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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Young Stars Defy Predictions, Defeat

When the mighty Soviet sports machine collapsed, funding shriveled up and top coaches fled, Russia's days as a world powerhouse in figure skating were supposed to be numbered.

Here's a number that says they're not: Four.

That's how many gold medals the Russians won in four events contested recently at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships -- an unprecedented sweep.

A whole stable of young stars burst forth in Budapest -- Ilya Kulik, Irina Slutskaya, the pair of Maria Petrova and Anton Siharulidze and ice dancers Olga Sharutenko and Dmitry Naumkin.

They showed that Russia not only is likely to remain dominant in its long-time strengths, pairs and ice dancing, but is grooming future European, world and Olympic champions in individual disciplines too.

"I must admit I'm optimistic about the coming year," said Yelena Chaikovskaya, head coach of the Russian figure skating team.

The junior skaters' success capped a brilliant year for Russia's figure skaters: three gold medals at the Winter Olympics, two golds at the world championships and a rare medal in ladies' singles at the European championships when Olga Markova took the bronze.

Last weekend, Kulik, 17, a student from Moscow, opened 1995 with a bang by nearly upstaging defending Olympic gold medalist Alexei Urmanov at the national championships in the Russian capital.

Urmanov, no old-timer himself at 21, unveiled his new program, "The Best of Tchaikovsky," landing all his triple jumps and skating cleanly. He received two perfect 6.0 scores for artistic impression to hold off a strong challenge by Kulik.

Other young stars also served notice of challenging for future titles. Budding star Slutskaya of Moscow, the women's world junior champion at age 15, finished third behind Maria Butyrskaya and Markova.

And world junior champs Petrova and Siharulidze were second behind 1993 European champions Marina Eltsova and Andrei Bushkov in pairs. Reigning world champions Yevgenia Shishkova and Vadim Naumov watched from the stands, with Shishkova complaining of an allergy.

The ice dancing was won by the new duo of Anzhelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsyannikov in the absence of world and Olympic champions Oksana Grishuk and Yevgeny Platov, who had fevers and also did not perform.

The young skaters' success appears to defy logic.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, besides a drastic drop in funding, the top coaches have gone abroad for more money. Also, every top skater has tales about poor ice conditions during training -- a problem that got international attention last summer in St. Petersburg when some Goodwill Games skaters had to compete on mush.

The explanation appears to lie in tradition and the climate. Almost every Russian child does some skating to help pass the long winters, and most know about their country's proud heritage in the sport.

Soviet skaters, mostly based in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) held a virtual lock on the Olympic pairs and ice dancing gold medals for decades. From 1985 on, they began making inroads into the men's competitions, culminating in gold medals for Viktor Petrenko skating for Ukraine in 1992 and Urmanov in 1994.

Now, with the spectacular Slutskaya already a world contender at 15, it appears the Russians will contend in all major categories for years to come.

Urmanov skated his new program wearing one white glove and one black, symbolizing good and evil.

"In life we have black and white," his coach Alexei Mishin explained. "We have many beautiful things, but we also have Chechnya."