After a weekend practice at MCI Center, Russia's Evgeny Plushenko waded obligingly through an animated crowd of autograph seekers, offering signatures and smiles, and skirted among the five photographers angling and pushing for the perfect shot. When he finally made his way into the relative quiet of the bowels of the arena, he dropped into a chair and began massaging his left knee, which was swollen beneath his practice tights.
"A little bit tired, a little bit injured," Plushenko said when asked how he was feeling.
Plushenko felt a sharp pain in his knee late last week after reeling off a trio of quadruple jumps in practice. The knee has become inflamed and painful, though Plushenko said it will not force him to withdraw from the World Figure Skating Championships, which begin with today's qualifying rounds.
Yesterday, Plushenko eased through a relatively light practice session, leaving the ice before the scheduled run-through of his long program.
"I feel not so good," he said. "But I can skate, so I will skate like I usually do."
If Plushenko skates like he usually does, he likely will leave Washington with a gold medal around his neck. With his biggest rival, countryman and reigning Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin, competing this season with the tour Stars on Ice, Plushenko is considered the sport's most well-rounded product, an accomplished artist with an unmatched array of jumps, exciting footwork and innovative spins.
Plushenko, however, frowned when asked about being the favorite at this event.
"I don't feel like this," said Plushenko, the reigning Olympic silver medalist and 2001 world champion. "I want to just skate good and skate clean. If I skate clean, then I can win. We have a lot of skaters -- Tim Goebel, Michael Weiss, the French guy [Brian Joubert]. There are a lot of skaters here. I can't relax."
There also is that problem with his knee, which hurts on the landings of toe jumps, salchows and axels. Even worse, it had not received -- as of yesterday afternoon -- medical treatment. Plushenko intended to visit the Russian team doctor and physiotherapist Saturday, but both had been held up in Moscow because of visa problems.
"Only God knows" if he will be ready Monday, said Plushenko's coach, Alexei Mishin. "The injury is the reason we are only practicing once a day. He will try to do his best. This is not a joke. The inflammation is big."
The pain, which Plushenko attributes to overuse, merely is the latest stroke of misfortune in what has been an undesirably adventuresome prelude to the championships. Plushenko's travails began even before he officially set foot in Washington early last week.
As Plushenko stepped up to a border control officer after disembarking from his flight, he was faced with a slew of questions. The questions turned into a conference in a private room and a one-hour delay.
Plushenko, 20, said his apparently unsatisfactory answers got him yanked out of line and sent to an office for more questions. There, he said, he was asked for his address while in Washington. Plushenko said he did not have the name or address of his hotel handy, so he asked if he could call Mishin on his cellular phone. The use of cellular phones, he was told, was prohibited. Officers told him he was free to use a public phone but, Plushenko said, he had no U.S. coins.
Finally, he asked to be excused to the restroom. There, he locked himself in a stall and furtively called Mishin, obtaining the address of his Washington hotel. When he returned, he gave the information to the U.S. authorities.
Once sent on his way, Plushenko ran into another problem: He found his three bags were experiencing a much longer delay than he had. They had not made the flight. Somewhere between Moscow and Washington were his costumes, his music, his clothing. He had carried only his skates in his carry-on bag.
"I was," he said, "really upset."
Three hours after he had landed, Plushenko finally left the airport. His bags were delivered to his hotel three days later. By then, Plushenko was grappling with unexplained pain and a swelling knee.
"I don't know what happened," he said. "Maybe too much skating."
It has been a long -- albeit successful -- year for Plushenko. Last winter, he developed a similar problem in his right knee, which caused him to withdraw from last year's world championships. He also battled a groin injury and then, after touring all summer with Champions on Ice, sprained his ankle.
But once healthy, he won the three Grand Prix events he entered: The Bofrost Cup in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, the Cup of Russia in Moscow and the season-ending Grand Prix Final in St. Petersburg.
Plushenko, though, confessed that he is ready for some time off.
"It's skate, skate, skate," he said. "I don't know when it will be done. . . . I need to just take some vacation, go to some good place by the ocean somewhere without skating. I like skating, of course, but when it's too much, I hate it.
"I should concentrate on this competition, the world championships, and try to forget everything. . . . If I win, I'm going to be done for the season."