Plushenko as brilliant as he's ever been

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; D01

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The text message from Russian Olympic teammate and Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin came just minutes after Evgeni Plushenko had completed his short program on the opening night of the men's Olympic competition, showing the same brilliance he displayed in winning the Olympic gold four years ago.

About three hours before Ovechkin took the ice for Russia's opening hockey game, he wrote in Russian to Plushenko, "We are all holding hands and watching you right now."

Plushenko provided a performance worthy of the hockey team's admiration.

Despite taking off 3 1/2 years after the 2006 Winter Games, Plushenko skated with flair, obvious confidence and great speed. As Plushenko skated across the ice, taking in wild applause from the Pacific Coliseum crowd, he feigned pulling a sword off of his waistband, kissing it in triumph, and tucking it back into its scabbard.

"The first fight is finished," he said. "I fight it with myself, and today I did very good."

The next fight will be with American Evan Lysacek.

Plushenko received 90.85 points from the judging panel, putting him just 0.55 ahead of Lysacek, the reigning world champion. Lysacek skated third-to-last and offered a vigorous response to Plushenko, setting up a showdown in Thursday's deciding free skate.

"This," Lysacek said, "just sets us up for the main event."

Japan's Daisuke Takahashi also executed a stellar program that scored 90.25, just .05 behind Lysacek, then declared it "the best program I've done all season."

Japan's Nobunari Oda stood in fourth with 84.85 points. Reigning Olympic silver medalist Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland tallied 84.63 points for fifth.

When Lysacek finished, the crowd rose, and he covered his face with his feather-covered hands. He hit a gorgeous triple Axel and crisp jumps -- though no quadruple. He put out electrifying footwork and spins, and got fans roaring with an exhilarating program.

"I usually don't lose it like that," Lysacek said. "There was just so much to deal with today. I wasn't particularly nervous, but I just really felt the pressure . . . I don't know how many would have predicted this result."

American Johnny Weir skated well and put himself in position to make a run at the podium. Wearing a tight black bodice with pink trim, Weir delighted the crowd with his theatrical and virtually flawless performance, drawing a huge ovation from the crowd despite following Canadian star Patrick Chan. Weir did not do a quad, but he nailed all of his jumps, including a triple Lutz-triple toe in combination, and showed off engaging footwork and spins. But he received 82.10 -- a result that drew vociferous boos from the fans -- good enough for just sixth.

"I'm a good athlete," Weir said. "I think people forget that because of my personality . . . I said, 'Look at me. I'm here, too. Look at my tassel."

Chan, meantime, stepped out of a triple Axel and stumbled on a piece of footwork, but scored 81.12 for seventh.

American Jeremy Abbott, who won the recent U.S. championships, managed only a single Axel and doubled his Lutz attempt. The disappointing performance won him just 69.40 points and 15th place. Oda, second to Lysacek at the recent Grand Prix Final, did not do a quad but nailed his triple jumps; Lambiel hit a quad, but added only a double jump in combination rather than a intended triple.

"I ended the program with my head spinning," Abbott said. "I'm happy; I'm sad. I'm extremely angry and frustrated."

Plushenko reveled in a program that contained no major mistakes and included a difficult quadruple jump in combination and a clean triple Axel.

"Of course, I am happy with what I did today," he said. "Everything I did today was hard."

He received 51.10 points for technical elements -- including a 14.80 for the combination jump and a 10.00 for the Axel -- and 39.75 for presentation. Takahashi earned 48.90 and 41.35. Lysacek tallied 48.30 and 42.00. Plushenko's jumps beat the quad-less programs of Takahashi and Lysacek, but both scored better on transitions and choreography/composition.

"I did today a clean program," Plushenko said. "That was really important to me in my third Olympic Games. For me, I skated not bad."

Plushenko confessed to being nervous before the competition. He said he had eaten nothing but a banana all day.

"If someone is going to say they are not nervous, not tired, I am not going to believe them," Plushenko said. "Because all of the time, it's hard."

It didn't look hard. He nailed a quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination just, then hit a triple Axel and triple Lutz. He showed off complex, crisp spins, and speed across the ice.

After the skate, he said he hoped to watch the Russian hockey game, and said he had been hanging out with Ovechkin and other hockey stars. Plushenko's agent, Ari Zakarian, who translated the text message, said Plushenko had carried a jersey from Italian soccer star Alessandro Del Piero to the Games for Ovechkin. He watched the team practice Monday, he said.

"I'm very friendly with him," Plushenko said. "They are my friends."

In March of last year, Plushenko officially ended his retirement, rejoining his longtime coach, Alexei Mishin. There seemed to be no transition back to peak form for Plushenko; he just went straight there. He easily won a grand prix event in Germany last fall. He accrued outrageous point totals at the Russian national championships earlier this winter, before setting a world record in the short program while winning the recent European championships.

"The time he spent since Torino, he definitely matured," Mishin said. "The pressure is a very big pressure because it's very difficult to come back after three years."

Plushenko and Takahashi agreed a quad was essential for the free skate; Lysacek, however, said a foot injury that has long nagged him likely would keep him from adding the element. He won the world championship last year without one -- of course, Plushenko did not compete there.

"I don't think there is any element in the free skate for all three of us that is any more important than any other," Lysacek said. "Most likely it's not in the cards for me here."

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