Russian great Plushenko did not get the grand finale he deserved
FEB 13, 2014 12:30p ET
SOCHI, Russia -- Thirty minutes prior to his final practice session Wednesday morning, 31-year-old Evgeni Plushenko was working up a sweat, dressed in a full Team Russia tracksuit, kicking a miniature soccer ball against a wall. A year earlier, the 2006 gold medal winner wouldn't have been able to participate in his fourth Olympic Games. He'd just undergone major surgery on his spine -- the 13th operation of his career that left him in such extreme pain that he couldn't compete for much of the past 12 months.
"I'm alive," he said with a smile to Fox Sports' Michelle Kwan, a skater he toured with more than 10 years ago. "Excited. Ready."
But there was no final short program for Plushenko on Thursday night. There was no dazzling swan song.
The Russian legend landed awkwardly on a triple axel in warm-ups and immediately grabbed his back, writhing in pain. As the first skater of the second group of the evening, there was a decision to be made. Compete and risk a potentially serious, life-altering injury or withdraw and call it an Olympic career. A visibly conflicted Plushenko skated slowly, clutching his back, and conferred with his coach Alexei Mishin. Plushenko nodded his head, skated to the side of the arena ice and alerted the judges that he was withdrawing, citing medical reasons.
Greeted with thunderous applause, blaring horns, and deafening chants of tooting horns, waving flags and cheers of "Zhen-ya! Zhen-ya!", Plushenko was unable to give the raucous Russian crowd one final grand Olympic performance.
Instead, he gingerly skated to center ice and bowed to his adoring fans.
Immediately after skating off, it was as if a pin was inserted into the balloon that was the Iceberg Arena. After Russia won gold in the team event earlier in the week and gold and silver in the pairs event a night earlier, the building was ready to erupt for their native son. Plushenko was it. The main event. What they wanted was the epic performance. The final farewell sendoff.
Minutes later, though, it was a silent Iceberg Arena; one completely robbed of the performance they planned on forever telling their friends, kids, and their kids' kids that they were in the building for. The rock concert atmosphere was diminished to a quiet stroll in the park.
Perhaps the biggest loser in Plushenko's withdrawal Thursday night was Maxim Kovtun, the 17-year-old Russian National Champion in 2014. The elder warrior, who lost head-to-head to the young upstart, protested to get his spot on the Russian team. Kovtun, who had the far better previous two seasons and finished fifth in world rankings in 2014, didn't get the chance to compete. As it turned out, no Russian did on Thursday.
Going through the mixed zone, Plushenko, the four-time Olympic medalist, declined to speak until he met with his doctor.
His coach, a visibly disappointed Mishin, said: "I know that the morning after the free skate (of the team event) the (Russian figure skating) federation should have made a change, but at that time he was OK. We didn't do anything that wasn't fair play.
"At the end of the free skating (in the team event), he was feeling unsure. I have worked with him for 20 years. We have had lots of success. This is one incident in 20 years when he was not successful. Please be positive to him and respect him."
The Russians have been kings and queens of the ice throughout the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. The most popular athlete in the host nation and the man the home crowd wanted to see compete just one last time, however, couldn't deliver on Thursday night.
There'd be no grand finale.