Russia's Evgeni Plushenko performs during a training session at… (Yuri Kadobnov / AFP / Getty…)
SOCHI, Russia — Evgeny Plushenko's saga seems to come from an epic Russian novel. It might run as long as "War and Peace" and its 1,000-plus pages.
Triumph. Controversy. Injury. Carping. Mystery. All that in the 31 years since Plushenko was born in Russia's far east, where he lived in a clutch of houses along the Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad.
Most expected the competitive figure skating part of his life story to have been consigned to history by now.
But Plushenko is back, the most celebrated Russian athlete in an individual sport at Russia's first Winter Olympics. As if to emphasize his stature, he got the spotlight first, competing in Thursday's short program of the new team figure skating event a day before the opening ceremony.
"He may not be one of my favorite skaters, but I am damn sure not going to get a sandwich when he is skating," four-time world champion Kurt Browning of Canada said.
Plushenko delivered a delectable buffet to a rapturous home crowd that chanted his Russian nickname, "Zhenya," so wildly and loudly he said it was shocking and made him dizzy. That performance was no surprise for a guy who has won singles medals in the last three Olympics.
"I have already won because I am skating in my fourth Olympics," Plushenko said. "It is much more difficult than the first."
Jeremy Abbott flopped, also no surprise for a guy who has done that repeatedly at major international competitions.
The four-time U.S. champion's messy short program left Team USA in a precarious seventh place that improved after Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir took fifth in the pairs short.
The United States, which seemed a good bet for a medal, now is tied for fifth at 10 points with France and Germany. The top five teams qualify for the free skate finals — the medal round, as it were — after the women's and dance short programs Saturday. On paper, Team USA has a substantial advantage over France and Germany in the remaining disciplines.
The team scores run from 10 to 1 in each program, based on where each country's entry ranks in the individual scores.
Russia leads with 19, after reigning world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov won the pairs and Plushenko was second in singles. Canada has 17, China 15, Japan 13.
Plushenko was behind only Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Reigning world champion Patrick Chan of Canada was third.
Plushenko won an Olympic silver medal in 2002, a gold in 2006 and another silver in 2010, when he returned to the sport after three years away from competition because of knee and back injuries.
There would then be knee and back surgery and a brief period of ineligibility for skating in an unsanctioned show; he competed only a handful of times between Vancouver and Sochi.
That Plushenko is still at it and still competitive impresses 2010 gold medalist Evan Lysacek, whose hopes to make a third Olympics were derailed by persistent injuries.
"His longevity is insanely impressive," said Lysacek, in Sochi to work for NBC. "Many doubted him before Vancouver, and he proved he must be taken seriously. I would not count him out of the mix."