German figure skaters Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are aiming to crown their career by winning the gold medal at the Sochi Games. Everything hinges on whether or not they can land the throw triple Axel jump.
The highlight of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy's free skate comes just before the end, four minutes into their performance; after they have impressed the audience with a series of pirouettes and combinations performed in perfect harmony.
Aliona is blonde, petite and lively, her partner Robin is tall and dark and calm. At the end of their performance - skating at top speed - Robin throws Aliona into the air, she flies and rotates once, twice, three and a half times before she lands gracefully on the ice again. This is the throw triple Axel jump; the grand finale of the program, which triggers enthusiastic applause - before being rewarded with Olympic gold. That is the dream scenario.
None of their competitors dare to include this jump in this way.
"Only those who take a risk get to drink champagne and celebrate," Aliona Savchenko said in an interview before the Olympic Games.
Competing with the Russians
But taking that risk can also be painful: At the Grand Prix final in Fukuoka, Japan in mid-December the pair didn't event attempt the triple jump, as Aliona was still nursing an injury sustained in training when she botched the landing and fell hard. But they still won the title, beating their long-time rivals Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov from Russia - dealing them their first defeat in 20 months.
"We saw that it is possible to beat the Russians," Robin said afterwards.
However, the world champions, Volosozhar and Trankov, bounced back by winning their third straight European title at the last "dress rehearsal" for Sochi, the European Figure Skating Championships in Budapest on Sunday (19.01.), although they fell twice. They are tipped to take the crown in Sochi too.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Stolkowy had been second after the short program, but withdrew before the free skating final, with Aliona suffering from an acute viral infection.
But the pair and their coach, Ingo Steuer, have insisted all along that it is possible to beat the Russians even at the Olympic Games - and on their home ice. And for the past 10 years the Germans have shown that they have the stamina to fight their way to the top.
Loyal to the coach
Aliona came to Germany from Ukraine in 2003. It was Ingo Steuer, himself a former figure skater and the 1993 world champion, with his partner Mandy Wötzel, who brought Aliona and Robin together. In November 2004 they skated together for the first time.
But in 2006, when it emerged that Ingo Steuer had been an informant of the East German Stasi secret police before German reunification in 1990, the sport's governing body in Germany, the DEU, cut off financial support for Savchenko and Stolkowy, demanding that they part ways with their coach.
However, the pair refused to comply and that decision paid off, as they went on to win the World Championship four times, the European Championship three times and bronze at the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver in 2010. And now they have an outside shot at becoming just the third German figure-skating pair to win Olympic gold - after Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier in 1936 and Ria and Paul Falk in 1952.
Savchenko and Stolkowy have been training for Sochi for the past four years. Their current free skating program is based on the Nutcracker suite, which is usually a hit with Russian crowds.
"We have taken ballet classes and we have spent a lot of time discussing and interpreting the fairy tale, " Szolkowy told reporters. "And we have rehearsed so much that we have completely internalized the choreography," he added.
Now it remains to be seen which athletes have the nerves - and the health - to be at their best in Sochi on February 12.