"The Chicago Tribune" March 25, 2004
By Philip Hersh

DORTMUND, Germany - (KRT) - For five years Russia's Evgeny Plushenko fought an often bitter rivalry with countryman Alexei Yagudin, a battle Plushenko won only once at the biggest events.

Yagudin has retired now, after beating Plushenko for three world titles and an Olympic gold. Any idea Plushenko had about that making his competitive life easier at age 21 disappeared Thursday night.

Instead of one rival, he has several.

"This was completely different," said Plushenko after capturing the gold. "Everyone today skated good and clean. I like this. I like we moved figure skating up."

Plushenko, last to compete, knew how difficult it had been to retain his title in what many thought the greatest night of men's competition ever.

The final group of six in the free skate at the world championships moved an electric sellout crowd at the Westfallenhalle to wild cheers and rapturous ovations.

"Brian (Joubert) did two quads. The Swiss guy did two quads. What should I do? Two quads, but also more," Plushenko said. "My knee is not 100 percent healthy. That made it hard for me."

The two U.S. men in the final group, Johnny Weir and Michael Weiss, wound up as bit players in the compelling drama, finishing fifth and sixth, while Peoria's Matt Savoie was 16th. Weir gave a performance full of promise, but the U.S. men went without a medal for the first time since 1994.

Joubert took second and Germany's Stefan Lindemann, who had hoped to place between 10th and 14th, finished third. It was the first European sweep of world men's medals since 1979.

"It's unusual for everyone in one group to skate great, and all the programs were interesting," said pairs coach Oleg Vasiliev, an Olympic champion. "It was so good."

It couldn't be a great night of skating without some controversy, as Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland did a free skate worthy of second that got him only fourth.

Lambiel, just 18, continues the Swiss tradition of kaleidoscopic spinning, but he also can jump. He landed two quads and six triples, one in combination with a quad, and finished with an expression of amazement over what he had accomplished.

"I wanted to give everything," he said. "After the second quad, I lost all fear."

Lindemann put a hand down on his quad; Weiss landed his on two feet; and Weir did not try one but hit all eight planned triples, including two sets in combination.

Plushenko's jumps included a quad-triple combination and a stunning sequence of triple axel-step-triple flip. It made no difference he slipped and fell on the takeoff of what would have been his seventh triple jump.

"I hit a sequin from a costume," he said. "A red one."

The impetuous Weir, 19, the U.S. champion making his world-meet debut, did not find Plushenko's program as glittering as the judges.

"Nobody can deny he is a great jumper, but I think there was a lot of standing around," Weir said. "Next year, I want to put quads in my program and have my second mark propel me over Plushenko. I know those are big words right now, but that is a goal."

Joubert, 19, who upset Plushenko for the European title in January, has vowed for two years he would be 2006 Olympic champion. He is happy to leave the favorite's role to the Russian.

"It's better to win the silver medal now," Joubert said. "There will be less pressure, and I can go at the right rhythm."

He could also be pleased with taking second on a night when the oft-beleaguered sport was a big winner.

"I never saw anything like this," said Plushenko's coach, Alexei Mishin.



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