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.”

Caeleb Dressel, Chase Kalisz open post-Phelps era with world titles

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In a 20-minute span, the future of U.S. men’s swimming may have arrived in Budapest on Thursday.

Chase Kalisz, 23, and Caeleb Dressel, 20, each bagged his first major individual gold medal at the world championships. They headlined a three-gold day for Team USA, which was anchored by Katie Ledecky bouncing back from her first major defeat to lead the 4x200m free relay to gold.

Kalisz ensured the 200m individual medley crown stayed with the U.S., fulfilling years of promise and succeeding longtime training partner Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in the event.

Dressel, the youngest U.S. man to win an individual Olympic or world title since 2005, broke his American record in the 100m freestyle to prevail by a distant seven tenths of a second in 47.17. Nathan Adrian, the 2012 Olympic champion, made it the first one-two U.S. men’s finish in a global 100m free since the Seoul 1988 Games.

Kalisz won the 200m IM in 1:55.56, by .45 over Japan’s Kosuke Hagino and .72 over China’s Wang Shun, who took silver and bronze in Rio behind Phelps. Kalisz overtook Hagino on the third leg, breaststroke, with the fastest split in the field, and held on in the last 50 meters of freestyle.

Phelps and Lochte had combined to win every Olympic and world title in the 200m IM from 2003 through 2016. That’s four Olympics — all won by Phelps — and seven worlds — the first three titles taken by Phelps, the last four by Lochte.

“Those two are my idols,” Kalisz said. “No one’s ever going to replace those guys. Those guys are going to be what, hopefully, my kids are probably going to be talking about those two”

Phelps retired after the Rio Olympics. Lochte isn’t in Budapest due to his suspension following his Rio gas-station incident, but plans to make a run for Tokyo 2020 at age 35.

For now, U.S. men’s swimming is led by Kalisz, Dressel and Ryan Murphy, the 22-year-old who swept the backstrokes in Rio.

Kalisz and Dressel are only the third and fourth U.S. men other than Phelps or Lochte to win individual world titles since 2009 (Aaron PeirsolMatt Grevers).

“We’re still in a rebuilding phase,” said Kalisz, previously a world team member in 2013, 2015. “This has been probably the best world championships I’ve been to as far as the team being close.”

Kalisz, who took 400m IM silver at his first Olympics in Rio, may just be getting started.

He can go for double IM gold in the 400m, his trademark event, in Budapest on Sunday.

“When I had the opportunity to step into the 200m IM, it was an honor,” Kalisz said on NBCSN. “I like [the 200m IM] a lot more than the 400m IM. It doesn’t hurt as bad. If you were to tell me four months ago that would be my first world title [in the 200m IM rather than the 400m IM], I probably would have laughed in your face.”

Dressel nearly quit swimming three years ago as the No. 1 recruit in the nation. Then, under perhaps more pressure than any swimmer in Rio, swam a personal-best time in his very first Olympic splash leading off the 4x100m free relay team to gold.

Dressel has only improved after his junior year at the University of Florida. He qualified to swim in up to nine events in Budapest and is now up to three golds with a few more events left. He led off the 4x100m free relay on Sunday with an American record in the 100m free, then went even lower in Thursday’s final.

“Before the race, I was like, hey man, this is going to be the first of many, many finals that you’re going to be in,” said Adrian, who took bronze in Rio, where Dressel was sixth. “He’s going to be incredible in the years to come.”

In other events Thursday, Spain’s Mireia Belmonte followed her Olympic 200m butterfly gold with her first world title. She won by .13 over German Franziska Hentke, with Hungarian superstar Katinka Hosszu earning bronze.

Americans Simone Manuel and Mallory Comerford qualified second- and third-fastest into Friday’s 100m freestyle final. Swede Sarah Sjöström, who shattered the world record leading off the 4x100m free relay Sunday, leads the eight-woman final.

Lilly King and Yulia Efimova set up another breaststroke showdown, this time in the 200m distance. Efimova will be heavily favored, while King was the last qualifier into Friday’s final in a tougher distance for the 100m gold medalist and world-record holder.

Murphy was the No. 2 qualifier into Friday’s 200m back final, behind China’s Xu Jiayu, who beat Murphy in the 100m back earlier this week.

Americans Kevin Cordes and Nic Fink qualified for Friday’s 200m breast final, but the favorites are Olympic bronze medalist Anton Chupkov of Russia and world-record holder Ippei Watanabe of Japan.

Etiene Medeiros became the first Brazilian woman to win an Olympic or world swim title in the pool in the 50m backstroke. She prevailed by .01 over China’s Fu Yuanhui in the non-Olympic event.

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WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Schedule/Results

Men’s 100m Freestyle Results
Gold: Caeleb Dressel (USA) — 47.17
Silver: Nathan Adrian (USA) — 47.87
Bronze: Mehdy Metella (FRA) — 47.89
4. Cameron McEvoy (AUS) — 47.91
5. Duncan Scott (GBR) — 48.11
5. Marcelo Chierighini (BRA) — 48.11
7. Jack Cartwright (AUS) — 48.24
8. Sergii Shevtsov (UKR) — 48.26

Men’s 200m Individual Medley Results
Gold: Chase Kalisz (USA) — 1:55.56
Silver: Kosuke Hagino (JPN) — 1:56.01
Bronze: Wang Shun (CHN) — 1:56.28
4. Max Litchfield (GBR) — 1:56.86
5. Daiya Seto (JPN) — 1:56.97
6. Qin Haiyang (CHN) — 1:57.06
7. Philip Heintz (GER) — 1:57.43
8. Jeremy Desplanches (SUI) — 1:57.50

Katie Ledecky bounces back, anchors U.S. relay to gold (video)

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Katie Ledecky rebounded from her first major defeat with a more typical result Thursday, gold while anchoring the U.S. 4x200m freestyle relay.

Leah SmithMallory ComerfordMelanie Margalis and Ledecky combined to win the world title in Budapest by 1.57 seconds over China. Australia earned bronze.

Ledecky dove in with a .13 lead over China and fell behind by .13 after 50 meters but opened up a body-length lead going into the last 50 meters.

Ledecky bagged her 13th career world gold (extending her female record) and fourth of this week. Her bid to match Missy Franklin‘s female record of six golds at a single worlds ended with a shocking silver in the individual 200m freestyle on Wednesday.

“I really just got rid of the negative energy,” Ledecky said on NBCSN. “I knew I had a big race for Team USA tonight. That made it easy to get focused.”

Ledecky had the fastest split time of the 32 swimmers by 1.44 seconds. She outsplit Australian Emma McKeon by 2.24 seconds after McKeon tied Ledecky for silver in the 200m free. Ledecky was .28 slower than her split in Rio, which is strong. In her other events this week, Ledecky was between one and two seconds slower than in Rio.

“I wanted to put up a better swim than last night, I don’t know if it was from frustration or just swimming for my team,” Ledecky told media in Budapest. “Knowing that I had this swim today, there’s no better event or swim to come off of last night than this one. It just felt really good warming up. It just felt a lot better than yesterday and just knew that I could lay it all out there.”

Ledecky has one event left at worlds, the 800m freestyle, with preliminary heats Friday and the final Saturday. The 800m free is Ledecky’s signature event, in which she owns the 13 fastest times in history.

Ledecky won her first Olympic title in the 800m free as a 15-year-old in London and went on to world titles in 2013 and 2015 and repeat gold in Rio last year.

Women’s 4x200m Freestyle Relay Results
Gold: U.S. — 7:43.39

Silver: China — 7:44.96
Bronze: Australia — 7:48.51
4. Russia — 7:48.59
5. Japan — 7:50.43
6. Hungary — 7:51.33
7. Netherlands — 7:54.29
8. Canada — 7:55.57

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WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Schedule/Results