NOT THE SMOOTHEST OF RIDES
By Philip Hersh
The boy was only 11 and living on his own in St. Petersburg, Russia, 1,000 miles from his parents in Volgograd.
He had a room in a communal apartment shared by five unrelated families and who knows how many people. The boy never could keep count, what with the drunks wandering in from the street and the flow of strangers in and out.
They all shared a kitchen and a bathroom and a common room. The boy's private space was barely big enough for a table and chair and the couch he slept on.
He was afraid to spend much time there, frightened by the drunks and their fights. He worried one of the melees would end with someone crashing through the cardboard-thick wall that separated his space from the rest of the dirty, noisy apartment.
The boy had to live this way for half a year. The coach whom he had accompanied from Volgograd when the rink there closed went home. His mother came for a while, but she could not get a job in St. Petersburg, and the family needed to have both parents working if they were going to pay for the boy's skating.
She told the boy, "I want to live with you, but we do not have so much money."
They could not afford more than a room the mother found her son in the communal apartment, close to the Jubileiny Ice Palace, where the boy now was training under Alexei Mishin. A woman who lived in the apartment cooked some of the boy's meals. The rest, he got from the ice rink's cafeteria.
There were so many times when the boy, Evgeni Plushenko, wanted to go home, to be with his parents, even though he was inspired by training with some of the best skaters in Russia. There was Alexei Urmanov, who would become 1994 Olympic champion. Alexei Yagudin, who would win world titles in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
Everything they did, the boy tried to do better or, when that was impossible, at least do more. He would try so many triple jumps his nose would bleed. But he was younger than the rest and lonely.
Miguel Alegre, who trained occasionally with the group, said: "It was very, very sad. He wanted to fit into the group, but he didn't have any friends."
"I didn't have a choice to quit," Plushenko said. "I always wanted to help my parents financially. I am trying to forget this time in my life now."
The boy is 19, the reigning world figure skating champion, co-favorite for the Olympic gold medal with Yagudin. As Plushenko talked about his past, with the help of an interpreter, he was sitting in the palatial 12th-floor lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago. The irony was as deep as the oriental-patterned carpets, thick as the marble walls.
"He was 11 the first time I saw him," said Alegre, a Spaniard who became Plushenko's closest friend. "Even though he was so young, you could see how much he wanted to be the best, so he and his family could have a better life. Evgeni did whatever Mishin told him. He never complained."
Plushenko has become the best, as evidenced by his world title. He has bought the St. Petersburg apartment in which he lives with his parents, Viktor, 46, and Tatiana, 45, neither of whom have to work any longer. He has bought another apartment for his sister, Yelena, 24, and her 6-year-old daughter, Dasha. He drives a VW Golf and a Toyota Land Cruiser and a 120-cc Aprilia motorbike.
"He has overcome an awful lot, like nearly all these Russian boys," said Frank Carroll, coach of U.S. Olympic skater Timothy Goebel. "It makes them hungry."
The past always is with him. It has made Plushenko who he is. If, in a fashion, he is puttin' on the Ritz these days, he is not so far removed from the time when a Ritz cracker would have seemed a luxury. As he feasts on the spoils of his success, Plushenko is reminded of how far he has come.
He was born in the Russian far east, in Khabarovsky District, about 300 miles north of Vladivostok and 4,100 miles from St. Petersburg. Plushenko calls his birthplace, "Bam," but that really is just an acronym for the Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad, longest in the world. He lived next to the railroad, in what was barely a village, simply one of the clusters of homes his father helped build.
The family moved to Volgograd, known as Stalingrad during communist times, when Plushenko was 4. Soon after, his mother was advised to have him try sports because the little boy was sickly.
"When Plushenko came to me," Mishin said, "he looked like a cheap chicken, very green and very blue and no fat."
That was six years after Plushenko had begun skating in Volgograd. The jumping immediately hooked him on the sport.
"It became like a drug to me," he said.
At 5, he competed for the first time, finishing seventh of 15 among kids two and three years older.
"I think I was born to be a figure skater," he said. "I think it was fate, and I thank God for letting it happen."
The faith symbolized by the cross hanging from his neck would become a lifeline to Plushenko. The path he took at all the crossroads in his life was, he said, ordained by God.
When the only rink in Volgograd was converted to an automobile showroom, Plushenko dreamed of working with Galina Zmievskaya, who coached Viktor Petrenko and Oksana Baiul of Ukraine to 1992 Winter Olympic titles. With Plushenko's father out of work at the time, a move to Odessa was out of the question.
Mishin invited Plushenko's coach, former weightlifter Mikhail Makoveyev, to come with the skater to St. Petersburg. Makoveyev and the 11-year-old skater lived together until the coach left Plushenko to Mishin and returned to Volgograd. The boy's mother came to St. Petersburg long enough to find him a place in the communal apartment.
When Mishin learned how intolerable that situation was, the coach moved him into an apartment with Alegre. When Alegre went back to Spain, Mishin invited Plushenko's mother to St. Petersburg, and the coach paid the $60-a-month rent for them to live in a better communal apartment. Alegre, who currently lives in Florida, is 4 years older than Plushenko, and he spoke no Russian when they met.
"Before I saw him, I remember Mishin's wife, Tatiana telling me, 'A kid is coming who has more ability than Yagudin,"' Alegre said. "I thought that was impossible. Yagudin was doing a triple axel at 13. He was incredible.
"But Evgeni was even more amazing. He had everything. Jumps. Presentation. Spins. And he was an extremely hard worker. He would do hundreds of triple jumps in practice and try more difficult quads and continue to push himself as far as he can."
That work ethic paid off. Plushenko was world junior champion at 14 and world senior bronze medalist at 15. He made enough prize money and show tour money at age 16 to rent an apartment for just himself and his mother.
"Before, all my skaters were better either technically or artistically," Mishin said. "Plushenko is unique. He has unlimited possibilities in both."
In 1999 Plushenko finished second at the world meet to Yagudin, who had left Mishin after the 1998 Winter Olympics to work with Tatiana Tarasova in the United States. Thus began a heated rivalry between the two skaters. Their relationship, never warm, became distinctly cooler. Asked once what he had learned from Yagudin, Plushenko said, "Nothing."
"We don't talk too much to each other," Plushenko said.
By the 2000 world meet in Nice, France, Plushenko had become the talk of the skating world, beating Yagudin at the Russian and European championships. Favored to add the world title, Plushenko fell apart in the final free skate and wound up fourth.
That failure helps explain the mix of rage and joy Plushenko expressed with screams and fist pumps after beating Yagudin for the 2001 world title in Vancouver.
"I was preparing for that moment for many, many years," Plushenko said. "I was 14 when I started to realize I could really achieve something in my life. I could have won the world championship not just at Nice but the year before that.
"I thought too much about the gold medal at Nice instead of about my skating. I forgot there were other strong people. I thought to myself, 'Yes, yes, you will win.' Now when people say I am some kind of favorite, I think, 'You should simply work."'
Either Yagudin or Plushenko is almost certain to become the third straight Olympic men's champion from Russia, after Urmanov in 1994 and Ilia Kulik in 1998.
Plushenko, who has beaten Yagudin in six of their last eight meetings, has the advantage technically: He is the only skater to do a quad-triple-double combination and the only man to do a Biellmann Spin (foot above and behind the head). He may try an unprecedented quadruple lutz jump in Salt Lake City.
"He's a great technician, with beautiful triple flip, triple axel and quad toe jumps," Carroll said. "I don't like his programs, with all the hokey stuff and pelvic gyrations. It's show stuff."
Judges agreed with Carroll at December's Grand Prix Final in Canada, where Plushenko lost the title to a technically inferior Yagudin. The message was clear: Plushenko needed to junk the free skate he was doing to a hodgepodge of music, from Michael Jackson to Muzak.
After winning the Russian Championships in Yagudin's absence two weeks later, Plushenko skipped January's European Championships, which Yagudin won, because of lingering groin injuries. Plushenko spent the time working on the new free skate, to "Carmen," that he will use in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The boy is a man now, yet still young enough to think about the Winter Olympics of 2006 and even the Winter Games of 2010.
"I don't want to talk about the future or try to outguess the future," he said. "I just want people to remember me."
The man cannot forget the boy's past, when the world or the walls seemed ready to crash in on him.
"No one knew what would happen to me, just one little boy," he said.
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