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

1 Comment

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.”

Lindsey Vonn sets date for proposal to enter men’s race

ALTENMARKT/ZAUCHENSEE, AUSTRIA - JANUARY 15: Lindsey Vonn of USA celebrates during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill on January 15, 2017 in Altenmarkt/Zauchensee, Austria (Photo by Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

The U.S. Ski Team plans to submit a proposal in the spring for Lindsey Vonn to be able to race against men in November 2018, according to the Denver Post.

“I know I’m not going to win, but I would like to at least have the opportunity to try,” Vonn said, according to the newspaper. “I think I’ve won enough World Cups where I should have enough respect within the industry to be able to have that opportunity.”

Vonn’s idea is to race in Lake Louise, Canada, an annual late fall stop on both the men’s and women’s World Cup schedules. The men generally race in Lake Louise one week before the women do.

Vonn’s greatest success has come at Lake Louise, with 18 victories in 41 downhill and super-G starts dating to 2001.

Vonn previously requested in 2012 to be able to race against men in Lake Louise, but that was denied by the International Ski Federation (FIS). The federation said then “that one gender is not entitled to participate in races of the other.”

It doesn’t look like the federation’s stance has changed.

“You can set up a day where a female racer can compete against men racers, just as a show, but it has nothing to do with competition,” FIS women’s race director Atle Skaardal said, according to the Denver Post. “I don’t see that it’s going to change in the next years — no driving forces to urge a change like that. This is something the teams could do also in training. But why would you want to have a competition in this direction?

“I just don’t see the interest. For me it’s a meaningless comparison. It doesn’t matter if she’s one second behind or a half-second ahead. We compete female against female and men against men. To me it doesn’t matter if one gender is faster or slower. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, just because it’s of interest to one racer. I haven’t heard of any other sport being dragged into this kind of position.”

Vonn raced for the first time in 322 days on Sunday, finishing 13th in a World Cup downhill in Austria. It was actually an encouraging result, as Vonn said she wasn’t skiing to her limit in her first race back.

Her upcoming goals are to compete in the 2018 Olympics, after missing Sochi due to injury, and earn 11 more World Cup wins to break Ingemar Stenmark‘s career record of 86 victories. She can overtake Stenmark next season if she stays healthy and continues to win at her usual pace.

Vonn said in the spring that she would postpone retirement by one year and compete in the 2018-19 season if it meant being able to race the men.

But Skaardal’s comments suggest that won’t be possible.

“It’s definitely frustrating to hear that he said that, because I respect Atle very much,” Vonn said, according to the Denver Post. “He does a great job on the World Cup, and he is a former racer, so he understands. It’s disappointing to hear he doesn’t support it. But maybe if we organize something and a plan is put in front of him, maybe he would change his mind. I think most of the men are supporting me.”

Vonn is expected to race this weekend in a downhill and super-G in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, streamed live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

MORE: Bode Miller plans to race next season, U.S. coach says

Wayne Gretzky compares Hayley Wickenheiser to NHL legend

Leave a comment

The greatest male hockey player of all time paid the greatest female player of all time quite the compliment at her retirement ceremony Saturday.

“You played with heart, desire, finesse, speed, skill,” Wayne Gretzky said to Hayley Wickenheiser. “The only other person, the greatest player to ever live, I think he would be happy if I said you were the female Gordie Howe. Congratulations.”

The Canadian legend Wickenheiser announced her retirement Friday, after six Olympics and four gold medals. On Saturday, she was honored before a Calgary Flames-Edmonton Oilers game. A highlight was a speech by Gretzky, who now works in the Oilers’ front office.

Wickenheiser’s first Olympics, Nagano 1998, marked the only Winter Games for Gretzky. Gretzky played in the first Olympics with NHL participation in Nagano, finishing fourth with Canada, and retired in 1999 without an Olympic medal.

“You’ve opened so many doors for so many young girls to be able to one day win a gold medal,” Gretzky said to Wickenheiser. “To me, that’s more important than anything.”

Wickenheiser then took the mic at center ice and reciprocated.

“A big part of why I play the game is because of this man standing right here, Wayne Gretzky,” she said, later adding, according to Canadian media, “In Salt Lake City [2002] when we won the gold medal, the first two people I saw when we stepped off the ice were Wayne and [former Oilers All-Star defenseman] Kevin [Lowe] standing in our dressing room cheering for us.”

As part of the Wickenheiser ceremony, a tribute video was played including messages from Canadian Olympian and Hall of Famer Mark Messier, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

MORE: Amanda Kessel sets sights on 2018 Olympics