Maria Butyrskaya, of Russia, continued the vigorous defence of her world figure skating title in Nice yesterday, winning the short programme in a tense battle with her compatriot, Irina Slutskaya, and the American, Michelle Kwan.
Butyrskaya, who surrendered her two-year hold on the European title to Slutskaya last month in Vienna, sliced open two fingers on her right hand as she took off her skate guards just before stepping on to the ice. But the experienced Russian, the last skater to perform, still produced an elegant, solid effort that in the minds of all but two of the nine judges was superior technically and artistically to Slutskaya's.
The 27-year-old Butyrskaya has overcome bigger distractions than cut fingers this season, including having her car blown up during the Russian Championships in December.
She was happy with her performance yesterday. "It was good," she said. "I wasn't nervous about skating last. I skated last at the Olympics, nothing worse can happen to me. I skated right after Tara Lipinski and that was much harder than skating last here. I was very confident."
While Butyrskaya will carry the advantage into today's decisive free programme, there was little to choose between the performances of the top three. Slutskaya, who failed to make the Russian squad for last year's World Championships in Helsinki, remains in a strong position to cap her comeback campaign with a world title after an impressive performance left her second. "I was really nervous," she said. "I don't know why because I've been doing all my elements really well in practice."
Kwan, who has not won a major title since her victory at the 1998 worlds, was the first to skate in the final group and immediately put pressure on the two Russians, demonstrating her renowned artistry to the sound of the Beatles song "Day in the Life". Kwan's only error was a wobbly landing on her triple flip but that was enough to drop the double world champion to third place, ahead of her team-mate, the 14-year-old prodigy Sarah Hughes.