VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA–The media tribunes are packed. I hear the constant click of camera shutters in front of me. And that can only mean one thing: Some Olympic magic is about to be made.
I’m live at the opening night of the men’s figure skating competition. It will be a battle for the ages in one of the most competitive fields in recent memory. Defending Olympic Champion Evgeni Plushenko of Russia will go skate to skate with reigning World Champion Evan Lysacek of the U.S., U.S. National Champion Jeremy Abbott and former U.S. Champion Johnny Weir, among a bevy of other heavy hitters.
Of the medal contenders, Plushenko takes the ice first, nailing his first combination: a quadruple toeloop and triple toeloop; he was the first person to ever attempt the combination in competition. He nails his second and third jumps: triple axel and triple lutz. And then he nails the rest of his routine. The gauntlet has been thrown. And the crowd eats it up.
Watching him skate in a black bedazzled jumpsuit to a concerto composed specially for him, I can’t help but think that Jon Heder’s character in “Blades of Glory” was inspired by him. They share the same elegance that is both masculine and feminine at the same time, and of course, a shock of blond hair.
The scores are up and Plushenko nets 90.85 points, putting him 15 points ahead of the next skater. Unsurprisingly, he takes a lead that the other skaters will have to wrestle from him if they want to compete for gold. It’s going to be an exciting night!
5:50 p.m.: The skaters in group 3 are warming up on the ice. They all have the task of toppling Plushenko, which will be no small feat. Russia has won the last five Olympic gold medals, and Plushenko plans on making it six. He initially retired in 2006, but after seeing the Russian men’s program devolve, he decided his country needed him. He returned to skating in 2009.
6:03 p.m.: Paolo Bacchini of Italy is up first and he skates a personal best of 64.42. He looks incredibly happy with his score. That should give you an idea of just how good Plushenko really is.
6:05 p.m.: Hmmmm, two skaters in a row are using music from “Amelie.” That’s gotta hurt. Guys, check out my figure skating pairs post. There’s a whole world of music: Use it. Or, you know, just have something composed especially for you like Plushenko.
6:14 p.m.: Plushenko’s teammate, Artem Borodulin just nailed his routine skating to the Russian favorite “Kalinka.” The crowd was clapping along and he looks really happy with his performance. He moves into third place. Methinks he won’t be there for long. Lots of great skaters yet to come.
6:23 p.m.: Crazy costume alert! Javier Fernandez, what are you wearing? Oh, I get it. He’s skating to James Bond, thus the target on his chest and bullet hole in his back. But it kind of just looks like a bad spider web. Not so sure, Javier. Not so sure. I’m also sensing a movie score trend musically. The pairs certainly used and abused them. Looks like the men will too.
6:38 p.m.: It’s still early in the night and we have 15 skaters yet to go. First up in group 4 is Denis Ten of Kazakhstan, skating to “Sing, Sing, Sing.” There’s a lot of off-rhythm clapping going on, and the reporter next to me is kind of dancing in her seat and bopping her head. Come to think of it, I’m kind of swaying from side to side.
Looks like the judges liked it too. He moves into second place.
6:45 p.m.: Next up is one of our medal contenders–Daisuke Takahashi of Japan. And he nailed it! All of it! Wow, lots of Japanese flags in the crowd–at least 75 by a quick count. He’s only 23 and he idolizes Plushenko. He’s got a silver medal from the World Championships and he’s looking for Japan’s first Olympic men’s figure skating medal. But can he do it? Wow, looks like he just might–he’s in the running with a score of 90.25, just .60 behind Plushenko. Looks like we have a race, folks!
6:56 p.m.: After a very blond Swedish skater is another medal contender–Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland. He’s the 2006 Olympic silver medalist and a two-time World Champion. Lambiel is famous for his virtuoso spinning and you can see why. He’s like a top. But he sat his quadruple toeloop a bit, which will hurt him in a field of flawless performances. But the fact that he can do a quad is good news.
Wow, this crowd is kind of like a cheap date–they just got really excited to hear the William Tell Overture. Haven’t they heard it enough in commercials and Bugs Bunny cartoons?
And yes, sitting the quad did hurt him. He gets a score of 84.63, which puts him in third place. With 10 skaters to go, I doubt he’ll stay there.
7:07 p.m.: We’ve got another medal hopeful in Nobunari Oda from Japan. He’s had a lot of fourth-place finishes, but had to sit out part of the 2007-2008 season; he was suspended for three months by the Japanese Federation for getting a DUI. But his routine scores him 84.85, replacing Lambiel in third. More medal contenders to come–including all the Americans.
7:17 p.m.: While the ice is getting a visit from the Zamboni, let’s look at the nitty gritty of the competition. Just what does a short program entail? Well, each routine is 2 minutes and 50 seconds long and includes eight required elements: a double or triple axel, another triple or quadruple jump, one jump combination (i.e. a double and triple, two triples, or quad and triple, etc.), a change-foot sit spin, a change-foot combination spin, and two different step sequences, usually a circular step sequence and a straight-line step sequence.
But what does all that boil down to? The quad. It’s the new frontier that Plushenko first colonized and now many claim jumpers are clamoring in. Nailing a quadruple jump is like nailing a slam dunk. And like the slam dunk, inevitably more and more skaters will be doing it. But the quad is a risky endeavor. Nail it and it’s a points bonanza. Boff it and it will cost you. Plushenko nails his every time. None of the Americans are attempting one tonight.
“Right now, I’m not planning on it,” Evan Lysacek said. “I’ve been doing just a couple triple toes every day. If I really feel it in the heat of the moment, I have been doing them every once in a while in practice and I know that I can do it, so if I feel it’s something that I want to throw in and risk it, that option is definitely open. But, my plan right now is to do what I can do well.”
And what’s the highest score ever posted in the short program? 91.30 by none other than Plushenko himself. He set the mark at the European Championships in January, breaking his own four-year-old record.
7:30 p.m.: Group 5 is warming up on the ice. Up first is Brian Joubert of France, who is the 2007 World Champion (back when Plushenko was retired). But he has a consistent quad, which could put him in contention.
Or scratch that–after an early bobble (maybe his quad isn’t so consistent after all), and a fall, I don’t think Joubert will survive tonight’s level of competition. Yup, he scored 68.00. Thanks for playing, Brian.
7:40 p.m.: Takahiko Kozuka is the youngest-looking 18-year-old I’ve ever seen. But props for picking Hendrix to skate to, and a fierce final spin.
7:46 p.m.: Samuel Contesti of Italy, it’s not a terrible costume, but the plaid patch on the back pocket? Nope.
Ooh, he fell. Now I feel bad for not liking his costume. How about something on the bright side. Sally Sunshine says, “I like that it doesn’t have any glitter.” Glittery overalls would look silly.
7:50 p.m.: Canadian Patrick Chan takes the ice. The crowd is cheering his warm-up. They’re a little excited. Chan won a silver medal at last year’s World Championship, and is Canada’s best shot at a medal. But an unlikely one after a few bobbles in his routine.
7:56 p.m.: And now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you–Johnny Weir! Johnny is the 2008 World bronze medalist and a legitimate pop phenomenon. For more about the outspoken Weir, check out this profile–I had a chance to speak with him at a press conference earlier this week.
Looks like Johnny just nailed his routine–and in a black corset with pink laces, no less. He said, “I’m going to put everything on the table.” Looks like he just did. Oh, and they just changed the background music as he waits for his score to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Coincidence? I think not. He’s blowing kisses to the camera as he holds a heart-shaped pillow that matches his costume and says, “Johnny.” Now he’s lip-syncing the lyrics. He scores 82.10 and the crowd boos. I agree. I thought he did better than that too. He skates with such panache. Wow, the crowd really doesn’t like it. Big boos for the score. He really is a fan favorite. Johnny is now in fifth place. I bet those judges have some serious poker faces.
8:09 p.m.: The sixth and final group is warming up on the ice, and features a few favorites, including Evan Lysacek and Jeremy Abbott. The press box is buzzing about Weir’s score. I’m hearing grumbles that he was underscored, but until we can see a breakdown of the judges’ marks, we won’t know.
8:13 p.m.: First up is Kevin van der Perren of Belgium. Kevin, me likey the skeleton costume! I know it’s not Halloween, but I’m digging his costume. It really goes with the music: “Night on Bald Mountain.”
He’s overcome with emotion at the end of his routine. That makes me happy. Doing your best when it counts is a wonderful feeling.
8:19 p.m.: Just four skaters left. Next is Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic, wearing what can only be described as a French meets Greek sailor costume. And he’s falling apart on the ice. The crowd cheers when he finally lands a jump. That’s nice of them.
8:25 p.m.: And now, the reigning World Champion, Evan Lysacek. He grew up in Naperville, Ill., just one suburb away from my hometown. Portillo’s Hot Dogs and Colonial Ice Cream–if you’re ever in Naperville, check them out. Evan claims he wasn’t a natural-born skater and set out to take lessons when he wanted to play hockey.
He’s perhaps best know for his fashion-forward costumes on the ice. Or rather, it’s that they’re not costumey—no spandex, no sparkles, no spangles. Just plain suits made to look like street clothes—a dapper tuxedo, etc. And like Johnny Weir, he’s dabbled in modeling and is even signed with DNA Models in New York.
Um, what happened, Evan? Your costume is, um, super costumey. But wow, he just nailed his triple axel and triple combo. The photogs in front of me are clicking like crazy. Like 100 photos a minute. More pics of him than any other skater.
The crowd is on its feet! Standing ovations all around. Evan is in it to win it! That was a near-flawless performance and he looks incredibly pleased, as well he should be. Without a quad, he won’t outscore Plushenko, but he could come close.
And the score is? 90.30, a season’s best score for him! He moves into second place just .55 behind Plushenko. This is going to be a nail-biter on Thursday night!
8:32 p.m.: And now Jeremy Abbott, the reigning U.S. Champion. When he skates well, he skates really well. And I like his choice of music, “A Day in the Life,” by the Beatles. And he’s wearing a purple costume. I like purple.
Ooh, he just missed a jump. That’s going to hurt. Way to pull it out, Jeremy. He skated the rest nicely, but he looks heartbroken. My heart is breaking for him. His score lands him in 14th place.
8:38 p.m.: The final skater for the night is on the ice–Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic. It’s a tight competition among the top three skaters, who all have scores above 90.
8:45 pm: The final scores are in!
Plushenko ends the night in first. Lysacek in second. And Takahashi in third. Johnny Weir is in sixth and Jeremy Abbot in 15th. The free program on Thursday night is going to be quite a competition. A mere .60 separates gold, silver and bronze. It’s all going to come down to the free program, which I’ll be bringing to you live.
This post originally appeared on the Washington Times Communities on Feb. 16, 2010.