- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SOCHI, Russia -- It wasn't the way you wanted to see a great champion go out.
After four Olympics, two gold medals, two silver medals, three world championships and 10 Russian championships, 31-year-old Evgeni Plushenko held his back and grimaced in pain as he skated off competitive ice for the final time Thursday.
Or maybe it wasn't the final time. Plushenko is such a great skater that longtime coach Alexei Mishin made an ill-advised joke about Plushenko potentially being able to compete in the Paralympics due to the figure skater's injury history.
The former Olympic champion has had so many surgeries during his long career that there almost needs to be a new scoring system just to track them all. Because of that, Plushenko said this is indeed the end of his competitive career. There will be no more Olympics.
"I think, yes, my age is OK, but I have had 12 surgeries," he said. "I'd like to be healthy."
Plushenko has collected many medals over his career, but he also has collected many aches and pains. It was the accumulation and inflammation of those injuries that kept him from skating in what was to be his final competition this week.
Scheduled to skate first in the second group of Thursday's men's short program, Plushenko instead grabbed his back after a jump during the warm-up, skated over to the judges and withdrew from the competition. He left the ice with the home crowd saddened by his injury but cheering his career.
"In the warm-up, after I did the first triple axel, I stepped out and felt terrible pain. It felt like a knife in the back," Plushenko said. "And the second one was just a terrible landing. I couldn't feel my right leg after it.
"It hurt, and that was it. I had to withdraw."
U.S. skater Jason Brown saw Plushenko leaving the rink and noted the Russian's frustration and disappointment.
"We all know how driven and determined Plushenko is and how much of a fighter he is," Brown said. "There is nothing he would rather do than represent Russia in Russia."
Plushenko already did represent Russia here, though. The 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympic medalist skated superbly in the short and free programs to help his country win gold in the inaugural Olympic team event. That competition was always his priority coming into these Olympics, so much so that many speculated Plushenko would not compete in the men's competition, whether he was able to or not.
"I think he's going to get probably something. Fever. Something," veteran coach Frank Carroll said after the team competition. "I think it's too hard at his age. He did a wonderful job [in team], and let's face it, he was the best. So good for him. But I think it would be very hard to do it all over again this quickly."
Plushenko denied that it was ever his plan to withdraw -- "I said to myself, 'Evgeni, you must skate, you must skate'" -- until the pain just became too much.
Under the rules, Russia could have replaced Plushenko had he made the decision not to compete by 8 a.m. Monday. Mishin said the skater still felt good at that point, though. It was only later that he greatly aggravated his injuries with falls in practice sessions this week.
"This is not tragedy what happened with Evgeni," Mishin said. "I've been working with him for 20 years, and mostly he has had good successes. Mostly he was a winner. If during 20 years he was unsuccessful, don't criticize him too much. Try to say something more positive than negative."
Indeed, it doesn't matter how Plushenko went out. What matters is how the man has skated so incredibly for so many years and the impact he's had on the sport. He is one of the greatest skaters in history. I still remember being dazzled by him when he took bronze at age 15 at the 1998 world championships.
Just meeting him last week helped the 19-year-old Brown skate his personal best Thursday.
"We had a team practice, and he came up to me and said, 'I'm such a huge fan of yours,'" Brown said. "I'm like, 'What!? No, no, no! I'm a huge fan of yours! You're amazing.' And he said, 'No, you're amazing.'
"So right off the bat, I was so relaxed going onto the ice for practice and competition. That meant so much to me. That support made me instantly feel calm from the instant I stepped on the ice."
Because Plushenko withdrew so late, Russia will not be able to substitute him with another skater here. The more difficult chore will be finding another skater who can ever replace him, period.
Evgeni Plushenko had big hopes for these Games on his home soil. After helping Russia win the team event, one of the greatest skaters the sport has seen deserved a better way to end his career.