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  • Monday, March 27, 2000

    Sale and Pelletier third, Sargeant and Wirtz 11th

    By NEIL STEVENS -- Canadian Press
     NICE, France -- David Pelletier was a nervous wreck before gliding onto the ice, and Jamie Sale turned a camel spin into a strange animal with wobbly legs.
     
     Yet, Canada's champions were so good that they got third-best marks for their short program in a remarkable world figure skating championship pairs debut Monday.
     
     Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China and Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov of Russia will be the only pairs ahead of them going into the Wednesday free-skating final.
     
     "It's a great position for us," said Pelletier. "The long is our favourite program so we'll try to put it down like we did at nationals."
     
     They skated second from last, and it seemed to Pelletier that they waited forever.
     
     "It was pretty nerve-wracking," he said. "It was terrible, actually.
     
     "I was taking deep breaths just to make sure I was all right. But I knew everything would be all right. I watched a few teams skate when I was back in my (hotel) room and I saw what the level was. I said, 'Man, I've got to skate because they're not going to give it to me.' The level was very high."
     
     Montreal-based Sale, 22, of Red Deer, Alta., and Pelletier, 25, of Sayabec, Que., have shown throughout their second season together that they have a unique togetherness on ice. The world championship judges are seeing this quality now, too.
     
     "I knew they could do this," said coach Richard Gauthier. "I had no doubts."
     
     The draw for the free-skating final has Sale and Pelletier skating last, just after the Chinese.
     
     
     In the short program, Sale and Pelletier received from 5.5 to 5.8 for technical merit and from 5.7 to 5.9 for artistic impression.
     
     The judges giving 5.9s to rookies? Previously unheard of.
     
     The only glitch was an out-of-synch camel spin by Sale. Her left blade caught in a rut and threw her off balance.
     
     "It was an awful feeling," she said. "I just had to hope and pray that I was going to keep turning so I wouldn't come to a stop and put my foot down.
     
     "It was a long five seconds."
     
     The hundreds of Canadians among the 7,000 spectators held their breath, then they cheered in relief when Sale steadied herself.
     
     
     Kristy Sargeant of Alix, Alta., and Kris Wirtz of Marathon, Ont., were 11th among 22 pairs.
     
     
     Shen and Zhao won the silver medals last year in a tainted competition won by Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. Two judges determined to be communicating with taps of the feet were subsequently suspended. On Sunday, the door opened for new champions when Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze were disqualified. Berezhnaya, after taking a bronchitis remedy, tested positive for a banned substance in a test administered after they won the European title in Vienna in February.
     
     "It's a shame," said Tikhonov. "It's still an interesting competition, but they are missing."
     
     Choreography by Sandra Bezic of Toronto has helped Shen and Zhao take their partnership to a higher level. Shen is only 21 but has already skated alongside Zhao, 26, for eight years.
     
     It might be their turn, unless Sale and Pelletier spoil their party. Gauthier says that is indeed possible. His skaters already proved by qualifying for the Grand Prix final that they are a top pair, he said.
     
     "The rest will be a Love Story," he added.
     
     Sale and Pelletier will skate to music from the movie Love Story in their long program. It has been a winner for them all season. Lori Nichol of Keswick, Ont., choreographed it for them.
     
     "Third place is perfect," said Gauthier. "Whoever wins the long wins the competition."
     
     The judges hit Sargeant and Wirtz hard -- 4.5 to 5.0 for technical merit -- after Sargeant stepped out of her solo jump landing and Wirtz fell on a footwork sequence during the allotted two minutes 40 seconds.
     
     "It happens once every five or 10 years," Wirtz said of tumbling to the ice on a simple manoeuvre. "There it is -- there's my once every five or 10 years.
     
     "I picked (with the point of the blade), I went too fast, and I hit the pick.'
     
     "It's unfortunate because we did all the hard things and then on some of the easiest things . . . " said Sargeant.
     
     Artistic marks from 5.1 to 5.4 rescued them.
     
     "We have to thank the judges," Sargeant said. "They could have really dropped us."
     
     They'll try to move up in the standings in the free-skating final. Sargeant, 26, and Wirtz, 30, finished sixth overall last year.
     
     "There's still the long program," Wirtz said. "We're skating a hell of a lot better than we have all year, and the reason we came here was to build our confidence for the next two years.
     
     "If my confidence is shot because of a footwork sequence, then I suck. I don't think it is. I think we're on the right track. Hopefully, everybody at home believes it because we sure do. I'll hit myself with a frying pan for the footwork and that's it, it's over with. I mean, Kurt Browning did a single Axel at the Olympic Games. Who would have thought."



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