Instead of competing, Evgeni Plushenko took a curtain call.
The Russian withdrew from the men’s event at the Sochi Olympics on Thursday after aggravating his chronically bad back in practice a day earlier. The 2006 Olympic champion was in obvious pain after tweaking his back again during warm-ups, saying afterward that he couldn’t feel his right leg.
“Today in the morning, I can’t jump … but I said to myself, ‘Evgeni, you must skate. You must. You need two more days, the short and the long program,”’ Plushenko said. “And I came on the warm-up and … I felt it, like knife in the back.
“I think it’s God saying, ‘Evgeni, enough. Enough to skate. You did a lot of figure skating,'” Plushenko added.
When his name was called, Plushenko came onto the ice slowly, his hands on the small of his balky back. He waved to the home crowd and then skated slowly to the referee.
After his withdrawal was announced, he waved again to the crowd and put his right hand on his heart.
“This is not tragedy what happened with Evgeni,” coach Alexei Mishin said. “I was with him 20 years. Mostly we have good success. Mostly he was a winner.”
That’s an understatement.
His gold with Russia in the inaugural team event was his fourth Olympic medal, tying him with Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom as the most decorated Olympic figure skaters. In addition to his gold at the Turin Games, he was the silver medalist in 2010 and 2002. He’s also a three-time world champion.
The ultimate showman, he turned back the clock with his performances in the team competition. Though the jumps don’t come as easily as they once did and he spends much of his program preening and posing, there are few skaters who can match Plushenko’s presence on the ice. His “Best of Plushenko” free skate was like a greatest hits montage, snippets of his best programs through the years.
The judges were as enamored as the audience, rewarding him with generous scores and the victory in the men’s portion of the team competition. Many thought that would be the perfect exit for the 31-year-old, especially since he was unlikely to contend for a medal in what is one of the deepest men’s fields in recent memory. Plushenko opened the door to that when he said he’d felt pain in his back on his final two jumps – he has a long history of back trouble, and still has four screws in his back from a surgery in early 2013.
But the deadline to withdraw came and went Monday morning, and Plushenko’s camp said he decided to stay in the competition and skate for his fans one last time.
Instead, he said goodbye.
Plushenko was greeted by tooting horns, waving flags and cheers of “Zhen-ya! Zhen-ya!” when he came out for warm-ups, and again when he took the ice for his program. But when he came out to skate, it was clear he was in pain and there would be no encore of his emotional performances in the team competition.
The Iceberg Palace went silent as a somber Plushenko skated to the boards to talk to the referee. And though he tried to smile as he acknowledged the crowd, his legs appeared to almost buckle beneath him when he left the ice and Mishin had to grab him to support him.
“He was not able to do anything, not according to fair play,” Mishin said.
Though Plushenko has a huge following, his withdrawal is sure to raise some eyebrows. Russia had only one men’s spot in Sochi, and Plushenko finished second to Maxim Kovtun at the national championships. But Russian officials opted to send Plushenko over the teenager, who has been inconsistent at major events.
Plushenko could have withdrawn after the team competition and been replaced by Kovtun or another skater, but he opted not to.
“Of course, I’m disappointed,” said Plushenko, who said this will end his amateur career. “I’m disappointed because I tried my best. I want to skate. But this happened.”