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  • Saturday, March 20, 1999

    Stojko ready to take shot at fourth title

     HELSINKI (CP) -- Spring has returned, and so has Elvis Stojko.
     Get ready for the crocuses, and a totally fit Stojko for the first time in a figure skating competition since the autumn of 1997. Recovery from groin and abdomen injuries finally is complete, he said Saturday.
     "At no time this season has my leg been 100 per cent, until the last week or so," Stojko said after his second practice since arriving Friday to try for a fourth world championship. "I don't feel any pain.
     "It's as good as new."
     Stojko's revelation comes in the nick of time. Competition begins with the men's qualifying session Monday, which is Stojko's 27th birthday.
     The injuries he first suffered in January 1998, and aggravated a month later in winning Olympic silver, are "not a factor" anymore. Thus, a renewed sense of optimism dispersing that black cloud that was hanging over his career.
     "It's a lot easier to train and to prepare for a competition when you don't have a nagging injury on your hands the whole time," he said as he loosened his boot laces in Hartwall Arena. "A lot of power has come back into my skating.
     "On the jumps, I seem to be taking off a lot more powerfully, and I'm skating a lot faster and stuff. Everything seems to be clicking."
     A welcome change indeed from mediocre-for-him results this season. His leg had been so damaged, he said, that he couldn't even walk normally until last September or October, let alone compete at his usual level. Stojko was fourth at Skate America in Detroit, second at Skate Canada in Kamloops, B.C., and third at the Four Continents meet in Halifax.
     "This season has been an uphill battle all the way," he said. "It feels great to get to this part of the season, the pinnacle, and feel comfortable and not have to worry about (the injuries) anymore.
     "I feel very free. Things are starting to flow naturally. It's a situation now where you just don't hold back because the body is fine and you just go."
     Canada's champion from Richmond Hill, Ont., will be an underdog this week. Defending champion Alexei Yagudin, 18, is fresh from his Grand Prix finals triumph, and fellow-Russian Evgeny Plushenko, 16, also should be on the podium.
     Stojko, who skated in his first worlds in 1990 in Halifax, was forced to skip the 1998 worlds in Minneapolis. This is the first time he's competed in Finland's capital.
     "I missed last year and that was hard to deal with," he said. "Even with the injury, I still wanted to go out there and do it but I couldn't.
     "It's just nice to be back. I've had a challenge to deal with the last two seasons and I've got through it."
     While many will predict victory for the younger Russians, Stojko seems not the least bit intimidated by the talented teens. Of course, he faces the same pressure back home from Emanuel Sandhu, 18, also from Richmond Hill, who surely will perform much better at Hartwall than he did a year ago in Minneapolis when he failed to qualify.
     "I've always pushed to be the best I can be, and also the best in the world," said Stojko. "If I can be the best that I can be, I know I can be at that level.
     "I've been there before and I know that I'm capable of doing that now. It's just a matter of allowing that to come out and not having to hold back mentally because of an injury."

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