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Men's figure skating final is a 3-man showdown

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[February 17, 2010]  VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) -- When it comes to the Olympics, Evgeni Plushenko knows all. Having a gold and silver medal in your trophy case gives a champion plenty of insight.

So after posting a monster score as the 10th skater in Tuesday night's short program at the Vancouver Games, the Russian was asked why things come so easy for him. His eyes opened wide and his grin disappeared.

Hardware"Easy? That's competition and it is never going to be easy," the reigning Olympic champion said. "If somebody says today, `I am not nervous' or `I skate easy,' or `I am not tired,' I don't believe him."

A little while later, Plushenko was proven correct when American Evan Lysacek, the current world champ, and Japan's Daisuke Takahashi were almost as magnificent.

"The first fight was won," Plushenko said, "but the big fight is to come."

There's another battle brewing in Canada, and this one's a three-man show. The men's figure skating final is shaping up to be the most intense since 1988's famous "Battle of the Brians" -- the last time the games were in Canada. That also happened to be the last time an American won gold, with Brian Boitano beating Brian Orser.

Plushenko, seeking to become the first man to win consecutive Olympic golds since Dick Button in 1952, earned 90.85 points. Skater after skater in perhaps the strongest men's field the games have seen fell far short of that daunting number.

Except for Lysacek and Takahashi, the 2007 world silver medalist.

Lysacek, the two-time U.S. champ, is just .55 points behind Plushenko with Takahashi another .05 back going into Thursday night's free skate. Those margins are so small, the three may as well be tied.

"I've grown up really coming through the ranks admiring his skating and watching him dominate the skating world," Lysacek said of Plushenko, who ended a three-year retirement to chase another Olympic title. "For all of us to have the opportunity to compete with him maybe this one last time -- who knows -- is kind of special."

All three of their programs were beyond special Tuesday night.

This men's competition has been widely anticipated, its field stocked with four world champions, including Plushenko, who is trying to continue Russia's 16-year winning streak in the Olympic men's event.


Plushenko set the tone with a majestic program, daring the competition to match it. Turin runner-up Stephane Lambiel couldn't. Neither could Canada's great hope Patrick Chan. Former world champ Brian Joubert wrecked in spectacular fashion.

It seemed as if they all fell on the imaginary sword Plushenko whipped out, kissed, then replaced in its sheath after his surpassing skate.

But Lysacek and Takahashi took up the challenge. Had either attempted and landed a quad -- Plushenko was the only contender to hit one -- the order at the top might be different.

"It's not about the quad jump," Alexei Mishin, Plushenko's coach, said. "It's about the speed and the steps and the spins."

And the aura -- something the crowd not only recognizes, but embraces.

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To thunderous cheers, Plushenko sauntered around the rink after his program, seemingly looking each spectator in the eye, a conquering hero among his legion of devotees.

"I enjoyed tonight," he said. "I'm as happy as I can be."

But this surely is no runaway like Turin was. First Takahashi, then Lysacek made certain of that.

Takahashi's program was completely different than Plushenko's and Lysacek's, but no less compelling. It was high-octane from the second he stepped on the ice, so jam-packed there was barely time to breathe, let alone rest. His footwork and spins were innovative, proving there is room for creativity in the current judging system.

All that was missing, as he readily noted, was the quad.

"I think it's necessary for competing in something like the Olympics," Takahashi said. "For me and for my success, I think it's important to work on the quad and it's important for the future of the sport."


Lysacek said Tuesday he "most likely" won't do a quad in his free skate, either. He won worlds without one last year; of course, Plushenko wasn't there.

Coach Frank Carroll grabbed Lysacek around both arms to give him a last-second pep talk before he went on the ice. By the time Lysacek finished, the audience was standing, the American was pumping his fists and burying his head in his hands, even holding back tears.

And the three-man breakaway was complete.

"I had some pressure coming in as a reigning world champion and I felt it. I also had a monkey on my back thinking of my short program four years ago in Torino," said Lysacek, who was 10th in the short in 2006 after botching two jumps, but rallied to finish fourth. "To be able to go out and silence all of that really felt good."

Two-time world winner Lambiel is fifth, but he won the silver medal at last month's European championships from the same spot. Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir is sixth, followed by Chan. Jeremy Abbott, winner of the last two American championships, struggled so badly he slipped to 15th.

While anything could happen in the free skate -- the ice is slippery, after all -- the spotlight will shine brightest on Takahashi, Lysacek and, of course, Plushenko.

"I am looking forward to the free skate because there will be more adrenaline and a bunch of the competitors and the spectators will enjoy it even more," Plushenko said. "I will enjoy it even more. It will be a great competition."

[Associated Press; By BARRY WILNER]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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