SOCHI, Russia — Less than one month ago, Jeremy Abbott delivered the short program of his career en route to his fourth U.S. figure skating championship, becoming the first American man to win four national titles since Todd Eldredge did so in 2002. The following day, Bostonians Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir dazzled their hometown crowd to claim their second U.S. pairs championship.
Those were the three U.S. figure skaters, boasting six national titles among them, sent out as lead-off hitters Thursday at Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace, where the competition got under way for the sport’s inaugural Olympic team event.
But all three stumbled to put the United States in jeopardy of missing the cut for Sunday’s medal round.
Whether it was the pressure of the Olympic stage or the long competitive shadow cast by the Russian champions who ruled the night, Abbott and Castelli-Shnapir weren’t half the skaters they were four weeks ago.
With a chance to erase the woeful memory of his ninth-place finish at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Abbott brought the painful experience to mind once again, falling on his opening quadruple jump, sliding into the boards and popping a subsequent jump to finish seventh among the field of 10.
“I’m torn apart that I couldn’t do this for my team and my teammates,” Abbott said after coming off the ice. “I love being a part of Team USA, and I’m so honored to be skating with the kids I’m skating with. They really have become like family over the last couple weeks, and I really wanted to pull out a win.”
Castelli and the Russian-born Shnapir flubbed their triple Salchow, which was scripted to be executed in tandem but went awry when she fell and he failed to complete the three rotations.
When the final scores were tallied, the United States was knotted in a three-way tie for fifth among the 10 nations vying for team gold. Russia leads the competition with 19 points. Canada (17) is second, followed by China (15) and Japan (13). The United States, France and Germany each has 10 points.
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Saturday’s women’s and dance short programs will determine who makes the cut. That shifts the pressure to first-time Olympian Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, who has been tapped to perform the women’s short, and reigning dance world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, to get the United States into medal contention.
If the night was a nail-biter for Americans, it was a triumph for Russia, which reclaimed its glorious figure skating past on the opening day of competition at the Sochi Games. Russia seized the lead in the battle for team gold on brilliant performances by its aging sporting icon, three-time Olympic medalist Evgeni Plushenko, whose age-defying jumps sent the crowd into a flag-waving, chanting frenzy, and Russia’s world pairs champions, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov.
“I am so happy with my performance,” Plushenko told English-speaking reporters afterward. “That’s fourth Olympic Games in my life. Twelve surgeries. And after 12 surgeries, I can compete. I can skate. And doesn’t matter what kind of result will be in the end, I am already winner. For myself.”
Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic champion and 2002 and 2010 silver medalist, has scarcely competed since undergoing back surgery in February 2013. He returned to the ice in November to post minimum qualifying scores for the 2014 Games, only to be out-performed by the teenage Trankov at the Russian championships in December. With it, Plushenko’s dream of making Sochi what he had billed as “curtain-closing event” of his storied career appeared over.
But in a private performance, Plushenko convinced Russian officials at the 11th hour to award him to the country’s lone men’s spot in the 2014 Games, giving him the chance to win two more Olympic medals before retiring — in the men’s event and as anchor of Russia’s team entry — on his beloved home soil, no less.
To do so, however, Plushenko will have to compete four nights: performing his short and long programs for the team event, and returning next week to perform his short and long for the individual medals.
“I am feeling good,” Plushenko said, asked about the workload. “I am in front of you. Still alive. Not dead.”
Ten countries qualified to compete in the inaugural Olympic team event based on their skaters’ international results over the past season. In the format, each country designates one man, one woman, one pair and one dance couple to compete their short programs, with points awarded for each finish. A first-place finish is worth 10 points; second-place, nine points; third-place, eight points, and so on.
After the short programs are contested in all four disciplines, the five countries with the lowest combined totals will be eliminated.
There were plenty of vacant seats in Iceberg Skating Palace, which holds 12,000, moments before the competition started. A phalanx of volunteers filed in to fill empty seats, and by the time Plushenko took the ice, the atmosphere was emotionally charged.
Skaters from each of the 10 nations were seated rinkside to cheer their countrymen on, making for a rare and refreshing display of camaraderie in an individual sport. Overt displays of nationalism, such as that found at the Ryder Cup and Davis Cup, were muted. The German contingent, however, did clang a giant cowbell.