PLUSHENKO CHASES ELUSIVE GOLD
By Pritha Sarkar
LONDON (Reuters) - As a three-times world figure skating champion Yevgeny Plushenko could have been forgiven for thinking he was one of the most recognizable faces in Russia.
Just over 18 months ago, however, one person failed to recognize the famed St Petersburg resident - the woman who eventually became his wife.
Plushenko spotted Maria Yermak for the first time when she drove past him in an open-topped sports car and, despite their low-key introduction, the couple tied the knot 12 months later in June.
Their union gave the Russian skater a much-needed boost while he recovered from groin surgery on both legs earlier this year and he feels his wife's presence will help him to get his hands on an elusive Olympic gold medal in February.
"Yes it's true she didn't know who I was when we first met...but my wife is now my best friend and I love her and she helps me a lot in my life, in my figure skating," Plushenko told Reuters in a telephone interview from his practice rink in St Petersburg.
"Having her around helps me and I now feel safe everywhere. She gives me advice on, for example, how I can jump a quadruple or whether she likes my steps (sequence). Her opinion is very important to me."
For a man who has won six Russian national titles and four European gold medals in addition to the three world crowns, the Olympic accolade is the only notable prize missing from his impressive collection.
Three years ago, the charismatic Plushenko arrived as the defending world champion at the Salt Lake City Games but was stopped from climbing to the top of the podium by compatriot Alexei Yagudin.
his time he will travel to the Turin Olympics free of the world crown, having been unable to defend the title in Moscow last season due to injury.
After regaining his fitness following his operations in May in Germany, the Russian is determined not to let Olympic gold slip through his fingers again.
"Finally I'm healthy and everything's going well. I feel good and am preparing for this hard season," said the 23-year-old.
"I think everything's going to be alright. I can jump quadruples, I can jump triple combinations and I expect a good season.
"Of course there is going to be pressure this year and I just want to skate and I want to perform my best.
"I am going to (treat) the Olympics like a normal exhibition or competition like the nationals, so if I approach it like that I can win. I am going to treat it like it's nothing special."
Known for his innovative routines, Plushenko is determined to push the boundaries even further.
He was the first skater to land a 4-3-2 jump combination in 1999 and raised the stakes further in 2002 when he became the first and so far only skater to complete a 4-3-3 combination.
His explosive footwork has won him an army of fans from around the globe, with many of them running Web sites on Plushenko with names such as 'King On Ice' and 'Balletic Tzar'.
After undergoing surgery for the first time in his career, Plushenko has realized that his body has its limits and that the 2006 Games could be his last chance at achieving Olympic glory.
Determined to give something back to his faithful supporters, Plushenko has mapped out his life until the men's free skate at Turin's Palavela rink on February 16.
He easily won on his first outing this season, at the Cup of Russia Grand Prix, and plans to compete in only two further events over the next two months to preserve his best form for the Winter Games.
"I'm a wealthy man now. I've got a flat, a car, I have enough money to buy food. I skate to make the people happy. It's pleasant to supply Russia with gold medals," said Plushenko, who has already enjoyed success at the Palavela having won the 2005 European crown there.
"Nothing's changed since the operation (with the way I compose the routines). I'm doing hard practice, hard preparation.
"This year, I'm training six hours a day, six days a week. Last year we trained for three or four hours a day but this year I'm training six hours a day. So we are working more and hard because after injury you need to work a little bit more.
"I've already competed in Turin, I know the rink...my preparation is planned so that it will peak at the Olympics.
"I've given up everything that may get in the way of this aim. I've even decided that I won't drink a single drop of alcohol before the Games. Neither beer, nor champagne - nothing."
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