Yevgeny Plushenko, revered and divisive, ends ‘legendary’ career

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SOCHI, Russia – Without skating a single moment Thursday night at the Iceberg Skating Palace, Yevgeny Plushenko was once again the talk of Sochi. Actually, the talk of the Olympic sporting world.

The 31-year-old Russian made a dramatic exit from the sport in the men’s short program – skating to the boards and taking his name out of contention with referee Mona Jonsson – effectively ending a 16-year career that some call the greatest of all time.

Just a boy, Plushenko debuted at Russian Nationals at age 13 in 1996 with an awkward haircut and the kind of talent that – even in a country with a storied figure skating past – had the eyes of those inside the sport lighting up.

“He was doing things that no one had really seen before,” said Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist. “He was doing a Beilman when he was 15 and just whipping off triple Axels and starting the quad so early. He was a wunderkind.”

VIDEO: Inside Plushenko’s decision to withdraw

There really is no wondering why he is so revered: 2002 Olympic silver medalist, 2006 gold medalist, 2010 silver medalist, 2014 team gold medalist, three World Championships golds, seven European Championships titles and 10 consecutive Russian National Championships crowns, a streak snapped this year against teenager Maksim Kovtun.

The melodrama leading up to the Olympics was oh-so-Plushenko: He didn’t skate the Grand Prix season as he struggled with injury, and then was second to Kovtun at Nationals in December. But Russia had just one spot in men’s singles for these Games, that spot eventually going to the elder statesman after a closed-door performance for Russian skating officials leading up to Sochi.

VIDEO: Watch the maneuver that led to injury

The questions – as they always did late in his career – swirled around his health. Plushenko retired after his gold in Torino, then came back and retired again after Vancouver. His knees were always trouble, then his back, having had surgery in February of 2013, just a year ago.

“He has an artificial disc in his spine,” his wife, actress Yana Rudkovskaya, told reporters. “If he had skated today, something terrifying could have happened. He did everything he could at these Olympics. He helped the team win a gold medal for the country.”

“You wondered how long he could go,” added Wylie, who skated in Albertville at the age of 27. “Would he burn out? Would his body give out? To go on until he was 31, I can tell you, at a certain point it starts to get harder and harder every single day.”

Plushenko’s part in the team event – newly introduced at the Olympics this year – solidified a legacy that had long been revered within the sport. He was second in the short program and won the free skate against guys a decade younger than he, all the while creating a roar of admiration for a figure skating team in front of its home crowd, which won the inaugural event going away.

“If you describe him in one word, it’s ‘legendary,’” said 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, an analyst for NBC. “He’s always been one of the best. He has reached that status, particularly with that short program in the team event, which was so superb. We always saw him perform under pressure and land the big jumps; he’s in a category of greatness no doubt.”

VIDEO: “I’m not able to skate”

That was the Plushenko that figure skating came to know: big jumps, sell the program and draw the crowd in. Plushenko did plenty of “preening,” or just what looked to be fancy skating between his gargantuan jumps, but his talent was undeniable, especially early in his career.

All three of the men’s leaders after the short program – Yuzuru Hanyu, Patrick Chan and Javier Fernandez – said they looked up to Plushenko, who won his first Olympic medal when Hanyu was just seven years old.

“He was my idol growing up,” said Chan, who is 22. “He was one of the best performers the skating world has ever had.”

“His legacy was tremendous,” added Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion. “I always looked up to him, then I competed against him and tonight I watched along with everyone else as it came to an end.”

Plushenko, according to reports, said that he would be done with competitive skating after Thursday night, though would skate again in exhibitions and shows – after a bit of rest, of course.

“His longevity was amazing. He is such an icon in the sport and someone that all the kids in this arena look up to,” Wylie said. “He was at a high level for such a long time. Say what you will about his swagger, he brings a sense of his own personality to the ice and he was so fun to watch. He is the kind of skater who has such confidence and command over what he’s doing, and that is why the audience really gets behind him.”

Michael Phelps ‘would probably do’ another Olympics if not for injury risk

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Michael Phelps said he would probably swim another Olympic cycle if it wasn’t for the possibility of injury, particularly with his shoulders.

“If you could guarantee me that I would never get injured in four years, and I would never have any problems with my shoulders or anything like that in four years, I’d probably do it again because I had more fun this time around,” Phelps said in a social media video Friday. “But I don’t want to risk that and not be able to spend time with Booms [son Boomer] when he grows up and watch him and be a part of every single part of his life when he gets older and older. So I think that’s something, for me, that I will never put my body through. I won’t take that chance. I think my body is way more important and my family is way more important than going another four years to swim in one more Olympics.”

Phelps’ right shoulder was a particular issue in his comeback for the Rio Olympics. He received two cortisone shots in the months before the Games, leading coach Bob Bowman to say that Phelps was “75 percent” of what he was at the 2008 Beijing Games, according to Sports Illustrated.

(Phelps has said he didn’t compete at 100 percent in Beijing, given an October 2007 broken wrist that interrupted training.)

Phelps reiterated, repeatedly as usual, during the 70-minute video that he would not return to competitive swimming. He still swims recreationally “for peace of mind” and “meditation.”

What about retirement saddens him?

“Not having the chance to represent my country anymore is something bums me out,” Phelps said, particularly hearing the national anthem atop the medal stand.

Phelps has plenty to keep him busy. The most pressing is testifying at a congressional hearing looking at improving the flawed anti-doping system in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

“I have a lot to say,” Phelps said. “To have that opportunity to speak out about my true feelings. I’ve never really, truly been able to do it.”

He began outlining those words Friday and said he had until Sunday to finish a page or a page and a half to present to the subcommittee.

“There are too many people who are cheating, that’s the easiest way to say it,” Phelps said. “Look what happened at the [Rio] Olympics, all the athletes that tested positive that were still allowed to compete. I think that’s wrong, and I think it’s unfair. I think that’s something that needs to clean.”

In Rio, Phelps praised teammate Lilly King‘s criticisms of athletes competing who had previously served doping punishments (such as King’s breaststroke rival, Russian Yuliya Yefimova). Phelps doubts he has ever competed in a clean race.

“I think you’re going to probably see a lot of people speaking out more,” Phelps said in Rio, according to The Associated Press. “I think [King] is right, I think something needs to be done. It’s kind of sad today in sports in general, not just in swimming, there are people who are testing positive who are allowed back in the sport and multiple times. It kind of breaks what sport is meant to be and that’s what pisses me off.”

Phelps said Friday that he hopes to help “clean the sports up so we can get back to why we play sports.”

“I don’t think any athlete should ever have that feeling that somebody else is at an advantage of using a performance-enhancing drug to help them,” he said. “I had these massive dreams and goals of things I wanted to accomplish and achieve, and never were they because I thought I could take an easy way by cheating. I basically just worked as hard as I could and made sure that my body was as prepared as I could possibly make it for every single meet. So I was able to accomplish the goals and dreams that I had. That’s something that I’m going to Congress to talk about.”

Phelps also added in Friday’s video that he hopes another swimmer will come along and break his records, that he was recently knocked out of a poker tournament by his wife and he will be in Budapest for the world championships in July.

Just not as a competitor.

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Dawn Harper-Nelson makes tearful plea about banned medication

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24: Dawn Harper-Nelson of the United States after winning the Women's 100m Hurdles during the Diamond League at Alexander Stadium on August 24, 2014 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)
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In a tearful social media video, Olympic 100m hurdles champion Dawn Harper-Nelson said Thursday that she was “afraid for my life” because she’s not allowed to take prescribed blood-pressure medication that is banned by anti-doping authorities.

“I just want to say that this is not fair, that I’m afraid for my life,” she said. “I’m about to go into urgent care, because my blood pressure’s really high again. And USADA [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] said I can’t take the medicine the doctors giving me. And they’re giving me a new medicine. This is just not OK. My head’s bothering me, my vision’s kind of blurry, and they said my blood pressure is high. I’m scared. People need to be aware, this is not cool.”

Harper-Nelson is serving a three-month ban after previously taking a prescribed medication and failing to learn that it contained a banned substance. She said she was prescribed the medication after being rushed to an emergency room and diagnosed with high blood pressure. The ban ends March 1.

Athletes can request therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) through USADA if they have an illness or condition that requires the use of medication listed on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List. It’s not clear if Harper-Nelson has requested a TUE for medication containing a banned substance.

Harper-Nelson tested positive for the banned diuretic hydrochlorothiazide, which is on the prohibited list, and related metabolites on Dec. 1, according to USADA:

Harper-Nelson’s explanation that her positive test was caused by a blood pressure medication she was prescribed by a physician to treat hypertension. Harper-Nelson further explained that she made efforts to determine if the medication contained prohibited substances; however, due to using partial search terms, those efforts were unsuccessful.

On Thursday, A USADA official reached out to Harper-Nelson on Twitter. USADA has not commented on the situation.

Harper-Nelson won the 2008 Olympic 100m hurdles title and took silver behind Sally Pearson in 2012. She failed to make the Rio Olympic team, getting eliminated in the Olympic Trials semifinals.

The U.S. trio in Rio swept the medals — Brianna RollinsNia Ali and Kristi Castlin.

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