Jeremy Abbott, USA stumble in Olympic team skating

SOCHI, Russia - The Germans brought a cowbell. The Canadians crammed more people into Kiss and Cry than a clown car. Even the usually dour Russians cracked a smile as they waved their flags and beat their thunder sticks together.

The elegant and refined sport of figure skating got downright rowdy Thursday night with the Olympic debut of the team competition.

Russia leads after a performance by reigning world pairs champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov so spectacular it nearly blew the roof off the Iceberg Palace. The Canadians are second and China third and Japan fourth. The USA is in a three-way tie for fifth, put in a hole after four-time national champion Jeremy Abbott made a complete mess of his short program. A major error by Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir didn't help matters.

Only the top five countries advance to the finals, but the Americans aren't out of it just yet. The women's short program and the short dance are Saturday, and the U.S. will have Ashley Wagner and Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Davis and White are reigning Olympic silver medalists and world champions in ice dance and, despite her struggles at nationals, Wagner has been consistently strong at international events.

Still, this was a surprisingly poor start for a country that has won two of the three World Team trophies, events which convinced the International Olympic Committee to add a team competition to the Sochi program.

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Figure skating has always been a very individualistic sport, with little room for camaraderie or friendship between the icy glares and grudges. But when figure skating officials saw the popularity of team events in other sports, like gymnastics, they realized that kind of country-on-country drama was perfect for a sport that makes soap operas look polite.

When the first World Team Trophy was held in Japan in 2009, fans loved it. And, surprisingly, skaters have, too. They relish the chance to finally be part of a team and show off their rowdy side. Dressed in their countries' official gear, the skaters who weren't competing Thursday crammed into the team boxes, waving flags and scarves, and cheering loudly.

The top man in the short program, Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu, has been on a steady rise, and his victory at the Grand Prix final in December established him as a threat to Chan for the gold medal. He showed it again Thursday with a breezy blues number. His jumps are smooth and powerful, and Gumby would be green with envy at his positions on his spins.

The 19-year-old is more than a jumping bean, however. He showed such a great feel for his music that it seemed to flow through his body, oozing from his skates onto the ice. There is attention to detail in all of his movements, even the flicks of his fingertips timed to the music.

Even the Russians had to applaud him, though his score of 97.98 put him ahead of legendary Evgeni Plushenko. But Plushenko clearly won the popular vote.

The 2006 Olympic champion hasn't skated at a major international event since the Vancouver Olympics -- he withdrew from last year's European championships with a back injury – but the 31-year-old sure didn't look like a semi-retiree.

His opening quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop combination was massive and done with more ease than some guys manage double axels. The landing of his triple axel was a little rough, but he bent deep and held onto it.

There isn't a whole lot between the elements in Plushenko's programs, but he's such a great showman it hardly matters. The crowd roared its approval when he gave a manic wave of his hands that was perfectly timed to his tango music. And as he stood at the end of the rink, gathering himself before beginning his final footwork segment, he stared into the camera and gave a flirty grin.

His teammates were on their feet before his music ended, waving Russian flags and scarves and stomping their feet. When Plushenko he saw his score of 91.39, he waved into the camera and then pumped both of his fists.

"I'm back," he said. "I'm back. I'm back."

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It was clear in the opening seconds of his program that Abbott was, too. And not in a good way.
All the U.S. champion's talk about being better able to handle the pressure at his second Olympics turned out to be just that. Talk. After looking simply majestic at last month's nationals, he was a total mess Thursday.

"I really wanted to come out of the gate for my friends and for my family," Abbott said. "So I'm torn apart that I couldn't do that."

He crashed on his opening quad, not coming close to getting around and needing to put his hand up to keep from hitting the boards. He tacked on another jump to his triple lutz to do a combination, a requirement for the short program, but it was only a double toe. He also popped his triple axel, and was so slow NBC won't need its slo-mo cam for replays.

Though Abbott left the ice looking dazed and with his hands on his head, he wasn't discouraged. Far from it.

"I think it was a very positive step," he said. "You're all going to think I'm crazy (but) ... I have another chance."

Tell that to his teammates.

The 10 countries -- Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Ukraine and United States -- earn points based on the placements of each of their skaters in the four disciplines. First place is worth 10 points, second is worth nine, and so on down to 10th, which gets just one point. The top five countries after the short programs and short dance advance to the finals.

The pairs free skate is Saturday, after the short dance and women's short. The remaining free programs are Sunday.


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