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Abbott wins 3rd US title with mesmerizing grace

Caydee Denney, top, and John Coughlin compete in the pairs free skate event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012. Caydee Denney, top, and John Coughlin compete in the pairs free skate event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
By Nancy Armour
AP National Writer / January 29, 2012
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SAN JOSE, Calif.—Good thing Jeremy Abbott was the final skater.

There was no way anyone could have topped this performance.

Needing only to stay on his feet to win his third title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Sunday, Abbott performed with a quiet elegance and superior skill that was simply bewitching. The audience was so spellbound you could hear his blades carving the ice, and it wasn't until the final notes of his music faded that fans erupted in applause.

"I skate to give a performance like that and so I felt really good," Abbott said. "I was really nervous when I started, I was shaking a little bit. But from the second I set for the quad I was like, `I'm going to do this.' I just really took it into my hands and made sure that I did what I needed to do."

His final score of 273.58 was the highest ever at the U.S. championships, and puts him within striking distance of world champion Patrick Chan. It was about 12 points better than 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko scored in winning his seventh European title Saturday.

Adam Rippon, a two-time junior world champion, was second. Ross Miner finished third for a second straight year.

Earlier Sunday, Caydee Denney and John Coughlin won their first pairs title together after winning the previous two years with other partners.

Abbott is one of the most technically sound skaters in the world, with beautiful edges that carve the ice like a master craftsman and perfect body control. He's also one of the few skaters who has managed to maintain the balance between the performance quality that makes figure skating so entertaining and the tough physical tricks the system now demands.

But he's had a tendency to fall apart on the big stage, flopping at the 2009 world championships and again at the Vancouver Olympics. When it happened again last year when a third U.S. title was his for the taking, Abbott decided he'd had enough. He no longer cares what anyone thinks about him, much less any nasty things that are said. He's skating for himself and his own enjoyment, concerned only with achieving the goals he's set.

Abbott believes he can contend with the best in the world and, after this performance, there is little doubt he can. He landed the only quadruple jump of the day, and his spins were so tight and perfectly centered that coaches will no doubt be asking for a DVD of them.

But it was his presence that was truly spectacular.

He picked the music for his free skate, a Muse song that he found on his iPod. He played a part in the choreography, too, resulting in perfect harmony between skater and song. It was as if he let the music wash over him and tell his skates what to do.

He was so caught up in his own moment that he stood at center ice for a good 10 seconds when he finished, not moving a muscle.

"When I finished I could feel the energy of the arena and it kind of overwhelmed me. I was getting a little emotional but I kept it in, kept it together but I felt it," Abbott said. "It was real nice."

If Abbott comes remotely close to this performance at the world championships in March, it will go a long way toward regaining that third spot the U.S. men lost last year. Abbott and Rippon will need to finish with a combined placement of 13 or better, and Abbott has never finished better than fifth in his three appearances at worlds.

But he's never been skating like this, either.

Rippon will need a bit more energy at worlds than he had Sunday, when he skated tentative and flat, as if he was trying to hold onto his spot on the podium rather than move up.

He's lucky he didn't get a ticket for loitering as he geared up for a triple axel-step-double toe combination, holding his edge on the entry for what seemed like forever and leaving no doubts about what was coming. Not only did he not do his planned quadruple salchow, he only did a double. A well-done double but a double nonetheless, with nowhere near the point value of a quad or even a triple.

What saved Rippon was his artistry. He has the extension of a ballet dancer, and he used every part of his body, from the tips of his toes to the top of his head, to express his music.

"It wasn't completely perfect, but I'm very proud of what I did," Rippon said.

Armin Mahbanoozadeh, a distant third after the short program, needed a strong effort to have any chance of overtaking Rippon and making the world team. He went the opposite direction, instead, dropping off the podium after taking a big splat on his quadruple toe attempt and turning out on the landings of two other jumps.

Miner took advantage, moving up a spot with a strong program that had only one error, a fall on a triple axel.

Denney and Coughlin had won the last two U.S. titles, each with a different partner. They teamed up in May and, even in a sport where couples have all the stability of Jell-O, their matchup came just three weeks after Coughlin and Caitlin Yankowskas finished sixth at the world championships.

Clearly, though, Denney and Coughlin knew what they were doing. As good as each other was with someone else, they're that much better together. Their performance Sunday was one of the best of the entire week in any discipline, any event. The highlight was their carry lift. Coughlin carried Denney three-quarters of the way around the rink, and did it with such speed and strength she looked as light as a feather pillow. Midway through, she switched positions, turning in the opposite direction of the way he was skating.

You know how tough it is to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time? Try that, times 10.

"I've been dreaming all week about doing that carry after skating clean and that feeling from the audience," Coughlin said. "Oh, I had so much fun."

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Follow Nancy Armour at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour

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