SOCHI, Russia — Russia’s first gold medal at its home Olympics was worth the wait.
Evgeni Plushenko delighted fans with a trip down memory lane, and 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia gave them a glimpse of a glorious future as each won their free skates Sunday night to clinch gold for Russia in figure skating’s inaugural team event. Canada won the silver medal.
The U.S. claimed the bronze after solid performances by Jason Brown and Gracie Gold. The Olympic newcomers didn’t have their best performances – Brown had a fall, and Gold was a little scratchy – but they more than did their jobs.
“Jason and I were definitely a little nervous,” said Gold, who finished second to Lipnitskaia in a five-woman field. “Our parents told us that neither of us did team sports because we didn’t like having other people rely on us but also having that extra pressure.”
The free dance was still to come at the Iceberg Skating Palace, but there was no way Canada could catch the Russians. Russia had 67 points, the Canadians 56. With 50 points, the Americans were five in front of both Italy and Japan.
When the standings were shown on the scoreboard, the Russian team jumped up and down in “Kiss and Cry” and held up their index fingers. Chants of “Ross-ee-yah! Ross-ee-yah” boomed throughout the arena, as fans waved flags and banged on drums.
Even President Vladimir Putin was beaming as he walked up the stairs.
This was the 46th medal in Olympic figure skating by Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union. Only the United States, with 48, has more.
And this one might mean more than all the others.
Gracie Gold of the USA was pleasantly surprised by her score
It was Russia’s first gold at its own Olympics, and only its second medal after two days of competition. It also snapped the oh-fer streak from Vancouver, where the Russians won only two medals, Plushenko’s silver and a bronze by ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin.
It is sure to be followed by several others. Maybe even more gold, with Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov the heavy favorites in pairs and Lipnitskaia making a case to challenge reigning Olympic champ Yuna Kim.
Plushenko, who now has four medals in four Olympics, will be hard-pressed to add to his collection in what is one of the deepest men’s fields in years.
If he even skates, that is.
Plushenko is an old man in a sport that belongs to the young, and his body bears the scars of his battles with Father Time. There are four screws in his back from his most recent surgery, in early 2013. His knees have been worked over more than some jalopies.
And though he can still show the kids a thing or 10 about jumps, they no longer come as easily as they once did. He opened with a monster quad and quickly followed with another. But the longer the program went on, the more he labored, until it took everything he had to remain upright after a double.
The elements between the jumps have never mattered much to Plushenko – it’s why he has a silver medal from Vancouver rather than a second gold – and it’s too late for him to start worrying about it now. But the fans and the judges really didn’t care, giving him scores that can only be described as generous. This was the equivalent of the lifetime achievement Oscar, one last chance to appreciate Plushenko for his great career.
Skating to the “Best of Plushenko,” the Russian took adoring fans on a trip down memory lane. There was the “Godfather,” his music when he won gold. There were his many, many tangos. And Plushenko delighted in it all, preening and mugging for the camera. This was his night, and he was going to savor it.
He was grinning as he went into his final spin, and he took several long looks around the arena when his music finished, soaking it all in. He gave a thumbs up to the roaring crowd, then blew a kiss and bowed to each side of the arena as fans waved flags and chanted “Ross-ee-ya! Ross-ee-ya!”
If this is the last time he’s on Olympic ice, it was a fitting goodbye.
“The last two jumps I felt a little pain in my spinal cord,” Plushenko said through a translator. “I will have some days off, and I will feel OK. … First, I need to have a rest. I need to talk to my doctors. Maybe they will say something more about my spinal cord.”
If Plushenko’s performance was a career retrospective, Lipnitskaia was a glimpse of the future. The 15-year-old wasn’t as dazzling as she was in the short program, having to fight to save several of her jumps. But her mournful program, to “Schindler’s List,” was simply riveting. Wearing a red dress with a grey underskirt, she could have passed for the little girl in the Steven Spielberg movie, and she conveyed every bit of the program’s deep sorrow with her plaintive looks and sweeping arm gestures.
As soon as the music stopped, however, she was back to being a typical teenager. As she skated off the ice, she grabbed a Russian baseball cap that someone had tossed onto the ice and pulled it on her head.