SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - A self-confessed "old man", Russia's Yevgeny Plushenko said he was happy to be mixing it with the teenagers after silencing the sceptics and thrilling the home crowd as figure skating's team event began on Thursday.
Soaking up the atmosphere generated by his star appeal, 2006 Olympic champion Plushenko blew kisses to an enthralled audience during a rip-roaring short programme performance to outclass triple world champion Patrick Chan.
Having endured numerous operations just to regain the ice, Plushenko's against-the-odds comeback awed the much younger flock of skaters, who were barely in their teens when he won his first Olympic medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
"I'm so happy I can compete with 18-year-old guys," said the 31-year-old father of two whose performance was only bettered by Japanese teenager Yuzuru Hanyu.
"All comebacks are hard, especially after 12 (back) surgeries, but it is possible... I'm old but I'm still alive."
The Russian showman pulled out all the stops in one of the first performances, setting the bar high and helping Russia to pole position after team mates Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov prevailed in the pairs.
Taking the ice as the crowd chanted his name, Plushenko confidently banged out a quadruple toeloop-triple toeloop combination and triple Axel in the first rush of the programme, before settling down to enjoy the skate.
He played to the crowd during fiery footwork sequences accompanied by the powerful chords of the Tango de Roxanne.
The performance confounded the critics who had questioned his selection as Russia's sole men's skater ahead of national champion Maxim Kovtun.
Despite his triumphant return after a four-year absence from the world stage, Plushenko risks peaking too soon in a contest his rivals dismissed as a trial run ahead of the individual event.
Plushenko's score of 91.39 was only surpassed by Hanyu, who beat his childhood idol with a flawless programme in which his jumps were higher, spins were quicker and footwork was immaculate.
Canada's Chan, who was beaten into third, said he was not worried by what he had seen.
"I have seen him score that (91) before, it is nothing special, so is Yuzuru's 97. You know those are all scores I have seen before so I am not too concerned," he said.
"It is a trial run... My priority is the individual."
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; editing by Toby Davis)