SALT LAKE CITY -- Somehow, some way, it always comes down to the Russians.
Alexei Yagudin just hopes it comes down to him.
Yagudin, a three-time world champion, will be locked into a brutal struggle for gold with his eternal rival, countryman and reigning world champ Evgeni Plushenko. Flip a coin, roll the dice, draw a card -- chances are, one of them will be standing atop the podium.
Fact is, barring a major meltdown by those two, the Americans, Tim Goebel and Todd Eldredge (ranked No. 3 and No. 4 in the world, respectively), and Chinese quad-meister Chengjiang Li might be fun to watch, but they'll probably battle for bronze.
U.S. coach Frank Carroll would blame that likelihood on a judging bias that he believes favors the Russians -- a theory Yagudin would scoff at.
"The Russian Federation doesn't even back me," he said. "It's pretty sad. Even now, the Russian judge puts me in second to Evgeni. I have no idea why they prefer him to me."
Yagudin's confusion over that favoritism, compounded by last year's long losing streak to Plushenko, once tore him up. So last summer, after Plushenko deposed him at the 2001 worlds, Yagudin stopped eating. Sloughing off 18 pounds in five weeks, Alexei limited himself to one tiny meal a day while battering his body by running and weightlifting obsessively and enduring two-a-days at the rink. He hoped to jump higher, skate faster and control everything that was weighing heavily upon his brain: a bout with pneumonia in Nagano that required IV's in both arms, leaving him too weak to finish higher than fifth; an absentee dad who's been gone for over a decade; and, well, that pesky Plushenko.
Instead, Yagudin crashed into the boards at the Goodwill Games in September.
"There was blood everywhere," he said. "I was so scared to lose, but I'd basically already lost."
Realizing his perfectionism was hurting him, he snapped out of his fog, resuming his old ways -- eating, arriving late for practice and partying in NYC (he moved to Newington, Conn., in 2000).
"Plushenko and I are not friends," Yagudin said. "It's a huge fight at every event. And it's not just us. Our coaches, Tatiana Tarasova and Alexei Mishin, fight against each other, too, using us as weapons. It's really hard mentally to compete against each other all the time."
Alexei has his own beef with Mishin, his former coach who abandoned him in the Kiss-and-Cry area while his long program marks were being announced in Nagano.
"A month before that, when I won the '98 European championships, and Plushenko was second, I knew that Mishin was not as happy with my victory as he was upset with Plushenko's defeat," Yagudin said.
As for Plushenko, he once said, "I know Yagudin well, and he wants to be the center of attention even when he loses."
Alexei plans to throw down some quad combos -- the quad-triple-double toe loop, the quad toe-triple toe-triple loop or a quad toe loop-half loop-triple salchow -- to keep pace with the athletic Plushenko.
"Hopefully, the audience here will support me, especially now that I live in the U.S.," Yagudin said. "I want to show to them it wasn't luck that made me a three-time world champion. I truly believe that I can be first. But I must be twice as good, so there will be no doubt."
Never mind that Yagudin finally beat Plushenko at the December Grand Prix. Never mind that Plushenko's still nursing a groin injury. Yagudin refuses to make any medal predictions: "It's not just Plushenko. Any of top six men -- Eldredge, Goebel, Li -- could take it."
But Evgeni is forever in the forefront of Alexei's mind.
"Our rivalry will go on until one of us turns pro," Yagudin said. "But when the other one turns pro, too, it will start again."
Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.