Skating before a vocal adoring crowd in his native Russia, 26-year-old Evgeni Plushenko demonstrated the technical prowess, confidence, and panache that earned him a silver medal in Salt Lake City and a gold medal at the 2006 Torino, Italy Olympic games. He opened his October 23 free skate program at Moscow’s International Skating Union Grand Prix event with a quadruple jump-triple jump combination that appeared effortless and set the tone for the entire four and a half minute master class in men’s figure skating. He skated with playful passion to an engaging Tango Amore, arranged by frequent collaborator Hungarian violinist Edvin Marton.
Plushenko is returning to competitive skating after nearly four years away in order to compete in his third Olympics at the Vancouver games in February, 2010. His short and long programs earned him top honors at the Moscow ISU Grand Prix event, recently renamed the Rostelecom Cup (formerly Cup of Russia). Plushenko established a solid 6.75 point lead over his nearest competitor in the men’s field in the short program, although he did exhibit a slight lack of focus when he doubled a planned triple lutz jump shortly after his spectacular quad-triple opener. He unleashed his full arsenal of jumps, spins, footwork, dance moves, and charisma in the free skate, maintaining and even increasing his intensity toward the end of his program.
Plushenko Soars above the Competition in Moscow
Plushenko’s final score of 240.65 put him a huge 25 points ahead of his nearest competition, talented young Japanese skater Takahiko Kozuka, age 20. Kozuka’s skating was smooth and his jumps generally strong, but his artistic impression just a bit amateurish. He skated to an avant-garde but somewhat grating “guitar concerto” (electric guitar-not Andres Segovia). He may well mature into the complete skater. The third spot on the podium went to another 20-year-old–Russian skater Artem Borodulin, whose tango free skate was decidedly inferior to Plushenko’s. Borodulin is desperate to land a spot on Russia’s Olympic team and despite his impressive jumping, his desperation was reflected in a manic, frenetic quality to his skating performance in Moscow. Plushenko was fun and exciting to watch, Kozuka easy to watch, and Borodulin difficult to watch.
The top American male at the Rostelecom Cup finished fourth. Quixotic, quirky Russophile Johnny Weir flubbed his triple axel jump multiple times and generally seemed “off” in both short and long program performances. Prior to the tournament he arrived early in Russia, proclaiming himself fit and well-trained. His poor results were particularly disappointing given his veteran status and his obvious love for competing in Russia again with his Russian style and Russian coach. More consistent if less lyrical performer Evan Lysacek of the U.S. (current world champion) did not compete in Moscow. Eighteen-year old Brandon Mroz (U.S. silver medalist) successfully landed a quad jump, but placed seventh due to errors in other elements.
During his post-performance interview with David Pelletier of NBC Sports, Plushenko remarked that he was very pleased to have skated a “good performance” but not surprised because he had performed well at another (local St. Petersburg) competition several weeks ago. He said the most difficult aspect of the comeback was the hours of daily practice and losing quite a few “kilos” that he had gained drinking wine and eating spaghetti.
NBC commentator Paul Wylie remarked during Plushenko’s long program performance that he not only retains his ability to hit the most difficult jumps with excellent height, speed, and polished landings, but his crowd-pleasing showmanship has actually improved. He seemed 100 percent connected to everyone in the stands (and in the television audience) throughout his program, projecting musicality, playful impudence, tango-appropriate flirtatiousness, and even joy. He may have crossed the line into public cockiness when he made the symbol for “number 1” with his index finger even before his program came to an end. Perhaps he can be forgiven for this grandstanding (and his fist-pumping celebration during his applause) since he was making his comeback after almost four years of retirement in front of a partisan Russian audience.
On Course to Take Third Olympic Medal in February
Even though not all the men currently at the top of the heap of the men’s singles field were in Moscow, there is no question that if Plushenko keeps up this level of performance, he will win in February. There are no other superstars with the complete package of technical feats, artistic mastery, and consistent skating currently on the scene. Plushenko’s chief rival and fellow Russian Alexei Yagudin retired from competition in 2003 after securing his Olympic gold in Salt Lake City. (The eighteen-year-old Plushenko took silver.) Plushenko dominated the top of the podium throughout the inter-Olympics competitions and swept convincingly to his 2006 victory in Torino, then retired to heal his injuries and enjoy the spoils of victory with his young family. In addition to his silver and gold Olympic medals, he is a three-time World Champion, five-time European Champion, four-time winner of the Grand Prix finals, as well as former Junior World Champion. His Rostelecom Cup trophy is his eighth career victory at the Moscow ISU Grand Prix event.
Despite his packed resume and years out of competition, Evgeni Plushenko remains only 26 years old. He has not lost his boyish edginess or his Owen Wilson face framed by flying blond locks during his years away from the sport. In September 2009, he married Dima Bilan’s music manager, Jana Rudkovskaia, whom he met when he skated on stage as part of Bilan’s winning Eurovision Song Contest performance for Russia in 2008. Plushenko has a three year old son with his first wife, from whom he was divorced in 2008. His first wedding was a lavish event at the Hotel Astoria in St. Peterburg. His second wedding was broadcast on MTV.
His recent comments indicate that even though he has enjoyed the good life resulting from his skating career, he misses the challenge of competition. His announced comeback for the 2007-2008 season never materialized. He announced in March 2009 that he was working with his longtime coach, Alexei Mishin, to prepare for competition at the 2010 Olympics. Based on his results at the Rostelecom Cup, this comeback is very real. His decision to return will energize what is, frankly, a lackluster men’s singles field going into the Vancouver Olympics. In fact, it is not an overstatement to see him as “a snowy dove trooping with crows” in the words of William Shakespeare. (In Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene 5, this phrase was spoken by Romeo sotto voce, in reference to Juliet.)
We can hope that the return of the Russian superstar will stimulate others such as Brian Joubert, Tomas Verner, Weir and Lysacek, Patrick Chan, the Japanese men and other Russian men to step up their games in time for Vancouver, making for a more interesting men’s singles competition than we had reason to expect based on last season. If this happens, all figure skating enthusiasts will have Evgeni Plushenko to thank.
Website of the ISU Grand Prix Rostelecom Cup
NBC Sports Coverage of the Rostelecom Cup Tournament
“Olympic Champion Plushenko Adds Another Victory” by Associated Press, New York Times Online edition, Sports Roundup, October 24, 2009
Official Website of Evgeni Plushenko