final at the Sydney Olympics, Radcliffe led for 24 of 25 laps
before being passed by eventual medalists Tulu, Wami and Fernanda
Ribeiro of Portugal. Eschewing a courtesy victors often pay to
pacesetters, Wami and Tulu then walked right by Radcliffe, who
was slumped on a chair, without acknowledging her on their way to
a victory lap.
On Sunday, Radcliffe found herself back in a familiar place,
taking second in the short course race, one second behind Wami.
But even that close defeat wasn't enough to put a damper on
Radcliffe's triumphant weekend. Her victory last Saturday was,
after all, her first major championship since she won the world
junior cross-country title on snow and ice in Boston nine years
ago. "Winning this," she said, "is as good as winning the
Post-Olympic pomp and partying haven't slowed Ian Thorpe. On
Monday at the Australian championships in Hobart, his first
major meet since winning five medals in Sydney, the Aussie swim
star won the 800-meter freestyle in 7:41.59, cutting 4.41 off
Kieren Perkins's world record...
The Canadian women's hockey team, which has beaten the U.S. in
the final of all six world championships contested, may be
without star forward Hayley Wickenheiser when this year's worlds
begin in Minnesota on April 2. Canada's alltime leading scorer
suffered a torn ligament in her right knee at her country's
nationals on March 11...
New Zealand rower Rob Waddell, the 2000 Olympic single sculls
champ, plans to compete at Athens in 2004 but not before a stint
as a winch grinder for the Kiwi sailors defending the America's
Cup in 2003...
In the latest blow to Athens's preparations for the 2004 Games,
a reported half ton of potentially carcinogenic PCBs spilled
near the proposed site for Olympic rowing close to an abandoned
U.S. Naval base in Schinias, Greece. Organizers have not said
whether they are considering an alternative site for rowing...
U.S. Olympic beach volleyball doubles teammates Jenny Johnson
Jordan and Annett Davis will miss the 2001 season because of
pregnancies. Davis, the wife of swimmer Byron Davis, is due in
June; Johnson Jordan, the daughter of Olympic decathlon great
Rafer Johnson, is due in October.