Lambiel still man to beat

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:37 AM ET

CALGARY -- The stabbing pain in his right knee was almost too much for Stephane Lambiel to bear.

But the champion's heart that beats inside the Swiss dynamo wouldn't allow him to surrender his world men's figure skating crown without a fight.

And so Lambiel showed up at the Pengrowth Saddledome yesterday for men's qualifying at the 2006 world championships, his considerable arsenal fully loaded to the hilt. Once his work was done for the day, this much was patently obvious: Lambiel's still the man -- and the man to beat.

Even Canadian Jeffrey Buttle, who wasn't in the house for Lambiel's powerful skate during the morning session, couldn't deny the obvious. It was all there on the scoresheet: A pair of quadruple jumps and five clean triples, all of it adding up to a whopping score of 160.90 that wasn't much off the 167.67 Russia's Evgeni Plushenko posted in winning the Turin Olympics.

"I saw (Lambiel's) score. I knew he skated really awesome," said Buttle, who can likely hope for no better than a chance to match the silver medal he landed at the Moscow worlds in 2005. "I can't compete with two quads. At least not yet."

Not bad for a guy who, just a week ago, wondered if he'd be fit enough to compete here. Lambiel is battling a stretched ligament on the outside of his right knee, but the Olympic silver medallist couldn't pass on the chance to skate before a Canadian audience for the first time.

"I'm injured and I'm still competing here," said the 21-year-old world champ. "It's very important for me to be here."

Any questions about the knee evaporated quickly.

"When I went out to skate, I didn't have any doubts," said Lambiel. "The legs are always a bit shaky when you get out there but, the second the music starts, you don't ask yourself any questions and you just go for it."

Buttle, meanwhile, has some work to do to land on the world podium for a second straight year. He popped his quad attempt and had falls on a triple Axel and triple Lutz during his Samson and Delilah free program.

With a 137.90-point total, Buttle finished second in the evening group behind Japan's Nobunari Oda (144.90), who landed eight triples. That puts Buttle fourth overall behind Lambiel, Oda and Evan Lysacek of the U.S. (139.79). Only 25% of the score carries forward to today's short program, but the gap is still wide between Lambiel and the rest.

At least Buttle's still in the medal picture. Not so for Emanuel Sandhu of Richmond Hill, who drew the dreaded No. 1 start position in the morning session and stumbled on the landing of his opening quad-triple combination. It only got worse from there: Two popped triple Axels, and just four clean triples in the bank.

Sandhu's 115.80 score was only sixth best in Group A and left him standing 15th overall. All of which had him facing questions about whether his career should extend beyond this competition.

"I don't know," Sandhu, 25, said curtly when asked point-blank about what comes next.

Even getting close to his career-best seventh-place finish in Moscow last year seems like nothing but a pipe dream now. If it isn't over for Sandhu yet, it's close. Closer than it's ever been.

The third Canadian here, Shawn Sawyer of Edmundston, N.B., had a rough skate of his own. Sawyer blew his first four jumps en route to finishing 10th in his group (111.20). The top 12 survived to skate another day.


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