By Brian Cazeneuve
February 09, 2014

The host nation celebrated its first gold medal of the Olympics in grand style Sunday night as the Russians maintained a substantial lead and easily won the debut event of team figure skating. The team from Canada finished second and the U.S. took third, as the places from after the four short programs and the long program in pairs skating -- completed on Saturday -- remained the same.

For Russia, a traditional skating powerhouse that has struggled with inconsistent results since the breakup of the Soviet Union, this was a grand coronation in front of an energetic and appreciative home crowd. Boosted by a safe performance by Evgeni Plushenko and a stunning showing by 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia, the Russians handily won the competition with 75 points, followed by Canada with 65 and the U.S. with 60. The other teams in the final group of five, Italy and Japan, were well behind with 52 and 51. Plushenko also made history by becoming the second skater in history to win medals at four Olympic Games. He now has two golds and two silvers to his name, the same number as Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom, who won his medals between 1920 and 1932.

Though the U.S. team did not move up, it enjoyed strong showings from Jason Brown, Gracie Gold and the dance team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Gold’s score was second best for the evening behind Lipnitskaia. Davis and White handily topped Canadian rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, just as they did in the short program. The takeaways for the U.S. team were simple: Brown, 19, has a great future in the sport, but must add some difficulty to his program in order to gain some traction with international judges. Gold may well be a contender for a medal here should one of the favorites falter. Even if they don’t, she’s probably closer to standing on an international podium than she was heading into to Sochi. And in the dance competition, where it is difficult to upset perceived front-runners simply because people rarely fall, Davis and White, the world champions, are now clear favorites to dethrone the Canadians as Olympic champions when the event kicks off next week.

Aware of their huge six-point lead entering the evening, the Russians played it safe, as Plushenko, the first skater up, watered down his usual program, which usually includes two quadruple jumps, the first in combination. Instead, he landed only a single quadruple toe loop. “We didn’t make a program tonight to help his image,” said Alexei Mishin, Plushenko’s coach. “Before the competition, we asked ourselves a very practical question: What can we do to help the Russian team on this historic night? The answer was to be safe, so there is no possibility to give away the advantage we had as a team. We did not want any risk to bring the team down.”

It worked. Plushenko skated to a best-of-Plushenko set of music that was a compilation of tunes from his past glories. “This is historic,” he said. “It’s great for my wife, for my coach, my son and my country. We like winning medals … For me it’s the same [as winning an individual medal.] It’s the first time in my life.” Plushenko finished one point ahead of Canada’s Kevin Reynolds, who subbed in for world champion Patrick Chan once it became clear that Canada was unlikely to move up or down from second place. Afterwards, Plushenko did cast some doubt as to his participation in the individual event. “The last two jumps I felt a little pain in my spinal cord,” he said. “I have no decision yet for the future.”

Lipnitskaia has become an enormous crowd favorite and was able to hide the nerves she felt, befitting a teenager competing at her first Olympics. To be fair, she struggled to get around on some of her jumps after completing a flawless triple Lutz–triple loop at the beginning of the program. “I don’t know how to explain the feeling I had out there,” she said. “I got nervous in the middle of the program. I’m not sure why. It’s completely unlike me, so the jumps weren’t that great in the second half and I didn’t feel totally comfortable.” Still, she had the highest score of the night, 141.51, among the five women skaters. If she skates this well under a swell of nerves, an even more assertive performance in the individual event could be enough to challenge South Korean Kim Yu-na for the ladies title if Kim’s spotty health somehow fails her.

Gold skated the type of program that will surely earn her some credibility from international judges both here and in future events. It isn’t hard to imagine a nice rivalry between the young Russian and the 18-year old American through the next Olympic cycle and beyond. Gold performed confidently to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty as she did at the U.S. nationals in Boston. “I really am thrilled,” she said. “Jason [Brown] and I were very nervous. Our moms talked earlier today about how we didn’t like team sports because we didn’t like people relying on us.”

For the second straight night, Davis and White outscored Virtue and Moir, giving the Americans a clear edge going into the dance event later in the week on an improved evening for the team. In particular, the Americans dancers topped the Canadians by nearly seven full points, 114.34 to 107.56, as judges marked the U.S. skaters five points higher in technical elements and slightly higher in each of five separate program components. “I think we had a really great performance tonight,” Davis said. “It felt really complete, and with a score like that, it really seems like it came across to the judges.” For this night, the ones making the most points were the deserving Russians.

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