In the flurry of the Grand Prix season, it's hard to imagine that many of the skaters are also working toward their national championships. Nationals are where many countries decide who will represent them at the European, Four Continents or world championships.
In the coming weeks both Canada and the United States will host their national championships, while Russia and Japan, to name a couple, have already decided theirs.
So it's a good time to list my top 10 noteworthy non-Canadian national champions (I'll have a list of the top Canadian champs closer to the start of nationals later this month).
There are so many skaters with outstanding national records that it was difficult to narrow the field to just 10 for this list.
In each case, the skaters demonstrated that they were not only solid national champions but worthy of being on the world stage. The goal for me was to identify champions from the last 15 years or so.
So, in no particular order, here are my top 10 noteworthy non-Canadian national champions (click on each skater's name for video of them in action):Evgeni Plushenko (Russia)Career highlights:
10-time national, 7-time European, 3-time world champion; 2006 Olympic gold medallist.
I have said it before: Plushenko reminds me of a modern-day gladiator. Battered and bruised by injuries and surgeries, he continues to persevere with his eye on Sochi in 2014. He is over 30 and is competing against much younger men. His determination defines him as a champion.Michelle Kwan (United States)Career highlights:
9-time national, 5-time world, 1994 junior world champion; 2-time Olympic medallist.
The first time I remember seeing Kwan was at the 1996 world championships in Edmonton, which she won. Kwan didn't always win, but for whatever reason hers is still the name that first jumps into our collective head as one of the sport's greatest female skaters.Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao (China)Career highlights:
8-time national, 3-time world champions; 2-time Olympic bronze medallists, 2010 Olympic champions.
When I first heard that Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao were coming out of retirement for the 2010 Olympic season, I was as excited as anybody. They had started out as very athletic and blossomed into a team as expressive as any that had ever skated as far as I am concerned. Their ultimate "lifetime achievement award' came in Vancouver when they won the Olympic title in 2010.Daisuke Takahashi (Japan)Career highlights:
5-time national, 2-time Four Continents, 2010 world champion; 2010 Olympic bronze medallist.
Takahashi has perhaps the most passionate fans in figure skating. With the right material, he has the ability to take fans along with him during his program. His free skate from the 2010 season to Nino Rota's La Strada was one of those programs.Yu-Na Kim (South Korea)Career highlights:
4-time national, 3-time Grand Prix Final, 2006 junior world, 2009 Four Continents, 2009 world champion; 2010 Olympic gold medallist.
The funny thing is there was always a segment of spectators who would miss the first half of the free programs at worlds back in the day, hoping to avoid watching athletes from weaker skating countries like South Korea. That all changed with Yu-Na Kim. What remains to be seen is whether Kim is the start of a Korean skating dynasty or simply a glorious anomaly.Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy (Germany)
7-time national, 4-time European, 4-time world champions; 2010 Olympic bronze medallists.
The German pairs champions have won their national title every time they have entered since first becoming a team in the 2004 season. Accomplished technicians, they hook me every time they skate to something relatable like this exquisite program in 2009 to Schindler's List.Irina Slutskaya (Russia)Career highlights:
4-time national, 7-time European, 4-time Grand Prix Final, 2-time world champion; 2-time Olympic medallist.
Slutskaya's athleticism was second to none. She was the first woman to land a triple Lutz/triple loop combination in competition. Her technique set her apart. Outstanding elements like her series of 3-turns into a triple loop are easy to recall even after so much time.Lu Chen (China)Career highlights:
10-time national, 1995 world champion; 2-time Olympic bronze medallist
This is a program that can still move me to tears. Chen had finished a disastrous 25th at worlds in 1997 and had to qualify a spot for China at a pre-Olympic fall event as a result. People had written her off as a contender for an Olympic podium finish. She was in fourth after the short program and had one of the best performances of her life, resulting in a bronze for the second time at the Olympics in 1998. Talk about vindication.Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder (France)Career highlights:
7-time national, 2007 European, 2008 world champions
I always liked the creative risks that Delobel and Schoenfelder took in their programs. Remarkably, in 11 consecutive worlds appearances, they made it to the podium only once, and that was as world champions in 2008.Tatiana Malinina (Uzbekistan)Career highlights:
10-time national, 1999 Grand Prix Final, 1999 Four Continents champion
The 1998-99 campaign was a Cinderella season for Malinina. As a relatively unknown skater, she won the Grand Prix Final and the Four Continents titles and finished in fourth at worlds. It was almost as if the stars had aligned for her in that season only. At the time it felt as if she was on the rise, when in fact we were witnessing the pinnacle of her skating career. She put Uzbekistan on the figure skating map but was never able to duplicate her success, retiring at the end of the 2001-02 season.
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