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The race is on

Plushenko's brilliance leaves Weir, field chasing silver

Posted: Tuesday February 14, 2006 7:44PM; Updated: Tuesday February 14, 2006 7:59PM
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U.S. champion Johnny Weir finished 10.66 points behind Evgeni Plushenko in Tuesday's short program.
U.S. champion Johnny Weir finished 10.66 points behind Evgeni Plushenko in Tuesday's short program.

The cream rose to the top in the men's short program on Tuesday night in Turin.

Over the top, in fact.

Way over.

Skating second out of thirty skaters, Russia's Evgeni Plushenko put an end to the suspense early by landing his quad toe-triple toe combination, a triple axel, a triple lutz, footwork that dazzled, spins that assumed yoga-like positions, all performed with panache and the confidence of a theatrical star. When it was over he had scored a whopping 90.66 points -- a personal best, a world record, and 10.66 points more than the second-best score of the night, which was posted by U.S. champion Johnny Weir.

Asked if he still had a shot at gold, Weir smiled in admiring resignation: "Maybe if it wasn't Plushenko ... but look at his score. Ninety points! I'm not conceding, I'm just being realistic."

What we have left, sports fans, is a battle for silver.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Silver behind Plushenko, the 23-year-old St. Petersburg product who many believe is technically the finest men's skater of all time? Second behind the three-time world champion and 2002 Olympic silver medalist, who was forced to withdraw from last year's world championships with a groin injury that subsequently required surgery, and has returned at the top of his game? Plushenko is the complete package: athletic, dynamic, expressive, and balletic, a man who has maintained a laser-like focus to capture the gold medal ever since it was denied him in 2002 by his one-time training partner, Alexei Yagudin.

"Plushenko's just phenomenal," says Priscilla Hill, Weir's coach. "The level of energy he brings to his programs is what every coach would like his or her skater to achieve. Technically, he's one of the best we've ever seen. I'd put him up with Brian Boitano in that respect."

Plushenko, of course, was having none of the talk about the rest of the guys battling it out for silver.

"Guys, come on," he said Tuesday night in his abbreviated remarks to the press. "It's a lot of pressure right now. Ten points is only 10 points."

It'll be twice that come Thursday, after the long program. But the battle for the remaining two medals promises to be fierce. Weir, who scored a personal best 80 points in a clean program that lacked only a quadruple jump, has a slim .96 point lead over Switzerland's Stephane Lambiel, the 2005 World Champion. Lambiel landed his quad combination but then nullified that advantage by doubling a planned triple axel.

Weir has been landing a quad in practice, and when asked if he planned to put it into his long program -- he's never landed one in competition -- the colorful three-time U.S. champ replied: "It'll have to be perfect in practice the next two days for me to put it in. It all depends on how I feel. I could wake up tomorrow and feel like Nick Nolte's mug shot."

Let's hope not. Though to hear Weir describe the floor of his room in the Olympic Village, it could happen if he happens to fall out of bed.

"It was so dirty I mopped the floor myself," he said. "Twice. Not to diss the Italians, but oh my God, the dirt ... and it's cramped."

Others in the medal hunt are France's Brian Joubert, 2.23 points behind Weir, and Japan's Daisuke Takahashi and Jeffrey Buttle of Canada, who trail Weir by 6.23 and 6.71 points, respectively. But the guess here is that Weir and Lambiel will be the two to join Plushenko on the podium. Weir has been maintaining a composed calm that in the past has eluded him when skating in the world championships. He actually slept five hours between his morning practice and the short program, which began at 7 p.m. Turin time. He seemed genuinely surprised and emboldened that he received the marks he did from the panel of international judges.

"It's very encouraging," he said. "They're starting to understand what I'm all about and are rewarding me."

How would Weir reward himself for his Valentine's Day performance?

"I'm going to go home and buy myself some roses and chocolate," he said.