Elena Sokolova once had been considered one of Russia's rising stars. She competed in the Nagano Olympics in 1998 and was seemingly on a path to become a threat to world champions Irina Slutskaya and Maria Butyrskaya.
Her road to the top, however, began to take many detours. Her training became inconsistent; she struggled in competitions and she quickly started fading from the international scene. By 2000, she had placed sixth at the Russian nationals. Last year, she didn't make the Russian Olympic team for Salt Lake City. Then she suffered a concussion last summer and considered quitting.
Now 23, Sokolova finally is beginning to get noticed again. In the women's qualifying round for the World Figure Skating Championships yesterday afternoon at MCI Center, Sokolova was the only skater to land two triple-triple combinations to place second behind Michelle Kwan. Sokolova landed seven triples overall, making one mistake on a triple loop.
"I'm very, very happy with it," said Sokolova, who was so surprised by how well she skated that her jaw dropped at the end of her routine. "I did two triple-triple combinations for the first time in competition and now I won't be afraid doing them again."
Then she added this potential warning to her competitors: "Or maybe even a third combination. . . . It's possible."
Entering these championships, there was talk of a possible American sweep of the medal podium with Kwan, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen. Slutskaya, last year's world champion, had been considered the biggest threat to challenge the Americans, but she withdrew to be with her ailing mother in Russia.
With Hughes pretty much out of contention after placing sixth in her group, sweep talk has been swept under the rug. And Sokolova and Japan's Fumie Suguri, who won the second qualifying group, are making their presence known to a very partisan Washington crowd.
The ladies' short program is Friday and the free skate is Saturday night.
The judges were impressed by Sokolova's performance and two officials placed her first. Even so, Kwan, who did not attempt one triple-triple and bobbled a triple toe loop, was rewarded with the top spot.
"I did [make a] mistake," said Sokolova, smiling as she tried to rationalize the placements. "That's my mistake. Michelle is a really good skater."
Suguri, known more for her exceptional artistry, had much less top competition to face in the second qualifying group. She landed four clean triples and does not plan on trying a triple-triple in her free skate. Last year, she placed third at the world championships. This season, she has not had much success.
"Taking the bronze medal, for me, seems like a long, long time ago," she said.
Canada's Jennifer Robinson, whose best finish at worlds was eighth in 2000, was second to Suguri, and Russia's Viktoria Volchkova was third.
Sokolova, however, appears to be the biggest challenge for Kwan and Cohen.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Sokolova's rise this season is that she returned last fall to her former coach, Viktor Kudriavtsev. Three years ago, she had left Kudriavtsev to train with Alexei Mishin, who coaches Olympic silver medalist Evgeny Plushenko.
"Both of us really changed," said Sokolova of returning to Kudriavtsev. "We realized we're both part of the whole team."
This season, Sokolova has enjoyed the most success of her skating career. She won her first Russian national title and nearly beat Slutskaya at the European Championships.
Following the European Championships, she injured her left knee and wasn't able to practice for three weeks. She said a doctor suggested surgery but she has not determined when or if that will be necessary. Her performance yesterday suggested that she had few problems managing the pain.
"I just want to show what I am able to do," Sokolova said.