Ice Skating

European figures mark start of journey to Sochi

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GENEVA (AP)

European figure skating begins its long journey to the Sochi Olympics.

Its skaters will try to show they can be an Olympic force again at this week's European championships. These are the first continental championships since European skaters in Vancouver failed to win an Olympic gold medal for the first time in 50 years.

The dominance of North American and Asian skaters left Europe with just one silver medal and two bronzes last February.

The German pairs team of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy won the bronze in Vancouver and are the only Olympic medalists in Bern. Russia won three of the four European titles a year ago but is unlikely to be favored in any of this week's events, three years before its Olympic hosting duties.

Russia will be looking to nurture such individual talents as teenage prospect Artur Gachinski and 20-year-old Alena Leonova, a former junior world champion who placed ninth in Vancouver.

Gachinski is 17 and will be skating his first Europeans. He is the next heralded pupil from the St. Petersburg academy of Evgeni Plushenko's coach, Alexei Mishin.

Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic champion, is unable to compete for a seventh European title after declining to appeal a suspension imposed by the International Skating Union for breaking eligibility rules. Soon after claiming his second Olympic silver in Vancouver, he skated in an exhibition without seeking permission from Russian officials. Plushenko still hopes to compete in his home games, when he would be 31.

In Plushenko's absence, contenders include two former European champions. Brian Joubert of France seeks a fourth title and Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic won in 2008. Another Czech, 20-year-old Michal Brezina, who was fourth at the worlds last year, arrives after missing Grand Prix events because of abdominal surgery.

Russia's other Vancouver medalists - ice dance bronze medalists Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin - are also skipping the post-Olympic season. Domnina gave birth to a daughter this month.

Their absence leaves Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov in the pairs as the only Russians defending their European title.

Kavaguti and Smirnov recovered from injuries to win the Grand Prix event in Moscow in November, but were unable to win a fourth straight national title last month. The new Russian champions, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, cannot compete in Bern. Ukraine-born Volosozhar sits out international competition for one year having competed for her native country at the Olympics with partner Stanislav Morozov.

Savchenko and Szolkowy, the two-time world champions, are favored to win a fourth European title with a free skate routine to the ''Pink Panther'' theme.

The German pair won the Skate America event, before clinching the season title at the Grand Prix Finals in Beijing.

A successful Grand Prix season has made French ice dance pair Natalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat a strong contender to improve on fourth place a year ago. Italy's Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali, who were fifth in Vancouver, look to step up from silver medals at the past two Europeans.

Italy will also challenge for gold in the women's event, with three-time European champion Carolina Kostner. Kostner flopped badly in Vancouver showing, but returned to take second overall in the Grand Prix standings behind Alissa Czisny of the U.S.


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