Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lysacek waves off criticism from Russian Federation

Evan Lysacek hadn't slept a wink.

He had officials escorting him from one interview session to another, and he still had no idea what that Olympic gold medal was doing around his neck.

But, he was well aware he was in the midst of a controversy.

Lysacek, who became the first American since 1988 to capture the men's figure skating gold medal in the Olympics, had dethroned defending Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko.

And since Plushenko had landed a quad and Lysacek hadn't, Russian skating officials in Vancouver were none too pleased.

Plushenko said that he thought he had won and even motioned that his spot was on the top of the medal podium. Over in Moscow, even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chimed in with his displeasure.

Lysacek, meanwhile, seemed to take it all in stride.

After all, he is the Olympic champion.

"I guess I was a little disappointed that someone who was my role model would take a hit at me in probably one of the most special moments of my life that I'll never forget, regardless of what anyone said there,'' Lysacek said. "For him to discredit the field is not right, it's probably the strongest field there has ever been.''

Lysacek added that he could sympathize with Plushenko's emotions, noting that losing is always "a tough pill to swallow.''

The victory marked the first time since 1988 that a member of the Russian Federation or Unified Team had not won skating's top prize. Plushenko, who had earned a silver behind compatriot Alexei Yagudin in 2002 and claimed the gold medal in 2006, entered these Olympics as the heavy favorite for gold. Even though he had taken three-and-a-half years off from competitive skating, he returned this season showing he was more than ready to return.

Plushenko won the short program but his free skate, even with a quad, wasn't sharp. He struggled with his spins and did more hip grinding and blowing kisses than actual transitions and footwork.

Lysacek, who skated conservatively but landed eight triples, wound up defeating Plushenko by 1.31 points. Lysacek said that Plushenko congratulated him and gave him a "good, strong handshake,'' and praised Plushenko for his three Olympic medals. He also noted that they have competed against each other for years and toured together and that he has always respected him.

Although Plushenko might not have shown any animosity toward Lysacek personally, he and his longtime coach, Alexei Mishin, made it abundantly clear to the media that they were not pleased with the outcome. "

Any judge who thinks this is the right champion is a Cyclops," Mishin told reporters. "Without the quad, there is no difference between the men's competition and the women's. Why not let them skate together? Why not have it as a unisex competition in the Olympics?"

Although reaction from the Russians has been fierce, reaction from America's top skaters has been supportive.

Brian Boitano, who had been the last U.S. man to win the Olympic gold medal until Lysacek came along Thursday night, was in the stands in the Pacific Coliseum to witness Olympic history. Both Boitano and Lysacek won their gold medals on Canadian soil, with Boitano winning in Calgary and Lysacek in Vancouver.

"Evan really deserved it,'' Boitano said. "He was mentally strong, and he was flawless.''

Another American champion in the crowd was Michelle Kwan, who has been in Vancouver working with ABC-TV. A longtime friend of Lysacek's, Kwan said his performance moved her to tears.

"He was the first person I ever saw skating that made me tear up,'' Kwan said.

Kwan also trained with Lysacek's coach, Frank Carroll, and was happy that Lysacek could help Carroll achieve his longtime dream of coaching an Olympic gold medalist. Carroll, who is coaching at his 10th Olympics, had come close to gold before. In 1980, Linda Fratianne settled for silver. Eighteen years later, in Nagano, Kwan also garnered a silver.

"I'm thrilled beyond words,'' Kwan said. "I texted him. It's great to see a friend so happy.''

Tim Goebel, who is finishing up his studies at Columbia, also trained with Carroll. Under Carroll's guidance, Goebel earned a bronze medal at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

"Frank is a master at preparing his students to skate their best performances when it counts the most,'' Goebel said. "His contributions to the sport are remarkable, and I am very happy for him to have realized his dream of coaching an Olympic gold medalist. It is well deserved.

"Evan was fantastic. It was great to see one of our guys on top of the podium.''

Carol Heiss Jenkins, the 1960 Olympic champion, watched the men's free skate with her husband, 1956 Olympic gold medalist, Hayes, on TV in their home in Cleveland. As soon as the scores were announced, Heiss Jenkins said she turned to Hayes and said, "We've got to contact Evan and welcome him to the gold-medal club.

"Then I said, 'I am so happy for Frank. I've probably known him since I was 11 or 12 years old, since we both competed in the East. He's been through so much and has had so many wonderful skaters. I'm just so happy because it couldn't have happened to a more wonderful person.''

When Lysacek was at the U.S. Championships last month in Spokane, Wash., he took particular attention to the celebration of America's Olympic gold medalists. All 12 of them, from Dick Button to Sarah Hughes, were in attendance.

Now he's part of that group.

He's just now soaking that in.

When asked if he realized he was indeed the Olympic champion when he awoke this morning, Lysacek replied, "Uhhh ... I haven't gone to sleep yet.''

Lysacek is in such an Olympic daze that he couldn't say for certain whether he will compete next month at the World Championships in Torino.

Nor could he even think about competing in the next Olympic Winter Games. Conveniently, those Games will be held in Sochi.

He does know, however, what his reception would be like in Russia.

"I don't think they'd like to see me,'' Lysacek said.

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