What nationals tells us about worlds
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The figure skating season that follows any Winter Olympics is an interesting interlude. For every successful athlete who's hung over from the adrenaline of the Games, there's another who is left hungry.
A moment seized now is too far removed from 2014 to be an accurate barometer, but it's also a great opportunity for breakthrough, confirmation and, in the cases of newly crowned national champions Alissa Czisny and Ryan Bradley, vindication for getting back up after a fall.
Bradley, 27, literally waved goodbye from the ice after finishing fourth last year and had no intention of returning. "I realized I've contemplated retiring every year after nationals since 2003," said the self-deprecating Missouri native. "It's hard. It wears on you."
He declined financial support from the federation last spring, spent the summer recuperating from a harrowing injury that required re-breaking an imperfectly healed bone in his foot and was left out of U.S. Figure Skating's pre-printed media guide for this season.
Bradley didn't start training again until last October, persuaded in part because of a rush of digital encouragement received via social media. After what he called "probably the ugliest national championship program ever" this past weekend -- a free skate that started with two flawed quad jumps but still got the job done -- he kissed one of the little girls scooping stuffed animals off the ice and did an exuberant backflip.
In the breakthrough category, no one made a bigger leap all week than 19-year-old Ricky Dornbush, who catapulted from seventh after the short program to finish second behind Bradley in his second year at the senior level. Maia and Alex Shibutani, a teenaged sister-brother ice dance team who were also in the junior ranks last year, delivered in impressively poised fashion to slide into second behind the slam-dunk combination of Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
With her second national title in three years, the 23-year-old Czisny has compiled possibly the strangest line score in the history of the event: seventh, third, ninth, first, 10th and first since 2006. She deserves full props for surviving that seismograph of a career and skating two clean, lyrical programs in Greensboro that finally did justice to her considerable talent and expectations of herself. Yes, she can never rewind last year's disastrous performance, but the trajectory of an athlete's maturity doesn't always fit neatly inside an Olympic quadrennial.
An intelligent, reserved young woman, Czisny was emotionally broken last March but still plucky enough to decide she didn't want to exit the sport on a dissonant note. She split with her coach of 12 years at the Detroit Skating Club, Julianne Berlin, and began training with a coaching tandem in the same rink -- a move that is always harder than it sounds.
The new voices in her ear belong to the steely yet serene 1994 world champion Yuka Sato of Japan and her soft-spoken husband, former U.S. pairs national champion Jason Dungjen. Sato sets the motivational tone and Dungjen provides the technical expertise. Together, they rebuilt Czisny's form and confidence.
"The very first thing was that they believed in me," Czisny said.
Sato described Czisny as "very sad, very lost" in their initial conversations last March, disoriented at the way her journey to the Olympics had been derailed.
"People like to say that mentally, she's not very strong," Sato said. "I don't believe that. She's very firm inside. Once she sets her mind to something, she sticks to it.
"She was kind of convinced, I think, by everybody else's words. ... That was something I started tackling. I said, 'You can't tell me you are weak. You are here trying to do all this, taking a chance -- a weak person cannot do that.'"
While Sato worked on Czisny's psyche, Dungjen revamped her mechanics, devoting entire practice sessions to single and double jumps. For a skater of Czisny's international experience, it was the equivalent of going from advanced calculus back to fractions and long division.
"When she made the conscious decision to change, she went in with both feet," Dungjen said. "She did anything we asked her to do, even if she didn't understand why we were asking her to do it."
Czisny never resisted, and only occasionally betrayed frustration with a slight tilt of the head.
Czisny's next bid for a fresh start will be in March at the World Championships in Tokyo. She placed 15th at worlds in 2007, when she was the U.S. bronze medalist, and 11th in 2009, when she came in as national champion. The latter was a double letdown, as it cost the U.S. team a third slot at the 2010 Vancouver Games. (A country needs two placements that add up to 13 or less to earn three slots.)
"Doing what I have to do, when I have to do it -- that's what I plan to do at worlds," Czisny said.
• The World Championship outlook for the U.S. team:
Ladies: If Czisny competes the way she did here and at the Grand Prix series final (which she won), she has a legitimate shot at the podium. Rachael Flatt, the other U.S. woman named to the world team, looked dispirited in a surprisingly shaky free skate and admitted she was tired. Flatt plans to enter Stanford University this fall to study engineering and has stated her intent to train for Sochi 2014. At this point, that looks like a long, hard road in several ways.
Men: Bradley finished 15th and 18th in his two previous appearances in 2007 and 2010. With Dornbush and equally untried bronze medalist Ross Miner filling the other two spots, it's unlikely the U.S. will hang onto its three slots at worlds for 2012. The flip side is the obvious promise of those two young skaters.
Pairs: Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin won gold with a memorable long program set to "Ave Maria" and dedicated it to Coughlin's mother, who died a year ago. It earned them a score 20 points better than their previous personal best, a significant spread even considering the traditionally inflated numbers at nationals. The two had never placed higher than sixth at nationals, but got some respect from international judges this season with a bronze medal at the Cup of China and a fourth-place finish at the NHK Trophy. The U.S. hasn't won a world pairs medal since a bronze in 2002.
Dance: Who would have predicted a decade ago that the U.S. team's best chance at a world medal of any color -- let alone gold -- would come from this formerly bottlenecked discipline? Davis and White haven't conceded one iota of intensity this season. Their free dance to a medley of Argentine tangos leaves no square inch of the rink untouched. It's exhilarating to watch and utterly exhausting to do, as witnessed by White's hollow-eyed look at the awards news conference. The duo will try to wrest the world title away from Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, who are coming back from a layoff after Virtue underwent leg surgery last fall.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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