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Russians grab early lead in team figure skating

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Russia’s world champion pairs figure skaters didn’t have to look far for inspiration. They got it from the local hero.

Three-time medalist Evgeni Plushenko grabbed the spotlight in the men’s portion of the new event of team figure skating at the Sochi Olympics. Then it was Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov stealing the show in their short program Thursday night.

“We were actually afraid at the start because we saw how the crowd was to Evgeni,” Trankov said. “But it cheered us up and it made us skate better.”

With their countrymen waving Russian flags throughout the Iceberg, Volosozhar and Trankov capped a special evening for the host nation on the eve of the opening ceremony. The Russians romped to win by more than 10 points after Plushenko finished second to Japan’s rising star, Yuzuru Hanyu.

Russia’s 19 points — 10 for first, nine for second — pushed it ahead of Canada, which earned 17, and China with 15, with two more nights of team vs. team competition to come.

On Saturday, it’s the women’s and ice dance short programs and the pairs free skate. The other long programs are Sunday.

With chants of “heroes” echoing in their ears, Volosozhar and Trankov were magnificent. Their speed, synchronicity, and strong lifts and throws easily outclassed the field.

They were so good, they even overshadowed Plushenko — not an easy thing to do in Russia. In what certainly is the swan song to a brilliant career, he put on his best performance in years.

“I already win for myself, because after 12 surgeries in my body, I can skate for (a) fourth time in (the) Olympic Games,” said Plushenko, who won silver in 2002 and 2010, gold in 2006. “So it’s already good.”

But Hanyu, the Grand Prix champion, was even better, winning by 6 1/2 points. The 19-year-old Japanese skater was smoother and more intricate with his footwork. His jumps were massive — he nearly crossed the width of the ice on his triple axel — and his spins were exquisite.

When he finished, Hanyu bowed to teammates celebrating in the cheering section set aside for them behind the end boards. While awaiting the marks, his teammates joined him in the kiss-and-cry area, dancing behind Hanyu before his 97.98 points hit the scoreboard.

Still, even he knew who was the night’s star: “He was my hero,” Hanyu said of Plushenko. “That’s why I was happy to skate here with him.”

Hanyu’s coach, Brian Orser, helped Yuna Kim win the 2010 Olympic gold, but was perplexed about how to approach the team competition.

“It’s so strange for all of us, for the athletes, for the coaches,” said Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist. “You want your athlete to nail it. You can’t tell them to hold back.”

Canada’s three-time world champion Patrick Chan struggled and was third. The United States was seventh because of tiebreakers after a poor showing by Jeremy Abbott, but got a fifth-place finish from its pair, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir.

The 31-year-old Plushenko pulled out all his tricks, but after hitting his quadruple-triple combination, an insecure triple axel and a triple lutz to open the routine, he slowed down.

It didn’t matter. He already had won the crowd, if not the judges. And when he pumped his arms midway through his skate, as if asking for more cheers, the sound level skyrocketed.

At the end of his 2-minute, 48-second performance, Plushenko spent just as much time soaking up the adulation. He threw kisses to the fans, took long and deep bows, including a final one just before he exited to be surrounded by his teammates.

“It’s hard competing at home, so hard,” he said. “But, sometimes it helps. I came from there, from there, there, there, everybody screaming, everybody talking. I was a little bit shocked, I was like dizzy.”

There was little celebrating for the Americans.

Abbott crashed to the ice on his planned quad and popped a triple axel into a single. His 65.65 points severely damaged U.S. chances for a gold medal in the new event. He said he was “torn apart” by yet another flop on the international stage, where he has never finished higher than fifth in a major championship. He plans to retire from competition after this season.

Chan also disappointed, stepping out of a triple axel.

“There’s many times in my career where I went out and did the program and came back off the ice and said, ‘Oh, I wish I could do it again,”’ Chan said.

All 10 teams had contingents sitting in a cheering section divided by nations. There were group hugs for skaters as they exited the ice, and the Germans even brought a huge cowbell they chimed after Peter Liebers’ season-best program.

At the end, when Volosozhar and Trankov got to the kiss-and-cry area, Plushenko was sitting behind them and pointing at the pair, signaling that his countrymen were the best.

On Thursday night, the Russians certainly were.