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.”

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun diagnosed with prostate cancer

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and will not travel to South Korea for the PyeongChang Olympic Opening Ceremony.

The 60-year-old executive sent an email to staff Monday notifying them of his diagnosis and said he would have surgery later this week.

Blackmun is beginning his ninth year as the USOC’s leader.

He said physicians recommended he start treatment as soon as possible, and the treatment could prevent him from traveling to PyeongChang at all.

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Joss Christensen left off Olympic team; full U.S. freestyle skiing roster

Joss Christensen
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Joss Christensen, who led a U.S. ski slopestyle podium sweep in Sochi, was left off the 29-athlete team for PyeongChang on Monday.

Christensen attempted to come back from a May ACL tear (with meniscus damage) but was unable to finish on the podium in any of the Olympic qualifiers.

Here’s the full roster:

Aerials
Ashley Caldwell — 2010, 2014 Olympian
Kiley McKinnon
Madison Olsen
Mac Bohonnon — 2014 Olympian
Jonathon Lillis
Eric Loughran

Halfpipe
Maddie Bowman — 2014
Annalisa Drew — 2014
Devin Logan — 2014
Brita Sigourney — 2014
Aaron Blunck — 2014
Alex Ferreira
David Wise — 2014
Torin Yater-Wallace — 2014

Moguls
Tess Johnson
Jaelin Kauf
Keaton McCargo
Morgan Schild
Casey Andringa
Emerson Smith
Troy Murphy
Brad Wilson — 2014

Slopestyle
Caroline Claire
Devin Logan — 2014 (in slopestyle)
Darian Stevens
Maggie Voisin — 2014 (did not compete in Sochi)
Nick Goepper — 2014
Alex Hall
Gus Kenworthy — 2014
McRae Williams

MORE: U.S. Olympic roster now over 200 athletes; full list

In slopestyle, Christensen’s Sochi podium mates Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper earned automatic Olympic spots earlier this month.

World champion McRae Williams and Alex Hall got the nods for two spots picked by a committee on Monday. They ranked Nos. 3 and 4 behind Kenworthy and Goepper in Olympic qualifying standings, while Christensen was eighth.

Sochi women’s slopestyle silver medalist Devin Logan became the first American to make an Olympic team in two different freestyle skiing events — slopestyle and halfpipe.

In aerials, 2017 World champions Ashley Caldwell and Jonathon Lillis were added to the team Monday. So were Mac BohonnonEric Loughran and Madison Olsen.

Kiley McKinnon was the only aerialist to automatically qualify earlier this month.

Caldwell is going to her third Olympics. She finished 10th in 2010 and 2014, competing in the former as the youngest U.S. athlete across all sports as a 16-year-old.

Last season, Caldwell added her first world title to a resume that already included six World Cup victories and the 2016 World Cup season title. She finished third, seventh, ninth, 13th and 31st in five World Cups so far this season.

Lillis, 23, is going to his first Olympics. He won last season’s world title in a huge surprise, having never won a World Cup event (and only finishing on the podium once before). He has a best finish of sixth in six World Cup events this season.

McKinnon and Bohonnon swept the World Cup season titles in 2015. They also went to elementary school together in Connecticut.

Six of the eight halfpipe skiers qualified earlier this season. The additions Monday were Annalisa Drew and Aaron Blunck, who were the top performers from Olympic qualifiers who didn’t clinch automatic spots.

The halfpipe team is the exact same as in Sochi except for Alex Ferreira replacing Lyman Currier.

Maddie Bowman and David Wise are the defending Olympic gold medalists from the event that debuted in Sochi.

Of the eight moguls skiers, only Brad Wilson has Olympic experience, finishing 20th in Sochi.

The top medal hope is Jaelin Kauf, a 21-year-old daughter of two moguls skiers. Kauf qualified automatically for the Olympic team earlier this month and leads the World Cups standings.

Andringa is a great story. The 22-year-old lived in a tent with his brother in Steamboat Springs, Colo., this summer to supplement training costs. He raced World Cup for the first time on Jan. 6 and placed seventh and fifth in his first two starts to earn a spot on the team.

The top U.S. moguls skier the last two Olympics — Hannah Kearney — retired in 2015.

The U.S. is not sending a ski cross racer to the Olympics for the first time. The event debuted in 2010, and the U.S. has never earned a medal.

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