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Borscht belts: USA House receives surprise visitor

Putin drops by to chat with USOC leaders; Yu-Na's 'kids' learn from master
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Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shares a drink with USOC President Larry Probst and an unknown staffer. -Getty Images

It sounds like the makings of a late-night joke, only it really happened.

Kristi Yamaguchi was sitting at the Olympics when Vladimir Putin walked by…

Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic champion, has been in Sochi working with the U.S. Olympic Committee and happened to be in the USA House, a place where athletes and sponsors are entertained during the Games. She was sitting there before heading off to the men's free skate, doing an interview for the USOC's website, when all of a sudden everyone in the building turned around and grabbed their cell phones and cameras.

Putin, the Russian president, had just arrived, and American athletes, sponsors and officials all marveled at the sight of him. He then had a glass of wine with USOC Executive Director Scott Blackmun and USOC President Larry Probst.

"Well, that was kind of neat," Yamaguchi said.

Yamaguchi said she had been tipped off that Putin was planning on stopping by but didn't say a word. Her husband, Bret Hedican, an Olympic hockey player who is doing broadcast work in Sochi, however, missed the Russian president's entrance.

Over the years, Yamaguchi has had a few interactions with presidents and dignitaries. She met President George Herbert Walker Bush after the 1992 Olympics, shook hands with President Bill Clinton during the Olympics in Atlanta and met President George W. Bush at a state dinner. She later met President Barack Obama at the White House Easter Egg Roll while she read her children's book, Dream Big, Little Pig!. She's also met Prince Albert of Monaco, who is an Olympic bobsledder.

So while it wasn't the first time she's rubbed elbows with such leaders, it still was quite the experience.

And then she had to get going. After all, the men's free skate was just getting going.

South Korean pipeline

Yu-Na Kim has made it clear that Sochi will be her last Olympics, but she is helping pave the way for the next generation of ladies skaters in South Korea, the country which will host the 2018 Winter Games.

Two young skaters, 16-year-olds So Youn Park and Haejin Kim, are here and making their Olympic debut. Both are coming from the junior ranks, although both skated at the Four Continents Championships before coming to Sochi. Yu-Na has taken them under her wing on this trip. In fact, the reigning Olympic champion was offered a prime seat on their flight but opted to sit with her teammates instead.

They all share the same agent, Sunyoung Kim, and both Haejin and Yu-Na train with the same coach.

When asked about the advice the Korean megastar had given them, Park said, "She told me to be more confident, and she gives me advice on my jumps. I am happy that I am with Yu-Na."

Added Haejin Kim (no relation to Yu-Na): "She has been my role model ever since I was young. I am happy, and it's fascinating. I'm honored to train with her. When we train in Korea, Yu-Na gives me advice on my choreography and how to express my emotions on the ice."

Both Kim and Park are taking advantage of being around their nation's most famous athlete in her last visit to the Winter Games. And both are grateful for what Kim has given to them and their sport: Kim and Park both have spots in Sochi and at next month's world championships in Japan because of her. (By winning the world title last year in London, Ontario, Kim secured three spots in both events this season.)

"I like everything about [Yu-Na]," Haejin Kim said. "I especially like her jumps, and I want to learn them from her. I am sorry that she is leaving. I am thankful that Yu-Na won the places for us by winning the world championship last year. I am happy to be with Yu-Na on her last competition."

Plushenko taking hard hits

Evgeni Plushenko, who has won four Olympic medals -- two gold -- and has been a much-beloved athlete in Russia, has been "absolutely smashed" by his country's media, and has been taking the criticism to heart, his longtime agent, Ari Zakarian, said.

Zakarian came to the Iceberg Skating Palace to watch the men's free skate but said Plushenko opted to tune in to the event on TV. Plushenko withdrew from the competition right before he was called to skate his short program Thursday night, citing a back injury. Although he struggled through his warm-up and kept holding onto his back, Russian reporters took him to task because they felt Plushenko was not as injured as he claimed, Zakarian said.

"That really, really hurts him," Zakarian said. "He has done so much for the sport."

Plushenko competed in the team competition, and there was speculation that he might withdraw in time to allow another countryman, Maxim Kovtun, who beat Plushenko at Russian nationals, to compete in the men's event. Instead, Plushenko held onto to his spot and ended up withdrawing at the last moment.

According to Zakarian, Plushenko is indeed injured and did not want to further damage his back.

"He is [a] sportsman," Zakarian said. "He wanted to compete."

Plushenko might have closed the door on his competitive career, but he plans to tour in Russia, beginning March 3.

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