"" December 11, 2003
By Barry Wilner

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. √ As he sat down on a couch, Evgeni Plushenko grimaced and rubbed his right knee. Then he smiled.

"I understand even when you are in good condition, you will have a problem somewhere," the world champion said Thursday after practice for the Grand Prix finals, in which he is an overwhelming favorite despite a torn meniscus. "I've been injured enough, probably all the time."

But not enough to bring him back to the rest of the competition. The Russian, seeking his fourth Grand Prix overall title, hasn't lost a significant event since the 2002 Winter Games. His main adversary, Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin, has left competitive skating.

Despite the knee injury, which will require surgery next summer, Plushenko is a heavy favorite here over a so-so field. Even a toned-down program should be enough for him to beat American Michael Weiss, Canada's Jeffrey Buttle and Emanuel Sandhu, Belgium's Kevin van der Perren and China's Gao Song.

"It doesn't matter, I am always working, working, working," Plushenko said. "I come to the competitions, I am skating and I am killing them on the ice. I like to be first and I like to be better every time."

Plushenko seems to realize that at less than full health he still is too formidable for the current crop of male skaters. So he put off the operation, instead having it, which would have meant missing two months early in the season and the Grand Prix series and probably Russian nationals and the European championships.

The injury doesn't prohibit him from attempting his trademark quadruple jumps, although he admits they hurt.

So will he play it safe Friday in the short program?

Again, the smile.

"I understand I can skate good, maybe not my best, like last season," he said. "But I try to do my best."

How good is Plushenko's best? Tim Goebel, the 2002 Olympic bronze medalist behind Yagudin and Plushenko, says, "He is amazingly consistent. He goes out there every program and hits just about everything."

Goebel dropped out of the Grand Prix finals because of equipment problems, but he's never beaten Plushenko, anyway.

The real challenge for Plushenko is the pursuit of excellence √ at least until the next Olympics. Barring a worsening of the knee or other injuries, he's about as untouchable as a skater can be.

"I am never perfect," he said. "I think I never will be. After my first world championships when I won (2001), it was great, a great program and I finally felt I did it right.

"When I put the tape in the video to watch it, I would look and say, 'Geez, what I did here is no good. ... For myself, I am never a 6.0."

The 6.0 marking system has not been used for the Grand Prix series, replaced by a points system. Although the 6.0 format will be used at worlds, that could be the last time. The International Skating Union will discuss, and probably pass, the points system at its Congress in June.

"To me, it doesn't matter," Plushenko said. "I am comfortable with the old system and with the new system. If I skate good and clean with the old or new system, it is good for me, also."



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