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Unified duo halfway to dance gold French couple moves to second after polka


ALBERTVILLE, France -- They brought out the peasant dresses and vests, the lederhosen and schmaltz. They came from China and North Korea, Italy and Great Britain. They came from everywhere, it seemed, except Poland.

This was Polka Night at the Winter Olympics.

Last night, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko of the Unified Team moved one step closer to claiming the gold medal in the ice dance competition by winning the original dance to the polka.

Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay of France, third after the compulsories, moved into second. The Unified Team's Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin dropped to third.

But to win the gold medal after tonight's free dance, worth 50 percent of the overall score, the Duchesnays will need to be good -- and lucky. They'll have to finish two places ahead of Klimova and Ponomarenko, a feat they never have accomplished.

That's not a likely scenario, since the sport's conservative judging often mirrors the staged performances.

"I don't even know how they score this sport," Paul Duchesnay said. "We're just going to try to give our best performance."

Last night, the Duchesnays delighted the crowd but left most of the judges unmoved. They turned the polka into a clockwork exercise, taking a -- from the score of "The Sound of Music" and mixing it with their avant garde style.

The crowd stood and cheered until the marks were posted. Then the whistles rained down on the ice.

The Duchesnays received only two first-place scores, compared with seven for Klimova and Ponomarenko, the 1984 bronze medalists and 1988 silver medalists.

"Our thoughts were on doing a good performance," Paul Duchesnay said. "We were trying to give it our best shot. We don't go out there with winning a medal in mind."

The Duchesnays, who were raised in Canada and train in Germany, clearly have been under pressure in this competition. They have lured sellout crowds to the Olympic ice skating hall. The fans expect to see the Duchesnays perform the quick and lively steps that have made them national stars.

"We're glad that we're finally almost getting this over with," Paul Duchesnay said. "The competition is very stressful."

To understand how stressful, all you had to do was look at Isabelle Duchesnay 15 minutes after the show ended. She walked out of the arena and came up to her brother, who was talking to a group of reporters. In mid-sentence, she dragged him away.

As Paul Duchesnay was led out the door, he turned back to the reporters and yelled, "Sorry, I have to take orders from the coach."

Ah, but tonight, they'll return, debuting their free-dance sensation to "West Side Story."

"We'll try to set a mood," Isabelle Duchesnay said last week.

Klimova and Ponomarenko were also in a rush to leave after their performance. This married couple from Russia skated to more of a waltz than a polka, but they have been around international skating for nearly a decade, and their inventiveness and boldness were rewarded by the judges.

"We skated well," Ponomarenko said. "We're satisfied. This competition is easy for us. But for the Duchesnays, it must be hard. I don't know how they can skate with all the pressure."

There was little pressure on the American teams. April Sargent Thomas and Russ Witherby are 11th overall, and Rachel Mayer and Peter Breen are 14th in the 19-couple competition.

Still, Sargent was outraged after being dropped one spot from their 10th-place compulsory-dance performance.

"The judging here has been very bad," she said. "They didn't judge what they saw. They were just looking at where they wanted to place each team."

Mayer and Breen, in their first international competition, had no complaints.

Well, maybe just a little one. The polka, it seems, just isn't their style.

"It's always strange to do the polka," Mayer said. "It's fun. But it's kind of dorky."

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