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Plushenko, Lipnitskaia lead Russia to team gold; Japan finishes disappointing fifth

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Host Russia won the inaugural gold medal in the team figure skating event before a partisan crowd at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Sunday night.

Led by the legendary Evgeni Plushenko and rising star Julia Lipnitskaia, Russia captured the title with a total of 75 points for its first gold of the Sochi Games.

Canada (65) took the silver, while the United States (60) earned the bronze.

Italy finished fourth with 52, while Japan came in fifth on 51.

Plushenko won the men’s free skate with 168.20 to give Russia the maximum 10 points, with Canada’s Kevin Reynolds taking second at 167.92.

Tatsuki Machida was third on 165.85 and garnered eight points for Japan.

Lipnitskaia was victorious in the women’s free skate with 141.51 to earn Russia 10 more points and essentially lock up the gold.

American Gracie Gold was impressive in coming in second at 129.38.

Akiko Suzuki finished fourth with 112.33 in a rare off night to add seven points to Japan’s total.

Meryl Davis Charlie White of the U.S. claimed the ice dance with 114.34., ahead of Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (107.56).

Japan’s Cathy and Chris Reed (76.34) were fifth.

Japan entered Sunday’s final day of competition in fifth place, trailing the third-place U.S. by just three points, but faced a difficult task in trying to overtake the Americans.

The U.S. had two-time world champions Davis and White in the ice dance, while Japan went the Reed siblings, who have never medaled at a major international event.

Japan (Suzuki) and the U.S. (Gold) both fielded their national champions in the women’s free skate.

In the men’s free skate Japan tabbed up-and-comer Machida, while the Americans entered Jason Brown.

The numerical factor was just too much for Japan to overcome. If Japan hopes to medal in the team event at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, it is going to have to field stronger pairs and ice dance teams.

Plushenko skated to a muscial number entitled “Best of Plushenko” and opened with a quad toe loop. He landed five more triple jumps on the way to victory. He was scheduled to do two quads and six triples, but in the end it didn’t matter.

“I am very happy with my performance and that our of our team,” said Plushenko. “In principle I did everything I planned to with the exception of two jumps (triple salchows). This means everything to me. I did the quad. I did two triple axels and two triple lutzes.”

Machida competed to “Firebird” and also began with a quad toe loop. He hit an impressive total of seven triple jumps, but his program component scores were lower than both Plushenko and Reynolds.

“I really thought I had a chance to win the group,” said the Kanagawa native. “I needed to finish first to give the Japanese team a true shot at a medal. There was no room for error. I feel bad for letting everyone down.”

Machida would not deny that he felt the pressure on this night.

“I’ve been dreaming of the Olympics for the last 20 years and I finally realized it here in Sochi,” stated the 23-year-old. “I was nervous I have never been.”

Added Machida, “I don’t think I have been mentally weaker all season, and it was a real struggle inside my heart.”

Brown came in fourth with 153.67.

Lipnitskaia performed to “Schindler’s List”and was absolutely enthralling. She started with a beautiful triple lutz/triple toe loop combo and landed seven triples in all.

She was marked down for taking off on the wrong edge on her final jump – a triple lutz/double toe loop combo.

“I don’t know how to explain the feeling I had out there,” said Lipnitskaia. “I’m very happy to have helped win the first gold medal for Russia.”

The 15-year-old said she had her own battle with anxiety during her free skate.

“I got nervous in the middle of the program,” she said. “I’m not sure why, it’s completely unlike me, so the jumps weren’t that great in the second half. I didn’t feel totally comfortable.”

Suzuki used “Phantom of the Opera” for her music selection in a program that was beset by errors. She underrotated three of her jumps and was downgraded on another.

“It wasn’t my best performance so I am disappointed,” commented Suzuki. “For me, this is my last Olympics. I didn’t have one clean jump and that led to the disappointing score.”

The 28-year-old Suzuki said she has had a tough time adjusting since arriving in Sochi.

“I have been struggling to pick it up since I got here,” she noted. “There was a part of me that’s at ease now, but as team captain I don’t think I did the job and feel badly about that.”