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RPT-FEATURE-Olympics-Plushenko back on the ice for Vancouver

(Repeats feature first moved at 0002 GMT)

MOSCOW, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Olympic figure skating champion Yevgeny Plushenko, making a comeback after a 3-1/2-year hiatus, has ditched pizza, chocolate and late nights as he seeks to become the first man in more than half a century to retain his title.

The flamboyant Russian, regarded as the most gifted skater of his generation, quit the sport after winning the men’s gold at the 2006 Turin Olympics.

Plushenko, who turned 27 on Tuesday, made a successful return at last month’s Moscow Grand Prix, outclassing the opposition with his trademark triple and quadruple jumps and elegant spins.

“It feels great to be back, feel the competitive urge, the crowd, the cheers once again. It’s almost like I’ve never been away,” he told Reuters in an interview, setting his sights on defending his title at the Vancouver Games in February.

“I feel like a kid who got to play with his toys again after a long absence.”

Although far from his best, Plushenko’s performance sent a clear warning to his rivals that the boss is back.

“This was like a rehearsal. Vancouver is definitely the main target for me this season,” said Plushenko, who also plans to compete at next month’s nationals and the European championships in Tallinn in January.

Plushenko said money was not a factor in his decision to skate again.

“I could have made a lot more just by doing exhibitions almost every week,” said the St Petersburg skater, who made a cameo appearance at last year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Belgrade, helping his friend, pop singer Dima Bilan, to victory.

GOOD LIFE

“I’ve had a very good life, travelling the world, performing in shows, I could stay in bed late and eat all I want, but in all honestly I got bored with all that.

“Now I get up at six in the morning, I can’t have a slice of pizza or a bar of chocolate, I can’t go out late at night as I have early training but I have no regrets,” Plushenko added.

“The sacrifices are all worth it. I can skate in shows until I’m 40 or 50, but now I want to compete at the top level again, to experience the drive, the emotions, something you can only get in real competitions, not shows.”

He credits his wife Jana Rudkovskaya for talking him into making a comeback. “Since last year she kept telling me: ‘You can do it. Go for it.’ She pushed me really hard,” he recalled.

“I was all set to return a year ago but I started to train really hard because we only had three months left before the season and it was a bit too tough on my knees,” said the skater, who had surgery on his right knee in 2007.

“So we had to postpone it until this year. But now I’m fine. I have to take good care of my knees, ice and massage them after every skate but so far they are holding pretty well, thank God.”

Plushenko, looking fit after shedding more than 10 kilos in the past 12 months, said he was a better skater now than he was when he quit the sport at the peak of his powers.

“I don’t think I’ve lost a step. I can do all the jumps I did then and even may add a few more (quads),” he said.

“For sure, I’m now a more mature skater and can express myself much better on the ice than I did in the past.”

His long-time coach Alexei Mishin agreed.

“Definitely, he’s improved. His charisma, his ability to radiate energy and get the crowd going make Zhenya unique,” Mishin, who also coached Olympic men’s champions Alexei Urmanov and Alexei Yagudin, told Reuters.

“He was 11 when I took him under my wing and we’ve been together since. It’s 16 years now, I don’t think you could find such a long (coach-athlete) partnership anywhere in sports.”

FEDERER COMPARISON

In his heyday, Plushenko wowed audiences and judges alike with his artistry, elegance and technical skills, earning comparisons with Swiss tennis great Roger Federer.

“It’s not up to me to make such a judgment, I’d leave it to the people and the press,” he said. “But sure I’d also like to be remembered as a great champion, to have my place in history.”

Plushenko, who finished second behind Yagudin at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, is well aware of the fact that only three male skaters have successfully defended their Olympic titles.

“It’s a very select company. I know (Richard) Button won two golds but that was a long time ago,” he said in reference to the American who was the last man to achieve the feat, triumphing at the 1948 and 1952 Games.

Plushenko seemed unconcerned that not every comeback, including those of Olympic champions Brian Boitano and Viktor Petrenko, had turned into a fairytale.

“Boitano, Petrenko, (Canadian Brian) Orser also tried I think but that was them. I have my own destiny,” said Plushenko, who missed a chance to compete at the 1998 Nagano Games at the age of 15 because Russia could send only two men skaters.

“I skated really well at the nationals that year but they didn’t pick me, saying I was too young and would get my chance next time,” he recalled.

Asked if he could make another comeback at the 2014 Sochi Games back home in Russia, Plushenko smiled and said: “Well, that’s a long way from now but you never know.” (Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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