Plushenko, Julia dazzle for Russia

Hosts ride on twin efforts to claim team figure skating gold

Yevgeny Plushenko and 15-year-old dynamo Julia Lipnitskaya bridged a generation gap in Russian figure skating with two rip-roaring performances to hand the hosts their first gold medal of the Sochi Winter Olympics on Sunday.

The Russian team sitting rink-side seemed unaware that they had struck gold with almost 90 minutes of the competition remaining since Lipnitskaya and ice dancers Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov still had to perform.

But once Lipnitskaya finished her spellbinding skate to the soundtrack of Schindler's List, the screaming fans packed into the Iceberg Skating Palace started dancing down the aisles long before the result was announced over the PA system.

At 8.37 pm local time, Russia's expected gold rush at its first winter Games finally started and President Vladimir Putin was on hand to witness the moment from his VIP seat.

"It's the first medal for Russia this Olympics. I love being first," Plushenko said after joining Sweden's Gillis Grafstrom as the only skaters to have won four Olympic medals."This means everything to me," Plushenko added as he was accompanied by his wife through a throng of reporters backstage.

To many, it seemed as if Plushenko had barged into the Olympics through the back door after he was controversially handed Russia's sole spot in the men's competition at the expense of younger rivals.

But the 2006 Turin champion, who had not competed in any global competition since picking up a silver in Vancouver four years ago, can now expect a hero's welcome around the country after proving there was still life in his patched-up 31-year-old body.

Putin, along with the near 12,000 capacity crowd, could not stay on their seats as Plushenko began the victory charge on the final day of the three-day multi-discipline competition.

His speed across the ice was lacking and his body seemed to almost move in super-slow motion during his spins but the crowd did not care.

The noise reached deafening levels as he landed his opening quadruple toeloop, sent the crowd into raptures as he playfully held up his index finger to his lip mid routine - miming for silence - and the hollering crowd were back on their feet as he theatrically finished off his routine with a spin.

His score of 168.20 for a solid, if rather gentle-paced, routine extended Russia's lead.Canada's Kevin Reynolds, who came second to the Russian on Sunday, paid tribute to the man who picked up his fourth Olympic medal 12 years after winning his first at Salt Lake City.

"It is amazing the longevity that he has had ... To do what he does here at that age after so many years coming back without much competition experience this season, I have a lot of respect for him," said Reynolds.

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