SOCHI, Russia – Jason Brown is 19 years old and in his first Olympics. Evgeni Plushenko is 31 and just pulled out of his last Winter Games. Yet the American rookie and the Russian figure skating legend have formed a surprising bond that left Brown unable to fully enjoy his moment in the spotlight this week.
Plushenko's withdrawal from the men's competition due to injury on Thursday night left Brown "heartbroken" and somewhat saddened despite his impressive performance in the short program, where he placed sixth and earned himself a spot in the final group for Friday night's free skate.
The manner of Plushenko's exit from the competition was dramatic and was the biggest story of the night, despite Yuzuru Hanyu's world-record score of 101.45 and Jeremy Abbott's horrific fall.
Yet while a miffed Russian public and the world's media started the inquest as to whether the four-time Winter Olympic medalist had been untruthful on the topic of his physical fitness, Brown's only concern was for his friend Plushenko.
"For sure it broke my heart," Brown said. "I saw him leaving the rink holding an ice pack [on his back] and you could see he was so disappointed that he wasn't able to continue and we all know how driven and determined and how much of a fighter he is. There is no other place he would be than to represent Russia in Russia. I was really concerned about Evgeni.
"He is beyond that driven, passionate skater. He proved in the team event that he is strong and he is ready, so I know it is frustrating that he had to pull out. I really respect everything that he does. He is a true champion."
The friendship is not a typical one.
Brown is a happy-go-lucky and gregarious character who is visibly delighted simply to be at the Olympics as he walks around the Athletes' Village with a permanent smile on his face. Plushenko is a moodier type, with a regal air befitting his status as one of the all-time greats in figure skating, having won Olympic silver medals in 2002 and 2010 and gold medals in Torino in 2006 and here in Sochi in the inaugural team competition.
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Plushenko became a huge fan of Brown after being shown an online video of the youngster performing at the U.S. Championships in Boston last month. He wasn't alone, either. Brown's "Riverdance" performance in the long program generated more than 3.9 million views online.
"It is a really cool relationship," Brown said. "I respect him so much and to know that he respects me and what I do is huge as well.
"[Plushenko] has been so nice to me and so supportive over the past week. When we had team practice he came up to me and said, 'I am such a huge fan of yours.' I was like, 'What? No, no, no, no, like I am such a huge fan of yours.' And I was like, 'You're amazing' and he's like, 'No, you're amazing' – and you know like right off the bat I was so relaxed.
"He is such an incredible person and that meant so much to me and that support instantly made me feel calm from the second I stepped on the ice."
Brown went into the men's singles event with most experts predicting he would struggle to place inside the top 10, but his clean performance on Thursday, albeit without attempting the devilishly difficult quad jump, shot him into first place after two of the five groups. He will be the last skater of the night on Friday – the top six all skate in the final group with the starting order randomly selected.
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