Yevgeny Plyushchenko, athlete

Yevgeny Plyushchenko, 18, is the golden boy of figure skating. Not because he is a son of some VIPs or former champions. Not even because he likes to perform in bright, at times  provocative costumes.

It is because skating experts are already predicting that Plyushchenko will take the gold in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Plyushchenko was born to be an ice skater. After the recent European Championship in Bratislava, Plyushchenko’s coach, Alexei Mishin, was asked what makes the skater so much stronger than his rivals. Mishin responded without hesitating: “An ideal combination of technique and artistic presentation. In general, Plyushchenko, in my view, is an ideal skater.”

Not all Russian coaches would automatically agree with Mishin, of course, chief among them Tatyana Tarasova, coach for Plyushchenko’s long-time rival Alexei Yagudin. Yet even Tarasova admits that technical preparation is the component which plays a decisive role in ice skating. And Plyushchenko’s combination of three consecutive jumps — a quadruple, a triple and a double — is truly unique.

Even so, Plyushchenko says he would like to prepare something even more “hi-tech” for the Olympics. “For example,” he said, “when practicing, I execute two quadruple jumps. And in the future I will probably jump those in competition, though for now I am not taking this risk.”

Plyushchenko developed his amazing jumping technique early in his childhood. He began his ice figure skating training in Volgograd under coach Mikhail Makoveev. Unlike other specialists, Makoveev stressed the importance of all-around fitness. “We did 10 km cross-country runs,” Plyushchenko said. “We worked with weights. It was tough, but later I realized how helpful it was for me.”

But of course it was St. Petersburg’s legendary Mishin who made a star out of Plyushchenko, taking him under his wing when the young skater was just 11. At that time, Mishin already had two very talented skaters in his elite training school — Alexei Urmanov, 1994 Olympic gold medalist, and Alexei Yagudin, current world champion. But Plyushchenko became Mishin’s pet, almost like a son, Mishin confessed. This favortism led to a scandal with Yagudin, who left Mishin to work with Tarasova.

Mishin was right to place his bets on Plyushchenko. At 16 Yevgeny won the world gold at the Juniors Championship. At 17, he won the adult European title. However, last year in Nice, he lost to the more experienced Yagudin after making several mistakes. “I kept saying over and over to Yevgeny before his free program: ‘Don’t think about the gold, just skate like you can,’ Mishin recalled, “But he was too young to understand what needed to be done.”

For the 2001 season Plyushchenko and Mishin prepared a new program, to the tune of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.” Both feel it is a much more spectacular program for Plyushchenko. And early returns are supporting that view. At the European Championship in Bratislava (Slovakia) and at the finals of the Tokyo Grand-Prix, the audiences gave Plyushchenko standing ovations. Yagudin had no chance at the top slot.

“Ever since that championship in Nice, I changed a lot,” Plyushchenko confessed. “Back then, I lost to Alexei because I was too fixated on the gold. Now I will force myself not to think about any awards. I just step out on the ice, close my eyes and the rest of the world ceases to exist for me. That’s what it is all about.”

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