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Borscht belts: True mix of emotions in mixed zone

Plushenko shows subdued side after short; Gold chills out in Oberstdorf
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Evgeni Plushenko let his emotions spill over on the ice and in the kiss and cry, but he was all business in the mixed zone. -Getty Images

The mixed zone during the men's team short program event was an event all its own.

The star, of course, was Evgeni Plushenko, who pulled off a gutsy performance including a quad toe-triple toe combination and triple Axel. His effort helped give Russia a two-point lead over Canada heading into the dance and ladies short programs Saturday night.

Skating to "Tango de Roxanne," the 31-year-old Plushenko strained mightily to give his performance the full Zhenya. He stopped in place, gestured for applause and lingered on the ice to savor the Russian crowd's rapture. His jumps and theatrics put him second to Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu and ahead of Canada's three-time reigning world champion Patrick Chan.

The program was a surprise, considering Plushenko's pre-event practice consisted mainly of leaning against the boards, talking to coach Alexei Mishin and blowing his nose.

"He sure didn't show his cards at all," said Evan Lysacek, who narrowly defeated Plushenko for gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games. The Russian won gold in 2006 and silver in 2002.

In Vancouver's mixed zone, Plushenko was a bit smug and always humorous, at least until he lost. Here, the Russian was far more subdued, giving off the impression his short took a monumental effort.

"I'm feeling good," he said. "I'm in front of you. I'm still alive, so not bad."

"For me, this fourth Olympics was much harder than the others," he added. "It shows if you really work hard, you will get your success."

The smart money, if there is any in figure skating, says Plushenko will skate his free -- a pastiche created by Mishin called "Best of Plushenko" -- in the team event finale Sunday, and then withdraw from the men's individual event with an injury. That would open the door for Maxim Kovtun, the 18-year-old who defeated Plushenko at Russian nationals, to compete.

Asked if he planned to skate in the team free skate and individual men's event, Plushenko said only, "I will try, of course. I will try."

So, did the Russian Skating Federation make the right call, selecting him as its sole men's entrant in Sochi?

"Ask them," Plushenko said. "Ask them."

Across the zone, Hanyu's coach, Brian Orser, was beaming. His skater had just racked up 97.98 points for a short that included a quad toe, triple Axel and triple Lutz-triple toe.

Orser doesn't worry that the effort will tire Hanyu for his individual event, saying, "I wanted Yuzu to nail it. You can't tell a skater to hold back, because you don't know when that will stop."

The coach took solace that it wasn't yet Hanyu's perfect short. He called the Lutz "scratchy" and pointed out the final spin traveled a bit.

"He can do better," Orser said. "He knows he can score at least 100 points."

The short, choreographed by Jeff Buttle to Gary Moore's "Parisienne Walkways," is a performance breakthrough for the 19-year-old Japanese champion. He very nearly rivaled Plushenko with his showmanship and flirting with the crowd.

"He's been that way the last few months," Orser said. "He's finding those moments of charm and, honestly, a little bit of sex appeal. Everything is real and true. He's doing it in every practice."

Orser compared Hanyu's metamorphosis to that of his former student, Yu-Na Kim, who trained with him when she won Olympic gold in 2010.

"The same thing happened for Yu-Na; her performance really came out in the James Bond [short program] in every practice," Orser said. "It came from Yu-Na's heart, and it's coming from Yuzu's heart. His personality is shining through. He feels this is his time."

Chan held court with the Canadian press contingent, shrugging off a mildly disappointing short program that included a step-out on a triple Axel.

"I was a bit slow going into the Axel. I will work on it in practice with Kathy [Johnson] (his coach)," Chan said. "I do a leap and twizzle [lead-in], and I slowed down. I rely a lot on my flow going into my jumps."

The 23-year-old skater, who won his sixth Canadian title last month, admitted he was not as intense about the team event as he was the individual.  

"Things are different in team event," he said. "You're skating five in a group, not six, and having all the figure skaters from all of the countries sitting together."

"There was a bit of nonchalance," he added. "I spoke to the German ice dancer right before my six-minute warm-up. It's a very relaxed environment."

U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott thinks his short went downhill after he fell on his opening quad toe.

"I didn't get the altitude," he said. "I came down short."

After that miss, Abbott popped his triple Axel and turned an intended triple-triple combination into a triple-double. He placed seventh, giving the U.S. team just four points.

The skater, who placed just ninth at the 2010 Olympics, is taking heat from some journalists and fans for his mixed zone comment: "I've had my Olympic disaster, and I can move on. I'm so happy I got this out of the way."

But not all his thoughts were of himself.

"It was a very unfortunate day for my team," he said. "I love being part of Team USA. I am so honored to skate with these kids. I really wanted to pull out a win for my friends and family, and I'm torn apart I couldn't do this."

The 28-year-old sounded like a man striving to recover from the shock of the botched short and rescue his final Olympic performances.

"I think this could be a positive for me," he said. "I know how that sounds. 'He just fell on his butt and skated a horrible program,' but I have another chance next week."

"I think I needed to brush off the rust and shake out my demons, and we all know I have a lot of demons," he added, and then thanked his U.S. teammates for their support.

"I got off the ice and apologized to them," he said. "Every single one of them said, 'Jeremy, it's fine, we all love you.'"

Gold in state of relaxation

Performing a free skate, and then having to turn around and do a short and another free is nothing new to Gracie Gold. She's been doing it for years.

"It's what you do on your way up to senior. In juvenile, intermediate, novice, junior, even senior," she told a group of reporters Friday in the mixed zone at the skating training venue in Sochi. "Some years at Skate Detroit, I've had to do a long to qualify for a final. In the U.S., we see that all the time."

(That being said, it isn't even really fair to compare the two: At Skate Detroit, programs are skated on consecutive days; here, there are 10 days between the team ladies free and the individual ladies short.)

While it hasn't been officially announced that Gold will do the free skate for the U.S. in the team competition, her presence at practice Friday indicates she will replace Ashley Wagner in the second phase of the event.

That is, if the United States qualifies for the free skate portion. After the first night of competition, the Americans have 10 points, the same as Germany and France, but because of tiebreakers, they find themselves in seventh place heading into Saturday night's events -- the men's short and short dance, followed by the pairs free.

It was in the free skate at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships where Gold essentially secured her trip to Sochi, as she sailed through her Sleeping Beauty program with nary a misstep, a performance she will likely have to replicate to give her country a shot at winning a team medal.

It seems unlikely Gold will crumble under the pressure here, as she seems unfazed by the magnitude of these Games. For someone at her first Olympics, and who has had a world of expectations placed on her, she is in a state of relaxation, thanks in part to the message her coach, Frank Carroll, has been directing at her.

"Frank really does think nationals is the hardest event we have to face: skating last and coming out into a Boston nationals crowd, TV cameras constantly following you … and we don't have very many rails," Gold observed, referring to the barriers set up between the skaters and media at the Olympic venues.

"Coming here, it's different; it's not just about doing your job and qualifying. We're here; there's nothing to qualify for. It's just about leaving it all out on the table and 'going for the gold,'" she said, making air quotes. (She's in on the joke.)

The 18-year-old was able to get some R&R in the quaint mountain village of Oberstdorf, where she, along with Carroll and reigning world silver medalist Denis Ten of Kazakhstan, spent about a week and a half before arriving in Sochi.

"It was wonderful. Oberstdorf is so quiet, and it's such a beautiful community and rink," she said. "It was a place to be on European time but away from everything."

The getaway afforded Gold some privacy and removed her from the swirl of attention that's followed her since her overwhelming victory at the U.S. championships.

"A lot of the stuff I heard about sporadically because in Oberstdorf we only had Wi-Fi," she said. "So if I turned on my phone, I'd see all these things, all this stuff would happen, and then I'd go quiet for four days.

"The Shibutanis brought me copy of Sports lllustrated (of which Gold graces one of the Olympic-themed covers), so I was able to see that."

Not to say she's managed to stay completely out of the public eye. She did get to go on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where she showed off her impressive juggling skills.

Gold said, "His show's over, so I snuck in, in the last 16 episodes. That's one of those things I couldn't do later in life because, you know, it's finished."

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