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Cruz: Russian Roulette

U.S. coach says Russians are no big deal

Weiss draws tough first spot for Tuesday






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Monday, February 11, 2002
 
Americans: Anything can happen in figure skating

Associated Press


SALT LAKE CITY -- Maybe the U.S. men should start learning the words to the Russian national anthem and perfect a look that says, "Really, bronze is my favorite color."

No offense to their Russian guests, but the Americans think that idea stinks.

"Favorites, that's all they really are," Michael Weiss said. "When people come in and perform at the Olympic Games, a lot of strange and interesting things happen.

"We're expecting some strange things to happen for us."

It's easy to see why Alexei Yagudin and countryman Evgeni Plushenko are favored in the men's competition, which begins Tuesday night with the short program. Plushenko is the reigning world champion, and has won all but one Olympic-eligible competition the past two seasons.

Yagudin won three straight world titles from 1998-2000, and added a third European crown last month. Oh, and that one competition where Plushenko finished second? Yagudin won it.

"It's unbelievably hard to be the hunted," Yagudin said. "After Nice when I won the world championship, I said to myself, `There's so much pressure to be first all the time at the podium.' It seems like 30 people are trying to get you."

Maybe not 30, but there are at least five here in Salt Lake City who'd like nothing more than to knock Yagudin and Plushenko down -- or even off -- the medals podium. Six-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge and Timothy "Quad King" Goebel are joining Weiss in his tough talk.

Then there's Elvis Stojko, who is finally healthy and eager to get the gold medal that eluded him in the last two Olympics. There's also Takeshi Honda of Japan.

And don't forget about Alexander Abt, the third Russian.

"It's not just two of us," Yagudin insisted. "That's the Olympics, you never know."

Just look at the Olympic record book. Kurt Browning landed the first quadruple jump ever, and is one of the greatest skaters in the sport's history. But not only did he NOT win gold, he never won any Olympic medal.

Then there's Stojko, who everyone was sure would win gold in Lillehammer. Uh, sorry, but Stojko's gold now belongs to Alexei Urmanov.

Going back even further, Emmerich Danzer of Austria went to the 1968 Olympics as the two-time defending world champion -- and went home with nothing.

"I love the fact that the Russians are the favorites," said Richard Callaghan, Eldredge's longtime coach. "I've taught for 30 years, and when two guys are favored, my past experience is that someone else comes in and kind of ruins what is supposed to happen."

The biggest spoiler could be Stojko. He dominated the sport in the 1990s, winning three world championships and finishing in the medals two other times. He's a two-time Olympic silver medalist.

And when he's healthy, he's got the biggest springs in the world. He landed the first quad-double jump combination, and then the first quad-triple combination.

Injuries kept him from being much of a factor the past two seasons, but he's back and he's got something big in his bag of tricks. He's been landing a quadruple lutz in practices this week -- a jump no one's ever completed in competition and few men even try.

"Elvis will try a quad lutz, I understood, from his practices," Yagudin said. "Or he's just trying to scare us."

If the Americans are scared, they're sure not showing it. Frank Carroll, Goebel's coach, is even talking a little trash, questioning the Russians' stamina and saying they have a tendency to run out of gas at the end of their programs.

"They have their flaws and they have their weaknesses," Carroll said. "It's not like we've not been capable of beating them. We have defeated them in the past."

So if Yagudin or Plushenko want to watch the Russian flag rise in the medals ceremony Thursday night, they're going to have to earn it. Because no one's going to give them anything.

Especially a gold medal.

"It's way easier to try to get to first place," Yagudin said, "than to try to keep it."