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Butyrskaya Performs Her Own Little Miracle

So, how did you make out in your office pool?

Went with the one the experts swore could never lose, did you? The one that was, let’s see, “unbeatable,” “unstoppable” and, oh, right, “invincible”?

Too bad.

You should have gone with Butyrskaya.

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Figure skating junkies--and you know how they are, chomping on the remains of a rank stogie as they chew out their bookmaker over the cell phone--took a bath at last week’s World Championships in Helsinki. They went for the sure thing, the easy call, the slam dunk . . . and then they watched Michelle Kwan get UConned in the finals.

Except, to be reasonable about this, Maria Butyrskaya, the 26-year-old Russian who unseated Kwan as women’s world champion, is no UConn. Weber State is more like it. Before these World Championships began, Butyrskaya was regarded as a no-chancer--too old, too slow, too jittery, too prone to fold under pressure.

Also, too Russian.

Before 1999, no Russian woman had ever won a world title in figure skating. A remarkable statistic, really. Russia and the other former Soviet republics have dominated pairs skating and ice dancing--and have produced the last three men’s Olympic gold medalists--but in 78 previous world championship competitions, no Russian or Soviet female soloist had finished first.

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Kwan had won two of the last three--and landed in Finland without the company of her two chief challengers of the past 14 months, Tara Lipinski and Naomi Nari Nam. Lipinski and Nam were ineligible for these World Championships--Lipinski having turned pro after the 1998 Olympics, Nam still too young, at 13, to meet the competition’s minimum-age requirement.

So, it was Kwan and only Kwan, according to the pre-skate consensus. One wire-service preview summed up the overriding sentiment: “Without Lipinski, Kwan faces only mediocre challengers from the former Soviet Union: Maria Butyrskaya of Russia and Tatiana Malinina of Uzbekistan. Neither should present an obstacle to Kwan winning the world title for the third time.”

Unfortunately for Kwan, there would be other obstacles.

She developed a bad cold on her way to Helsinki, requiring antibiotics to get through the qualifying stage.

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She encountered a jaded set of judges who seem to be tiring of familiarity at the top of the standings and wanted to see something new from Kwan, something more than the customary seamless, elegant performance that, once upon a time, was more than enough.

Worst of all, her skating wasn’t seamless.

Kwan fell coming out of a double axel during her short program. Ordinarily with Kwan, such mishaps can be overcome, usually by outskating the field in the long program. But the judges were unforgiving, dropping Kwan to fourth after the short program.

From there, she was no longer in control of her own fate.

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A meltdown by Butyrskaya, of course, was entirely feasible. It had happened more times than not to the perennial also-ran, whose previous best finish at the World Championships was third in last year’s diluted post-Olympics no-Lipinski field.

Surprising almost everyone watching--and, very likely, herself as well--Butyrskaya held it together.

At 26 years and 272 days--twice as old as Nam, in other words--Butyrskaya became the oldest woman to win the world title. For that much, it was a refreshing victory--a veteran adult actually rising above the squeaking masses of preteens and barely-teens who have threatened to turn the sport of women’s figure skating into a frosh-soph after-school activity.

“I skated like a woman and showed I can control my nerves,” Butyrskaya said proudly. “Age isn’t very important.”

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As for Kwan, suddenly a youngster again at 18, there will be other World Championships on the road to the 2002 Olympics. Last weekend in Helsinki signaled no history-altering changing of the guard--only a bad chest cold at the wrong time for the sport’s greatest contemporary talent.

Call Michelle Kwan the Duke of women’s figure skating, if you will.

But until March 2000, at least, address Maria Butyrskaya as the queen.

BARCELONA 1, LONG BEACH 0

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Then there are the longshots that go the way of most longshots--e.g., Long Beach’s predictable defeat by Barcelona for the right to host the 2003 World Aquatics Championships.

At a FINA executive board meeting Tuesday in Hong Kong, Barcelona was awarded the championships over Long Beach and Montreal, receiving a majority of the 21 votes on the first ballot.

Barcelona, which in 1992 hosted perhaps the grandest Olympic festival in the history of the Games, was the prohibitive favorite, armed with its diving pool on the peak of picturesque Montjuic, the towering spires of Sagrada Familia, the nonstop carnival of La Rambla.

Long Beach has, well, a new aquarium--unsuitable for water polo, unfortunately--and a sports arena that looks like an oil tank done up like the side of a teenager’s van, covered with a massive cheesy mural of swimming whales.

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Before leaving for Hong Kong, Rich Foster, the former U.S. water polo president spearheading the Long Beach bid, had hoped to sway FINA votes with the offer of live TV coverage, the organizational know-how of Long Beach Grand Prix promoter Chris Pook, and, to put it bluntly, guilt.

“FINA has an obligation to promote the sport around the world and it has never been here,” Foster said. “They have already held this event in Europe four times, [including] Spain once.”

Come 2003, Spain will have had it twice. Swimming championships may be won in the water, but the race to host them is often won with the sangria.


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