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.
But Steuer dismissed such speculation.
"If we wanted to be tactical, we wouldn't have traveled to Budapest at all. Our team doctor said if she is pushing through she might be sick for ten days. The second half of the free skating is tough and the risk of injury too high," Steuer said.
Savchenko was ailing even before Budapest, nursing a painful back and neck.
The careers of Savchenko and Volosozhar are intertwined in several ways.
Both women grew up in Kiev and lived in Ukraine before switching countries; Savchenko once skated with Stanislav Morozov, who later became Volosozhar's partner; Steuer spent two years coaching Volosozhar and Morozov.
Comparing the two, Steuer said Volosozhar was "technically a good, very good pairs skater, but Aliona does it from the heart. Tatiana looks somewhat cool."
"Aliona is for me clearly the best pairs skater," he said.
Savchenko was the first to change allegiance, when she moved to Germany in 2003.
Steuer, who was the 1997 world champion with partner Mandy Woetzel, brought Savchenko and Szolkowy together.
Both were without partners at the time and Szolkowy, the son of an East German nurse and a Tanzanian medical student, was working at a factory while still skating more or less recreationally.
The partnership between Steuer and the pair took a blow when it was revealed that Steuer had worked for the East German Stasi secret service in the Communist era.
The affair surfaced shortly before the 2006 Winter Games in Turin and German Olympic officials tried to kick Steuer off the Olympic team.
Steuer went to court to get his place back but the pair was distracted and finished sixth. Four years later, they won bronze in Vancouver.
Now, they want to crown their careers with gold, becoming only the third German pair to win an Olympic title.
"We have to concentrate on ourselves," Steuer said. "When we skate without mistakes and when we nail the triple axel near the end of the routine, we will win. Even if Tatiana and Maxim skate error-free. The Russians have a better short program, our free skate is higher in (technical) value. It's great to have such a showdown."