Friday, February 15, 2002
Russian triangle not likely to be friends soon
By Jim Caple
SALT LAKE CITY -- It was the first Olympic press conference that needed Dr. Phil instead of a translator.
You thought the pairs figure skating competition was a soap opera? That was nothing compared to the group therapy session that broke out after the men's championship Thursday night. It was like the Culkin Family Goes Skating.
Teammates Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko became the first Russian Olympians to ever take the gold and silver in men's figure skating and they wouldn't even look at each other during the press conference despite sitting only three feet apart. Nor would Yagudin so much as glance at his old coach, Alexei Mishin, who, by the most amazing coincidence, currently coaches Plushenko.
Not that Yagudin needed to look at Mishin for everyone to know exactly whom he had in mind when the new gold medalist and three-time world champion repeatedly talked about unnamed people who didn't believe in him and how much he has improved as a skater since leaving a certain coach he would not name.
At least Mishin attempted to be gracious when he was asked whether he could take any credit for Yagudin's medal and historic performance.
"It is a very difficult task to begin to divide the medals," he said. "So I think everyone should decide for his own which part is mine, which part his previous coach, and which part of the medal belongs to new coach.
"But I would like to tell my personal opinion that I am very proud two Russians are on the podium. And I am also proud two of my skaters were on the podium. One, my former skater and the other, my current skater."
Without prompting, Yagudin responded to this statement by praising his current coach, Tatiana Tarasova, then bluntly saying, "I guess the gold medal belongs just to me and to Tatiana."
Hmmm. Did it get colder in here all of a sudden or it just me?
Not to get too deep into it here, but Yagudin's resentment toward Mishin partially stems from his father abandoning him when he was 11 years old. The two haven't spoken since. Small wonder then he felt jealous when Mishin started paying more attention to his new young star pupil, Plushenko, several years ago.
"He felt my heart was closer to Evgeni," Mishin said. "It is like a man with two wives. Is it possible to balance the love you feel for the two? Alexei maybe thought I gave Evgeni too much love."
Hmmm, isn't that Drew Bledsoe's beef with Bill Belichick?
After a flareup at the 1998 Olympics, Yagudin told Mishin he was leaving, hoping the coach would dump Plushenko to keep him. Instead, Mishin told him the Russian equivalent of, "Have a nice life." Yagudin hasn't forgiven him.
"Alexei came to me," Tarasova said, "because he felt Mr. Mishin did not love him and children cannot forget such things."
As Yagudin is only too happy to tell anyone who asks, Tarasova turned him into an artist, not just a jumper. He showed that on the ice this week, playing to the crowd, tossing ice around and displaying more emotional range than Sean Penn during his routine to "The Man in the Iron Mask."
Yagudin landed his opening quad-triple-double, and after he landed a second quad, he said he realized that "within a few minutes I will be wearing a gold medal."
When he finally ended the routine, Yagudin immediately collapsed to the ice, knowing that he had skated the performance of his life. He kissed the ice, thrust his arms skyward and then leaped several feet off the ice.
"I was like in a good dream," he said. "I just remembered how many hard times and happy times I had for four years. And how much crap was thrown in my face about how I am not such a good skater. I was keeping that within myself until I won. It was really hard, but that's what was in my life for four years. And I am so lucky to have such a good coach who changed me."
Yagudin received solid 5.9s for technical merit and an unprecedented four 6.0 scores for presentation. No other single skater in Olympic history had ever received more than one 6.0s (Torvill and Dean received nine in 1984).
He finished so far ahead of his competitors that it was like Secretariat in the Belmont. Not that Plushenko would give him much credit. Asked whether he could have defeated Yagudin even if he had skated his absolute best, Plushenko refused to concede the obvious. Instead, he contended that if he had finished higher in the short program, he would have had a chance to compete for the gold.
Hey, don't cry, Evgeni. Daddy loves you, too.
Asked whether the three could ever forgive each other and live happily ever after, Yagudin said flatly, "Probably not because my coach is Tatiana now."
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, Timothy Goebel sat beaming with his bronze medal and occasionally exchanging bemused glances with his coach, Frank Carroll, as if to say, "That will never be you and me, Frank. Never."
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.