- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

Russian Alexei Yagudin won more than Olympic gold in Salt Lake City.

He won the respect of his former coach, who publicly criticized him after Yagudin decided to train elsewhere in 1998.

He won a long-standing bitter rivalry with countryman Evengy Plushenko, who claimed he was the more talented of the two but had to settle for silver.

It was a tough road for Yagudin, with former coach Aleksi Mishin and Plushenko refusing to give him the credit he deserved. As an extra punch, the pair dethroned him at the world championships last season in what would have been his fourth straight title.

Yagudin responded to Mishin and Plushenko on Thursday night by winning skating's top Olympic prize. And he did it in grand style, with two clean programs and a record four perfect marks for artistry.

Though he had some breathing room after Plushenko fell on his quad in the short program, Yagudin still performed the free skate of a champion, which included two quads.

"I was just thinking of the hard times I went through. Last season was [awful], but I am strong and I just showed that," Yagudin said.

Not that he was without competition. Plushenko came back strong with an energtic free skate to "Carmen" that featured two quads and a difficult triple axel-half loop-triple toe combination. He made it clear he was in it until the end, despite Mishin saying, "The Olympics are over [for him]," after his disastrous short program.

But he ran out of steam toward the end of his free skate, and he couldn't make up for mistakes in the short. He stood stone-faced on the medals podium, one step down from the man he so desperately wanted to beat.

American Timothy Goebel picked up the bronze after landing two quad Salchows and one quad toe loop. He smoothly conquered the pressure the rings bring; only he and Yagudin skated two clean programs at these Games.

"It's unbelievable. I came here with no expectations," said Goebel, who is the first American man to medal in figure skating since Paul Wylie in 1992. "I'm just thrilled to skate like this in front of my home country. What an honor."

Many favored American Todd Eldredge at these Games after he took the national title from Goebel last month during part of his amazing comeback at 30. But his quest for the elusive Olympic medal wasn't meant to be, and Eldredge finished sixth.

"It was not the placement I had hoped for or dreamed for," Eldredge said. "But sometimes that's the way it goes. Sometimes dreams don't come true, but you can't stop dreaming."

These were his last Games, and the crowd knew it. He was out of the running after a fall in the short program, but no one cared. Eldredge looked like he never wanted to leave the ice after he finished, skating around slowly and smiling at the adoring crowd.

Olympic figure skating also said goodbye to another veteran, Canadian Elvis Stojko, one of the forefathers of the quad. It was back-to-back programs of two legends, both out of medal contention but skating simply for the love of the sport.

American Michael Weiss of Fairfax finished seventh because of a combination of minor errors and the No.1 spot in the skate order during the short program.

Though he will leave Salt Lake City without a medal, he can take some satisfaction in knowing he was the first man to land a quad-triple-double combination at the Olympics.

He wasn't the only American to jump into history. Goebel's three quads in one program also were an Olympic first, and the 21-year-old showed he is an integral part of figure skating's future.

Takeshi Honda, who was in second after the short program, had a relatively clean but uninspired free skate and slipped to fourth. No Japanese man has medaled in figure skating at the Olympics, but Honda brought them closer than ever with a personal best performance.

The Russians still reign in this event, with Yagudin becoming the country's fourth consecutive Olympic champion. Usually a cool competitor, Yagudin kissed the ice and broke into tears after the free skate.

There was an interesting array of emotions as he waited for his marks, though it was doubtful he wouldn't get the gold. Yagudin cried, the release of years of struggle. Goebel smiled and clapped for his competitor on the sideline, just happy to have medaled at his first Games. And Plushenko stood backstage, no tears and no smile.

The controversy in the pairs event left many observers questioning the integrity of the judges, but Yagudin left no doubt at this event. He was on fire until the end, finishing with fast footwork and an imaginary sword as he skated to "The Man in the Iron Mask."

"I don't really care what happened in the pairs event. That's not my business," he said. "I know I really deserve what I am wearing around my neck."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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