The 1997 European Figure Skating Championships

Held from January 19 to 26, 1997 at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in Paris, France, the 1997 European Figure Skating Championships marked the very first time in history that skaters from one country swept the gold medals in all four disciplines at the European Championships. Prior to 1997, Russia or the Soviet Union had won three out of four disciplines seven times but they never quite managed to make the big sweep until they arrived in Paris. Ron Pfenning, Sally-Anne Stapleford, Vanessa Riley, Ann Shaw, Alexander Gorshkov, Courtney Jones and Alfred Korytek were just a few of the names you may recognize that presided over the event as judges and officials. Favourites floundered and flourished, comebacks crumbled and surprises reigned supreme. Let's take a brief look at how things played out in Paris one icy January back in 1997!

THE PAIRS COMPETITION


Left: Marina Eltsova and Andrei Bushkov; Right: Mandy Wötzel and Ingo Steuer

Reigning World Champions Marina Eltsova and Andrei Bushkov dominated the pairs event, earning marks of 5.7 and 5.8 for technical merit and marks ranging from 5.7 to 5.9 for their free skate. The Russians were helped along in their quest to reclaim the European title they had first won in 1993 when Germans Mandy Wötzel and Ingo Steuer left valuable points on the table by two footing a throw double Axel and singling out on their side-by-side double Axels. France's Sarah Abitbol and Stephane Bernadis, third after the short program, seemed on track for the bronze medal and turned in a wonderful performance in the free skate but a hand down on one of their throws dropped them behind Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. As one would expect, the Paris crowd wasn't too thrilled.

THE MEN'S COMPETITION

For the enthusiastic French crowd, the only skater that really mattered in the men's competition was the charismatic Philippe Candeloro, who had a late start to his season and was mounting a comeback after a knee operation.

"Mission: Impossible" and "Napoleon", Candeloro's 'characters' in Paris

All of the singles competitors - experienced or not - were required to earn their place in 'the main event' by competing in qualifying rounds and the results of the first men's qualifying group were quite surprising. Former World Junior Champion Evgeny Pliuta of Ukraine managed to place ahead of not only Candeloro but Dmitri Dmitrenko, Ilia Kulik, Michael Shmerkin and Viacheslav Zagorodniuk with one of his finest performances ever. In the second group, 1994 Olympic Gold Medallist Alexei Urmanov led the way ahead of Igor Pashkevich, Alexei Yagudin, Andrejs Vlascenko, Steven Cousins and Cornel Gheorghe. The qualifying rounds seemed a pointless exercise to many as only five men were cut prior to the short program.

Kulik rebounded to win the short program ahead of Zagorodniuk, Vlascenko, Candeloro, Yagudin and Urmanov with an iffy triple Axel combination. Quoted in the January 23, 1997 issue of "The Vancouver Sun", the young Russian said, "I feel comfortable in performing this short program... Concerning the combination, I realized something went wrong during the takeoff. I could have done a double toe-loop for the second jump. But in this kind of competition, you have to do a triple toe-loop.''


The tables turned in the free skate, when both Urmanov and Candeloro mounted incredible comebacks to take the top two spots on the podium. Zagorodniuk claimed the bronze, knocking a less than his best Kulik down to fourth ahead of Yagudin, Vlascenko and Pashkevich. Pliuta, unable to duplicate his outstanding effort in the qualifying rounds, ended up in twelfth. After winning, a shocked Urmanov told Associated Press reporters, "Yesterday I thought that these championships were over for me. Now I am sitting here with the gold medal."

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION


Ice dance medallists at the 1997 European Championships

To the surprise of just about nobody, 1994 Olympic Gold Medallists Oksana Grishuk - or Pasha, if you will - and Evgeny Platov repeated as European Champions in Paris. The surprise was the history they made in doing so. Their "Libertango" original dance earned an incredible six 6.0's. These perfect scores actually tied the record for the most perfect 6.0's ever attained in an OSP or Original Dance at the European Championships, set by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean at the 1984 European Championships in Budapest.

Grishuk and Platov's "Libertango" in Paris

Incredibly, Grishuk and Platov managed to do it again in the free dance, earning a half a dozen more 6.0's on the second mark and a standing ovation for their theatrical program to Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins". Their teammates Angelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov finished second. In a battle royale for bronze between two outstanding French teams, the more experienced Sophie Moniotte and Pascal Lavanchy came on top ahead of the upwardly mobile Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat.

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION


Women's medallists at the 1997 European Championships

Surya Bonaly wasn't even supposed to compete in Paris. In May of the previous year, she ruptured her Achilles tendon and found herself in a fight with the French Federation to even be put on the national team even though she managed to win that season's French Championships in Amiens. Her twenty two year old teammate Laetitia Hubert, who missed the French Championships altogether, found herself in a similar struggle. Ultimately, both skaters were sent to Paris with Vanessa Gusmeroli, but it was clear from the get go that neither were up to their usual snuff.

In their qualifying group, Hubert finished fifth and Bonaly sixth, behind skaters who both had routinely defeated many times previously. In the other group, Gusmeroli fared much better, placing third behind Maria Butyrskaya and Irina Slutskaya and just ahead of the third Russian entry, Olga Markova.

Surya Bonaly, Olga Markova and Vanessa Gusmeroli

The competition itself was largely a splatfest, with comparative veterans Bonaly, Hubert, Butyrskaya and Markova all finding themselves buried in the standings in the short program. Though not perfect in her "Phantom On Ice" free skate, Irina Slutskaya managed to win both programs and win her second European title ahead of Hungary's Krisztina Czako and Ukraine's Yulia Lavrenchuk.


Butyrskaya finished second in the free skate to move up to fourth and Gusmeroli, who was third after the short program, mucked up several jumps in her free skate to drop to sixth. Markova finished eighth, Bonaly ninth and Hubert twelfth. While in Paris, Dick Button asked Slutskaya, "can I pinch your cheeks?" She replied, "Sure, all the old men like to pinch my cheeks."

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