SOCHI,. RUSSIA - A Canadian journalist approached legendary Russian figure skating coach Alexei Mishin here and asked if he could comment on his skater, Evgeni Plushenko.
“Your questions should be delicate, smart and gentle,” Mishin said with a twinkle in his eye.
It’s hard to say if the question was anything of those things. But the message was clear: How was Plushenko — the 2006 Olympic champion who has suffered so many injuries the last couple of seasons, missed his one Grand Prix assignment this season because of a knee problem, and finished second at his national championships — able to come into these Olympics and skate so well?
The 31-year-old Plushenko and his 15-year-old teammate Yulia Lipnitskaya in women’s singles basically carried the Russian team to the first-ever Olympic team gold medal Sunday. Both skaters won their short and long programs to lead Russia to 75 points while Canada, a gold-medal threat coming into Sochi, had to settle for the silver (65). The U.S. won the bronze (60).
Team Russia won five of the eight events while Canada failed to win any, but finished second in five.
“We couldn’t be happier for our team,” said Canadian ice dancer Tessa Virtue, who finished second in the long and short programs with her partner Scott Moir. “A lot of personal bests, a lot of special Olympic moments. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Heading into the final three team events on Sunday, Canada trailed Russia 47 points to 41, an almost insurmountable lead. And although the Canadian skaters performed well — Kevin Reynolds in men’s singles, Kaetlyn Osmond in women’s singles and Virtue and Moir — the Russians were just too strong, and the rumour that they were going to get some nefarious support from a American judge during the competition (according to a report in the French magazine L’Equipe) faded as the competition progressed.
The Russians didn’t need any help. They were simply great, especially Plushenko and Lipnitskaya.
Beyond skating well, the Russian pair became the big story of the new team competition, which earned rave reviews from the skaters and fans, though some media types sniffed that the event is nothing more than an elaborate dress rehearsal for the individual skating events that begin Tuesday with the pairs short program.
Lipnitskaya, the youngest figure skater at these Games, demonstrated that she can certainly challenge defending Olympic champion Yuna Kim of South Korea, silver medallist Mao Asada and her Japanese teammate Akiko Suzuki for the gold medal next week.
And Plushenko threw himself into the mix for a possible medal in men’s singles that start Thursday — though after skating both team events, he’ll likely be a little fatigued.
The top two men in the field, Canada’s Patrick Chan and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, skated just the short program in the team event. Plushenko certainly wasn’t perfect on Sunday — he only landed one quad compared to three by Canada’s Kevin Reynolds — but he is on an upward trajectory and there are still those in the figure skating world who believe he is due for another Olympic title because he was cheated out of the gold at the Vancouver 2010 Games when he lost to American Evan Lysacek, who didn’t attempt a quad jump.
“I call his skating like a broken aorta,” said Mishin. “Understand? The channel for the blood.”
Graphic. But point taken.
Plushenko is a force of nature on the ice and won the men’s free Sunday with 168.20 points, edging out Coquitlam, B.C. native Reynolds, who finished second with 167.92. Reynolds, 23, has been dealing with boot problems all season, but his skating has been improving to the point where he’s looking at a top-five finish in Sochi. Of his three quads, one started a quad toe-triple toe-double loop combination. Like almost everyone at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Sunday, Reynolds was taken aback by the skating of Plushenko.
“It’s absolutely amazing the longevity that he’s had,” said Reynolds. “He’s been doing quads since the age of 14, and to do what he does here at that age without much competition experience this season was just incredible. I have a lot of respect for him.”
VIRTUE, MOIR VOW BOUNCEBACK
They keep putting on a happy face, but the truth is, defending Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are in trouble.
It's now four straight times they've lost head-to-head competitions to their American rivals, Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
Sunday's loss in the free dance team event at the Iceberg Skating Palace -- being out-scored 114.34 to 107.56 -- was the latest in a string of defeats to the Americans, which also includes losses in two Grand Prix Finals and last year's world championships. But Virtue and Moir, who share the same coach, Marina Zoueva, and train in the same facility in Canton, MI. as Davis and White, insist all is not lost. They believe they can regroup, come back, and beat the Americans next week in the individual ice dance competition. Win or lose, Virtue and Moir will likely retire from competitive skating following this season.
"We were down five points technically," said Moir, after their skate on Sunday. "Usually that means that those are mistakes that we've made and they're easy adjusted. But it's not fun to be seven points behind in the free program. We don't plan on (that happening) in a week."
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