SOCHI, Russia — This is how it usually ends for those champions who try to go one Games too far. Michelle Kwan, Evan Lysacek, and now, Evgeni Plushenko. Father Russia himself, the greatest men’s skater the Motherland ever has produced, grabbing his back, shaking his head, and calling it a night and a career.
“I am sorry for my fans and for everybody, but I tried till the end,” the 31-year-old former titlist said Thursday night after he’d withdrawn from his fourth Olympics before the music started for his short program. “I almost cried.
“It’s hard, believe me. This is not how I wanted to end my career. I am very disappointed. But I tried to do my best.”
It was a valiant effort, but anybody who’d watched Plushenko during the past few years knew there would not be a pretty ending for him here. His knees and back had been repaired so many times that the odds of him completing four programs in nine days were remote. Yet the un-pretty truth is that the Russians had no one better.
That’s why they bypassed Maxim Kovtun, the teenager who’d beaten Plushenko at last month’s national championships, and went with their bemedaled starik, their grand old man who’d won his first Olympic medal a dozen years ago in Salt Lake City. It was a gamble, sports minister Vitaly Mutko conceded, “but what is better — just to go and give a worthy performance or to take a risk and taste the champagne?”
They went for the bubbly, which Plushenko had provided so often before: three Olympic medals, three world and seven European titles, and 10 domestic crowns. He was the Motherland’s first true skywalker, the kid who pushed Alexei Yagudin to the gold medal in 2002 and then kept going, winning gold in 2006 and then getting silver behind Lysacek after taking three years off.
Plushenko could have and should have called it a career after Vancouver, but the lure of a five-ringed curtain call in his homeland this week and the absence of a medal-worthy successor brought him back. But he never really came back from the surgery that ended last season in January, and when Kovtun beat him at last month’s national championships, Plushenko conceded him the sole men’s spot on the team.
But the federation wanted to see how Kovtun would hold up at the European Championships. When he came fifth behind two countrymen, officials took one look at Plushenko in a closed-door test skate and gave him a ticket.
It was a lovely comeback story for a weekend, with Plushenko helping the Motherland collect its first gold of the Games in the team event. But when he had to water down his long program to keep his back from seizing up, the team should have put in Kovtun for the men’s event.
Plushenko won medals in four Games, which only Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom (1920, ’24, ’28, ’32) had managed. If he’d earned a fifth this week, Plushenko likely would have stood alone for all time. But he knew Wednesday that would never happen. He fell three times in practice and felt his back protest.
“Today I went into training to see what I could do, but I couldn’t jump,” he said Thursday. “I skated maybe seven minutes maximum. I tried and tried and tried today.”
So he felt he had to face the music and try once more. In for a kopeck, in for a ruble. Plushenko landed his triple loop and triple lutz.
“But after the first triple axel, I stepped out and felt terrible pain in my leg and the second one was just a terrible landing,” he reported. “I couldn’t feel my legs after it.”
Plushenko grabbed his back, grimacing in pain, and went over to consult with Alexei Mishin, his longtime coach. Then he skated over to Swedish referee Mona Jonsson, shaking his head, and told her no-go. “It hurt and that was it,” he said. “I had to withdraw.”
This champagne is much more expensive than what Plushenko delivered last weekend. If you can’t do a quad and a triple axel, you can’t be in the game, and Father Russia knows that better than anyone. US champion Jeremy Abbott took a nasty fall on his opening quad toe, slid into the wall, and had to fight through pain to finish his program and place 15th.
Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, who won the short program ahead of Canadian three-time world champ Patrick Chan and European titlist Javier Fernandez of Spain, is 19. His sun was rising over the Black Sea while Plushenko’s was setting.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jpowizglobe