Alexei on top
Yagudin wins after Plushenko falls in short programPosted: Tuesday February 12, 2002 11:40 PM
Updated: Wednesday February 13, 2002 1:39 AM
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Alexei Yagudin brushed off Russian rival Evgeny Plushenko as easily as he brushed off the snow during his short program. If the playful Yagudin has another such performance in him, he'll skate away with an Olympic gold medal.
Of course, Japan's Takeshi Honda and American Tim Goebel might have other ideas for the long program after finishing behind Yagudin, who swept the judging panel. Plushenko was fortunate to wind up fourth Tuesday night after messing up his quadruple toe loop.
For now, the three-time world champion clearly is in charge, and the current world champion needs help.
"I am really happy with the work I have done today," Yagudin said, "and I am really concentrating on myself. If you have any questions about him, just ask him."
Couldn't do that: Plushenko was a no-show in the interview area after falling on his opening quadruple toe loop.
But with other contenders such as Americans Michael Weiss (eighth) and Todd Eldredge (ninth), Canada's Elvis Stojko (seventh) and Russia's Alexander Abt (fifth) not impressing the judges, Plushenko stayed within striking distance.
He needs to win the free skate and have someone other than Yagudin finish second. Plushenko will go third in the final warm-up, while Yagudin goes last.
"I think I have made the hardest part ... but it will be pressure, because I will be closing the men's event," said Yagudin, who was fifth at the 1998 Olympics, skating with a high fever.
Dressed in a black-and-white costume resembling a snow-covered tree, Yagudin went from cautious at the start to a near tap dance in the middle to a magnificently tight, quick spin at the end. From picking up snow from the ice and throwing it in the air to blowing kisses to the crowd, he entertained the fans -- and seemed to have just as much fun himself.
"I was a little bit nervous because it is the actual Olympics," said Yagudin, who didn't look nervous at all in landing a quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination. "It's not the Russian nationals, it's not Europeans, it's not worlds, it's the Olympics. It's two-times tougher to skate here."
The 21-year-old Goebel, dubbed the "Quad King" for the ease with which he does the four-revolution leap, nailed all of his jumps. But his spins were slow and his artistry doesn't come close to the level of the Russians.
Still, a brilliant showing in the free skate, worth two-thirds of the total score, could give the 2001 U.S. champion the first American men's gold medal since Brian Boitano in 1988.
"I was absolutely thrilled with how I skated tonight," said Goebel, who fought back tears on his way off the ice. "I have not been thinking about the medals since I got here. That hasn't changed.
"I assumed Yagudin and Plushenko would be up here, but beyond that, I didn't think anything."
Honda, who fell apart under the pressure of skating at home in the 1998 Games, had no problems this time. He hit a quad toe-triple toe to open his routine to "Don Quixote," and landed a strong triple axel and triple lutz.
Honda's spins and footwork were superior to Goebel, and his triple lutz was more difficult than Goebel's triple flip.
"No pressures. Today is nice and comfortable," Honda said. "I feel it was my best this season."
Eldredge's hopes for a strong Olympic performance fell as flat as he did on his triple axel. The six-time national champion also botched the quadruple jump that has been the bane of his career.
"Quite honestly, the quad wasn't the problem," Eldredge said. "The triple axel was when I ended up on my rear end. The quad was so good in warmup and it has been so good all week, it just seemed crazy not to try."
Eldredge, 30, was 10th at the 1992 Olympics and fourth four years ago. He skipped two seasons, then returned in 2001 to win a bronze at the world championships. He won't be topping off his career with any Olympic medal.
"I still got one left," Eldredge said of perhaps finally doing a memorable Olympic long program Thursday night.
Plushenko, dressed in disco silver and black, had all the Michael Jackson moves down pat. What he didn't have was his quad toe loop, on which he crashed, ruining his planned combination jump.
"The Olympic Games are over," Plushenko's coach Alexei Mishin said well before so many other contenders faltered. "Probably pressure."
Plushenko withdrew from the European Championships with a groin injury, although he also was working on a new free skate program that will need to be spectacular now.
Canada's Elvis Stojko, the silver medalist in the last two Olympics, could have soared into contention again. The last skater on the ice, he stepped out of his quad jump, then traveled badly on his sit spin, dropping to seventh.
"I don't know what happened," he said. "From beginning to end, I felt awesome."
Weiss got things started with an emotionally charged program to "Malaguena," that lifted the fans from their seats. The usual disadvantage of skating first didn't hurt Weiss as much as his two-footed landing on a quad toe loop and the double toe loop that followed instead of a triple.
"The first position is a tough place to skate, especially at this competition, because there are 29 skaters," said the 1999 and 2000 U.S. champion. "If I had done that program at the end of the competition, I think the results would've been a different story."