Returning hero: Plushenko wins short program
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Game on, guys.
Reigning Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko posted a monster 90.85 points early in the men’s short program Tuesday night, daring the competition to beat it. World champion Evan Lysacek and Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi came pretty darn close, setting up the most riveting men’s final since the “Battle of the Brians” in 1988 – the last time the Olympics were in Canada.
Lysacek is just .55 points behind Plushenko with Takahashi another .05 back going into Thursday night’s free skate. Those margins are so small, the three may as well be tied.
“Easy? That’s competition and it is never going to be easy,” Plushenko said. “If somebody says today, ‘I am not nervous’ or ‘I skate easy,’ or ‘I am not tired,’ I don’t believe him.”
This men’s competition has been widely anticipated, its field stocked with enough talent to carry two Olympics – four world champions, including Plushenko, who came out of retirement to try to become the first man to win back-to-back gold medals since Dick Button in 1952.
Plushenko set the tone with a majestic program almost worthy of beating his world record from last month’s European championships. While Turin runner-up Stephane Lambiel, former world champ Brian Joubert and Canada’s great hope Patrick Chan weren’t up to the challenge, Lysacek and Takahashi made it clear they’re not about to hand over that second gold to Plushenko.
Lysacek was pumping his fists even before he began his final spin. When his music finished, he threw back his head and dropped to his knees, sliding across the ice and burying his head in his hands. He looked a bit dazed by what he had done as he saluted the crowd.
“That’s kind of out of character for me. I couldn’t help it,” Lysacek said. “But I had a really good time.”
Lambiel is fifth, followed by three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir and Chan. U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott had another big collapse and is 15th. Joubert’s fall was even more shocking and he’s 18th.
“I actually had fun tonight, and that’s something I haven’t been able to say for a long time,” said Weir, who quit for a few weeks last spring after bombing so badly at the U.S. championships he failed to make the world team. “I felt like I really showed my heart.”
Plushenko capped one of the most dominant stretches in the sport with the gold medal at the Turin Olympics. With bum knees and nothing more to prove, the Russian retired. But his new wife urged him to return and, at 27, he might just be better than ever.
As he took the ice, longtime coach Alexei Mishin pumped his fist, as if to tell his star pupil, “Knock ’em dead!”
Not that Plushenko needed any reminders.
Plushenko’s jumps were impressive, as always. His quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination was performed with more ease than some skaters can manage on a single jump. His triple axel was executed with perfect control, so much so he showed off a little, changing his edge back and forth to produce a sassy swerve – in time to the music, no less.
While his spins still aren’t in the same category as Lambiel’s, they were much improved from four years ago. His combination spin was perfectly centered and done so fast he’s lucky the gold charms on his necklace didn’t go flying into the crowd.
But the best part of his program is still his showmanship. Nobody loves the limelight quite like Plushenko, and he reveled in it Tuesday night, looking deep into every camera he passed. His seductive body language and bedroom eyes matched his passionate “Concierto de Aranjuez” perfectly, and he even flirted with the judges a bit.
Those transition marks that caused such a firestorm last week? They were appropriately lower than the rest of his component marks. Plushenko does a bunch of big tricks in a row early in his program, and he needs to generate a lot of speed to pull them off. There’s no room for intricate steps, and his scores reflected that.
“I don’t care today about transitions and the scoring system. I did a clean program and that’s important to me,” Plushenko said. “This is my third Olympic Games and I skated not bad. I’ll take any result in the Olympic Games.”
When Plushenko finished, he drew an imaginary sword, kissed it and then put it back in its sheath. In case the crowd – and maybe his competitors, too – didn’t get the message, he did it two more times before leaving the ice.
But this fight isn’t over – not by a long shot.
As the reigning world champion, Lysacek is the United States’ best hope for a gold medal since Brian Boitano won that famous battle at the Calgary Games. That’s a lot of pressure to put on his slim shoulders, and coach Frank Carroll grabbed him around both arms to give him a last-second pep talk before he went on the ice.
Lysaseck responded superbly. His “Firebird” program was powerful and spellbinding, a perfect mix of athleticism and artistry.
Every single one of his jumps was done with silky smoothness, his landings so secure the tracings could have been the work of a master etcher. His intensity was almost intimidating, and his interpretation would put any virtuoso to shame. His leg kicks, dramatic arm movements – everything was done on a note, making his music as much a part of his program as any technical skill.
“I had some pressure coming in as a reigning world champion and I felt it. I also had a monkey on my back thinking of my short program four years ago in Torino,” said Lysacek, who was 10th in the short in 2006 after botching two jumps. “To be able to go out and silence all of that really felt good.”
Takahashi’s program was completely different than Plushenko’s and Lysacek’s, but no less compelling. It was high-octane from the second he stepped on the ice, so jam-packed there was barely time to breathe, let alone rest. His footwork and spins were innovative, proving there IS room for creativity in the current judging system.
Had he included a quad in the program – he’s more than capable of doing them, and likely will have one in the free skate – he could have been ahead of Plushenko and Lysacek. His component mark – the old artistic score – was more than a point and a half better than Plushenko’s.
Lambiel, runner-up to Plushenko in Turin, is in fifth after only doing a double axel and botching his quad. But even with this tough field, don’t count the two-time world champion out of the medals hunt. He won the silver at Europeans after being in the same spot after the short program.
“Yes, a gold medal is possible. Nothing is impossible,” Lambiel said. “I know my skating and I know myself.”
Just 19, Chan is Canada’s latest hope to – finally – win a gold medal in men’s figure skating. But he cost himself big, stepping out of the landing of his triple axel, slipping during one section of footwork – though he covered it up nicely – and then taking a deduction for finishing after his music.
“This is the Olympics, you can’t afford any mistakes and that’s a perfect example,” Chan said.
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