- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

TURIN, Italy — Evgeni Plushenko was well into his Olympic victory lap, waving his flowers and wrapping himself in the Russian flag, before the silver and bronze medalists even climbed off the podium.

These were Plushenko’s Games. Everyone else just filled out the field, mere subjects to figure skating’s new king.

Plushenko, the silver medalist four years ago in Salt Lake City, skated safely but just strong enough yesterday to add his name to the Russian/Soviet dynasty that now has won the men’s individual gold medal in five straight Olympics.

“Four years ago, it was not my Olympic Games,” he said. “This Olympic Games is mine. For sure.”

As if there was ever any doubt.

Plushenko’s score of 167.67 points in the free skate gave him 258.33 overall — an incredible 27.12 points in front of Swiss world champion and silver medalist Stephane Lambiel. Canada’s Jeff Buttle, second to Lambiel at last year’s world championships when Plushenko was injured, won the bronze.

American Johnny Weir let a medal slip away with a cautious, error-filled program, dropping from second to fifth — one spot below teammate Evan Lysacek. The third American, Matt Savoie, was seventh.

“I tell you the truth. This is my dream,” Plushenko said, holding up his gold medal. “Yeah. And I’m so happy.”

The audience laughed, not sure what to make of his serious look.

“Believe me,” he said. “I am so happy.”

And then a grin broke wide across his face.

Plushenko’s victory gave his country both figure skating gold medals so far — Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin won the pairs — and Russia is favored in women and dance.

Plushenko has been one of the world’s best since he was 15, yet he seemed more like Alexei Yagudin’s kid brother in Salt Lake City. Only 19 then, he was shy and quiet, and the obvious animosity between his former training partner and his beloved coach didn’t help.

He lost his chance for gold when he botched his short program, then faded into the background of Yagudin’s brilliance. As Yagudin waxed poetic about winning the gold, the younger Russian watched silently, stone-faced.

But Yagudin soon moved on, and Plushenko grew into his own man. One who would move the sport even further ahead, while everyone else struggles to catch up.

“He’s pushed skating more than anyone I can think of,” Buttle said. “Being on the podium with him really is an honor. This bronze medal means a lot more to me than the silver I won last year.”

There’s bad news for Lambiel, Buttle and the rest of the gang, too. Though he’s an Olympic gold and silver medalist and a three-time world champion, Plushenko said he isn’t close to being done.

“Why should I retire?” he asked. “I’m 23 years old. Next Olympic Games, I’m going to be 27. Not old.”

Plushenko’s competitors had already conceded the gold in these Games after the short program, which he won by 10 points. But just in case anyone had any ideas, Plushenko quickly eliminated them with his “Godfather” program.

Skating first in the final group, he opened with a quadruple toe loop-triple toe-double loop combination, followed with a triple axel-double toe. It was over right there.

Though he looked as if he needed a push to get across the ice in his footwork and didn’t have his usual flair, it was far too much for anyone to match. He crossed himself twice at the end, then got a big hug and kiss on the cheek from longtime coach Alexei Mishin.

He also kissed his wedding ring while awaiting his marks, a tribute to his new wife, Maria.

“I would like to say a word about my coach and my choreographer. They helped me a lot and they really are my friends,” Plushenko said. “And I also would like to say a lot of things to my parents, especially mother.

“This is just like in the Grammys,” he said, smiling. “I would like to thank my wife. I love her and I really miss her.”

Plushenko was so sure of his victory he stuck around to watch Lambiel and Weir.

He had good reason to be confident. One by one his main challengers — if you can call them that — skated, and one by one they fell short.

Lambiel landed a gorgeous quad toe-triple toe-double loop combination and had exceptional spins. But he never even tried a triple axel — a staple for the top juniors in the world — and he barely saved himself from splatting on his second quad toe. He also fell on a triple lutz.

“I’m very happy with my medal tonight,” said Lambiel, who sobbed on the medals podium. “But I know I can do better. My performance was not so good.”

Indeed, the silver medal was Weir’s for the taking after Lambiel’s shoddy program. But instead of being his usual wonderfully unaffected self, Weir was terrified.

He arrived at the arena a half-hour later than expected because the bus he’d planned to take from the athletes’ village never showed up, and he never got back on track.

“I didn’t feel into the ice. I didn’t feel comfortable. And I’m sure, to everybody, I didn’t look like myself,” he said. “But those are just an excuse. I skated bad.”

He two-footed a triple axel, had a shaky landing on a triple lutz, did a sloppy triple flip and spun as though he didn’t really want to turn. Worse, he plodded through the footwork that normally has him dancing across the ice.

With only one combination jump, his medal chances disappeared and he was sixth in the free skate.

“I’m disappointed with the way I skated, not with losing a medal,” Weir said. “I was off, it was an off night. But I’ll be back in four years, hopefully for a medal.”

Lysacek, 20, likely will be back, too.

The runner-up to Weir at nationals when Lysacek won the free skate, he packed his “Carmen” routine with emotion and motion — hitting all eight of his triple jumps, three in combinations, and spinning precisely and quickly.

Amazing considering he has a stomach flu and was bedridden Wednesday.

He covered his face with his hand at the finish, then fell to one knee with the crowd on its feet. His personal best of 152.58 was third in the free skate and a terrific way to make up for a poor short program (10th).

“It’s hard because I dreamed about the Olympics for upwards of a decade,” Lysacek said. “And that dream didn’t include getting sick with a stomach flu, getting stuck with IVs, having my veins collapse and falling in the short program. It became about something different … courage.”

For all of Lysacek’s courage, he couldn’t come close to the Russian. Nobody could in Plushenko’s Olympics.

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