Ice Skating: Butyrskaya starts European defence in style

MARIA BUTYRSKAYA, the 26-year-old Russian, made a good start to the defence of her European figure skating title by winning her qualifying group yesterday.

The Muscovite, by some way the oldest in the event, shrugged off the disadvantage of skating first to give a solid if unspectacular performance of her free programme.

The second group was also won by a Russian, 17-year-old Julia Soldatova, ahead of the French girl, Vanessa Gusmeroli, Sabina Wojtala of Poland and the German veteran Tanja Szewczenko, whose beautifully stylistic routine was marred by two falls.

Butyrskaya, who posed for provocative photos in a recent edition of the Russian Playboy, without taking her clothes off, believes her experience and artistic capabilities more than offset her advanced age and once again she was proved right. Her efforts in the qualifying free skating, which this year count for 20 per cent of the total score, left her just ahead of a compatriot, 10 years her junior, Veronika Volchkova. Hungarian Diana Poth took a surprise third place.

Tomorrow's short programme counts for 30 per cent of the total with Saturday's repeat of the free skating worth the remaining 50 per cent.

Butyrskaya's six triples, two with flawed landings, were woven effectively into a variety of spins and steps that earned her one score of 5.8 and several of 5.7 out of the 6.0 maximum. Those were good marks from skating first, when judges must reserve some top scores in case later skaters do better.

"I was very upset when I drew first again because it is important to me to know what the others do so I can adjust my programme if necessary," she said. "But I'm pleased with my performance."

Volchkova, third in the world juniors last year, skated despite suffering from flu but still looked impressive, though she fell on the triple lutz jump. Poth, a 17-year-old from Budapest who came to prominence by placing 10th in last year's worlds in Minneapolis, ruined a good performance by falling on a triple flip jump.

In the other group Soldatova emerged as the winner despite a fall on the easiest of the triple jumps, the toe loop, near the end of her routine. "I was surprised that I suddenly fell. Maybe I thought I had already done everything," she said.

Szewczenko, whose career has been plagued by illness and accidents, notably her high-speed collision with Oksana Baiul at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, has had more adversity to deal with this season. A bone inflammation of her left foot, caused by new boots, put her off the ice for six weeks until early December.

But her style was superb yesterday and if she can eliminate errors by the end of the week, she should battle for a medal in Saturday's finale.

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