Russia seals skating resurgence with team goldCanada takes silver; Davis, White lead U.S. to well-earned bronze
In Vancouver in 2010, Russia's modest two-medal figure skating haul didn't include a single gold medal.
In Sochi, it took less than 48 hours after the Opening Ceremony for Russia to seal its figure skating resurgence by winning the first-ever Olympic team figure skating event. It was also the Russian federation's first gold medal of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Skaters ranging from 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia to 31-year-old Evgeni Plushenko each played their roles, earning 75 points to defeat Team Canada by a healthy 10 points. Team USA took bronze with 60 points.
Such was the importance of the occasion that Russian president Vladimir Putin personally congratulated each of the skaters during a flower ceremony after the event.
Plushenko and Lipnitskaia won the men's and ladies free skate segments, respectively, while Meryl Davis and Charlie White scored a victory in the team free dance event.
"Winning this team event was very important for our country because it was the first in figure skating history," Alexei Mishin, Plushenko's coach, said.
"It's the first medal for Russia this Olympics, and I love being first," said Plushenko, who now owns four Olympic medals. "I would love to have more medals."
Plushenko landed some jumps -- an opening quad toe loop, two triple Axels and two triple Lutzes -- and stayed on his feet. But his "Best of Plushenko" free skate looked improvised, partly due to frequent gestures to the crowd more suited for an exhibition than a competitive performance, and he doubled his final three intended triples.
Still, his spins were sharper than they were in his team short program, and the sheer force of his personality made up for some of the sloppiness. He earned 168.20 points, narrowly defeating Canadian silver medalist Kevin Reynolds, who landed two quad toes and a quad Salchow and performed a far more complete program.
"I did enough today," Plushenko said, and then added that this team gold was as special to him as his 2006 individual gold medal, or his silver medals in 2002 and 2010.
"For me, is same -- gold, silver, bronze doesn't matter; I have four medals," he said. "Today is a win for the team. For the first time in my life, and I like new firsts, I skated for a team. It feels the same to me [as an individual gold]."
Both Plushenko and Mishin claimed that the absence of a second quad was strategic.
"In the long program today, I did one quad; I did not try two quads," Plushenko said. "I have another, and a triple flip combination, in my pocket."
"He did not need to show 'I am Plushenko, I am great,'" Mishin said. "We have spent 20 years together. He has had a lot of outstanding events. He doesn't need it again and again. His task was to be a good member of the team. He is enough famous, enough great."
Now that Plushenko has taken some bows, absorbed the love of the home country crowd and helped Russia earn a team gold medal, many believe he will withdraw from the men's individual event. The skater refused to comment on his plans in the mixed zone.
"Don't rush in front of the car," Mishin said. "First we should enjoy the team event."
Japan's Tatsuki Machida was third.
U.S. silver medalist Jason Brown had a solid outing of his Riverdance free, including a triple Axel-triple toe combination, but fell on the second jump of his triple Lutz-triple Salchow sequence. He got up in a flash, though, and earned 153.67 to finish fourth.
"It's something I've trained," the 19-year-old skater said. "It was six months from when I choreographed this program to when I skated my first clean run-through. The beat never stops. You've got to be ready to pick up the music whenever possible."
At age 15 years and 249 days, Lipnitskaia became the youngest figure skating gold medalist in 78 years. (German Maxi Herber, the 1936 pairs champion, was 121 days her junior.) The tiny teen, who also won the team ladies short, smoothly delivered a stunning program to music from Schindler's List, crammed with difficult steps and transitions, as well as a triple Lutz-triple toe combination and spectacular spins.
Judges awarded her 141.51 points, a new personal best.
"I was a little bit nervous after Evgeni got first because I didn't want to let the team down," Lipnitskaia said. "He was very happy for me at the end and congratulated me in the kiss and cry. My main motivation today was not to let the team down."
Lipnitskaia said she and her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, are returning to Moscow on Sunday so she can get more ice time. She added that competing in the team event will help her in the ladies event.
"Now I fully know the ice and the arena, I can relax a bit and skate better in the individual event than I did today," she said. "I will work hard on the free program to fix any small issues I had today."
Gracie Gold had an impressive skate to Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, hitting a big triple Lutz-triple toe combination and five other triples to earn 129.38 points, a new personal best.
"I am really pleased; I did what I wanted to do," the 18-year-old U.S. champion said. "There were little things. A couple of spins were slower than I wanted them to be. I want to fix a few landings, but I got my free leg out; I landed on one foot."
Like Lipnitskaia, Gold's main concern was not to let her team down.
"I never wanted to do team sports as a kid," she said. "I was too nervous; I felt the extra pressure for the team."
Gold's coach, Frank Carroll, thinks his skater's performance in the team event bodes well for the individual contest.
"First of all, she skated very, very well," he said. "So, before the actual competition starts, [judges] know she can skate like that. I think it helps her."
Gold now flies to Austria to train with her secondary coach, Scott Brown.
"I'm heading out for a few days to detach myself from this experience so I can re-focus on the single event," she said.
In the dance event, Davis and White performed the speediest and most dramatic outing of their Scheherazade free dance so far this season, earning Level 4's for seven of eight elements and 15 perfect "10's" for program components. They were awarded 114.34 points, a new personal best.
"I think we had a really great performance tonight," White, 26, said. "It felt really comfortable, and it seems that came across to the judges. We're feeling confident in what we're doing."
"We're so proud to be part of Team USA," he continued. "We're really happy to go out there and support the team and do everything we could on the ice."
It was the fifth consecutive time the Americans prevailed over their chief rivals, Canadian Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who placed second with 107.56 points.
Skating to music from Russian composers Alexander Glazunov and Alexander Scriabin, the Canadians showed dramatic and complicated lifts, and their magic on-ice connection was there in abundance. They lost ground on their diagonal step sequence, which rated just Level 2.
"It was a good skate, but the levels weren't where they needed to be," Moir, 26, said. "We skated strong and we put in a lot of hard work, so we're happy to bring home a medal for Canada."
Russia's Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov were third in the free dance, earning 103.48 points for a refined, elegant free dance to Swan Lake.
Team Italy was fourth with 52 points, and Team Japan fifth with 51 points.