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Alena Leonova of Russia performs during the women's short program at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Nice. (VINCENT KESSLER/Reuters)
Alena Leonova of Russia performs during the women's short program at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Nice. (VINCENT KESSLER/Reuters)

Alena Leonova leads at figure skating worlds after short program Add to ...

Where is Joannie Rochette when you need her?

Suffice it to say that if the Olympic bronze medalist and world silver medalist from Ile Dupas, Que. had been in Nice, France at the world figure skating championships today, she could have won the women’s short program if she had been wearing banana peels for skates.

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Rochette has not competed since her remarkable Olympic effort (save for some open events, which she tends to win), and hasn’t actually retired or committed herself to go for the Sochi Games in two years. Perhaps what happens in Nice will affect her decision. Perhaps she’s getting her skates sharpened right now.

Missing from the lineup in Nice this week is world champion Miki Ando of Japan and Yu Na Kim, the Olympic champion from South Korea, both taking the year off. So, it should have been Mao Asada’s year to take, and perhaps it should always have been. But Asada, as winsome and wonderful as she is on the ice, has a slavish addiction to the triple Axel, which she hardly ever lands fully rotated and today it took her down, way down, to fourth place going into Saturday’s free skate.

From the time Asada showed up on the senior scene as a tiny, fawnlike creature barely into her teens, she has caused a sensation and rightly so. She’s matured into one of the greats, with her deft, musical footwork and lovely spins, and enigmatic body language, all done with a special touch on the ice.

But there’s that darned triple Axel, and she’s the only female attempting it these days. She doesn’t need it. Doing it in the short program is risky. Perhaps it’s the competitive side of her, always pushing, never fearing the results should she miss. But it could cost her a third world title this week. Maybe this isn’t the year she should worry about it. Maybe she wants that triple Axel for Sochi, and the only way to ensure that it’s there when you need it, is to perfect it now, when it doesn’t hurt so much.

And so it is, with the results of the women’s short program today all awry, with surprises and shocks. One of the event favourites, Caroline Kostner of Italy, who has had one of the most consistent years of her career this season is in third place, after doubling a triple loop. What does that mean, point-wise? A triple loop is worth 5.1 points, a double loop only 1.8. She threw marks away with both hands with that small mistake. And hobbled by injury a couple of years ago, Kostner succeeds by doing easier jumps well. But if she doesn’t do them....she has to come from behind. Otherwise, her program, choreographed by Canadian Lori Nichol was a masterpiece, matching Kostner’s charm and the sweep of her long limbs.

The leader is unexpected: Elena Leonova, who has had a host of precocious teenagers snapping at her heels at home in Russia, and she’s effectively dusted them all off. It’s as if she’s worked harder than ever to push herself and she attacked her Pirates of the Caribbean routine, showing off a delightful personality. (The music tends to be something favoured by coach/choreographer Nikolai Morozov, who had Spanish skater Javier Fernandez skate to it for two years). But it was a fit for Leonova today. She swashbuckled her way to 64.61 points, with a triple toe loop – triple toe loop combination (if you have to do a triple-triple, that’s the easiest one). Leonova threw herself into the routine, almost to the point of going over the edge, charging her way through the footwork in not-always-so-neat fashion but it’s what the spectators paid their Euros to see.

(Note: the 64.61 points that allowed Leonova to win the short program pales in comparison to Asada’s best mark ever in a short routine: 75.84. Asada hasn’t come close to that herself this season, only getting to 64.29 at best. Today she stood at 59.49 and wore a sombre face in the kiss and cry.)

Another of the favourites was Alissa Czisny, of the United States, who rescued her career last season with new coaches Jason Dungjen and Yuka Sato at the helm. But she’s self-destructing this year, running back to her troubled past. She missed all three jump elements, scored only 48.31 points, and sits in only 16th place.

Some had thought new U.S. champion Ashley Wagner might be able to pull it off this week, apparently unlocking the secret to success. But she, too, fumbled, stepping out of something that was supposed to be a triple flip combination and then bravely creating a combination out of a later triple loop. That mistake puts her in eighth place.

The sleeper of the event might be Elene Gedevanishvili of Georgia, who left Morozov to train with Brian Orser in Toronto this season. A promising young skater, Gedevanishvili now appears to be finding her potential. She became the first Georgian skater to win a medal at an ISU championship when she won a bronze medal at the European championships earlier this year. And today, Gedevanishvili was stunning, landing a triple Lutz – triple toe loop combination – by far the most difficult triple-triple combination accomplished by anyone. She would be placed higher but she singled a double Axel. “I’m so mad,” she said when she got off the ice. She’s currently in seventh place, but only six points away from the lead.

The surprise second-place finisher today was Kanako Murakami, rated No. 3 among the powerful Japanese female contingent. Only 17, she delivered, watched over by Machiko Yamada, the coach of Olympic silver medalist Midori Ito. Murakami landed a triple toe loop – triple toe loop combination and didn’t put a foot wrong, earning a standing ovation and 62.67 points, which by the way, fell slightly short of her season’s best.

As for Canada, the biggest hope is that national champion Amelie Lacoste of Delson, Que., finishes in the top 10, to allow Canada to send two women to the world championships next year in London, Ont. Lacoste is in 13th place, and considering the way this event is going, she could make it. Lacoste used simpler jumps to get to 13th, but made some unscheduled turns in the midst of her triple loop – double loop combination. As a comparison, Lacoste’s score of 49.37 points falls well short of Victoria Helgesson of Sweden, who sits in 10th place after the short program with 54.19.

But in the free skate Saturday, there are plenty of opportunities to pick up more points. And all day today, top skaters were leaving the door wide open for lesser skaters to pop up.

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