FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy want to end their career with Olympic figure skating gold in Sochi, the only title missing from the German pair's impressive collection.
Their hopes of going out with a bang hinge on Savchenko's frail health and the perfect execution of a triple axel, a demanding element that sees the petite Savchenko thrown into the air by her partner for three and a half rotations before a hard and tricky landing.
"Very risky, very difficult, technically very high value," Szolkowy said of the element that can make the difference between gold and silver in Sochi.
How risky the triple axel is was clear at the Grand Prix finals in Japan in December, when Savchenko and Szolkowy didn't even attempt it after Savchenko fell hard while trying it in training and hurting herself.
"My foot and my knee could get through one or two jumps, then it would be over," Szolkowy said.
The pair has used X-ray images supplied by the Leipzig Institute for Applied Training Science — Germany's top sports research center — to study the jump, which comes late in their current routine based on the Nutcracker suite.
Still, despite leaving out the jump, their performance in Fukuoka was good enough to give them first place ahead of perennial rivals Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia.
"We showed at the decisive moment before Sochi that the world champions are beatable. Tatiana and Maxim have the pressure on them on home ice at the games," the German pair's coach Ingo Steuer said.
The dress rehearsal for the Olympics, the European Championships in January, didn't go well for either pair.
The Germans, four-time world and European champions, finished the short program in second place after a mistake by Savchenko and they dropped out shortly before the free skate when she fell ill with flu.
The Russians won their second straight title in Budapest, although both had one fall in their free skate routine.
Russian great Irina Rodnina, a three-time Olympic pairs champion, told German television at the time she thought the decision by the Germans to pull out was a "smart tactical move."
"This way, you don't reveal your weaknesses before the Olympics," Rodnina said.