Yeah, the Russian male figure skater.
He’s a 31 year old European Champion, World Champion, and four-time Olympic medalist–which means he’s been the Olympic favorite for almost half of my life. I’ve been watching him skate on Olympic ice in my TV since I was sixteen years old. And I couldn’t stand him. Something about his *ahem* interesting haircut, or his smug smile, or his confident air, something just never sat right with me.
This year in particular he seemed to really get under my skin. The golden boy has come home to Sochi to win it for Mother Russia! They might as well have just saved everyone the trouble and given him the medal without making anyone skate. After all, he clinched the gold for Russia in the team competition, earning a hug from Putin himself.
So, in my annoyance, I said some ugly things about him. Things that, I’m ashamed to say, I can’t bring myself to repeat here. Sarcastic texts to friends, snarky comments in casual conversations. Why? I don’t know. I don’t even care that much about skating. It’s not like I’m a superfan. I couldn’t even have told you the names of the men skating for Team USA before last week. And I didn’t tweet, or otherwise publicly share, my mean thoughts and comments with the public. I wasn’t out for blood or defamation or anything. It was just your everyday, “I don’t like him” ugliness.
Then I settled into my couch a week ago to watch the men’s figure skating competition. They were showing the warm-ups, Yevgeny’s familiar blonde bangs flying in the breeze as he skated around the rink and…almost fell? I couldn’t believe my eyes. I watched in disbelief as he skated over to the judges’ table to inform them that he would not be competing. He had hurt his back and could not execute his jumps.
This will be his final Olympic appearance (he announced his official retirement shortly thereafter). And it’s on his home turf, no less. But for the first time in the twelve years that he’s been skating on my TV screen, he walked off the Olympic ice with no chance of a medal. Instead of ending a long and dominant career with a final solo performance in front of a loving home crowd, he exits the arena having withdrawn from competition, head down, face wincing in pain of both body and heart.
Even as he angrily jerked away from the consoling touch of his coach and rudely ignored the word and gaze of the reporters desperate for a comment, my heart hurt a little for him.
A few minutes later, they showed the interview that he did finally grant that reporter.
He was calm and gracious and as eloquent as he could be speaking in a non-native language. He talked about the physical pain he was in and how it was not possible for him to compete. He seemed heartbroken, of course, saying that he almost cried while walking off the ice. He said he felt sad for his fans. He said over and over that “he tried…to the end.” Then, in broken English he said, “I am not robot. I am person. Like you.”
And I burst into tears.
Suddenly I was so ashamed of the ugly things I had said about him, about this person. This person I don’t even know.
I read a few articles that blasted him for not withdrawing sooner so that a fellow countryman could take his place. Maybe they’re right. I’ve also heard that he’s not “ruling out” the 2018 Olympics–perhaps another hint at arrogance. The thing is, maybe in all reality Mr. Plushenko is not a very nice guy. Maybe he actually is as rude and conceited as I once so boldly asserted. I’ll never know, I suppose. But it doesn’t matter.
After watching more than a decade of award-winning performances and remaining unaffected, the performance that finally got to me was the one that never was. After years of watching him receive his medals, triumphant, I only ever admired him when gracious in heartache.
So, much to my surprise, Yevgeny made me cry. And he reminded me of a few valuable life lessons:
Humility in defeat and graciousness in disappointment are much more powerful than pride in triumph.
Sometimes our judgments of people are wrong. Sometimes they’re right. But they always say more about ourselves than about the judged.
And, finally, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.