Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010

Alexei Yagudin and Evegni Plushenko

Going into the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Russian figure skaters Alexei Yagudin and Evegni Plushenko had competed against each other in so many championships — almost always claiming the top two spots — that it was hard to keep track of who had more medals. Yagudin won three World Championships in a row but was unseated by Plushenko in 2001. Plushenko lost to Yagudin twice in the European Championships but then later won. Add in the fact that Yagudin's coach abandoned him to train Plushenko, and it's easy to see why the Russian skaters developed their unfriendly rivalry. "Plushenko and I are not friends," Yagudin told ESPN in 2002. "It's a huge fight at every event."

After he lost to Plushenko at the 2001 World Championships, Yagudin stopped eating. He lost 18 lbs. in five weeks, but his unhealthy attempt at making himself lighter so he could jump higher backfired. He lost every competition against Plushenko and even crashed into the boards in Russia's Goodwill Games. Yagudin regained the weight and beat Plushenko at the the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final just a few months before the 2002 Olympics. In Salt Lake he skated a flawless routine and became the first male skater in 50 years to earn first-place votes of every single judge. In 2003, an injured hip caused Yagudin to retire from skating. Plushenko continued to compete, winning a gold medal in the 2006 Olympics and this year's much-decried silver at Vancouver. Yagudin has since had a hip replacement and is rumored to be planning a return to the rink. If and when that happens, Plushenko will be waiting for him.