US Figure Skating Falters at Start of Team Competition as Other Nations Flourish

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US Figure Skating Falters at Start of Team Competition as Other Nations Flourish
Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press

Where has it gone?

U.S. figure skating.

We do have ice dancing to root for, at least.

But who would have guessed 20 years after Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan dominated Olympics headlines, that no U.S. woman would be in serious contention for a figure skating medal?

Even before the Sochi Opening Ceremonies, the Russians put on their own chosen sport—the team skating competition.

Each of 10 teams skated a men's singles and pairs program, with ice dancing and women's singles to come.

Remember when the U.S. men won gold with Evan Lysacek or had a chance with Todd Eldredge? Well, Jeremy Abbott, a four-time U.S. champion, finished seventh among the men Thursday, just about guaranteeing the U.S. will not win a medal.

Evgeni Plushenko stole the show first, then Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan stole the men's lead in this new team event.

The 31-year-old Plushenko, in what certainly will be his final Olympics, put on his best performance in years. For nearly three minutes, he had the crowd on its feet. For almost an hour he had Russia atop the standings.

But Hanyu, the Grand Prix champion and among the favorites for the individual gold medal, was even better—by six-and-a-half points. The 19-year-old was smoother and more intricate with his footwork than Pluschenko. His jumps looked as if they almost touched the ceiling and his landings were quiet as a mouse. His spins were so perfect not a chunk of ice came off the rink, his jumps were massive—he nearly crossed the width of the ice on his triple axel—and his spins were exquisite.

When he finished, Hanyu bowed to his teammates who were celebrating in the cheering section behind the end boards. While awaiting the marks, the team joined up in the kiss-and-cry area, dancing behind Hanyu before his 97.98 points hit the scoreboard.

"He was my hero," Hanyu said of Plushenko. "That's why I was happy to skate here with him."

That earned Japan 10 points to nine for Russia and eight for Canada as three-time world champion Patrick Chan struggled. The United States was seventh after a poor showing by Abbott.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

After the first two events, Russia leads in team competition with Canada second, China third, Japan fourth, Germany fifth, France sixth, the U.S seventh, Italy eighth, Ukraine ninth and Great Britain 10th. If the U.S. is to pull into the top five and make the finals, the ice dance couple of Charlie White and Meryl Davis will have to be at their best.

Hanyu's coach, Brian Orser, helped Yuna Kim win the 2010 Olympic gold, but was perplexed about how to approach the team competition.

"It's so strange for all of us, for the athletes, for the coaches," said Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist with an eye to the upcoming singles competition. "You want your athlete to nail it. You can't tell them to hold back."

Later Thursday night was the pairs short program in the team competition.

The veteran Plushenko pulled out all his tricks, and they were considerable. But after hitting his quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination, an insecure triple axel and a triple Lutz to open the routine, he slowed down considerably.

No matter, because the three-time Olympic medalist had the crowd members—and the judges—eating out of their hands. And when he pumped his arms midway through his skate to "Tango de Roxanne," as if asking for more cheers, the sound level skyrocketed.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

"I already win for myself, because after 12 surgeries in my body, I can skate for (a) fourth time in Olympic Games," said Plushenko, who won silver in 2002 and 2010 as well as gold in 2006. "So it's already good. And today, with this day, this first day for me, I'm so happy today."

Ever the master showman, at the end of his 2:48 performance, Plushenko spent just as much time soaking up the adulation.

He threw kisses to the fans, took long and deep bows, including a final one just before he exited to be surrounded by his teammates.

"It's hard competing at home, so hard," he said. "But, sometimes it helps. I came from there, from there, there, there, everybody screaming, everybody talking. I was a little bit shocked, I was like dizzy. Concentrate, concentrate."

There was little celebrating for the Americans after U.S. champ Abbott crashed to the ice on his planned quad and popped a triple axel into a single.

His 65.65 points severely damaged the U.S.' chances for a gold medal in the new event, and he said he was "torn apart" by his performance.

It was yet another flop for Abbott, of Vail, Colo., on the international stage, where he has never finished higher than fifth in a major championship. He plans to retire from competition after this season.

Chan also disappointed, stepping out of a triple axel and doing only a double toe loop at the end of his combination jump.

"There's many times in my career where I went out and did the program and came back off the ice and said, 'Oh, I wish I could do it again,'" Chan said.

All 10 teams had contingents sitting in a cheering section divided by nations. There were group hugs for skaters as they exited the rink, and the Germans even brought a huge cowbell they clanged often.

Not much clanging for the Americans in figure skating this time around. This may be their worst team since a plane crash in 1961 that devastated the squad; not since then has the U.S. team shown up with so many underdogs. 

It may be time to bone up on luge, bobsled and skiing because this first week of figure skating is going to be chock-full of fifth- and sixth-place finishes for all the American skaters except the dancers. No one would have guessed that 20 years ago in the Olympics that became known as Tonya-Nancy.

Unless otherwise noted all quotes via NBC Live Extra online news conferences.

Diane Pucin is the Olympics lead writer for Bleacher Report. She covered four Winter Games for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @mepucin.

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