Sunday was a night of firsts for the Russian figure skating team, who took home the host country’s first gold medal of the 2014 Sochi Games in the event’s inaugural Olympics.
Premiering in Sochi, the skating team competition featured 10 teams competing in six events—men's individual skate, women's individual skate, pairs skating and ice dancing. Team scores were tallied based on performances in the short program and free skate in each category (see Deadspin for a complete explanation of the rules).
Considered a perennial powerhouse on the rink, Russia failed to take home a single gold in figure skating in Vancouver, making Sunday’s win even sweeter heading into individual competition later this week (the pairs short program starts Tuesday).
Here are five big takeaways from Russia’s performance over the weekend.
Something Old, Something New
The Russian squad was anchored by two skaters on opposite ends of their careers. At 15, Julia Lipnitskaia posted a dominant performance in the women’s competition, becoming the youngest athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics (she is six days younger than 1998 Nagano champion Tara Lipinski).
On the men’s side, Evgeni Plushenko, competing in his fourth Olympics, earned 19 points for the Russian team, and finished second and first respectively in the short program and free skate.
Oddly, according to Barry Wilner from AP,it was Lipnitskaia who appeared the most composed on Sunday, saying she was “calm” during her performance, while the more experienced Plushenko was not immune to nerves:
This games is the hardest for me. All the fans are cheering so hard that you literally cannot do badly because they do everything with you. You get goose bumps."
An Emphatic Win
Skating in front of President Vladimir Putin, the Russians didn’t so much win as shut out the competition, finishing third or better in every event to win the gold before the final competitors in free dance even took the ice.
Though the Canadians had the most star-studded line-up, featuring the 2010 gold-medalist ice dancing team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Russian team hit its stride in front of the home crowd.
Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist for the United States, told Jere Longman of The New York Times:
I think it’s huge for [Russia]...The Olympics have been about selling it to the home crowd. Ninety-five percent of the audience is Russian. There is a sense that they really want to nail it with an exclamation point, and they’re doing it.
The Plot Thickens in the Women’s Competition
Russia’s emphatic performance sent a statement to the rest of the field heading into the individual competition this week.
In the women’s competition, Lipnitskaia placed first in both the short program and the free skate, relegating American hopeful Gracie Gold to second in the free skate portion by a margin of 15 points.
That said, the team event did not feature a completely loaded roster in the women’s event, including 2010 gold medalist Yuna Kim.
Kim holds the highest ladies’ free skating score ever from Vancouver, tallying 150.06 points, and Lipnitskaia now sits in second after her 141.15-point performance on Sunday.
Plushenko’s Swan Song
While Plushenko posted a solid performance in the team event, earning a first and a second place finish, the four-time Olympic medalist was not in his best form, going through the motions in a way uncharacteristic of the typically showy performer.
A controversial character (and less-than-gracious winner of the silver medal in Vancouver), Plushenko has cemented himself as one of the greatest of all time in men’s figure skating over the last decade and is competing in his final Olympics after several surgeries, including back surgery last year. The 31-year-old is the “Brett Favre of figure skating,” as Deadspin’s Samer Kalaf writes.
A hate-to-love-him, love-to-hate-him competitor, Plushenko comes into his final Games not quite at the top of his game, but his performance in the team event showed the Russian isn’t done quite yet.
Strong Start for New Event
The team event was the first introduction of a new figure skating event at the Olympics since 1976 but stellar performances across the board helped legitimize the new event early.
Additionally, the team format served as a tantalizing preview to the upcoming individual competitions for viewers and provided competitors with an environment to gauge their performances with the cushion of the team format.
American ice dancer Charlie White told ESPN’s Jim Caple:
I think it's a lot of fun. Having grown up playing hockey, I think you get a little extra something when you know there are others relying on you and you know that you have the support of your teammates."
Finally, the team event generated buzz in particular for the women’s event following Lipnitskaia’s performance, hopefully meaning more viewers this week.