Penalty for tough pace is lost edge, elite say Champions Series adds to pre-Olympics burden

Figure Skating

December 19, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

MUNICH, Germany -- They're tired. They're bruised. And on the whole, they would rather be at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

That's the mood among the athletes heading into today's Champions Series Final, the made-for-television event that caps what amounts to a long, lucrative exhibition season for the world's top figure skaters.

"The Olympic season is always really hard," said Germany's preeminent women's skater, Tanja Szewczenko.

"Four years ago, we were really tired. But now, with this championships series, there's just too much. The competitions are too close together."

For decades, top skaters would nurse their injuries at the training rink, and then emerge briefly for national championships, followed by world and Olympic competitions.

Not anymore.

Skating's elite performers are on display nearly every week in the autumn and winter in the knock-down, drag-out Champions Series that touches on three continents.

Along with the paychecks come injury, illness and plain old burnout.

Just look at what has happened to the women's field.

Michelle Kwan of the United States withdrew because of a foot injury. Her replacement, Laetitia Hubert of France, has an ankle injury.

Szewczenko is exhausted after winning last weekend's German championships. And Russians Irina Slutskaya, Maria Butryskaya and Elena Sokolova are tired after battling last weekend in their national meet.

That leaves 15-year-old Tara Lipinski of the United States relatively fresh.

But even the reigning American and world champion has a bit of a problem.

Lipinski can't get her triple Lutz straight, rocking her takeoff foot from the outside edge of her blade to the inside, transforming the leap into a ragged flip.

In skating circles, Lipinski's jump has been derided as a "flutz," and the judges have shown little mercy, placing her second in two events.

"I don't fully understand it, why the marks are a little low," she said heading into the competition, the final tuneup before next month's U.S. championships in Philadelphia.

"I guess I'm a little confused or puzzled. But my skating, I have a lot of confidence in it, and I feel I've improved a lot," Lipinski added.

The men have also been staggered by the schedule.

Reigning U.S. champion Todd Eldredge separated a shoulder when he hit a chunk of ice and fell during Skate America in October.

Russia's Alexei Yagudin admitted his legs are a bit wobbly after competing in four difficult tests in only a few weeks.

"I was just in too many competitions at the beginning of the season," said Yagudin, who won in Paris and Russia. "I just skated too much."

Even Canada's Elvis Stojko, the durable triple and quadruple jump specialist and reigning world champion, has been on guard against burnout.

"I've seen skaters go out and compete in everything, and you wonder how they're going to make it through the whole season to the world championships. But they somehow manage it and do well," he said. "Others don't compete much and don't do as well. It's an individual thing.

"But you have to get to know your program," Stojko added. "You have to test yourself. On the negative side, you face jet lag. You take too much time from training. But on the positive side, you're developing."

Stojko won in Germany and Canada. His impressive skating forced the judges to give him high marks, even for his artistry, which has been derided in the past.

But Stojko is a realist. In February, he said, few will recall what happened in the autumn warmups.

"You don't want to peak now," he said. "You want to evolve. You want to get better. You want to peak at the Olympics."

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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