DON'T BLOW OFF PLUSHENKO'S QUEST FOR COMEBACK GOLD
By John Henderson
St. Petersburg, Russia - He still has the same flowing blond hair that makes women fill ice arenas with screams and the same schnoz that could smell a chicken Kiev in the Ukraine.
On this day, though, Evgeni Plushenko is looking a little different. Standing off the ice, he's grimacing. His feet hurt.
It's late January and the first day of practice in Plushenko's comeback for next February's Vancouver Olympics. While the rest of the figure skating world is in Los Angeles this week for the world championships, the three-time world champion and defending Olympic gold medalist is waking up on cold Russian mornings at dawn, working toward once again becoming the dominant figure in his sport.
Plushenko, 26, drives to the same Soviet-style rink he started at as an 11-year-old. It's only three minutes from his first shabby apartment where he somehow avoided the drunks and the fights to become one of the major icons of the new Russia.
He's putting all that on hold to get up at 6 a.m., fight with new boots and try to lose 12 pounds.
"I have one year," he said. "That's enough."
Sitting in the crude lobby of Yubileyny Sports Palace, Plushenko doesn't look insulted by the question. He looks challenged when asked, "How are you going to star in the Olympics when you haven't competed in three years?"
"I was not competing, but I skated," Plushenko said. "I did many, many, many shows. Two months ago I did triple axels. Easy. Of course, I need a quadruple. That's going to come."
His own tour, Golden Ice, takes him around Russia for 50 shows a year each winter. But skating in front of screeching schoolgirls in Omsk is a lot different from doing it in front of hardened judges in Vancouver.
Plushenko waves off the difference. Olympic motivation outweighs any fear of failure.
After his gold-medal performance in Turin, he went to the Russia House, and his countrymen - and women - congratulated him all night. The vodka flowed. For a kid born in Solnechni in Russia's isolated Far East, that's a heady world.
Could he medal again? Russians have a proverb that goes, "We will not enter twice into one water." Plushenko could well drown. Then again, this pool isn't crowded. Aspen's Jeremy Abbott has just as good a chance as France's up-and-down Brian Joubert, the defending world champion.
"They're all at the same level," Plushenko said. "We don't have right now a leader."
After he finishes his tea, he walks to his SUV in the rink's slushy parking lot. A long, hard haul awaits him. We're not talking about his drive home.
"I am not scared," he said, "because I'm going to win."
DIETING ON MENU
It's Monday, and Alexei Mishin sounds perturbed. Russia's most renowned men's skating coach took in Plushenko when he was 11.
Honing him into a champion at 11 may not have been as challenging as Mishin's current task. Plushenko has worked on his comeback for two months. Known for brutal honesty, Mishin gave a brutal evaluation.
"The real information is it's all triples and triple axels," Mishin said. "He's having trouble with the quad. He's a little bit sad. He's a little bit not in condition."
Mishin also coached Alexei Urmanov and Alexei Yagudin to Olympic gold medals. He took Plushenko back in because, well, he can work with Evgeni Plushenko.
"I think this is a heroic act if he will come back," Mishin said. "But it's really, really very difficult. He gained the weight, he lost condition."
This is not unprecedented. Viktor Petrenko, the 1992 gold medalist, and Brian Boitano, the 1988 winner, tried comebacks in 1994. Petrenko finished fourth and Boitano sixth.
Skating in ice shows won't get you in shape for the Olympic glare. When on tour, you don't train. You travel. You can't practice quads in a hotel room.
"To come back to it, psychologically, is going to be a tremendous amount of work," said Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist who skated in shows until he was 34. "It's not a given at all. People expect him to be the old Evgeni Plushenko, and he'll have to bring his game up. Guys have gained on him.
"But if there's anybody who can do it, it's him."
LIVING THE GOOD LIFE
The ornately lit Grand Hotel Europe has graced bustling Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's Fifth Avenue, for more than 130 years. It's the kind of place that offers blue sable coats for sale in the lobby. Tchai-kovsky honeymooned here.
Wearing a Beijing Olympics warm-up suit that looks horribly out of place here, except on the person who's wearing it, Plushenko strolls into the lobby with his fiancee.
Yana Rudkovskaya, 34, is a long-stemmed blond who stands out even in a city where two out of three women look like they stepped off a catwalk in Milan. She's a medical school graduate, a beauty salon CEO, a TV producer and a mother of two who met Plushenko in London doing an Olympics presentation.
"My whole dream of the trip," she said, "was to see Evgeni and say hello."
During his layoff, Plushenko made the papers through his romances. After Turin, he divorced the woman famous for causing him to U-turn his Maserati and chase her down. They married a year later.
"Yeah, I was driving the car and she was also driving the car and I go, 'Hmm. Not bad,' " Plushenko said. "So I turn my car and drive faster. A big, BIG mistake."
Plushenko and Rudkovskaya are sitting at Chopsticks, the hotel's top-end Chinese restaurant, and the Peking duck and California rolls are flying, along with the red wine. Plushenko once tried a weight-cutting pill but became hungrier. He figures training will cut him down to size. But not tonight.
He won't talk about Olympic medals. He has his gold. He's playing with house money. And he's returning to Vancouver, where he won his first world title in 2001.
"Now, I skate for fun," he said. "I skate for people. Sure I will be nervous. But I feel very good. I have coaches. I have my lovely girlfriend. Only good things right now. Eat good food. Drink good wine. I live in the best city. I live in the best country."
He was the best skater. He has a year to prove he is again.
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