Evgeni Plushenko arrived at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics a man of mystery.
Having been mostly absent from international competitions the past two years, coping with injuries, contemplating retirement and otherwise just laying low, no one really knew what to expect from the highly decorated Russian when he resurfaced last week.
That mystery is no more.
Competing in his fourth Games, the 31-year-old stepped on the ice during the figure-skating team event and showed the present-day Plushenko hasn’t lost any ground to the one who racked up a gold and two silver medals at previous Olympics.
From the moment the towering Russian landed his first quadruple jump, seemingly soaring higher in the air than any other skater in the building – and doing it almost with a smirk on his face – it became a problem for Canada’s Patrick Chan, and all the other skaters.
The men’s individual competition begins with the short program on Thursday.
Heading in, Chan’s biggest competition was – and still is – Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, and Javier Fernandez of Spain. But you can now add Plushenko’s name to that shortlist.
Any thoughts he was too riddled by an ailing back, or too past his prime to contend were put to rest on the ice in Sochi – much to the pleasure of the roaring, chanting applause of the Russian fans.
“People ask me, ‘How are you? How do you feel?’” Plushenko joked. “I am still alive.”
It was an understatement of sorts. Alive and kicking. Alive and jumping.
Hanyu notched by far the best score in the team event men’s short program, with 97.98 points, while Plushenko was second with 91.39, ahead of three-time world champion Chan in third (89.71).
It was an interesting glimpse at what might come, but it requires caution. The team event is an unreliable gauge; the skaters mostly treating it as a warm-up to their individual competitions.
That notion played out in the men’s free skate. Since Russia knew it had a comfy lead to secure gold, Plushenko attempted just one quad in his long program.
“It was completely no matter to be first or second or even third,” coach Alexei Mishin said. “We did not do the plan to improve [Plushenko’s] image.”
Plushenko’s score of 168.20 narrowly edged out Canadian Kevin Reynolds, who scored 167.98 on the back of three excellent quads and a slight stumble on a triple.
The Russian’s higher score, the coach said, came from his charisma on the ice. Translation: Plushenko can captivate the judges in ways other skaters can’t.
Speaking in broken English, Mishin said Plushenko skated “with a broken aorta.” The coach’s emphatic hand gestures seemed to indicate his skater is performing with guts, or possibly “leaving it all on the ice,” as one might say in North American sports.
“He is a personality,” Mishin said.
You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from Russian officials as Plushenko glided off the ice smiling, waving, and having surpassed expectations. His selection to the Russian team – which only earned one berth in Sochi in the men’s event – was controversial, at best.
He injured himself in 2013, withdrawing from the European championships due to back problems, which required surgery. His skating competitions became rare, appearing just once outside Russia. His plans to skate on the Grand Prix circuit this season were derailed by knee problems.
By the time he got to the Russian nationals, his lack of competition time led him to a second-place finish behind Maxim Kovtun. But when the 18-year-old faltered badly at the European championships, finishing fifth, Russian officials began to worry about being embarrassed in Sochi.
Instinctively, they turned back to their golden boy.
Beyond his home country, Plushenko has been a polarizing figure.
Known to be witty and confident, he can also exhibit a bitter side. At the Vancouver Games in 2010, he stepped to the top of the podium before taking his spot on the second step to accept his silver medal.
It was a shot at the judges. His issue: American gold-medalist Evan Lysacek didn’t have a quad in his routine, something Plushenko believes is a prerequisite to be a champion skater.
However, Chan certainly doesn’t lack an ability to execute quads. He is a world-class jumper in his own right. And the rivalry between the Canadian and the Russian is evident.
When reporters asked Chan about Plushenko’s arrival in Sochi, the Canadian was diplomatic, praising the Russian for his perseverance, and saying he couldn’t blame Plushenko for wanting to skate at a home Games.
But Chan also took a tiny shot, referring to Plushenko as “the talk of the town,” and suggesting: “He’ll probably show up at the last minute.”
Hanyu’s score in the short program of the team skate is the standard the men will be chasing Thursday. “But I know that if I skate my best, points aren’t really a concern,” Chan said.
The wild card, however, is Plushenko.
Hanyu has been a known commodity on the Grand Prix circuit. Chan knows how good the Japanese skater is right now.
Plushenko, on the other hand, that’s a mystery.