Skidding to the finish
Nationals lacked usual crispness
CLEVELAND - "Pigs Can Fly," Jeremy Abbott proclaims on his fan website. But who'd have guessed there'd be so much porcine aviation around Lake Erie last week? Abbott, who'd never made a podium, dethroned two-time men's figure skating champion Evan Lysacek yesterday to become the oldest first-time male titlist (at 23) since Rudy Galindo in 1996. On Saturday night Alissa Czisny, who'd won just one medal in seven previous appearances, became the oldest first-time female victor since Nancy Kerrigan in 1993.
These nationals were awash in shock and flaw, in crashes and popped jumps and tears, and the most unlikely of folks with medals around their necks. Brandon Mroz, an 18-year-old just up from juniors, finished second ahead of Lysacek. Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, who'd been back together as a pair for just seven months, outpointed two-time champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin and made the team for the March world championships in Los Angeles.
Rarely, if ever, has there been as much churn a year before the Olympics, with three new champions crowned and a massive turnover on the global squad, which usually sports a bunch of familiar faces this close to the Games.
None of last year's women made this team. Of the men, Lysacek barely earned a return ticket and Johnny Weir, the only world medalist last season, finished fifth here after two of his sorriest skates and missed the squad for the first time in six years. "Usually, I'm much more prepared and much more with it," said Weir, who got sick last month on an unwise show trip to Korea and never regained his form.
Wakefield, Mass., native Stephen Carriere, who made the team last year in his second season as a senior, had a rough outing, ending up ninth. His totaled-car experience two weekends ago might have been a distraction, he conceded. "But I'm a no-excuses kind of person," said Carriere, who singled one triple axel in the long program, stepped out of the other, and fell on a triple loop. "This is certainly not the way I skate. This is not me."
It was the shakiest of weeks for almost all of last year's aces. Lysacek, who was fourth in the free skate after crashing on his opening quadruple toe jump and stepping out of his triple axel combination, had his worst placement in four years. "I wasn't tired, I wasn't winded, I wasn't tense," he said. "I was just kind of wobbly, I guess."
Mirai Nagasu, who came in as the youngest women's champion since Tara Lipinski, was never a factor, finishing in fifth after two tear-spattered efforts. Puberty, a nagging ankle injury, and a dose of adolescent rebellion made a hash of her season. "I've been blaming everything on the ankle, but it's me," said Nagasu, who confessed that she'd been "going to the dark side."
Seldom has the women's side of the sport been in so much disarray so close to the Games. Until Czisny, no skater ever had come from ninth place the year before to claim the crown. As it was, Czisny finished third in the long program behind Ashley Wagner and Rachael Flatt, landing only three clean triple jumps, and had only the sixth-best element (i.e., technical) scores.
Too many of the contenders here seemed blinded by the spotlight, unable to replicate under pressure what they do every day in practice. The exception was the Broadmoor people from Colorado Springs - Flatt, Abbott, Mroz, and Ryan Bradley. Flatt, who won her second silver medal at 16, landed half a dozen triples. Both Mroz and Bradley hit the quad and put big pressure on Abbott, as they do every day in practice under coach Tom Zakrajsek.
"We root for each other and try to beat each other regularly," said Abbott, who fought off a huge case of nerves to lift the title from Lysacek. "It's a really good atmosphere."
It's the kind of competitive crucible that is all too rare in skating, where the stars usually train in diva-like isolation and don't knock heads with challengers until they come to major championships. Zakrajsek, who lists coaches John Wooden, Phil Jackson, and Bela Karolyi among his inspirers, believes in collegial competitiveness for his pupils and it paid off here.
From here on, every event is going to be major for the Americans. The world championships will determine the per-country entries for the Olympics and both the women and pairs need to improve on last year's placements to earn a third spot. Next year's nationals in Spokane, Wash., will produce the team for Vancouver. And the Games, as they always are, will be the quadrennial final exam for the planet.
The Americans failed to win a gold medal in Turin for only the second time since 1980. Time was when their men's and women's champions, from the Buttons to the Yamaguchis, were the gilded standard. In a year when pigs are taking wing, after a week of shock and flaw, nobody's betting their battered portfolio on who'll even make it to Olympus.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.