Originally created 01/19/98

Euro sweep has Russians primed for Nagano



MILAN, Italy -- Bring on the North Americans.

That's next on the agenda for a Russian figure skating team that won all eight gold and silver medals at the European Championships, again leaving no doubt it is the class of the continent.

How they stack up against the rest of the world, particularly the United States and Canada, will be known at next month's Nagano Olympics.

The U.S. women's team of Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Nicole Bobek boasts the last two world titlists. No sooner had the U.S. championships ended a week ago than talk began of a 1-2-3 Olympic showing.

That riled Maria Butyrskaya, the five-time Russian champ who finally took an international crown Saturday.

"I read the American papers after the American championships and found out that people think it will be Tara, Michelle and Bobek winning the medals," she said. "I would make myself a contender."

Butyrskaya finally rid herself of the burden of never winning a big event (she was fifth at the world championships in March), but her victory in Milan was thanks in large part to mistakes by others.

She went from fifth place to first while Tanja Szewczenko and Surya Bonaly -- the leaders heading into the free skate -- plummeted to third and sixth, respectively. Nonetheless, Germany's Szewczenko can be expected to contend for a medal in Japan. Back on the ice since November after an 18-month layoff with a viral illness, Szewczenko will surely be a fan favorite with her grace and artistry.

Butyrskaya was far from perfect Saturday, with some shaky landings on her seven triple jumps. A woman in a sport more and more dominated by teen-agers, the Russian skates with maturity and style.

"Kwan is the main favorite for the gold medal. I believe that," Butyrskaya said. "But concerning Lipinski, she made some mistakes in her program this season. She can be beaten. The Olympic Games ... surprises can happen there."

Kwan, 17, won at the 1996 worlds and Lipinski, 15, replaced her last year.

While Butyrskaya gets one last shot at an Olympic medal, Alexei Yagudin will be making the first of what he vows will be three trips to the Winter Games.

The brash 17-year-old wowed the judges and crowd with his tremendous leaps. Yagudin's jumps powered him to the men's gold, ahead of countrymen Yevgeny Plushenko and Alexander Abt.

Unlike most nations, Russia has yet to name an Olympic team, but Yagudin cemented a spot in Milan. He'll likely be joined by 1995 European titlist Ilia Kulik, who skipped this event to recover from a nagging back injury.

Alexei Urmanov, the defending Olympic titlist, has not skated competitively since hurting his groin and pulling out after the short program at the last worlds. That withdrawal eliminated one of Russia's three Olympic berths.

Pairs titlists Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, who also won the Champions Series Final last month, will be favored in Japan with Marina Yeltsova and Andrei Buehkov -- who were undone by a broken blade at the Europeans.

In ice dancing, Pasha Grishuk and Yevgeny Platov are on a 22-event winning streak that includes one Olympic, four world and three European titles. They could become the first ice dancers to win back-to-back Olympic golds.