Russia turns back skating clock in team event

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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.

MORE: Images of team figure skating event

“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?

“Russia.”

WATCH LIVE: Nathan Chen in U.S. Figure Skating Championships free skate

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Nathan Chen tries to become the first man to win four straight U.S. figure skating titles since 1988, live on NBC Sports on Sunday.

NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage of the men’s free skate for subscribers starting at 2:30 p.m. ET in Greensboro, N.C. NBC joins with TV coverage at 3.

LIVE STREAM: Men’s Free Skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Chen, a 20-year-old Yale sophomore, is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics. He can become the seventh man since World War II to win four straight national titles.

Five of the previous six went on to earn Olympic gold, including Dick ButtonScott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano in 1988.

Chen carries a substantial 13.14-point lead from Saturday’s short program, where he landed two quadruple jumps on one week of full training following a flu bout.

The anticipated drama Sunday comes in the battle for silver and bronze medals and the last two world championships team spots.

Jason BrownAndrew TorgashevVincent Zhou and Tomoki Hiwatashi are separated by 8.78 points. Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, and Zhou, the 2019 World bronze medalist, are the only men in the field other than Chen with world team experience.

Key Skate Times
5:01 p.m. (ET) — Vincent Zhou
5:18 — Tomoki Hiwatashi
5:26 — Andrew Torgashev
5:35 — Nathan Chen
5:43 — Jason Brown

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Mikaela Shiffrin, with 66th World Cup win, moves one shy of career dream

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Mikaela Shiffrin has said one of her career dreams is to win in every discipline in one season. She is now one victory shy of realizing it.

Shiffrin earned her 66th World Cup victory — and her second in three days — at a super-G in Bansko, Bulgaria, on Sunday.

She prevailed by .29 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino and .70 over Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami. Gut-Behrami, the last skier other than Shiffrin to win a World Cup overall title back in 2016, earned her first podium in exactly one year.

Full results are here.

“Perfect weekend for me,” said Shiffrin, who moved one shy of recently retired Austrian Marcel Hirscher for third place on the World Cup career wins list. “The whole team is excited about the whole weekend, but especially today.”

She is en route to a fourth straight World Cup overall title. And she is a combined victory away from wins in all five disciplines in one season. Only Marc GirardelliPetra KronbergerJanica Kostelic and Tina Maze have done it.

“The thing that I’m most proud of right now is that I know how to win in slalom, [giant slalom], super-G and downhill, which I never expected that would really happen,” she said.

Shiffrin struggled with confidence during a winless stretch in early January, trying not to compare herself to last season, when she won a record 17 times. She still leads the men’s and women’s tours with six victories this season, a little more than halfway through.

“Every race is such a big fight, and I haven’t been the one on top of this fight every time,” she said. “Certainly I’ve been like sometimes the expectations that I have or that other people might have, I’m not quite living up to that. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’m failing sometimes, even though this is still just an incredible season.”

There are two combined races left this season for Shiffrin to achieve the dream — Feb. 23 in Switzerland and March 1 in Italy. While combined — mixing a speed run and a technical run — might seem perfect for Shiffrin, she has one victory in four starts in the discipline between the World Cup and Olympics.

And Shiffrin is careful about her race schedule. She is undecided on entering a downhill and super-G next weekend at the 2014 Olympic venue in Russia.

“After this weekend my brain is a little bit dead,” she joked.

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