|Tuesday, March 20
Updated: March 21, 3:20 AM ET
Plushchenko first, Eldredge stands in second
VANCOUVER, British Columbia Alexei Yagudin's courage was more than matched by Yevgeny Plushchenko's artistic and technical brilliance.
After four pain-killing injections to numb his injured right foot, Yagudin performed well in Tuesday men's short program at the World Figure Skating Championships.
But the three-time defending champ was outdone by his countryman, who is seeking his first world title. Plushchenko was first and Yagudin third heading into the free skate Thursday, worth 50 percent of the total score.
Americans Todd Eldredge and Timothy Goebel stood second and fourth overall. Goebel, watching on television backstage, even applauded Eldredge's performance.
Eldredge came close to Plushchenko in his presentation, and his whirlwind spins made it look like he would corkscrew himself into the ice. But, despite his speed and footwork, his marks were somewhat low, partly because he didn't attempt a quadruple jump.
"You play the course, you don't play the other guys," Eldredge said. "I know I did technically an easier element in my combination than the other guys, so I knew it would be a little lower. It's all right. I did what I wanted to do."
Goebel nailed his quad salchow-triple toe combination, although the landing was shaky, in a clean program. He was fourth in the short, one spot behind Eldredge.
"So far, I've done two rounds and done two perfect programs," Goebel said. "So I'm very happy."
Plushchenko consistently has beaten Yagudin this season, and he showed why with his sizzling yet smooth routine to "Bolero." He sailed through a quad toe-triple toe opening combo, was a bit scratchy on his triple axel, then motored through the next two minutes in style.
"I had a very bad warmup," Plushchenko said, "but I was able to pull myself together. ... The warmup is not the important thing, the important thing is the performance."
For Yagudin, the warmup was almost as significant as the performance.
"It was hard because of the memories of yesterday," Yagudin said of his poor qualifying performance, in which he was fifth and flopped all over the ice. "It was still in my head. It was really hard to be focused."
He landed every element of his routine, although he had to fight to pull in the landing on his quad toe-triple toe combination. When he'd nailed his triple axel and then his triple lutz, he smiled widely as he pumped his arms.
And when the 2½-minute program was done, he vigorously clenched his fists and threw kisses to the crowd as coach Tatiana Tarasova theatrically broke down in tears.
Yagudin injured the soft tissue on the bottom of his foot while jogging last week. The Russian star then underwent X-rays and an MRI exam, which showed no bone damage. He received two injections Tuesday morning before practicing, then two more shortly before the short program, worth 30 percent of the total score.
"I didn't really feel my foot, but I could walk, so at least I'd be able to skate and jump," he said. "I am really scared of injections, so yesterday was the worst day. I skated bad and had to do the injections."
Yagudin drew loud cheers, plus a shout of "We love you, Alexei," from some young girls that was answered by "You're not the only one" from elsewhere in the crowd, which then grew silent as he began his program. But the fans exploded in cheers when he hit the quad, and they never stopped cheering until he left the rink.
Yagudin has been through tougher times in his career. At the 1998 Olympics, he finished fifth despite a bout with pneumonia.
Yagudin would not compare this physical problem to the 1998 Olympics, except to say, "A human can fight in any situation."
"My grandmother would tell me stories about when the Germans were attacking St. Petersburg and she chose to stay," he added. "For 600 days, they fought the Germans and when I asked her what it was like, she said, 'A human can do anything. Continue to fight and you will win.' "
Dr. J.M. Leith, who gave Yagudin the injections after X-rays and an MRI exam showed no bone damage in the foot, said, "Under normal circumstances, you might say, 'Don't compete.' But Alexei chose to compete based on what is at stake.
"He has not torn any ligaments or anything. There is always the risk of further injury, but we don't think it's that great a risk at all."
Takeshi Honda of Japan, who won his qualifying group, fell on his quad and plummeted to seventh overall. That was better than Canadian hero Elvis Stojko, who fell twice and stood 10th overall.
Stojko was making his season's debut after battling leg injuries, and he mouthed 'I'm sorry" into the television camera after his performance.
"Everyone's waiting for it. I was waiting for it, ready to go," Stojko said. "It didn't work."