SOCHI, Russia (AP) — A master showman and four-time Olympic medalist, Evgeni Plushenko knows brilliance on the ice.
He saw it Sunday night inside the Iceberg at Sochi’s Olympic Park from a countrywoman half his age. And he is certain Russia’s figure skating future is secure in the skates of Julia Lipnitskaia.
“She is a genius,” Plushenko said.
Along with eight teammates, the 31-year-old veteran and 15-year-old Olympic rookie won the new event of team figure skating and lifted the host nation to its first gold medal of the Sochi Olympics. Together, they put Russia back atop a sport it once dominated.
“My main motivation today,” Lipnitskaia said, “was not to let the team down.”
There was no chance of that in an arena packed with her exulting countrymen, including President Vladimir Putin. The Russians skated away from Canada and the United States to win the gold before the final free dance even started.
In no discipline did Russia finish worse than third, compiling 75 points to Canada’s 65 that won silver and the 60 that gave bronze to the Americans.
It was a rout built on the experience of Plushenko, the consummate entertainer who now has two golds and two silvers — a record for modern-era figure skaters.
It was victory capped by the freshness of Lipnitskaia, who donned a Russia baseball cap when she was done with her sublime tour of the ice, sat with her triumphant teammates and grinned like the school kid she is.
“I was calm,” Lipnitskaia said, adding it was her coaches, parents and teammates who were nervous. “I’m happy with my marks, the scores overall, for the team and for all of Russia. I am so pleased all the country could help me.”
That includes Putin, who personally congratulated the team after their victory and picked the perfect competition to make his first at these games. Also in the Iceberg stands: members of the Russian ice-hockey team, Olympic champion gymnast Alina Kabayeva and two-time Olympic champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva.
“We feel joy and honor,” said ice dancer Elena Ilinykh of Putin’s presence. “It was inspirational.”
That some other countries sat out their top skaters or that the Russians did the same in pairs and dance didn’t matter. This was never much of a contest.
“This games is the hardest for me,” Plushenko said. “All the fans are cheering so hard that you literally cannot do badly because they do everything with you. You get goose bumps.”
The Americans’ bronze effort was led by world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won both the short and free dance, and helped by national champion Gracie Gold’s superb free skate, which the judges scored second behind Lipnitskaia.
“We were looking forward to this event,” White said. “We feel like we were out there for each other and with each other.”
Davis and White beat their top rivals and training partners, defending champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, in both dance disciplines. Canada didn’t win any segment, but built enough points throughout to take silver.
American Jason Brown of Highland Park, Ill., was fourth in his first major senior international event.
But those are just details. This was a night for a Russian show that might be celebrated as much as the Bolshoi.
It signals the country’s return to the top of a sport it had owned for decades. As the Soviet Union or Russia, the host nation had won 51 Olympic figure skating medals. But there were no golds in Vancouver four years ago, a first since the country was blanked in 1960.
Now, in the first figure skating event of the Sochi Games, Russia stood atop the medals podium.
It’s a place the sensational Lipnitskaia could make her own, just as Plushenko has done for more than a decade. Her routine to “Schindler’s List” was mesmerizing. With maturity and grace beyond her years, she clearly was never bothered by her surroundings on this golden night for Russia.
“She’s dynamite,” Gold said while Lipnitskaia was still skating. “She’s 15 and completely unfazed.”
Lipnitskaia then contorted her body into one of her spins that a human body shouldn’t be able to perform.
“She has no spine,” Gold added with a chuckle. “But she has iron in her bones.”
Give Plushenko plenty of credit, too. He says he’s had 12 surgeries. He barely competed after finishing second to American Evan Lysacek in 2010 at the Vancouver Games. And he had to convince his federation he deserved to be in Sochi after finishing second at the national championships.
Mission accomplished, with a golden hue.
Skating to “Best of Plushenko,” there were mistakes in his jumps and not much in between them aside from the required footwork. No, it was not his best, but he scored 168.20 points.
“Today he was a good member of the team,” said his longtime coach, Alexei Mishin. “He’s enough famous and enough great.”