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The 1978 European Figure Skating Championships

Manuela Mager and Uwe Bewerstorff. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

"Out on an immaculate white area people moved with grace, amazing and strange to humans." - Robert D. Stevenson, Skating, April 1937

In early February 1978, the Alsatian border town of Strasbourg in northeastern France was absolutely the place to be if you were one of Europe's top figure skaters at that time. The 1978 European Figure Skating Championships, held on a temporary rink in the Rhine Hall, featured a virtual who's who of late seventies figure skating royalty. There were one hundred and two competitors in the first Europeans held in France in fourteen years. Notably absent in Strasbourg were the Soviet judges, banned from participating by an ISU ruling.

I thought it would be fun today to hop in the time machine and explore some of the stories that made this competition so particularly exciting. Change into your best spandex onesie and buckle up as we go back and look at the best and the rest from this event!


Considering that Irina Rodnina had stood atop the medal podium at the European Championships for nine consecutive years previous to this event, it was absolutely no surprise to anyone in Strasbourg when Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev dominated in the short program, easily beating East German pairs Manuela Mager and Uwe Bewersdorff and Sabine Baeß and Tassilo Thierbach.

Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev

As for the free skate, the February 2, 1978 issue of "The Globe And Mail" reported, "Olympic gold medalists Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union skated an artistic, crowd-pleasing program in the freestyle category yesterday to clinch their sixth consecutive European pairs crown. The experienced pair, also five times world champions, earned eight 5.9's and one 6.0 for artistic expression in a five-minute performance that combined technical skill, near-perfect synchronization and calm confidence. On the first night of the European championships Tuesday, the Soviet pair had clearly demonstrated their world supremacy. They scored the only 6.0 of the evening and eight 5.9s to lead clearly into last night's final performance. Rodnina and Zaitsev had nine ordinals and 148.54 points. Second place went to another Soviet couple, Marina Cherkasova and Sergei Shakhrai, with 22 ordinals and 141.74 points. In third place were the East Germans, Manuela Mager and Uwe Bewerstorff, with 23 ordinals and 142.08 points. Following their dazzling performance, the Soviet champions waited patiently by the rink for the results of their team-mates, then dashed off to their dressing room, smiling broadly but declining to comment on their victory." In winning ten European titles, Irina Rodnina beat the previous record of nine held by Ulrich Salchow. Marina Cherkasova and Sergei Shakrai's free skate featured clean side-by-side triple toe-loops - a first at an ISU Championship.


Defending World Champion Vladimir Kovalev dominated the school figures, 'outracing' East Germany's Jan Hoffmann, the Soviet Union's Igor Bobrin, East Germany's Mario Liebers and Great Britain's Robin Cousins, who placed a disappointing ninth on the first figure - the rocker. Twenty-year-old Cousins won the short program with a clean triple jump combination. He received a perfect 6.0 from one judge but remained behind Hoffmann, Kovalev and Bobrin. The leaders were only separated by one ordinal placing and thirty-two tenths of a point.

Robin Cousins. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

Although Vladimir Kovalev's convincing win in the compulsory figures all but assured him a place on the medal podium, Cousins was able to ultimately make up ground by winning the free skate and overcome Bobrin to win the bronze medal behind Hoffmann (who landed a triple Lutz in the free skate) and Kovalev, who celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday the day of the free skate. Cousins' effort earned him a spate of 5.9's and a 6.0 from the French judge for presentation. He won the free skating phase of the competition, landing two triple toe-loops, a triple Salchow and stepping out of a triple loop attempt.

In the book "Robin Cousins: Skating For Gold", Cousins recalled, "It was my first international championship quest since training under Carlo [Fassi] in Denver, and for the first time, I felt ready and eager well in advance. I had a rather nasty fall during one of the practices, but on the whole, the preparations went very smoothly... I did not concentrate on the first figure quite so much as I should have done. It was the left inside rocker and it went a little haywire. I did manage afterwards to put down two of my best figures - the paragraph double three and the change loop. But the judges had already awarded me bad marks for the first figure and were not going to make up much difference on the other two... In my own estimation, the long [program] was technically adequate, but the presentation I knew was better and I enjoyed it probably more than any I had previously performed. The audience and judges seemed to like it too."


Krisztina Regőczy and András Sallay. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

Following the compulsory dances and the OSP, reigning European champions Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov of the Soviet Union led the pack with 12 ordinals and 120 points ahead of Hungary's Krisztina Regőczy and András Sallay who had 22 ordinals and 98.50 points. In third were
Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov with 23 ordinals and 98.50 points. Controversy swirled as the Hungarian team was allowed a reskate in their Paso Doble OSP when they fell because an alleged ridge of ice tripped them. They'd also fallen on a rut in the Kilian. As a result of these falls, the ISU later passed a rule to resurface the ice more frequently.

The February 4, 1978 issue of The Globe And Mail noted that in the free dance "Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov of the Soviet Union broke with their long-standing practice of skating to classical music and easily won their second consecutive European pairs dance crown last night. They were the second Soviet couple to win gold medals in the European figure skating championships, after five-time world champions Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev, who won the pairs competition Wednesday night. Moiseeva and Minenkov danced to specially-arranged extracts from West Side Story, apparently preparing themselves to use faster-paced tempos at the world championships in Ottawa next month. The Soviet pair had some trouble one minute into their dance when Minekov slipped and his knee fell to the ice. But they recovered and found their rhythm again to complete their four-minute performance with spirited footwork, ending by sliding 30 feet on their knees in front of the judges. They scored 11 ordinals and 206.40 points. Second place also went to a Soviet pair, Natalia Linichuk and Gennady Karponosov, who performed a series of new elements in finely timed quicksteps to win 128 ordinals and 204.10 points. Hungarians [Krisztina Regőczy and András Sallay] held on to third place with 26 ordinals and 201.58 points. World silver medallists Janet Thompson and [Warren] Maxwell were a disappointing fourth, despite an athletic dance to the tunes of 'Fiddler on the Roof. They scored 35 ordinals and 199.24 points."

Top: Janet Thompson and Warren Maxwell. Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine. Bottom: Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov.

In March 1978's "Skating" magazine, Howard Bass complained that in Strasbourg "too many acrobatic and pair moves infiltrated the dance event and were not penalized. The rules state a recognizable code that is frequently disregarded so it is no wonder now that more than ever lay onlookers find it difficult to differentiate between ice dancing and pair skating. Furthering to our knowledge of this event, Lynn Copley-Graves in "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice" noted that "even with no Soviet judges in Strasbourg, France, Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov skated above everyone else, performing in their cool demeanor as if on a ballet stage. In beautiful costumes and displaying obvious illegalities, their free program had little difficulty until the end... Torvill/Dean, in their first Europeans, saw less and less of Janet Sawbridge who had married and stayed at a different hotel, and relied on Janet Thompson and Warren Maxwell, he with unending humor, to show them the ropes. Jayne and Chris were pleased to break into the top ten. They took note of all the competitors' habits, such as the way András Sallay seemed to kiss Krisztina Regőczy when they entered the ice." It was in Strasbourg in fact that Torvill and Dean first connected with none other than legendary coach Betty Callaway.

Christopher Dean later recalled, "We felt so small in the dazzling company. When we got to see Moiseeva and Minenkov on the ice for real, they were not only better than we had imagined, but they seemed so strong and powerful, and so big. Everybody seemed so much bigger than us, in fact, and if in many cases it was more imagined than real, in the case of Moiseeva and Minenkov it was a fact. Minenkov must have been over six feet, which is unusually tall for a skater, and his wife... was taller than average. She had to be, otherwise they would have looked unbalanced. As it was they looked fabulous, particularly Irina, beautiful and balletic, and I couldn't have conceived that anybody in the world, let alone us, would ever beat them. We were both quite bowled over by them. We'd heard Alan Weeks raving about them on the box so often. Now we really knew why."


After the short program, defending European Champion and World Silver Medallist Anett Pötzsch of East Germany led West Germany's Dagmar Lurz and Austria's Claudia Kristofics-Binder. In "Skating" magazine, sportswriter Howard Bass noted, "A too-low level of marks continued to be awarded for the figures in both solo events. The highest mark awarded in one of the men's figures was 4.1... This seems to falsify the relative merits of figures and free, making nonsense of their respective 30 and 70 percent ratios."

Elena Vodorezova, a disastrous eighth in figures, skated brilliantly to win the short program while Pötzsch floundered on two jumps - the triple Salchow and double loop, placing sixth in that segment. Susanna Driano moved up from fourth to third with a strong performance, and Claudia Kristofics-Binder dropped to sixth. Injury forced her to withdraw before the free skate.

Left: Astrid Jansen in de Wal. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer. Right: Denise Biellmann.

In the free skate, the real story of the day came from Switzerland's Denise Biellmann, who attempted a triple Lutz and landed it, albeit not cleanly. Her trademark Biellmann spin brought down the house and her gutsy effort earned her the distinction of being perhaps the first woman to earn a 6.0 for technical merit in a major international competition. The perfect mark was awarded by British judge Pauline Borrajo. Although she won the free skate, Biellmann's twelfth-place finish in figures kept her off the podium in fourth behind Pötzsch, Dagmar Lurz and Elena Vodorezova. Canadian-based Astrid in de Wal placed a disappointing seventeenth.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":