Evgeny Plushenko’s last performance was no acting job.
The Russian skater, known to ham it up for the judges in between his balletic jumps, succumbed to an ailing back before he even had a chance to do his swan song short program. No tango from Plushy. The Sochi Olympics may not fully recover from this void.
A sense of regret permeated Iceberg Skating Palace, and no one felt it more deeply than Plushenko, who withdrew from competition Thursday just minutes before his music was cued. He stumbled awkwardly out of two triple axels during his warmup, grimaced and glided around in a hunched-over position, hands on knees, head bowed. Then he said a few words to referee Mona Jonsson, who patted him on the wrist.
“I felt strong pain, and after second triple axel it hurt worse,” he said. “I almost cried. I am normal people like you. I’m not robot.”
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Plushenko’s glorious career was finished. He had hoped to cap it at home after a comeback from spinal surgery, which he did, partially, by helping Russia win the team competition. But his 31-year-old back, after all those years of wrenching revolutions and hard landings, gave out two nights too soon. In essence, Plushenko sacrificed his chance at another individual medal to put his country on top.
He was a longshot for gold, but in a sport of sequins and stuffed animals, he brought pugnacious sizzle. He was the James Cagney of the ice.
Plushenko’s exit only cleared a bigger runway for Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, who won the short program, smashed his own world record and became the first to break 100 points with a score of 101.45.
The 19-year-old is part of the Asian wave of skaters who have imbued the sport with hip athleticism. He’s so smooth you hardly notice he’s on blades. Wearing a blue tie-dye shirt and a flashy silver belt buckle, Hanyu whisked through his quadruple toeloop-triple toeloop combination and high triple axel, clicking his fingers to Gary Moore’s “Parisian Walkways.”
Hanyu’s coach Brian Orser — the Canadian who won two silver medals and coached South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na to gold in 2010 — jumped up and down behind the boards. The slender teen flew through his spins, nailed a triple-triple combination and danced through a jazzy step sequence. His movements have a loose elegance to them.
“He’s a phenomenon of modern skating,” said Plushenko’s coach, Alexei Mishin. “He’s skating from himself and not only what the coaches taught him.”
Hanyu hails from Sendai, which was struck by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He held fundraisers to help victims and repair his home rink.
Hanyu’s performance was so distinctly superior it was surprising that Patrick Chan was awarded 97.52 points. It was another instance of what the skating world calls “Chanflation” for the Canadian, considered the favorite here because of his three-time world championship resume. His interpretation of a dreamy Rachmaninoff piece was sweet yet blase. He hit his quad-triple but stepped out of his triple axel and was late on his ending.
Judges generously kept Chan within striking distance of Hanyu for Friday’s long program climax. Without Plushenko they could use the suspense. Spain’s Javier Fernandez, who trains with Hanyu in Toronto, placed third and Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi is fourth.
“Now I can go out and enjoy my program whereas I think Yuzuru has a bit of a target that he’s not quite used to having, and on the Olympic stage the target’s kind of doubled in size,” said Chan, who has a burden of his own trying to become the first Canadian man to win Olympic gold.
The Americans comported themselves ably in two vastly different ways. Jason Brown was charming and as slick as his ponytail skating to Prince and putting himself on the edge of the podium picture with 86 points in sixth place.
Jeremy Abbott was plucky. He fell on his quad jump, as is often the case, except this time he fell so hard on his right hip it looked like he wouldn’t be able to get up. He slid into the boards and lay there crumpled on the ice for 10 seconds, then suddenly sprung back to life, continuing his program in stride with the music. Spectators cheered his persistence, and rose to a standing ovation. His score of 72.58 placed him 15th.
“I was in a lot of pain, lying there shocked,” said Abbott, who debated whether to ask the referee for a restart, which would have meant a two-point deduction. “But the second I stood up and heard the audience screaming, I said, ‘Forget it all, I’m finishing this program. I’m not giving up this moment.’ It’s really because of them that I finished. Adrenalin is an amazing anesthetic.”
Even more amazing is how Abbott was able to improvise under pressure.
“I found places to cut and was still on the syncopation of the music,” he said. “I was finding all these spots to still have my choreography make sense and finish on time.”
Figure skaters are among the most creative of athletes but their skill gets obscured by questionable costumes and musical arrangements. At the Iceberg we were subjected to a skater square dancing to “Dueling Banjos” and a kid with cotton candy hair jamming to AC-DC.
Who was missing? Plushenko. At his three previous Olympics, where he won silver-gold-silver, he came on like a rock star with his blond mullet, and dazzled with his rivalry against Alexei Yagudin, his Biellman spins, his 4-3-2 combo jumps and his blunt insistence that his quads in 2010 should have trumped Evan Lysacek’s quadlessness.
Plushenko did not feel 100 percent after the team free skate Monday. He fell and jerked his back on Wednesday. On Thursday morning he skated seven minutes and couldn’t jump. After the falls in warmup, “I couldn’t feel my legs,” he said.
“I am sorry for my fans and for everybody but I tried my best until the end,” he said. “This is not how I wanted to end my career.”
Plushenko creating drama one last time in front of Russian fans – that’s what he and we wanted to see. Even his opponents expressed disappointment. Perhaps one of them will channel Plushenko and pull out all the stops.