Hanyu stars, Plushenko withdraws, Chan contends after short program

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SOCHI, Russia -- Take your toe pick from Thursday’s short program in the men’s figure skating event. For top billing on the skating marquee, there was Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu becoming the first man to earn 100 points for a short program, a well-earned reward for a sublime two minutes and 40 seconds and enough to give him a four-point lead over Canada’s three-time world champ Patrick Chan, who was just a bobble behind him.

There is the emerging U.S. star Jason Brown, who is one point out of a bronze medal spot. You had a theatrical exit by Russian star Evgeni Plushenko, who withdrew with a back injury; and a dramatic rally by American Jeremy Abbott, who rebounded from a hard crash on his first jump, to complete an otherwise inspiring program. It was a dizzying night of spins and storylines that could get even better during Friday’s free skate.

Hanyu could not have been much better. He made his first jump, a quadruple toe loop, look easy. He then nailed a triple Axel and triple Lutz – triple toe combination with room to spare, as his coach, Brian Orser, jumped joyously and slapped at the padding at the edge of the rink.

“I’m over the moon,” said Hanyu, who racked up a score of 101.45, 1.61 more than the previous record he amassed at the grand prix final in Fukuoka, Japan earlier this season. “I wasn’t trying to clear 100 points; I was just trying to turn in the best performance I could, and I did. I was very surprised by the score.”

For Chan, who has been inconsistent since a great short program at the world championships last year, the short in Sochi got off to a fine start when he hit his quad toe–triple toe combination. He needed an extra turn to stay on his feet during a triple Axel, the one glitch in his program, and then finished with a strong triple Lutz. Chan skated somewhat cautiously and finished his final spin several seconds after his music stopped. Still, judges rewarded the Canadian for his stellar footwork, generally acknowledged as the best in the sport. His score of 97.52 left him in second place, within striking range of Hanyu for Friday’s free skate.

“The Olympics is not a place where I expected it to be easy,” said Chan. “I like being in second. I like being in the chase. Yuzuru has a target on him. He’s not used to that.”

Plushenko was noticeably reaching for his back several times during his warm-up. He opened up awkwardly on a triple Axel, then gingerly skated over to huddle with his coaches near the sideboards and threw up his arms. He then skated to the referee’s table to announce his withdrawal, before skating to center ice to acknowledge the crowd. He patted his heart and took a bow, before skating off. The withdrawal left the Russians without a skater in the competition, since Plushenko was their only entrant. If, at 31, this was his last competitive performance, he leaves the sport with four medals – two golds and two silvers – in four Olympics.

“I warmed up a triple Axel and it felt like a knife in my back,” Plushenko said. “The second one felt awful. I couldn’t feel my right leg. I think it’s God saying, ‘Evgeni, enough to skate.’ . . . I’m very sorry in front of my fans and those who love me, and I want to thank them for supporting me in these, the toughest of times.”

Whether that was or was not a retirement speech, Plushenko’s absence resonated with the other skaters.

“I was disappointed not to see him in first place when I took the ice,” Hanyu said later. “I took up skating because of him. I respect him and admire him dearly. It’s just sad.”

Plushenko’s very selection to the Russian team had raised eyebrows, since his 18-year-old countryman, Maksim Kovtun had beaten him at the Russian nationals earlier this season. Plushenko then performed a series of test skates in front of only team officials, who pronounced him fit to skate in Sochi. He skated two good programs in helping Russia to a gold medal in the team competition, placing second behind Hanyu in the short program and winning the long program, which both Hanyu and Chan skipped, as the medals were fairly well decided.

When he spoke to reporters in Russian afterwards, he made sure to plug the tour that he planned after the season. His coach, Alexei Mishin, made a questionable joke that if figure skating were included in the Paralympics, perhaps Plushenko would be able to compete.

Abbott’s performance entailed fewer theatrics but more survival. He crashed badly on his first jump, a planned quad toe loop–triple toe loop, and reached behind him for his back as he slid into the sideboards. He remained down for 20 seconds, and seemed unlikely to finish. But Abbott’s skating has always been a psychological minefield. No one has questioned his talent, but he has spoken honestly and bluntly about the demons that grab him in moments of pressure. The shock of the fall seemed to spur him to a super recovery.

“I was in a lot of pain, and I was waiting for the music to stop,” he said. “I didn’t know whether to go to the referee [to withdraw or ask for an injury restart with a penalty]. “But then the crowd started cheering, and I thought there was no way I wouldn’t finish the program.”

Abbott improvised, cutting seconds off some of his transitions and then landing a stunning triple Lutz–triple toe and an equally sturdy triple Axel. Apparently competing stunned or angry works better for Abbott than competing with a fear of messing up. His score of 72.58 still left him in 15th place and earned one of the evening’s loudest cheers from the pro-Russian crowd.

The top-placing U.S. skater, Brown, skated a lively short program to "The Question of U" by Prince as he had in Boston. The U.S. runner-up this year hasn’t yet emerged as a contender on the international stage, but once he gains some physical strength and tougher jumps – he hasn’t landed a quad yet in competition – international podiums are not far off. He landed three triples cleanly in the short program.

“The quad is usually a point getter,” he said. "Because I don’t have one, I have to do everything else well.”

Brown is currently sixth, with 86.00, 0.98 points behind Spain’s Javier Fernandez, the European champ. The gap between Fernandez and Japan’s Tatsuki Machida in 11th place is just 3.50 points, leaving the race for bronze wide open.

Even as a legend departed, he didn’t take all of the drama with him.