Day One, Team Event

The dust has finally settled on the first part of the first Olympic team event, featuring the short programs of men and pairs. And these are the things you don’t necessarily see on TV:

Evgeny Plushenko came out with his usual magnificence, looking as if he was at the top of his game, and outfooting Patrick Chan (although not Yuzuru Hanyu). But dig deeper and you’ll see that Plushenko front-loaded his routine with his jumps, as he has always done in the past, even though now jumps done in the second half are worth an extra 10 per cent. It worked for him, obviously, as he raked in 91.39 points, which is .09 points higher than the world record he set years ago. (Hanyu now holds the mark of 99.84.)

A peek at a free skate he did earlier this year in a small competition showed Plushenko putting more jumps in the second half than usual, so it seems he learned a lesson from his loss at the Vancouver Games. At the Russian nationals, that felled him. He didn’t skate well, said that his 31-year-old battered body failed him. On Thursday, he was so much on fire in that short program, you have to tip your hat to him. But one brave judge gave him 4.50 out of 10 for transitions, something he lacked in the past and that was a top subject of interest at the Vancouver Olympics. The same judge gave him a 6.75 for skating skills, although granting him an 8.25 for performance. Plushenko received program components marks of 43.21, lower than Hanyu and Chan.

Chan narrowly outscored Hanyu on the component mark, but lags behind him by about eight points technically after making a couple of mistakes. The big difference between those two skaters: Chan looked tense. Hanyu looked very confident and relaxed, almost as if he owned the ice. That’s very telling. In 1998, I had a feeling about the upward trajectory that Ilia Kulik was taking and the aura surrounding him in the month leading up to the Nagano Games, and sure enough, Kulik won. I get the same feeling about Hanyu. The thing is, so much can change day by day. And nobody has done a team event before.

Also notice: Plushenko’s quad-triple earned him 16.40 points, an incredible score. I’ve seen higher but not often. Chan’s quad-double got 12.17, but it wasn’t as well executed. Hanyu didn’t do a quad combination, but his quad got 12.44 points, more than Chan got for his combination.

In the pairs event, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia were breathlessly brilliant. Nobody can argue with the trunkload of +3s (the top bonus mark possible) they got for their triple twist and step sequence – and the crazy number of 10.00s (out of 10) for presentation. They leave you in awe.

The Russians finished more than 10 points higher than Canadian champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, who had their own Olympic moment, skating the best short program performance of their career to Radford’s own composition “Tribute.” The Canadians finished second to the Russians and they can take this memory on Olympic ice with them when they continue on to the individual event, hoping to win a medal.

It won’t be easy. There are competitors who have improved since Duhamel and Radford won bronze at the world championships last March in London, Ont. Pang Qing and Tong Jian of China faltered last year with injuries, but this season, they’ve been reborn, offer beautiful programs and seem back on track. Remember they won the free skate at the Vancouver Olympics, skating to “The Impossible Dream.”

And China’s other team, Peng Cheng and Zhang Hao, who looked hopelessly out of tune last year, have become a real pair team, despite the disparity of age and experience. Peng may be a better pair partner than Zhang Dan, Zhang’s first partner. She’s expressive and tinier and very brave. Peng and Zhang finished just a couple of points behind the Canadians.

And close on their heels in fourth in the team short program is Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek of Italy, which doesn’t really have much of a pair history. In the past year, Berton and Hotarek have blossomed, to the point that they won Skate Canada, and they’re no longer a team that hovered just inside the top 10. They skate with heart. Read my bio on them in the ebook version of my “Skating to Sochi.” This chapter isn’t in the printed version.

Much could change in the coming days in the team event, as countries jostle to make their way into the top five. Only five move on to the final. Russia has strong female competitors and some good dance teams. Canada has Tessa Virtue and Moir, defending Olympic champions, and Kaetlyn Osmond, a skater who can rise to a challenge. There is a good chance that the United States’ women and ice dancers can pull them back into the top five. Japan is currently fourth, but still has strong women. China, currently in third, has already offered up its best skaters, although Li Jijun did finish fourth at the world championships last year.

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