Thursday, February 18, 2010
Updated: February 19, 8:05 AM ET
Lysacek ends gold drought for U.S.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Evan Lysacek stood atop the podium, looking dazed as the first notes of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" floated through the arena.
When the guy standing next to him is skating, the medals ceremony usually has a different soundtrack.
Lysacek became the first U.S. man to win the Olympic gold medal since Brian Boitano in 1988, shocking everyone -- including himself -- by upsetting defending champion Evgeni Plushenko on Thursday night. Plushenko, retired the past three years, returned with the sole purpose of making a little history of his own with a second straight gold medal.
"I saw that American flag go up," Lysacek said, "and I couldn't believe it was for me."
Someone else was thinking the same thing.
The last to skate, Plushenko held up both index fingers when he finished, as if to say, "Was there ever any question?" As it turned out, yes.
And it wasn't really that close.
When Plushenko's scores were posted, someone in the arena screamed, "Evan Lysacek has won the gold!" Backstage, surrounded by longtime coach Frank Carroll and pairs gold medalists Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, Lysacek threw back his head in disbelief and utter elation.
"I said to him, 'My compliments, you are the Olympic champion,' " Carroll said.
An American man hadn't won a gold since the last time the games were in Canada -- the epic "Battle of the Brians." There was no catchy title this time, but the contest was no less riveting.
Lysacek, the reigning world champion, finished with a career-best 257.67, 1.31 ahead of the Russian. Daisuke Takahashi won the bronze, the first Japanese man to win a figure skating medal at the Olympic Games.
Johnny Weir was sixth and U.S. champ Jeremy Abbott rallied to finish ninth.
"I could have stood up there for hours and thought about every moment of training that I was thinking, 'God, what if one day?" Lysacek said. "And it kept me going and it pushed me."
Someone handed Lysacek a U.S. flag to take on his victory lap as he left the medals podium, and he waved it a few times before twirling it above his head like a lasso. As he skated around the arena, he held a bouquet aloft in his right hand and clutched his gold medal in the left. No way anyone was going to take this away from him.
Especially not Plushenko.
"I was positive that I won. But I suppose Evan needs a medal more than I do," Plushenko said through a translator. "Maybe it's because I already have one. But I have to share with you, two silver and one Olympic gold medal is not too bad."
Much had been made of Plushenko's transition scores, the mark given for the steps connecting the elements, as well as his other component scores -- think of the old artistic marks. But those didn't cost him the gold.
Lysacek edged Plushenko on the mark for their technical elements -- jumps, spins and footwork. That's the score where the three-time Olympic medalist and three-time world champion has pretty much made his trademark.
"Plushenko was brilliant in the jumping. He did some brilliant, very difficult things," Carroll said. "But if you think of his skating, he was very brilliant, then down. And very brilliant, then down. It was going in waves. Evan just sort of stayed in a straight line and kept going at a certain level from the start to the finish."
Even more surprising? Lysacek won without doing that so-called all-important quadruple jump.
"If the Olympic champion doesn't know how to jump a quad, I don't know," Plushenko said. "Now it's not men's figure skating, now it's dancing."
But Lysacek makes no apologies for what he does -- and doesn't -- do.
He's done the quad before, but it puts a lot of stress on the left foot that he broke last year. He originally planned to do the quad here, but after feeling pain in the foot again after last month's U.S. championships, he decided it wasn't worth the risk of getting hurt and having to miss the games.
"If it was a jumping competition, they'd give you 10 seconds to go do your best jump. But it's about 4 minutes and 40 seconds of skating and performing from start to finish," Lysacek said. "That was my challenge tonight, and I feel like I did quite well."
The first of the big guns to skate in the last group, Lysacek seemed more workmanlike than usual for the first three minutes of the program. Everything he did was technically perfect. His jumps had the control and dependability of a fine Swiss timepiece, and his spins were so well-centered you could see the tight little circle of his tracings clear across the ice.
He didn't have all his usual flair and charisma, looking more focused on the tasks at hand. But when he landed his last jump, a double axel, Lysacek let loose. His face was so expressive that budding actors should have taken note, and he fixed the judges with a majestic glare during his circular steps. By the time he finished his final spin, fans were roaring their approval.
The last note of his music was still fading when Lysacek pumped his fists and screamed, "Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!" He clapped his hands and skated to center ice, throwing his arms out wide to the crowd and blowing kisses. As he waited for his marks, he put an arm around Carroll, who had yet to coach a gold medalist despite a list of past and present skaters that reads like a Who's Who on Ice.
"This is just frosting on the cake for me," said Carroll, who coached Linda Fratianne and Michelle Kwan to silver medals and Timothy Goebel to a bronze. "It's not something I coveted after a while. It was something I thought maybe would never happen."
It might not have, had Plushenko been a little better.
He skated with his usual flair and dramatics, drawing laughs from the crowd with his saucy, seductive tango. No one loves the limelight quite like the Russian, and he was in his element. He preened, posed and skated as if certain another gold medal was his.
But Plushenko, who can do jumps in his sleep, was noticeably off. He was crooked in the air on many of his jumps, and had to be part cat to manage to come down on one foot and hold it long enough for it to count. But the funky finishes cost him the bonus points that are the difference between silver and gold. His spins weren't quite as good as Lysacek's, either, and he got fewer points for one of his footwork sections.
"I am happy with my performance today," said Plushenko, who took off his silver medal as soon as he left the ice. "After 3½ years [off] you can win the silver, it's not bad."
We likely haven't seen the last of him, either.
"I knew I would accept any outcome," he said through a translator. "After this defeat, I'm not going to put my hands down and stop."
For Takahashi, third was as good as first or second.
"To be the first Japanese man to win an Olympic medal, I am really proud," he said.
Takahashi is wonderfully expressive, from the bottom of his blades to the tips of his spiky, mop-topped hair. His edge quality is as fine as a master carver's and his blades are like little lightning strikes, allowing him to change directions and turn without losing a millisecond of speed.
It makes for a fast, energetic and very entertaining program, and he infused it with a healthy dose of sass. He played to the judges and the crowd, taking them along for the ride.
His only flaw was a fall on his opening quadruple toe loop -- a jump he hadn't landed all week.
I knew I would accept any outcome. After this defeat, I'm not going to put my hands down and stop.
-- Evgeni Plushenko