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  • Thursday, March 18, 1999

    Stojko ready for the world

    By NEIL STEVENS -- Canadian Press
     Elvis Stojko and Michelle Kwan are ready to throw blocks at a Russian team bent on dominating the world figure skating championships.
     In men's singles, pairs and ice dance, Russians have ruled all season. The only skater given much of a chance of breaking through the Russian wall in these three events is Stojko. Canada's champion will be an underdog, but as a three-time world gold medallist, he can never be discounted.
     American Kwan, aiming to repeat as women's singles champion, is the only other non-Russian favourite.
     The worlds will be held in Helsinki's Hartwall Arena, from March 22, which is Stojko's 27th birthday, through March 28. The annual meet returns to the Finnish capital for the first time since 1983.
     Besides Stojko, Canada's only other realistic medal hope rests with ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz.
     Canada is sending 11 skaters: Stojko and Emanuel Sandhu in men's singles; Jennifer Robinson in women's singles; the pairs teams of Kristy Sargeant-Kris Wirtz and Jamie Sale-David Pelletier; and ice dancers Bourne and Kraatz, and Chantal Lefebvre and Michel Brunet.
     A breakdown of the championships event by event:
     Men's Singles
     Alexei Yagudin, Evgeny Plushenko and Alexei Urmanov want to pose for an all-Russian podium photo, but Stojko and U.S. champion Michael Weiss will have something to say about that.
     Yagudin won the Grand Prix earlier this month and the European title in Prague in January, landing a quad and a triple Axel-triple toe combo to edge Plushenko, who had prevailed over the 1998 world champion at the Russian nationals. Urmanov, the 1994 Olympic champion who placed second to Yagudin in the Grand Prix, continues to be overshadowed by the two teens.
     Stojko has inserted a second quad into his long program as added ammunition in his quest to shoot down the high-flying Russians. His third-place finish at the Four Continents meet in Halifax last month gave his critics plenty of fodder to claim he's no longer capable of winning world gold. Yet, he usually skates his best when labelled an underdog.
     "We're going to go from here to the worlds and sock it to them again," an optimistic Stojko said in Halifax.
     Sandhu is capable of cracking the top 10 if he skates his best.
     Women's Singles
     Kwan should win a third world title. She's one of the few women capable of triple-triple combos. Only if she falters will Maria Butyrskaya have a chance of striking gold, although the veteran Russian talks a good game.
     "I think I can compete with Michelle Kwan," Butyrskaya said after winning the European title. "Of course, she has developed a reputation as someone who is unbeatable.
     "Actually, her elements aren't that strong. Her advantage is that she skates cleanly."
     Butyryskaya fell twice in a shaky free skate at the Grand Prix and finished second to Tatiana Malinina of Uzbekistan.
     Other medal hopefuls are Russians Julia Soldatova and Viktoria Volchkova.
     Robinson is better than she was in finishing 19th and 21st at previous worlds, but a top-10 finish is highly unlikely.
     This is the most unpredictable of the four events.
     Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze are the defending champions but, after their withdrawal from the European meet due to Berezhnaya's bronchitis, there is a question to be answered: Has lost training time weakened their ability to repeat?
     The pair finished second to Xue Shen and Hongo Zhao of China in this month's Grand Prix.
     Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov seized the opportunity when their teammates withdrew in Prague and snatched first place, but they are only in their first season together and unaccustomed to the pressure they will feel in Helsinki.
     The Chinese pair, who also won the Four Continents title, and Polish skaters Dorota Zaborska and Mariusz Siudek are good enough to win medals.
     Sargeant and Wirtz finished seventh last winter. The podium will be slightly beyond their fingertips again.
     Sale and Pelletier are a rookie pair but they are good enough to finish among the top 10 if the herniated disc in Pelletier's back that kept them away from Halifax does not drag them down.
     Ice Dance
     Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov barely beat Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat at the Europeans. The Russians' free dance to the beat of African drums wasn't as pleasing as the French couple's performance to music from The Man In The Iron Mask, but taking down defending world dance champions is as difficult as climbing a pole that has been greased.
     Bourne and Kraatz likely will wind up with bronze medals for the fourth consecutive year. Their free dance, dubbed The Heart Attack, to synthesized contemporary nightclub dance music will be a hit with the crowd but not the judges.
     Lefebvre and Brunet, who were 19th last March in Minneapolis in their third worlds, will view it as a success if they finish as high as 15th, which is where they finished in their '96 debut.

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