- Associated Press - Thursday, February 6, 2014

SOCHI, Russia — Russia’s figure skaters didn’t have to look far for inspiration. With their countrymen waving Russian flags throughout the Iceberg, they made the first night of competition at the Sochi Olympics all theirs.

First it was three-time medalist Evgeni Plushenko grabbing the spotlight in the men’s portion of the new team figure skating competition. Then it was world champion pair Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov stealing the show in their short program.

Volosozhar and Trankov capped a special evening on the eve of the opening ceremony for the host nation by romping to win by more than 10 points. Earlier Thursday night, Plushenko finished second to Japan’s rising star, Yuzuru Hanyu.

Russia’s total of 19 points — 10 for first, nine for second — pushed it ahead of Canada, which earned 17, and China with 15, with two more nights of team vs. team to come.

On Saturday, the women’s and ice dance short programs and the pairs free skate will be held. The other long programs are Sunday.

With chants of “heroes” echoing in their ears, Volosozhar and Trankov were magnificent, clearly energized by the support from the stands. Their speed, constant synchronicity, and strong lifts and throws easily outclassed the field.

They were so good, they even overshadowed Plushenko — not an easy thing to do in Russia.

Plushenko, in what certainly is the swan song to a brilliant career, put on his best performance in years. For nearly three minutes, he had the crowd enraptured. For almost an hour he had Russia atop the standings.

But Hanyu, the Grand Prix champion, was even better, winning by 6½ points. The 19-year-old Japanese skater was smoother and more intricate with his footwork. His jumps were massive — he nearly crossed the width of the ice on his triple axel — and his spins were exquisite.

When he finished, Hanyu bowed to teammates celebrating in the cheering section set aside for them behind the end boards. While awaiting the marks, his teammates joined him in the kiss-and-cry area, dancing behind Hanyu before the 97.98 points hit the scoreboard.

Still, even he knew who was the night’s star: “He was my hero,” Hanyu said of Plushenko. “That’s why I was happy to skate here with him.”

Hanyu’s coach, Brian Orser, helped Yuna Kim win the 2010 Olympic gold, but was perplexed about how to approach the team competition.

“It’s so strange for all of us, for the athletes, for the coaches,” said Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist. “You want your athlete to nail it. You can’t tell them to hold back.”

Canada’s three-time world champion Patrick Chan struggled and was third. The United States was seventh after a poor showing by Jeremy Abbott, but got a fifth-place finish from its pair, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir.

The 31-year-old Plushenko pulled out all his tricks, and they were considerable. But after hitting his quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination, an insecure triple axel and a triple lutz to open the routine, he also slowed down considerably.

It didn’t matter. He already had won the crowd, if not the judges. And when he pumped his arms midway through his skate to “Tango de Roxanne,” as if asking for more cheers, the sound level skyrocketed.

“I already win for myself, because after 12 surgeries in my body, I can skate for (a) fourth time in Olympic Games,” said Plushenko, who won silver in 2002 and 2010, gold in 2006. “So it’s already good. And today, with this day, this first day for me, I’m so happy today.”

At the end of his 2-minute, 48-second performance, Plushenko spent just as much time soaking up the adulation. He threw kisses to the fans, took long and deep bows, including a final one just before he exited to be surrounded by his teammates.

“It’s hard competing at home, so hard,” he said. “But, sometimes it helps. I came from there, from there, there, there, everybody screaming, everybody talking. I was a little bit shocked, I was like dizzy. Concentrate, concentrate.”

There was little celebrating for the Americans, seventh overall because of a tiebreaker. Four-time U.S. champion Abbott crashed to the ice on his planned quad and popped a triple axel into a single. His 65.65 points severely damaged U.S. chances for a gold medal in the new event and he said he was “torn apart” by his performance.

It was yet another flop for Abbott on the international stage, where he has never finished higher than fifth in a major championship. He plans to retire from competition after this season.

Chan also disappointed, stepping out of a triple axel and doing only a double toe loop at the end of his combination jump.

“There’s many times in my career where I went out and did the program and came back off the ice and said, ‘Oh, I wish I could do it again,’” Chan said.

All 10 teams had contingents sitting in a cheering section divided by nations. There were group hugs for skaters as they exited the ice, and the Germans even brought a huge cowbell they chimed after Peter Liebers’ season-best program.

At the end, when Volosozhar and Trankov got to the kiss-and-cry area, Plushenko was sitting behind them and pointing at the pair, signaling that his countrymen were the best.

On Thursday night, the Russians certainly were.

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