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8 Days Countdown to the Winter Olympic Games in Salt
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Yagudin's Passion Plays Out on Ice

Figure skating: Three-time world champion's rivalry with Plushenko expected to decide the gold.


He sobbed in his coach's arms when he knew he had won the Grand Prix Final, overcome by the joy of achieving the redemption he so desperately wanted after a year of physical and emotional struggle.

Alexei Yagudin wasn't ashamed to reveal his emotions to his coach, Tatiana Tarasova, or to the world on that day last December. The three-time world figure skating champion from Russia leads with his heart, a trait that could be his strength at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics but also carries the potential to be his downfall.

"It means a lot for me," he said of his victory over rival Evgeny Plushenko, achieved by a 4-3 margin in the final part of the three-phase competition.

"I was sure I was capable and I was ready to skate good this year but still, until you face the competition, it's hard to prepare for something.... I kind of lost that power in myself and it was really hard last season for me to believe that actually I could beat him, because he was so good all the time and I had a terrible season last year. I was pretty scared. I began to cry because I've been waiting for this for a long time."

Yagudin, 21, hadn't defeated his younger compatriot in a major competition since the 2000 World Championships at Nice, France. In that event Plushenko, then 17, fell apart in the long program, while Yagudin landed two quadruple jumps in winning his third consecutive title.

But Plushenko, a superb technician, beat Yagudin last season at the Russian and European championships, the Grand Prix Final and the World Championships, ending Yagudin's reign. Haunted by that loss, Yagudin worked himself into a frenzy last summer.

Obsessed with the notion that losing weight would enhance his speed and jumping ability, he shed nearly 20 pounds, but was too weak to perform well at the season-opening Goodwill Games in September. He finished third behind Plushenko and Michael Weiss of the U.S.

"It affected my whole life," he said of losing the world title. "I was alone for the whole summer. I was working so much. I was not eating....

"It's pretty hard to see yourself in second place, and that's part of my life. I'm happy, at least, that's in the past. I'm looking to the future," said Yagudin, who has since moved back up to a healthier weight. "I feel really good and I feel that I am back."

Yagudin and Plushenko seem to have made a game of dodging each other. They had no overlapping Grand Prix assignments this season, and after Yagudin pulled out of the Russian championships because of an ankle injury, Plushenko withdrew from the European championships because of a groin injury.

That merely enhances the drama that will unfold at Salt Lake City, where Yagudin and Plushenko will compete, quad for quad, for the gold medal.

They are unquestionably the class of the pack. Tim Goebel of the U.S. is in their class as a jumper but lacks their refinement and musicality. U.S. champion Todd Eldredge is expressive, but he lacks the Russians' technical prowess. And Russia's Alexander Abt, who trains at Lake Arrowhead and was second at last month's European championships, doesn't have their international success or experience.

All signs point to Yagudin or Plushenko standing atop the podium at Salt Lake City. But will it be Plushenko, who inexplicably hid his talents behind herky-jerky music and garish costumes at the Grand Prix Final? Or the soulful Yagudin, who acknowledges having been "maybe wild" when he was younger but denies persistent rumors that a drinking problem led to his expulsion from the 2000 Tom Collins Champions on Ice tour?

Even the experts can't pick a winner.

"I think Plushenko is just a touch stronger from a technique point of view," said Ilia Kulik of Russia, the 1998 Nagano gold medalist. "When I watch jumps, I see cleaner technique in Plushenko's jumps than Yagudin's jumps. But Yagudin is a touch physically stronger and he can compensate sometimes for a couple of technical mistakes ... It will be fun to watch who can handle it."

Viktor Petrenko, who in 1992 became the first skater from the former Soviet Union or its republics to win the men's singles gold medal, also sees little separating them.

"I think they're both very strong technically and artistically," Petrenko said. "The good thing about them is that they both present two different styles.

"Their technique has a different level. Plushenko is more like an entertainer. Yagudin is more like a drama skater. All his programs are like that. It depends on who likes what, an entertainer or drama."

Yagudin's dramatic gifts spring from the events of his life.

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