By David Fong
February 8, 2014
SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Russia Rules.
The host nation won its first gold medal of the Sochi Olympics on Sunday night in the new event of team figure skating. The resurgence of Russia’s once dominant figure skating machine was led by veteran Evgeni Plushenko and teenager Julia Lipnitskaia.
In an Iceberg arena packed with their exulting countrymen, including President Vladimir Putin, the Russians skated away from Canada and the United States to win the gold before the final free dance even started.
In no discipline did they finish worse than third in compiling 75 points to 65 for Canada and 60 for the Americans.
It was a rout built on the experience of Plushenko, the consummate showman who now owns medals from four Olympics — his two gold and two silver are a record for modern-era figure skaters.
It was capped by the freshness of the 15-year-old Lipnitskaia, who donned a Russia baseball cap when she was done with her sublime tour of the ice, sat with her triumphant teammates and grinned like the school kid she is.
“I was calm,” Lipnitskaia said, adding it was her coaches, parents and teammates who were nervous.
It didn’t matter that some other countries sat out their top skaters or that the Russians did the same in pairs and dance. It never really was a contest.
“I’m 31 and I’m happy gold, silver or bronze,” Plushenko said.
The Americans’ bronze effort was led by world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won both the short and free dance, and helped by national champion Gracie Gold’s superb free skate, which the judges scored second behind Lipnitskaia.
Canada didn’t win any segment, but built enough points throughout to take silver.
But those are just details. This was a night for a Russian show that might be celebrated as much as the Bolshoi.
It signals the country’s return to the top of a sport it once owned. As the Soviet Union or Russia, the host nation had won 51 Olympic figure skating medals. But there were no golds in Vancouver four years ago, a first since the country was blanked in 1960.
Now, after one event, Russia stands atop the medals podium.
All 10 of its skaters who participated in the team content stood at attention together on the top platform during the flowers presentation, and every fan in the Iceberg — including Putin, wearing a red fleece with logos of two Russian companies and a brand of French sunglasses — celebrated along with them.
It’s a place the sensational Lipnitskaia could regularly visit, just as Plushenko has for more than a decade. Her routine to “Schindler’s List” was mesmerizing. With maturity and grace beyond her years, she clearly was never bothered by her surroundings on this golden night for Russia.
“She is a genius,” Plushenko said.
Give Plushenko plenty of credit, too. He says he’s had 12 surgeries. He barely competed after finishing second to American Evan Lysacek in 2010 at the Vancouver Games. And he had to convince his federation he deserved to be in Sochi after finishing second at the national championships.
Mission accomplished, with a golden hue.
“This games is the hardest for me,” he said. “All the fans are cheering so hard that you literally cannot do badly because they do everything with you. You get goose bumps.”
Skating to “Best of Plushenko,” there were mistakes in his jumps and not much in between them aside from the required footwork. No, it was not his best, but he scored 168.20 points.
That was good enough with three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada and short program winner Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan taking the night off to rest for the upcoming individual men’s event. They were replaced by the lower-ranked Kevin Reynolds and Tatsuki Machida, respectively, and they finished second and third.
American Jason Brown of Highland Park, Ill., was fourth.
Davis and White beat their top rivals and training partners, defending champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, in both dance disciplines.