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Jennifer Kirk: Plushenko must be reckoned with

October 26, 2009 | 12:42 pm

Jenniferkirk Jennifer Kirk, who won the 2000 world junior figure skating championship, finished third at the U.S. championships in 2004 and fourth in 2005, will write a weekly blog for The Times providing insights into the skating world during the final months leading into the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Since retiring from figure skating in 2005, Kirk, 25, has been working on obtaining a college degree in broadcast journalism and has spent the last few months blogging about skating at Trueslant.com/jenniferkirk.

When reigning Olympic gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko announced his plans to compete this season following a 3½-year hiatus from the competitive arena, most were initially skeptical about the success of his return. Would he be in competitive form? Was he going to be able to adapt to the various changes in the judging system? Would he regain his standing as the No. 1 male skater in the world?

Last weekend Plushenko answered those questions.

Winning his first and only Grand Prix event of the season, Plushenko kicked off his return to competitive skating with a bang. Skating a squeaky-clean long program and commanding the ice in Moscow, he picked up exactly where he left off in 2006. Not only did Plushenko take the gold, but he crushed the competition, winning by 25 points over Takahiko Kozuka of Japan.

What was most impressive about Plushenko’s skating in Moscow was his unwavering confidence. Though  his victory dance after the completion of his long program could be perceived as cocky by some, this blend of cockiness and confidence proved to be the reigning Olympic champion’s winning ingredient. Plushenko seems incredibly committed to his quest of winning a second Olympic crown, and after two events of the Grand Prix series he’s the front-runner heading into the Games.

Although Plushenko may be leading the pack at this point, Olympic gold is by no means solely his for the taking. Even as clean as he was last week, the reality is Plushenko is still beatable. It seems as though the shock of how well he did has masked the apparent flaws in his skating, but these weaknesses have the potential to be the deciding factor in Vancouver.

Although Plushenko’s spins are faster than they were in 2006, they are still slow. The ending combination spin in his short program inched along, and he needs to work on adding more variety to his spins. Along with this, the choreography in both of his programs isn‘t as strong as it could be, and his programs have far too much two-footed skating. Plushenko’s hip rolling and rapid arm movements may be fun to watch, but I don‘t know how they‘ll stand up to Patrick Chan‘s edgework and artistry.

That said, Plushenko won fair and square in Moscow, and without a second Grand Prix event he has a lot of time to work on fixing his flaws. What will be telling is how Plushenko responds to his season opener, which then leads to more questions.

Will last weekend’s overwhelming victory lead him to fall off from his training, now that he has answered his critics and, I’m sure, some of his own doubts about his return? Or will this win motivate him to work harder, culminating in gold in Vancouver?

Perhaps the most important question surrounding Plushenko’s win is whether his performances will spook his closest competitors. I’m sure most of his competitors weren’t planning on having to contend with such a strong Plushenko. If I were reigning world champion Evan Lysacek, I’d use this weekend’s Cup of China to respond to Plushenko by not only winning the event but beating his score of 240.65.

Among all the questions, what we do know is that there is only one Olympic gold medal up for grabs, and the season is still young. Although Plushenko’s skating in Moscow was beyond expectations, we shouldn’t hand him Olympic gold just yet.

-- Jennifer Kirk

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