Plushenko a Front-Runner in Figure Skating Showdown

American Johnny Weir is in second place heading into Thursday night's long program in men's figure skating. Russian Evgeni Plushenko is in first place and is expected to win the gold medal. Renee Montagne talks to USA Today columnist Christine Brennan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Russian figure skater Evgeny Plushenko is well on his way toward winning an Olympic gold medal in the men's competition. The three-time world champion racked up the best score in his career in Tuesday's short program. And going into tonight's long program, he's got a big lead over American Johnny Weir, who's in second place.

USA Today columnist Christine Brennan has been watching the competition, and she joins me now from Turin, Italy.

Ms. CHRISTINE BRENNAN (Reporter, USA Today): Hello, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So is there any way Plushenko can lose tonight?

Ms. BRENNAN: As Johnny Weir, of course, who is in second place said himself, if Plushenko falls three times, maybe someone could sneak in by a point or two. Either that, or if he's kidnapped by aliens. Other than that, another Russian gold medal in men's figure skating is almost guaranteed. Plushenko has been waiting for this, Renee, almost as long as Michelle Kwan has been waiting to win her gold medal. He is one of the greatest skaters ever, and he fell in Salt Lake City four years ago, and had to settle for the silver medal, so this is his moment, his time, and I certainly don't anticipate that he will make any mistakes or blow it now.

MONTAGNE: What makes him so good, Christine?

Ms. BRENNAN: Well, he's very lucky in where he's from, in the sense it's St. Petersburg, Russia, and he still trains there. So many other Russians have come over to the United States to work with coaches in the U.S., or bring their coaches to the U.S. since the fall of the Soviet Union, but not Plushenko.

He remains in St. Petersburg, a couple of miles from the Hermitage Museum, a couple of miles from the Mariinski Theatre where the Kirov is, and I think it's by osmosis, you know, the artistry, the great, great passion, all of the wonderful things that St. Petersburg embodies seemed to be rolled into this man, and into every part of his makeup. So, you get this beautiful skating, terrific jumping; he landed a quad jump the other day, Johnny Weir did not, and he's really the perfect package.

MONTAGNE: And Johnny Weir is 21, about a time when a figure skater would be peaking.

Ms. BRENNAN: Yeah. Exactly. And Johnny Weir is. He skated magnificently in the short program the other night, Renee. I frankly thought he was closer to Plushenko than the judging system made him. He's 10 points behind, which is light years away, and I thought he was better than that. He is fluid, he's beautiful. He may well become the most fluid and most beautiful male skater the United States has ever had. He's the three-time national champ. He's only getting better, and he was just delightful to watch on the ice. If he can keep it together tonight in the long program, he should definitely win a medal.

MONTAGNE: There are a couple of other Americans. Talk to us about them.

Ms. BRENNAN: Yeah, not doing so well. Evan Lysacek, who won the World bronze medal last year, is in tenth place. He made two huge mistakes in the short program, and he's got a long way to go to even try to compete for a medal. Matt Savoie is 25, he's going to Cornell Law School very soon. But in the meantime, he's trying to do well at the Olympic Games. He's eighth. Again, I don't see him getting into the medals.

So, it's really Johnny Weir waving the flag for the United States. But these other two, it's a very strong U.S. men's team, and Lysacek made some mistakes that obviously cost him in the short program.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

Ms. BRENNAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Christine Brennan is a columnist for ‘USA Today', speaking to us from Turin, Italy.

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