Russia on verge of gold in 1st Olympic team event

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) - In Russia’s storied figure skating history, Evgeni Plushenko is already one of the greats.

Now there’s a new way to win an Olympic medal in the sport, and the three-time medalist might be the one who propels Russia to victory - and what could turn out to be the first gold of these Sochi Games for the host nation.

How appropriate would it be for it to come in a sport beloved in this country, in an event that measures a nation’s strength in figure skating across every discipline? The Russians lead the team competition going into Sunday’s final session, when the men, women and ice dancers will skate their long programs.

With contenders to medal in the other three disciplines, Russia’s biggest potential weakness at the start of the team event was on the men’s side. Plushenko couldn’t even win his country’s national championships, finishing second to rising star Maxim Kovtun. Russian officials picked Plushenko for their only men’s spot after he skated for them at a closed-door session last month.

On Thursday, it looked like a brilliant move. Plushenko outskated three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada in the short program, a major swing in points for the two favorites in the new event.

Now Russia leads Canada 47-41 after all the short programs and Saturday’s pairs free skate.

“We’re probably not in the best position,” reigning ice dance gold medalist Scott Moir of Canada conceded after he and partner Tessa Virtue finished second in Saturday’s short dance to Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Plushenko, who won gold in 2006 and silver in ‘02 and ‘10, faces a daunting task in repeating Thursday’s electrifying performance. The free skate is much more physically taxing than the short program, and the 31-year-old is coming off back surgery last spring. Since then, he’d skated in only one international event, a second-tier competition in Latvia.

Asked Thursday how he was feeling, Plushenko smiled wryly and said, “I am in front of you, still alive. Not bad.”

Despite plenty of empty seats, the fans who have showed up to the team event have boisterously voiced their support for Russia, and they will only get louder Sunday with a gold medal in reach.

Adding to Russia’s edge: Chan isn’t expected to do the free skate with the individual men’s short program coming up Thursday. Countries are allowed to switch out their entries between the short and long programs for two of the four disciplines; Kevin Reynolds, who finished fifth at last year’s world championships, replaces Chan.

The United States sits in third place with 34 points, three ahead of Italy. Jason Brown and Gracie Gold, both from Chicago, will skate the men’s and women’s long programs.

And the Americans can count on the ever-consistent Davis and White, the reigning world champs from Michigan, as they seek to clinch a medal in this first Olympic team competition.

“We’ve been excited about this team event since Day 1 when we first heard about it,” White said. “(It’s) the opportunity to come and really do something unusual in the sport of figure skating.”

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