SKATING'S TOP RIVALRY RUSSIANS EVGENI PLUSHENKO AND ALEXEI YAGUDIN ARE STAGING THE FIERCEST BATTLE FOR SUPREMACY IN THE SPORT SINCE THE 1988 OLYMPICS
By Philip Hersh
Maybe this would have happened anyway. Maybe if the old Soviet Union had continued to exist, one of the talent scouts in its ruthlessly efficient sports system would have noticed this gifted figure skater out in the provinces and sent him 1,000 miles away, to a place where he wouldn't be coached by a former weightlifter. Evgeni Plushenko still might have wound up in the World Figure Skating Championships this week in Vancouver, British Columbia, as a Soviet skater favored to unseat countryman Alexei Yagudin as champion in what is becoming one of the great rivalries in their sport's history.
It didn't happen that way. Plushenko was forced to leave home for his skating future in 1994 because the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 made the Palace of Sport in Volgograd more valuable as an automobile showroom than an ice rink. It was the only indoor rink in Volgograd, where his ex-lifter coach knew more about conditioning than skating. The closing of that rink put Plushenko on a road that would lead him to be Yagudin's training partner before Yagudin left for the United States, and the two became fierce and sometimes bitter rivals.
The trip initially left Plushenko a lonely, 11-year-old boy living without family in St. Petersburg. Later, the boy and his family shared what his coach, Alexei Mishin, describes as "a dirty, noisy, cold-water" apartment and its one bathroom with "three or four" other families. "You couldn't imagine the level of living he had," said Mishin, who paid most of the apartment's $60-a-month rent forsome three years.
"This was obviously my good luck," Plushenko said of the move from Volgograd. "I am very grateful to destiny that I was put through this. I think I was born to be a figure skater." He has grown, at 18, into a three-time national champion, two-time European champion and two-time winner of figure skating's Grand Prix Final. In six of those seven events, Plushenko has beaten Yagudin for the title; Yagudin did not compete in the seventh. But Yagudin, who turns 22 Sunday, has won the last three world titles, with Plushenko finishing third, second and fourth. Last year, when Yagudin had an uncharacteristically mediocre free skate, the championship was within Plushenko's reach. Then Plushenko doubled his first quadruple jump, changed a triple axel to a quad attempt that turned into a triple and fell on his third attempt at the quad. He went from second place to fourth, Plushenko's only defeat in 10 international competitions over the past two seasons.
"My expectations weren't right for the [free skate] program at worlds," Plushenko said, through an interpreter, in a telephone interview. "I was already thinking about what I was going to get if I won, already thinking about the gold medal. Maybe that wasn't right. I was thinking too much about winning." At this worlds and the 2002 Winter Olympics, only Yagudin and Plushenko have a reason to think about the gold. They are so far ahead of the rest of the world, especially in mastery of quadruple jumps, that only their failure would give anyone else a chance. Their competition is the best rivalry in men's skating since the Battle of the Brians, Boitano of the United States vs. Orser of Canada, at the 1988 Winter Games. The difference is whether the thrill of seeing Russian greatness will translate to primarily North American fans next year in Salt Lake City.
"As far as the public paying attention, it can't get better than an American against a Canadian," said Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion.
"But these guys are exciting. Yagudin winning three straight world titles is incredible. I don't think he gets enough credit for it. Plushenko goes out there like a cannon and he makes everything look so easy."
Boitano gives Plushenko an edge at worlds because of his hunger for titles Yagudin already has won and his relative youth. That Yagudin does nearly all his jumps early in the free skate reveals, to Boitano, evidence of wear and tear on his body. "It's going to be really hard for Yagudin to maintain his level," Boitano said.
The rivalry has grown not only out of title contention but some contentiousness from their days in St. Petersburgwith Mishin.
The coach was stunned and hurt when Yagudin left after winning the 1998 world title to join U.S.-based Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova, who had coached Ilia Kulik to the 1998 Olympic gold. "My relationship with Yagudin is officially positive," Mishin said. "We are not too friendly, but we are smart enough tobe not fighting."
Both skaters, who trained together during four seasons, insist their friction is caused only by competitiveness. Yet Plushenko's response to a TV interviewer's question about what hehad learned from Yagudin was blunt: "Nothing." "That is true," Plushenko said. "Everything Ilearned, I learned from [1994 Olympic champion] Alexei Urmanov and [1992 Olympic champion] Viktor Petrenko."
Yagudin replied: "That was just mean. I can't say I didn't learn anything from him, because I was skating with him,and we were pushing each other. It is mean of him to say he didn't learn anything from me."
Yagudin still credits Mishin for the technical foundation of his skating. The only problems with Plushenko, accordingto Yagudin, "occur when one of us is in first place, and the other second."
"I think this is like how it was with Michelle and Tara," Yagudin said, referring to women's Olympic rivals Kwan and Lipinski.
Plushenko agreed, to a degree.
"We still talk to each other," Plushenko said. "Weare not enemies. We never hit each other in the face. We never say anything bad about each other - at least, that's what I think. "I want to stress we are not friends, we are acquaintances." Still there is value in this test of acquaintances.
"Without each other we would be in the position we were in three years ago, just doing one quad in the free program, and it would be easy to win with that," Yagudin said. "It makes itexciting even in the summer, when you realize you can't just do what we did last year. We push each other, and not just each other, but all skaters."
One of them almost certainly will listen to their national anthem this week. It should be the old Soviet anthem, which Russia's government decided this month to revive with new lyrics. Like Evgeni Plushenko's story, the words have changed.
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