Commentary

Head in the stars

Gold medalist Lysacek returns home to hero's welcome, enjoying the ride of his life

Updated: March 27, 2010, 12:29 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- On Thursday, Evan Lysacek was hiding under his hood from the paparazzi in Los Angeles, still wearing his slippers on his way for a cup of coffee.

Evan Lysacek
Dave Neesley Photography Evan Lysacek speaks to fans during "Evan Lysacek Day" at Neuqua Valley High School.
"That wasn't something I anticipated," he said with an ever-present grin.

On Friday, a crowd of about 5,000 crammed into the Neuqua Valley High School gym to welcome him home to Naperville, give him the school's first-ever Distinguished Alumnus award and name a parkway in his honor.

He told students not to be afraid to dream, thanked his old teachers and administration for letting him be a halfway normal kid and promised all of them he'd be a Wildcat for life as they screamed his name and chanted "U-S-A, U-S-A."

"The adrenaline is still flowing," he said. And that was something he could not have anticipated.

He estimates that he gets approximately four hours of sleep. "Every two days," he clarified.

And he couldn't be happier.

So many times has he draped the Olympic figure-skating gold medal around his neck over the past month that he said it feels like part of his body, except, of course, when he makes a sudden move and it bangs against his chest.

The pain is exquisite.

Lysacek, 24, is as close as it comes to an American hero these days, the best in the world at a sport not fully embraced by so-called mainstream fans. He's taking a big, fat bite out of his newfound celebrity and loving every minute of it.

Last Monday, more than 26 million television viewers watched him glide across a makeshift ballroom in black tie and tails with his beautiful Russian partner Anna Trebunskaya on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

Just another perk.

"It was me kind of knowing that with the four-year lead-up to the Olympics -- really 16 years preparing for the Olympics -- and that one moment, it would be easy to feel a considerable void in my life with it all being over," Lysacek said as he rode in concert tour bus-style on "Evan Lysacek Day" in Naperville. "This is a great challenge for me to move onto next; it's something brand new, and I've always loved trying things brand new.

"But at the same time, it gives me a daily structure of training and that excitement leading up to the competition every single week, so it's really satisfying."

He is competing with 10 other celebrities and their professional dance partners, a reality TV phenomenon that has drawn in athletes from Olympians to boxers to football players, like Chad Ochocinco, the Bengals' flamboyant wide receiver who already has become one of Lysacek's closest buddies on the show.

Past "Mirrorball Trophy" winners Apolo Anton Ohno, Kristi Yamaguchi and Shawn Johnson have made it a clean sweep for Olympians. Emmitt Smith is a former champion, as is IndyCar champion Helio Castroneves. It was pointed out to Lysacek that Ochocinco appeared extremely calm in the season premiere this week.

"That's why I think athletes, people who are used to dealing with pressure situations -- 'Hey, it's your time, go out and do it' -- usually thrive on the show, because we want that pressure and we're keyed up in a competitive atmosphere," he said.

Dancers were allowed only six hours of training per day before the show started but now have no limit, and Lysacek and Trebunskaya are "putting in overtime," he said.

Next week, Lysacek joins the "Smucker's Stars on Ice Tour," which means that Wednesdays through Sundays, he (and Trebunskaya) will be on the road with the ice show and then back to L.A. for the live "Dancing with the Stars" telecasts on Mondays and Tuesdays.

That also means training for skating each night from 11 p.m. to as late as 3 a.m. "when it's nice and quiet at the rink," said Lysacek, "and I can sort of ditch the cameras and just skate."

Trebunskaya watched him rehearse his "Stars on Ice" routine the other day and worried that he'd pull a muscle and not be able to dance. Though they finished in second place in the judges' scoring, both admitted that it hasn't been easy, and for Lysacek it's been more painful than he anticipated.

"The biggest challenge as far as hurting is that my skate immobilizes my ankle and my foot, so it's like having a ski boot on," he said. "And dance is all about pushing through your feet, so I've had to do hundreds of calf raises every day.

[+] EnlargeEVAN LYSACEK & ANNA TREBUNSKAYA
ABC/CRAIG SJODINOlympians and former "Mirrorball Trophy" winners Apolo Anton Ohno, Kristi Yamaguchi and Shawn Johnson have set the "Dancing with the Stars" bar high for Evan Lysacek.

"Every time I have a break, I'm doing calf raises just to strengthen my ankles and strengthen my calves. But that's just one thing. The rotation [of spins] in the opposite direction is something you have to get used do. And the posture is different, so it's a whole new world for sure."

But just having a partner may be the biggest adjustment.

"Whenever we dance together it freaks him out because he's used to doing his thing on his own, and he's actually better on his own," said Trebunskaya, who has partnered with MMA legend Chuck Liddell and Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice. "Whenever I'm near him, he's like, 'What do I do? I don't want to hit you.' It's a little bit uncomfortable for him. And apparently they don't count when they skate. I'm like, 'How do you count?' and he said, 'I'm getting ready to do my jump here, I don't count.'

"But he definitely knows how to work under pressure, as most athletes do. Their mentality, the getting-in-the-zone thing, is very, very similar, which is quite fascinating actually."

She has noticed it in seventh-place Ochocinco, in particular.

"I know Chad is working his butt off this week because he wants a better score," she said.

Lysacek said he signed on more for fun, "and not to feel like I have to win because I've had that pressure my whole life," he said. "But I think I'll get some serious [flak] from my good friends Apolo and Kristi if I don't do well."

He has been inspired by many athletes, he said, including tennis great Roger Federer and Kobe Bryant of his adopted hometown L.A. Lakers. But former Chicago Blackhawks star Chris Chelios and the Bulls' Michael Jordan caught Lysacek young, and made an indelible impression.

"That was literally what made me want to be an Olympian, was when the Bulls were at the height of their winning streak in the '90s," Lysacek said. "I didn't really comprehend it at the time, but in '92, when Jordan led the U.S. to a second gold medal at the Olympics and then later on, reading about it and this guy who had won [six] NBA championships, to any Bulls fan it was the peak of everything. To hear how special it was and how serious he took training for the Olympics and improving not just his own play but pushing his team to be better, gave me my very first sense of how important the Olympic Games is."

Lysacek met Chelios when he was opening his ice rink in Woodridge.

"I was 8 years old, and I decided I wanted to be just like him," Lysacek said.

Having already displayed his talent for figure skating, his parents gave him a choice.

"Evan said, 'I want to play hockey,' and I said 'OK, but that means giving up figure skating, because we can't spend any more time at the rink and we can't spend any more money,'" recalled his mother Tanya. "He thought about it long and hard and finally said, 'You know what, I'm pretty good at figure skating, so I think I'll just stick with this.'"

It was obviously a wise move, though he never lost the love of skating fast.

"When I got on ice, I hated it at first, but it was basically because I had no stability," he said. "Then once I was [solid enough] on my feet to go fast and feel the wind in my face, and feel that smooth feeling on the ice, I fell in love with it.

[+] EnlargeEvan Lysacek
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesEvan Lysacek didn't waste the moment for which he prepared 16 years.

"There's a lot that goes along with being an elite athlete and an Olympian, and the whole business side of it that is kind of new for all of us. But when I take that first lap every day and just feel that smooth glide on the ice and the wind in my face, I'm right at home."

His success begins with his own skill and work ethic, but it was his personal determination, said Lysacek's father Don, that carried him to Olympic gold.

"It's got to be his dream," he said. "If it's not his dream, it's not going anywhere. Believe it or not, there are even kids who make it to the national ranks in skating still doing it because it's their parents' dream."

The Lysaceks still live in Naperville and believe the ability for Evan to live at home and attend high school -- before moving to L.A. after graduation to live with his uncle and train with legendary coach Frank Carroll -- also was key.

The offers pour in for Lysacek these days, in acting, broadcasting, even a new professional skating circuit. But he can't commit until he knows if he wants to continue training.

What he did know Friday was that he still craved Portillo's chili dogs and chocolate cake every trip home. That the tug of the medal around his neck was not getting old.

And that he's on the ride of his life.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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