VANCOUVER (Reuters) - American Evan Lysacek glided to Olympic gold in men’s figure skating on Thursday in a stunning upset of Russian Yevgeny Plushenko’s pursuit of back-to-back titles.
It was a crushing blow for Plushenko, who had come out of retirement to rescue Russian skating, and to his nation, a traditional winter sports powerhouse clamoring for more than one gold medal six days into the Winter Games.
The surprising men’s free skate final capped a day dominated by the women, who served up a few surprises themselves.
Germany’s Maria Riesch came back from a disappointing downhill to win the women’s super combined crown after American Lindsey Vonn tumbled and ruined her bid for a second Olympic gold medal in two days.
Over on the snowboard halfpipe, Australia’s Torah Bright sliced her way to her country’s first gold of these Games and speedskater Christine Nesbitt picked up the third gold for host nation Canada.
Another woman helped her country reach an Olympic milestone when Norwegian biathlete Tora Berger skied and shot her way to the country’s 100th Winter Games gold, the first nation to achieve that mark.
Her team mate Emil Hegle Svendsen, however, quickly made that 101 in the men’s biathlon 20 km individual.
Thursday was also a good day for beleaguered organizers, with no new reports of operational snags after a string of problems, ranging from million-dollar ticketholder refunds to unreliable ice grooming machines.
The ice was just fine for Lysacek, the first American to win the title since Brian Boitano in 1988, also in Canadian hosted Games in Calgary. Unlike the strong favorite Plushenko, he did not have to attempt any quadruple jumps to win over the judges.
“I couldn’t have asked for much more than that,” Lysacek said. “To get a personal best in the most important moment of my life — you dream about it.”
Plushenko would have been the first man in nearly 60 years to win successive Olympic figure skating titles.
The United States consolidates its position on top of the medals table with six gold, four having come in the last two days.
The day started with all eyes on America’s golden girl Vonn after her golden run in a treacherous downhill on Wednesday which featured a succession of racers careering off the course.
The downhill diva, who came to Vancouver with a shin injury, led after the first downhill run and was on course to finish on the podium in the combined when she clipped a gate and tumbled within sight of the finish line.
Riesch said her gold was down to getting her nerves under control.
“I was not nervous and that was the key because yesterday I was,” Riesch said, noting that the course was “not so difficult.”
Vonn said: “I put it all out there and it just didn’t work out for me.”
Her American team mate Julia Mancuso stayed on her skis to finish second to add another silver to her second place in the individual downhill. With three Olympic medals, Mancuso joined Bode Miller as the most decorated U.S. skiers.
Back with a vengeance was the combined’s bronze medal winner Anja Paerson of Sweden, who survived a spectacular crash on the big hill at the end of Wednesday’s downhill.
A deeply bruised Paerson decided to race only at the last minute, but once her bronze was secured, she did not hesitate to do her trademark face-first celebration dive on the snow.
“This night I was very nervous that I wouldn’t enter any more races here. But I was very determined to win one more medal,” said Paerson who now holds a record-equaling sixth Alpine medal.
Germany moved to second in the medal standings on four golds with Norway, South Korea, Switzerland and Canada on three each.
Canada’s “own the podium” program for the home Olympics has begun to reap respectable rewards as Nesbitt garnered the third gold for the fanatical home crowd.
She claimed the Olympic title by two-hundredths of a second and said the way she raced “wasn’t pretty.”
“I was fortunate to win Olympic gold. It was probably the worst 1,000 I’ve done this year,” Nesbitt said.
The Canadian gold rush came after the country broke on Sunday its so-called “curse” of never having won Olympic gold on home soil, previously in Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988.
Australia’s first gold came almost miraculously as Bright went from last to first in the halfpipe by pulling off a series of tricks to make up for a first final run with two falls.
The Canadian men’s hockey team, one of the Olympic favorites, did not have such a good day, even though they managed to win.
They just eked out a 3-2 victory over Switzerland, the same team who beat them at the Turin Games in a stunning upset.
Editing by Ed Osmond