SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Evgeni Plushenko stole the show, then Yuzuru Hanyu stole the lead in the new team event at the Sochi Olympics.
Three-time medalist Plushenko, in what certainly is the swan song to a brilliant career, put on his best performance in years Thursday night. For nearly three minutes, he had the crowd enraptured. For almost an hour he had Russia atop the standings.
But Hanyu, the Grand Prix champion and among the favorites for the individual gold medal, was even better — by 6½ points. The 19-year-old Japanese was smoother and more intricate with his footwork, his jumps were massive — he nearly crossed the width of the ice on his triple axel — and his spins were exquisite.
When he finished, Hanyu bowed to his teammates who were celebrating in the cheering section set aside for them behind the end boards. While awaiting the marks, his teammates joined him in the kiss-and-cry area, dancing behind Hanyu before the 97.98 points hit the scoreboard.
That earned Japan 10 points to nine for Russia and eight for Canada as three-time world champion Patrick Chan struggled. The United States was seventh after a poor showing by Jeremy Abbott.
“He was my hero,” Hanyu said of Plushenko. “That’s why I was happy to skate here with him.”
His coach, Brian Orser, helped Yuna Kim win the 2010 Olympic gold, but was perplexed about how to approach the team competition.
“It’s so strange for all of us, for the athletes, for the coaches,” said Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist. “You want your athlete to nail it. You can’t tell them to hold back.”
Later Thursday night was the pairs short program in the team competition.
The 31-year-old Plushenko pulled out all his tricks, and they were considerable. But after hitting his quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination, an insecure triple axel and a triple lutz to open the routine, he also slowed down considerably.
No matter because the three-time Olympic medalist had the crowd — and the judges — eating out of his hands. And when he pumped his arms midway through his skate to “Tango de Roxanne,” as if asking for more cheers, the sound level skyrocketed.
“I already win for myself, because after 12 surgeries in my body, I can skate for (a) fourth time in Olympic Games,” said Plushenko, who won silver in 2002 and 2010, gold in 2006. “So it’s already good. And today, with this day, this first day for me, I’m so happy today.”
Ever the master showman, at the end of his 2-minute, 48-second performance, Plushenko spent just as much time soaking up the adulation. He threw kisses to the fans, took long and deep bows, including a final one just before he exited to be surrounded by his teammates.
“It’s hard competing at home, so hard,” he said. “But, sometimes it helps. I came from there, from there, there, there, everybody screaming, everybody talking. I was a little bit shocked, I was like dizzy. Concentrate, concentrate.”
There was little celebrating for the Americans after four-time U.S. champion Abbott crashed to the ice on his planned quad and popped a triple axel into a single. His 65.65 points severely damaged U.S. chances for a gold medal in the new event and he said he was “torn apart” by his performance.
It was yet another flop for Abbott on the international stage, where he has never finished higher than fifth in a major championship. He plans to retire from competition after this season.
Chan also disappointed, stepping out of a triple axel and doing only a double toe loop at the end of his combination jump.
“There’s many times in my career where I went out and did the program and came back off the ice and said, ‘Oh, I wish I could do it again,’” Chan said.
All 10 teams had contingents sitting in a cheering section divided by nations. There were group hugs for skaters as they exited the ice, and the Germans even brought a huge cowbell they chimed after Peter Liebers’ season-best program.