Pressure Points

Shrugging off skating's new scoring system, a "faded" star won the world title
March 28, 2005

After serious personal setbacks, Irina Slutskaya wasn't going to be fazed by a new scoring system. Skating before a home crowd in Moscow--and a panel of judges whose subjective judgment has been minimized in the wake of the scandal that rocked the 2002 Olympics--the 26-year-old landed seven triple jumps in her final program last Saturday to win the World Figure Skating Championship. It was Slutskaya's second world title but her first since 2002. She placed ninth last year while suffering from vasculitis, an inflammation of the heart lining for which she still takes medication that often causes fatigue and mood swings. In 2003 she stayed home from the championships to take care of her mother, Natalya, who is still on dialysis and waiting for a suitable kidney donor. "I was overwhelmed emotionally," said Slutskaya, the silver medalist at the 2002 Olympics, after the competition. "I was in my footwork sequence and had tears in my eyes, so I could not see."

The victory moved Slutskaya from the role of fading outsider to pre-Olympic favorite. She outpointed America's Sasha Cohen, who won her second straight world silver. At 20, Cohen, who finished fourth at Salt Lake City three years ago, is the sport's tortured ingenue: a skater who can bend and spin like no other but one who often caves in to nerves at big events. After a relatively confident showing in Moscow, Cohen seems primed to win her first major international title soon. Her teammate Michelle Kwan finished fourth, missing a world medal for the first time since 1995. Of all the skaters, Kwan, 24, seemed to have the toughest time adapting to the scoring changes. "Wow, that was rough," she said after a disastrous showing that left her in seventh place in the qualifying round.

The old 6.0-point scoring system came under fire at the 2002 Olympics when a French judge favored a Russian pairs team, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, and Jamie Salé and David Pelletier of Canada were subsequently awarded dual gold medals. The new scheme awards points for each element--jumps, spins, spirals and steps. Kwan found herself counting jumps rather than skating freely. In the qualifying round she turned two planned triple jumps into doubles, she two-footed a third triple, and she abandoned a combination jump, an element heavily weighted in the new system. "Terrible, just terrible," she said. For Slutskaya, though, it was the apex of a long career: "I finally did what I wanted to do all my life." ¬†--Brian Cazeneuve

COLOR PHOTOBrian Cazeneuve DOWN TIME Kwan (inset) stumbled, while Slutskaya wowed the Russian crowd.
COLOR PHOTOYURI KOCHETKOV/EPA (SLUTSKAYA) DOWN TIME Kwan (inset) stumbled, while Slutskaya wowed the Russian crowd.