Lysacek overcomes Skate America curse
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- It's been 25 years since the reigning men's figure skating world champion managed to follow that feat with an Olympic gold medal. He was an American named Scott Hamilton, and a few years later, he would become an idol for a little boy in the Chicago suburbs named Evan Lysacek.
"I've had this really cosmic connection to him my whole career," said Lysacek, who would love to keep that interstellar bond going in Vancouver in February. He took one more step in that direction Saturday, skating a clean long program to win his first Skate America title in six tries at the Grand Prix series event.
Lysacek and Hamilton are friends now, and they have been corresponding about how to handle the responsibility of being the point person for men's figure skating in their home country. Both men say it's better to regard the world title as a blessing rather than a curse at the upcoming Olympics.
"I feel the pressure and I know why it could be construed, maybe, as a negative thing, but it's been so positive for me, the opportunities that have come my way have been so great," said Lysacek, who broke a 13-year drought for American men when he won the world championships in March.
Hamilton is an expert on the subject. He had earned not one but three consecutive world championships going into the 1984 Olympics, when he won gold, and would add a fourth soon afterward.
"I'd rather be the No. 1 guy than the No. 4 guy scrapping for a medal," Hamilton said between sessions at Skate America.
"The Olympics is different, really different, it's scary and it's like, 'This is it; I'm 25 years old and I'm not going to get another chance at this.' All those things get into your brain. There's a lot of overanalyzing. But that event [worlds] is over. They had the ceremony, they put the medal around your neck. The greatest feeling in the world is the 10 minutes after you win. If you're hanging on to that moment, it becomes this thing that you're dragging around with you that's heavy."
Lysacek isn't taking this weighty season lightly, but he's also striving not to labor under his stature. There are plenty of reasons a gold medal at worlds isn't necessarily a prescription for greatness at the next Olympics. The events are separated by nearly a year and take place in different seasons.
The 24-year-old, who finished fourth in the 2006 Olympics, came into the 2009 world championships in Los Angeles without having won another major event that season. He was shut out of gold during the Grand Prix series and narrowly dethroned by Jeremy Abbott at the U.S. nationals. Yet Lysacek prevailed at worlds with strong, stylish skating despite not attempting a quadruple jump in either his short or long program. The victory attracted blue-chip sponsors such as Coke, AT&T and Ralph Lauren, made Lysacek a main attraction on the skating show circuit and elevated him to the top rank of American athletes to watch in Vancouver.
That was followed by some forced rest. The stress fracture in his left foot that prevented him from doing the quad at worlds needed healing time, and Lysacek took two months off. His coach, Frank Carroll, said he's trying the quad four or five times per practice but may not pull that card from his deck in competition until U.S. nationals in January -- or even Vancouver.
The quad would seem to be necessary ammunition in what's shaping up to be a crowded field of contenders at the upcoming Olympics.
France's Brian Joubert and emerging Canadian talent Patrick Chan -- who finished second to Lysacek at worlds -- will jockey for podium spots, as will Japan's animated Nobunari Oda, who overcame his recent checkered past to win two Grand Prix events this season. Defending Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko of Russia has come out of retirement and looks as if he has lost little if any of his formidable athleticism. Switzerland's elegant Stephane Lambiel, a two-time world champion and 2006 Olympic silver medalist, couldn't stay away from the rink either and represents yet another obstacle to Lysacek.
Lysacek has struggled with the quad more than some other top men, but the ever-patient Carroll said he's content to view it as a work in progress. "I don't want him banging away on his foot right now," Carroll said. "I want him to know his foot is strong and can hold up under the pressure."
Affable off the ice, Lysacek can be an especially dynamic performer when he's on, his lean, long-limbed 6-foot-2-inch frame giving every line extra extension and verve.
Having won worlds in a tuxedo, Lysacek went to the other end of the fashion spectrum this season, donning exotic all-black Vera Wang designs. His short-program costume features textured epaulets and cuffs adorned with glossy feathers. The program is set to Stravinsky's "Firebird," and Lysacek, who skated it passionately, said he invested considerable time delving into the malevolent character he represents in the famous ballet.
Lysacek's performance to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" in Saturday night's free skate -- as he wore a largely sheer top with silver sequins and feathers winking and waving from his shoulders -- was more workmanlike, technically sound and solid enough to beat this field, but not memorable. Nonetheless, along with his second-place finish at the recent Cup of China, it qualifies him for the Grand Prix final after last year's absence. This season, he'll try to layer success on success, and he says he's never been better prepared to do so.
"I'm very comfortable in my own skin, and I'm confident in my skating," Lysacek said. "To some extent, winning that world title gave me justification for the last 15 years of my life, training and working. It rejuvenated me. I feel like I can honestly say I'm a better athlete mentally and physically than I was even last year when I won that world title."
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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