Lysacek leads three-time champ Weir, rivalry continues


SPOKANE, Wash. -- When Evan Lysacek performed his short program Thursday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, he clenched his fists and skated a victory lap around the rink.

Shortly afterward, with his main competitor, three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir, still awaiting to skate, Lysacek met with reporters. Then he delivered a thinly veiled campaign speech.

If you didn't know you were at a figure skating event, you might have thought Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton was stumping in Spokane.

In skating, it's Lysacek vs. Weir for 2010.

It's the battle of the clean-cut, classical skater (Lysacek) and the eccentric, often over-the-top performer (Weir).

The spinning -- on and off the ice -- is in full swing.

"I am ready to represent United States Figure Skating," Lysacek said. "Especially in the men's field. On every level, I'm ready for it, and I think I can show people what they want to see from U.S. Figure Skating and what direction we're heading and what an amazing sport we are, because I have nothing but utmost respect for my profession, and that's something that I learned from Coach Frank Carroll.

"I have so much respect for the national championships and the world championships for my sport, and the judges and the people that put nothing less than their entire lives into, basically, us as athletes and our success and the success of our sport.

"I think if I was given the chance to represent what that all means, I think that I wouldn't take it lightly."

When asked if that's something Weir hasn't done in his three-year term as president -- er, champion -- Lysacek responded quickly.

"I didn't say that," Lysacek said. "I think what he does is his own business, and it's very different from the way I conduct myself. I think our sport promotes individuality, and that's one of the amazing things about it. We're free to be whoever we are."

Although in skating, being a champion isn't just about being the best skater. It's about being the best at projecting the federation's image. If you're going to win as Tonya Harding, you better have a good knockout punch.

So, on paper alone, Lysacek is going about his path toward a national title the right way. No bizarre music. No frilly costumes. No off-the-wall comments to reporters.

After Lysacek's performance, it seemed appropriate to pencil him in as the next champion. It was a pretty safe bet, right? Maybe we'd even use a pen.

Weir, who never does anything the way people expect, wasn't about to cave. Although he has been battling what he described as a "hip-butt" injury after a fall in practice Monday -- as well as criticism of his off-ice behavior -- Weir delivered a clean program, executing the same jumps as Lysacek. Weir's performance wasn't as riveting as Lysacek's, but he showed he's not about to hand over his crown quite yet.

And there's no doubt the skaters are keeping close tabs on each other. Weir didn't watch Lysacek's performance, but he heard enough cheers in the arena to know it was strong.

"I heard the reaction to Evan and I heard the score, so I knew that I needed a high score to beat it," Weir said. "I would have needed the highest score I had all season, and I got close."

Entering Saturday's free skate, Lysacek holds a sliver of a lead with 78.99 points -- .85 ahead of Weir.

"I'm second," Weir said. "That makes me an underdog, but I don't feel like one."

Leading to this event, the big talk in the men's competition was whether Lysacek would dethrone Weir. In fact, most people went as far as to crown Lysacek before he stepped off the plane in Spokane.

Five times, Weir has finished ahead of Lysacek at nationals. Weir wasn't expected to do that in Spokane for a sixth time. Based on the outcome in the short program, the judges told him he has a shot, but he better be ready to skate for it.

Everyone seemed to know what was going on. Lysacek is the clean-cut guy who has never won a title but now was due. Weir, with his eccentric personality and off-ice antics (draping himself in a Gucci mini-dress and high heels, for example), was becoming too much and too tiring for the U.S. federation.

All the pressure, much of which Weir has put on himself, had gotten to him at these nationals. So much so that his longtime coach, Priscilla Hill, worried about his energy level at this event.

"I can't even explain the pressure," said Hill, who fretted that her star pupil wouldn't hold it together for nearly three minutes.

So after Weir finished his short program, he pumped his fist, uttered a "bad word in Russian" and breathed a sigh of relief.

He was happy it was over, even though he wasn't entirely happy about his performance.

"A lot of people were counting me out of this championship," Weir said.

"I'm so happy that I didn't fall on my butt and I was able to get through it," he added. "I trained very hard for this program and it showed through today."

This competition is as much about their skating as it is about their personalities. Which one is the best skater? Which one projects the best image for the sport?

So, which one has the edge?

At the moment -- surprise, surprise -- it's Lysacek.

The odd thing about the skating Thursday night was that it was Lysacek who was more exuberant on the ice than Weir. Lysacek was fired up throughout his performance. Inspired to perform a strong short program, after struggling with it for much of the past season, Lysacek was happy to quiet his critics.

Even family members were telling him, "Let's make it clean."

Lysacek needed this performance for himself, but for everyone else, too.

"Watch out," Lysacek said. "When I'm really prepared -- really well trained -- nothing can stop me."

Weir showed he's not ready to be stopped, either. It was all too appropriate that his short program routine was skated to music about the game of chess. His black-and-white costume featured a knight on the front and a pawn on back.

Weir admitted he has no clue how to play chess. But it's clear he and Lysacek are very good at playing games.

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.