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 6½ 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."