TOUGH ROAD FOR PLUSHENKO SINCE WINNING GOLD
By Kathleen Bangs
It was a super-smooth glide to Olympic gold last Thursday for Russia's figure skating champion Evgeni Plushenko, but life off the ice has been turbulent since his blowout freeskate, where he bested nearest but distant challengers by a remarkable 27 points.
The three-time world champion couldn't even make it out of Torino for a few days back home in Russia before the Audi SUV that was chauffeuring him got hit from behind in a foggy chain-reaction multiple car accident.
"I was asleep in the back seat, lying down, on my way to the airport the day after winning the Olympic gold medal," Plushenko said. "As you can imagine, it had been a long night. My coach was in the front seat and luckily had his seatbelt on. I did not have mine on, so I landed on the floor but was not injured."
Plushenko's mother has not come through her son's Olympics quite as unscathed.
"My Mom has had a very difficult time enduring the stress of my Olympic competition, and is now in a St. Petersburg hospital recuperating from two minor heart attacks," he said. "I'm trying to of course enjoy being the Olympic champion, but my main thoughts and concerns are with my Mother. I am working on creating a new exhibition program to go back and skate in Torino at the end of the week. It will be to a special version of Tosca, devised by violinist Edvin Marton, with a beautiful encore - an opera piece - to music made famous by Pavarotti. It is my tribute to the wonderful Italian people, my host for the greatest event of my career. Now all I pray is for my mother to recover quickly so I can fly her to see my performance on the ice, in Torino."
Tatiana Plushenko, 50, is frequently cited by the skater as the main person responsible for his astounding success in the sport.
"She pushed me, she worked with me, she believed in me," he said.
The five-time European champion grew up under Volgograd's harshest economic conditions, spending the first two years of his childhood living in a rail car that made its way across Siberia where his father worked for the railroad. He was at first a sickly child, pale and thin. Yet, Plushenko showed early figure skating promise and by age eleven his unparalleled talent was so obvious that his parents had to make a wrenching choice. After his town's only remaining rink was closed, he would have to move, alone, over 1,000 miles to St. Petersburg to train, or languish at home, and risk never escaping his family's poverty.
Tatiana Plushenko entrusted her son's care to famed coach Alexei Mishin, who kept - and to this day maintains - a close eye on his star pupil's life off and on the ice. He did not disappoint the mama, or the Russian public's hunger for new champion idols.
Russian and Soviet men have won the last five Olympics, but there is no comrade in the wings posing a threat to Plushenko's superiority, and neither he nor Mishin will name a possible future champion - perhaps now in the junior ranks - who can continue the tradition. Mishin boasts, "I am not shy to tell you that if I will not create anyone else, I'll still go down in history. It was under my training that Alexei Urmanov took Olympic gold, Alexei Yagudin won his first world title (and later under rival coach Tatiana Tarasova, became 2002 Olympic champion), and now Evgeni Plushenko."
"Maybe Russia doesn't have such rich stores of reserve like before, but hope does not die,"Mishin said. "Russian skating will survive and thrive. What the West does not understand is that you don't need so much 'talented skaters' as you need smart coaches. A smart coach can find a good athlete and make him great. In America, there are millions of talented athletes, but still they don't win top medals because they don't know how to make the champions."
Asked why other top skaters like 2004 European Champion Brian Joubert are finding it nearly impossible to pose a threat to Plushenko, Mishin said, "I watched the practices in Torino and many of the other skaters were very good. But each skater is unique, like snowflakes. To be strong, the snowflakes must be able to be formed into a hard ball of ice. In my opinion, the other skaters are not tough, not as prepared, they are still snowflakes."
"I am still undecided on attending next month's world championships in Calgary,"Plushenko said. "We are running short on training time with the exhibition coming up, and all of the other duties of being the champion - it is a tough schedule."
He adds, "I would like to stay and compete next season. Why not? Everything is great right now, but I know that all will depend on my condition at the time, anything can happen."
Criticized for sometimes appearing as remote as his "Godfather" program's persona, Mishin defends Plushenko.
"I know the international media has this false image of Evgeni - that he is cold, abrasive," Mishin said. "He's actually a very warm person, but his popularity is to such a degree that if he did not have a bit of a wall about him he would be mobbed, constantly. In Russia, he can't move 30 feet down the street without a request. As long as he is a competitor, we have to focus and maintain his energy on the results. That's why we don't speak to the press before and during the big events. To talk too much is to lose the energy, and a bad sign."
"I'm not the cold robot people say," Plushenko laughs. "I like to hang out with my friends, spend time with the people I love, just like everybody."
Russians are typically superstitious. Asked if he saw any foretelling events or "bad signs"that the Winter Games might not go their way, Mishin said, "I was sure we would have no bad luck. I looked for it, but didn't see any."
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