SALT LAKE CITY - Alexei Yagudin could have been conservative. He could have played it safe. He could have waltzed into the Salt Lake Ice Arena last night, done the safest routine possible, and walked away knowing he played the percentages.
But he might not have walked away with a gold medal, or walked away making history.
Yagudin, a three-time world champion, was almost flawless, winning the gold medal in men's figure skating in a runaway.
His only miss was a minor one, and when it was all over, he fell to his knees, pumping his fists with pure joy. Yagudin became the first men's skater to earn more than one perfect 6.0 mark, and the four 6.0s he earned might stand for some time. He became the third straight Russian man to take the gold medal in men's figure skating.
"I am just so happy right now," Yagudin said. "I knew I could skate like this. I think I went out and showed everyone who carries the name Alexei Yagudin. When I heard I was the only guy to ever get so many sixes, I was amazed. It's like a good dream right now."
Russian Yevgeny Plushenko, fourth after the short program, came back to win the silver with an impressive, emotional performance. American Timothy Goebel grabbed the bronze, becoming the first skater from the United States to earn a medal since Paul Wylie won silver in 1992.
"I feel great. I skated as well as I can skate tonight," Goebel said. "I was just so happy to go out there and [perform] under pressure."
Even with a comfortable lead, Yagudin wasn't satisfied with skating safely and putting his fate in the hands of the judges. Though he admitted he was so nervous he couldn't feel his legs before Tuesday's short program, Yagudin's swagger was back in full force last night during the free skate. Before the competition, he boasted he would likely try the rare quad-triple-triple combination jump, a risky move considering he didn't need it to win.
"Maybe, why not?" he said after the short program. "I have a comfortable lead, but I still want to be proud of myself and skate good. It's just a question of the landing."
The landing proved to be no question. Yagudin stuck it, raised his arms and smiled to the crowd. Without question, he was the champion, and he knew it.
Goebel may have had the best chance to catch him, but Yagudin was simply too good. In the short program, Goebel became the first skater in Olympic history to land a quadruple Salchow.
Last night, he jumped like no American had ever jumped, becoming the first Olympian to land three quads in competition. The roar from the crowd at both the beginning and end of his performance was deafening. Goebel nailed a triple Lutz, triple Salchow, a quad toe loop and a quad Salchow. But a tiny stumble on a triple Axel, a jump Goebel usually does in his sleep, proved to be the difference. The judges were not nearly as kind to him as they were to Plushenko, and he slipped into third place, grinning as flowers and chants of "USA, USA, USA!" reigned down on him.
"I was a bit disappointed that Tim's marks were a bit lower that Yevgeny's, but I thought the judges did a fairly nice job," said Goebel's coach, Frank Carroll. "I'd certainly like to talk to the judge that gave him a 5.4, but other than that it was fine."
Said Goebel: "It doesn't really matter to me. I certainly think the marks were justified, as long as they got the places right. I'm just so excited to be up here with a medal around my neck. It's great to see an American man back on the podium. Any three of the Americans could have done it, but I'm just really happy it was me."
Takeshi Honda of Japan finished fourth.
American Todd Eldredge announced that this will be his last Olympics, and he finished a very respectable sixth in his goodbye. American Michael Weiss performed emotionally as well, and finished seventh.