SOCHI, Russia – More than any other night at these Winter Olympics, this one belonged to Russia as a skating nation.
As the inaugural team figure skating competition wrapped up with the men’s, ladies and ice dance free skates, Russia saw one of its beloved veterans and a rapidly rising star perform beautifully on the ice, all while a president who rarely shows emotion stood and gave his approval.
It was a night of triumph for the Russian skating tradition, which skidded away from the Vancouver Olympics four years ago with their boots dragging, having won just two of the 12 medals awarded at those Games, its worst haul since the 1964 Innsbruck Games, when, as the U.S.S.R., the nation won one medal at an Olympics where ice dance wasn’t included in the program.
One Russian, Yevgeny Plushenko, put himself into the record books, tying Swedish skater Gillis Grafstrom for the most Olympic medals in figure skating: four.
“I skated for my family, I skated for my country,” Plushenko said in the media mixed zone.
“I feel awesome. I feel great,” Plushenko added plainly. “I’m happy, my wife is happy, my sons are happy.”
So, too, is the whole of Russia, as it reclaimed a figure skating gold of any kind for the first time since Plushenko was the men’s champion at the Torino Games in 2006. The crowd roared as flowers were awarded to the Russians, but most emphatically for Plushenko, who has been through countless injuries, surgeries and at least two semi-retirements.
“The Russians are so strong across all the disciplines,” 1992 Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko, who skated for the Unified team, told NBCOlympics.com. “I think they’re doing a good job.”
A good job might be what Russian President Vladimir Putin would have said, as well. Putin was in attendance for most of the evening, taking in Yulia Lipnitskaya’s skate, as well as that of the ice dance team, Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov. It was unclear whether Putin watched Plushenko skate, as well.
Did Lipnitskaya, just 15, know that the president was watching her?
“Nyet,” she said – no – in response. Then, through a translator: “I didn’t know that the president was there, but even if I knew that he was there, it wouldn’t matter really because the support of the fans was so incredible, so massive for me.”
Lipnitskaya’s score, too, was massive, a 141.51 marking a career-best, 12 points ahead of American Gracie Gold, who was second.
While Plushenko appeared to tire during the second half of his free skate, turning normal triple jumps into doubles, he still won the men’s free skate, ahead of a decent field that included Japan’s Tatsuki Machida and American teenager Jason Brown.
The scene inside the Iceberg Skating Palace was more akin to that of a soccer stadium than figure skating one, dozens of red, white and blue Russian flags unfurled when it was announced that Russia had won the team gold, the first in Olympic history.
While much of the talk leading into Sochi over the last year was of the Russians having struggled in the recent past in figure skating, more medals could – and should – be on their way for the host nation in the individual events. Pairs skaters Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov are heavily favored in their event, while Lipnitskaya is now a threat not only for the podium, but for gold in two week’s time.
“Technically, she is so good,” Petrenko said. “I don’t see a weakness in her skating. She’s doing an awesome job.”
It is then that Petrenko paused to hug Plushenko, who was walking by, the two embracing with pats on the back. That very back – and now a bum leg – will have to hold up physically in two more programs should Plushenko try for a record-shattering fifth Olympic figure skating medal, though he has tough competition to square off against.
“I don’t know if he will skate in the individual event, that’s not my decision,” Plushenko said. “Based on my experience, at his age, it’s very difficult to come out and skate again. I’m proud of Yevgeny and the job that he did – he’s still in good shape. Overall, he had enough to help win a medal here. It will be harder in the individual event. It makes it more interesting. If he feels strong, then we’ll see him next week.
And while Plushenko was the star of the night for the second time in just four days, Lipnitskaya produced the evening’s most aw-shucks moment, grabbing a baseball cap that was thrown onto the ice by a fan and placing the ill-fitting hat on her head.
What did it say?