RUSSIAN SKATER COMPLETE PACKAGE
By John Markon
WASHINGTON He seems to have borrowed the shaggy haircut and the blond dye job from Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" period, circa 1979.
Evgeni Plushenko, however, is very much a 21st century kind of guy. If you're one of the 21-year-old Russian's figure skating rivals, he's enough to make you wish you'd been born in a different century, or at least a different decade.
Plushenko will be heavily favored to win his second title tonight when the spotlight on the World Championships turns to the men's final at the MCI Center. He can jump with the world's best jumpers and can put on a show with the world's best showmen, always a winning combination of skills.
"He's excellent and consistently excellent," said American Tim Goebel, runner-up to Plushenko in Tuesday night's short program. "He really is good at just about everything."
Plushenko was the last of three outstanding Russian male skaters to emerge in the late 1990s. The first, Ilia Kulik, won an Olympic gold medal (1998) and bolted to the ice shows. The second, Alexei Yagudin, won an Olympic gold medal (2002) and may be in the process of bolting to the ice shows, assuming he recovers from a career-threatening hip injury.
Plushenko's in it for the long term. As much as he loves entertaining a crowd, he loves competitive skating even more. Barring health problems or a change of heart, he intends to compete through 2010, giving him two more Olympic cycles and six or seven more opportunities at World Championships.
"It's a long time away, obviously," he said, "but I think all that would change my mind would be an Olympic gold medal. That was my goal when I began skating. If I could win one, I'd possibly [reevaluate] everything."
The Olympic medal in Plushenko's apartment in St. Petersburg is silver. Salt Lake City was Yagudin's big moment and might have been even if Plushenko hadn't been bothered by back and knee problems that forced him out of the 2002 World Championships a month later.
Plushenko's resolve, however, shouldn't be doubted.
His birthplace is pretty much of a blank. He was born on the road, somewhere near Lake Baikal while both his mother and father were employed building a trans-Siberian rail line.
When he was 11, the rink in his adopted hometown of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) was forced to close. He moved to St. Petersburg and lived there alone for three years, renting a corner of a room in a youth commune. His mother wasn't able to join him until 1995, after Plushenko had become the youngest world junior champion at age 14.
"When I started, I wanted to skate like [1992 gold medalist] Victor Petrenko," Plushenko said. "Now, I just want to skate like me."
Who wouldn't? He's idolized in Russia, particularly since he's chosen not to vacate the old country to live and train in the U.S., as Kulik and Yagudin do. A featured dancer at the Kirov Ballet does Plushenko's choreography. One of Russia's most prominent classical composers writes his music.
"Why do I have to leave?" Plushenko asked. "I have everything I need in Russia."
Plushenko has done more than 50 sanctioned quadruple jumps in competition. He has the quad toe loop and salchow in his bag with the quad lutz and quad flip (which would be a world first) allegedly on the way.
He's also the only elite-level male skater doing the Beillmann spin, which requires a degree of flexibility so high that most female skaters can't master it. The inventor of the spin, 1981 world champion Denise Beillmann of Switzerland, said she never imagined she'd see it executed by a man.
It's become Plushenko's trademark, but, if you don't see it tonight, don't worry. During the next seven years, you'll probably get your chance.
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