The Russian figure skating icon underwent back surgery in January 2013. And in December, he failed to win his national championship, beaten by a fast-rising 18-year-old.
But Plushenko, 31, was so determined to finish his career at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, on his beloved Russian soil and in front of an adoring Russian audience, that he staged a private performance for the selection committee, which voted to award him the country’s lone men’s figure skating entry.
The Sochi Winter Games would be, Plushenko later proclaimed, the “curtain-ender” of his career. And with a new figure skating discipline added to the mix, Sochi would represent a chance to add two more medals to his already glittering cache, which consisted of the 2006 Olympic gold medal and silvers from 2002 and 2010.
But champions’ careers rarely end so poetically. And Thursday at Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace, the curtain came down on Plushenko’s in a harsh, sad manner, with the four-time Olympian bent over and clutching his back on the ice, coming to grips with the fact his competitive life was over.
When the announcer called his name, instead of skating to center ice for his music cue, Plushenko skated to the side of the rink and conferred with his longtime coach, Alexei Mishin. He then skated to the judges’ table, shook hands with the referee and turned to raise both arms in acknowledgement of the audience that had fallen silent.
As he skated off, the announcer explained he had withdrawn for medical reasons.
“I am sorry for my fans and for everybody, but I tried ’til the end,” Plushenko said afterward, explaining he had reinjured his back in training the day before. “I almost cried. It’s hard, believe me. This is not how I wanted to end my career. I am very disappointed. But I tried to do my best.”
With 23 skaters still to compete, the men’s short programs at the Sochi Olympics carried on.
Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu set a breathtakingly high bar two-thirds of the way through the competition, earning a season-high 101.45 points, and no rival came close to equaling it. With it, the 19-year-old skater with impossibly light jumps and a teen-idol’s charm seized the lead in the men’s competition.
Canada’s Patrick Chan, the three-time and defending world champion, was best positioned to overtake the Japanese teen. But Chan stepped out on a triple axel, a rare mistake, and finished second (97.52). Spain’s Javier Fernandez was a distant third (86.98).
American Jason Brown proclaimed himself thrilled with his season-high marks (86.00) for a short program performed to Prince’s “The Question of U.” That earned him sixth place, particularly impressive marks for a program that lacks a quadruple jump.
Four-time and defending U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott added to the evening’s drama. With his timing off, Abbott’s body-positioning went horribly awry as he launched into his opening jump sequence — a quad toe-triple toe combination that he had nailed in practice — and he fell with a sharp crack, slid into the boards and lay motionless for several seconds before rolling over and grabbing his right hip.
Stunningly, Abbott got back on his feet and, as the Russian crowd cheered and clapped, skated to center ice and resumed his performance. The 28-year-old Abbott nailed every jump that followed and was rewarded by cheers, buzzing horns and waving flags, both Russian and American.
Afterward, he thanked the fans for pulling him through.
“The second I stood up and all of the audience was screaming, I was like, ‘F-f . . . Forget it all! I’m finishing the program! I don’t care if I’m two minutes late; I don’t care what happens with the rest of it. But I’m getting up and not going to give up this moment!’
“I’m so thankful and grateful to them. As much of a disappointment as this is, I’m not ashamed. I’m not in the least bit ashamed. I stood up and finished the program. And I’m proud of my effort, and I’m proud of what I did under the circumstances.”
Abbott’s score (72.58) placed him 15th, and he said he’ll compete Friday.
But as most skaters came off the ice, they were asked about Plushenko, who was instrumental in Russia’s gold-medal victory in last week’s team event.
“I admire him so much,” Brown said, wishing him a full recovery.
Chan lamented not getting the chance to compete against him.
And at least one, Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic, questioned whether Plushenko should have taken himself out of the competition earlier to allow another Russian man to compete.
Looking on from a suite, reigning Olympic champion Evan Lysacek felt a mixture of empathy, admiration and sadness.
Lysacek beat Plushenko for gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games, winning judges’ favor with the artistry and intricacy of his skating. Plushenko, who had performed the difficult quadruple jump (unlike Lysacek), expressed his displeasure with the outcome by walking across the gold medal platform en route to the silver.
Lysacek referenced none of that Friday.
“His stats speak for themselves: He has had such an impressive track record and such a long career,” said Lysacek, 28. “I’ve always looked up to him. He was a good role model for me. He was always a very intense competitor, and I appreciated and respect that about him. I just think it’s sad for it to come to an end this way.”