To Alexei Mishin, the leprechaunlike Russian who trained them,
they are the prodigy and the prodigal son.
The prodigy: 19-year-old Evgeni Plushenko, the reigning world
champion, a mop-haired, hawk-nosed, scarecrow-limber Rod Stewart
The prodigal son: 21-year-old Alexei Yagudin, world champ from
1998 through 2000, obsessive, dramatic, powerful and so insecure
in his brilliance that he left his coach, family and homeland
rather than share Mishin's time and attention with Plushenko,
the up-and-coming star.
Not since 1988 and the Battle of the Brians, in which Boitano of
the U.S. edged Orser of Canada for the gold in Calgary, have two
men been so far ahead of the field and so evenly matched in an
Olympic year. Between them, Plushenko and Yagudin have dominated
their sport for four years, winning the last four world
championships, the last five European championships and
finishing one-two in the last two International Skating Union
Grand Prix finals, each winning once. Along the way they've
continually ratcheted up the difficulty of their jumps, so that
they're now attempting combinations unheard of four years ago,
when Yagudin finished fifth in Nagano and Plushenko failed to
qualify for his country's Olympic team.
Both are planning to do a quadruple toe loop-triple toe
loop-triple loop combination in these Games (competition begins
today at 5:15 p.m., with the short program), a dizzying aerial
array never before landed in competition. Plushenko has further
hinted that he hopes to become the first skater to land a quad
Lutz. Yagudin hopes to match that feat with a quad toe loop-half
loop-quad Salchow combo. It begins to sound like a quadruple
helping of mumbo jumbo to the average fan, who needs to know
nothing more than this: Plushenko and Yagudin are extending the
frontiers of figure skating in a way no one has done since Dick
Button began introducing triples some 50 years ago. Never close
friends, their rivalry has magnified their differences to the
point that it's inconceivable that they won't collide. One will
win, and the other will resent it for the rest of his life.
Their story begins with the diminutive Mishin. A former pairs
skater, Mishin, 60, is head of the St. Petersburg Figure Skating
Academy. Internationally acclaimed for his ability to teach
flawless jumping technique, Mishin has groomed, among others,
Alexei Urmanov, the 1994 Olympic gold medalist. It's the goal of
every young hotshot in St. Petersburg to train under him, and
his goal is to turn every student into a champion.
Yagudin is one of the lucky ones. An only child, he started
skating when he was four after his mother, Zoya Yagudina, a
single mom who worked as a computer programmer, saw an ad in a
newspaper for tryouts. Skating soon became serious work. For
five years Yagudin practiced twice a day, 90 minutes each
session, hustling between a small rink, his school and the
family's St. Petersburg apartment. "My mom was like father and
mother," Yagudin says. "If I didn't do a jump in practice, she
used to take away the cable TV. I used to watch an American soap
opera called Santa Barbara, so this was the worst threat she
could make: No jump, no TV."
When Yagudin was 10, his coach, Alexander Mayorov, took a
coaching job in Sweden. Mayorov had been a student of Mishin's,
and before he left he passed the star pupil on to the master.
Plushenko's route to Mishin covered many more miles. He was born
in Siberia and spent his first two years living in a railway
coach car while his parents worked for the Siberian railroad.
Temperatures routinely dropped to -40[degrees] in winter, and
young Evgeni developed a chronic cough. Seeking a better
climate, the Plushenkos moved west to Volgograd. When Evgeni was
four, his mom, Tatiana, following a doctor's advice, signed him
up for skating and dance classes. He excelled at both, but there
are only so many recreational hours in a day. "The dance coach
said, 'You must dance, not skate,'" Plushenko recalls. "The
skate coach said, 'You must skate, not dance.' My mother said,
'You must choose.'"
So he skated. His mother was not an athlete, but she proved to
have fine instincts by encouraging him to be unique. She was
intrigued with the Biellmann spin, in which a skater's free leg
is lifted behind the back and held over the head while
spinning--a feat of flexibility no male skater had ever
performed on a world stage. His mother wanted Evgeni to learn
it, so every night in the kitchen she stood behind him and
pulled his leg up into the Biellmann position, first the left
one, then the right. Plushenko still frowns at the memory. "I
told her, 'It's so much pain. I don't need this.' But we work
and stretch hard. Now I say, 'Thank you, Mommy.'"
Plushenko's first coach was a former weightlifter, Mikhail
Makoveyev, who'd learned figure skating techniques by attending
a sports academy. Plushenko and Makoveyev trained at the only
rink in Volgograd, but in 1993, when Plushenko was 11, the arena
was closed and converted into an auto repair facility. "My
mother said, 'O.K., let's play soccer or karate,'" Plushenko
says, "but I'd skated seven years, and I told her, 'Maybe I'll
go to Moscow or St. Petersburg, where the rinks are.' My mother
said, 'We have no money.' But my coach said he had a friend who
would take care of everything."
Makoveyev's friend was Mishin, who already had Urmanov and
Yagudin training with him. Mishin remembers the 11-year-old
Plushenko as a skinny kid with a big nose and a resilient
nature. "It was not so easy to see he would become what he is
today," Mishin says, "but I saw he had feelings for beauty. He
also had a strong soul. The others picked on him in practice and
made him cry every day. He would do his Biellmann, and they'd
bop him on the forehead with their fingers and tell him to stop.
The other skaters were jealous of him."
Plushenko could do all the triple jumps by the time he was 12,
and he landed his first quadruple toe loop at 14. Yagudin won
the world junior championships in 1996 at 15, and when he didn't
defend his title the next year, Plushenko won it at 14. His
Biellmann spin was a sensation internationally, and Mishin
called the young star "the future of skating." None of which sat
well with Yagudin.
In 1998, just shy of his 18th birthday, Yagudin came into his
own. A powerful skater who seemed to levitate when launching his
big jumps--quad toe, triple Axel--he won both the European
championship and the world title that year. (Plushenko, still a
coltish 15, finished second and third, respectively.) Then
Yagudin told Mishin he was leaving. "Mishin had so many good
students that he couldn't work with just me," he says. "I like
it when I can't escape the coach's eyes."
He was hoping, of course, that Mishin would choose him, the new
world champion, over Plushenko. Mishin wouldn't do it. "He said,
'I'm not going to beg you to stay,'" Yagudin recalls. "'It's
your life.' When I left him that day, I felt so empty inside. I
couldn't sleep for two nights."
Yagudin is nothing if not willful, however. He called another
coach, Tatiana Tarasova, who'd coached Ilia Kulik to the 1998
gold medal in Nagano but was left without a pupil after Kulik
turned pro. A match was made.
Tarasova was working in New Jersey at the time, so at age 18
Yagudin had to leave Russia to start anew. "All my life changed
in a few months," he says. "I knew very little English. I was
alone. And I was young."
It seemed a recipe for disaster, but Tarasova is a brilliant
coach in her own right. Known primarily as a dance coach,
Tarasova (whose father, Anatoly Tarasov, is called the father of
Russian hockey) brought out Yagudin's theatrical side. She
taught him not to just hear the music but also to feel it and to
respond to it from the soul, not the mind. "After one month with
Tarasova my mom saw me on TV and said, 'I don't recognize you,'"
Although he won the next two world championships, in '99 and
2000, off the ice Yagudin developed what might be called the
Oksana Baiul Syndrome: partying too hard and training too
little. In the summer of '99 he was thrown off the Champions on
Ice tour for inappropriate behavior stemming from an
underage-drinking incident. No charges were filed, but Yagudin
was developing a reputation as a loose cannon.
Plushenko, meanwhile, continued to mature. He beat Yagudin in
the Russian nationals in '99 and 2000 and in the Europeans in
2000. Then, in '01 he asserted the kind of mastery that appeared
to signal a changing of the guard. Yagudin began the season out
of shape, and Plushenko--focused and fit--beat him in the
Russian nationals, the Europeans, the Grand Prix finals and the
For Yagudin the 2001 season served as a wake-up call, and he
turned his lifestyle upside down last summer. He went on a crash
diet and stopped drinking and smoking. He started jogging 45
minutes at night after two training sessions during the day. To
make sure he stayed on the straight and narrow, he moved into
Tarasova's house in Newington, Conn., where they now train. "I
became perfect person," Yagudin says wryly. "I had a couple of
glasses of wine the whole summer. No parties. Every night asleep
by 11. It was like a sickness for me to lose weight. I was on
the scale 100 times a day. I understand now about girls with
The 5'8" Yagudin went from 172 pounds to 150 in a month.
Tarasova told him he should stop starving himself. "I said, 'No,
I'm going to win the Olympics,'" he says.
His regimen left Yagudin feeling reborn--a new physique, a new
attitude--but when the 2001-02 season opened in September with
the Goodwill Games in Brisbane, he experienced what he now calls
the lowest point in his career. Weak, unsteady and unable to
land any of his big jumps, Yagudin finished a distant third to
Plushenko and Michael Weiss of the U.S.
The wretched performance brought about a catharsis. Yagudin sat
by a river in Brisbane and cried, then he took two weeks off.
"I'd done everything, and this is how I end up, third place," he
recalls. "So I decided I'm going to be the same Alexei I was
five years ago. I'm going to have fun, to eat normal, to party,
to go to discos if I want. Not to be crazy, but to have fun."
Yagudin regained some weight, settling in at 158 pounds, and
took a more fatalistic view toward the Olympics: What would
happen, would happen. As he relaxed, Yagudin rediscovered the
passion of his skating, and the next time he faced Plushenko, it
showed. At the Grand Prix finals in December, with both of them
performing their Olympic programs, Yagudin brought the fans out
of their seats while edging Plushenko for the first time in over
a year, four judges to three. Both skaters landed two quads, and
although Plushenko held a slight edge in technical marks,
Yagudin's energetic, artistic performance carried the day.
"Figure skating's not track, where you just run fast to win,"
Yagudin says. "You must be an artist, too. I still think
Plushenko doesn't know what he's doing. Mishin says, 'Do this
with your arms,' so he does it. But he doesn't feel the music."
It's the same criticism Boitano used to hear from the Orser camp
in 1988: a jumping machine with the charisma of a robot.
However, Plushenko is anything but robotic, and a different
judging panel at the Grand Prix finals might have placed
"Plushenko is cleaner and more polished," says Mishin. "Yagudin
speaks to the audience with his arms and facial expressions, not
with his blades and the ice. Yagudin has a higher triple Axel
but only one style. Plushenko can skate a wide range of styles.
They are like very big diamonds. If all diamonds were alike,
none would be famous."
One of these men is destined to be more famous than his
counterpart. It will come down to tonight's short program and
Thursday's long program and perhaps the mind-set of a single
judge. They are that close, and that far apart. "We are not
friends," says Plushenko. "He is a good guy, and he is a good
skater, but there's a lot of tension between us. He wants first.
I want first."
This week, the Fates will smile on either the prodigy or the
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Having spent the first two years of his life sleeping in a railway car in Siberia, Plushenko has come a long way.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD KOROL (2) Plushenko (above) has a Biellmann to die for, but the energetic Yagudin won't go down without a fight.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD KOROL (2) [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER After dropping from 172 pounds to 150 in a month, the 5'8" Yagudin now weighs in at around 158.
Every night Plushenko's mother pulled his leg into the Biellmann
position, first the left, then the right.
"It was like a sickness for me to lose weight," says Yagudin. "I
was on the scale 100 times a day."