Abbott wins spot on U.S. team
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Any other year, those medals around the necks of Jeremy Abbott, Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir would be their most prized possession.
This year, though, the American flag tops them.
Abbott, Lysacek and Weir are on their way to the Vancouver Olympics, giving the United States its strongest team since Brian Boitano's days. The three have had a stranglehold on the national title since 2004 and, with Abbott winning his second straight Sunday, each has won it multiple times. Lysacek is the reigning world champion, Abbott won last year's Grand Prix final and Weir was the bronze medalist at the 2008 worlds.
Having just one of them would be a bonanza for most countries.
"Very strong," Lysacek said when asked to assess the team. "I'm very honored to be part of this team and stand next to these two guys. Of the six, seven, eight, nine, 10 incredible men that competed tonight, we came out on top.
"We're going to work really hard, and we're going to do really well."
And better, Lysacek and Weir promised, than they did Sunday.
This was the deepest men's field in years at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and it figured to be a dogfight to make the Olympic team. But Abbott, Lysacek and Weir broke away from the pack in Friday's short program, and it likely would have taken a total collapse to knock one of them out.
That didn't happen.
While Lysacek and Weir both had flawed programs, Abbott provided a fitting end to the competition with a stirring performance. He showed off his entire arsenal of jumps, doing them with a grace and ease that comes with knowing you are well-trained for this moment.
He opened up his program with a quadruple toe loop jump, landing it more easily than some guys do triples, and also did a triple axel-triple toe combination. With Lysacek falling on his quad attempt, those jumps might have been enough to put Abbott at the top. But he tossed off a triple lutz-triple toe-double loop combo for good measure.
Abbott's classical program wasn't as entertaining as his "A Day in the Life" short program, but he brought the house down with his final spin. It was so tight and centered, it had to have drilled a hole in the middle of the ice and the fans were on their feet before he stopped whirling.
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His score of 263.66 points was 25 more than Lysacek -- a landslide for those of you still confused by skating's new judging system.
"My goal was to be on the team and continue to peak at the right time and improve on each performance, and I feel I've stuck to that plan," Abbott said. "Winning is just the icing on the cake, and I'm so honored to represent the United States as the national champion."
His performance was a bit of redemption, too. After winning the title last year, he imploded with dismal performances at Four Continents and the world championships. That prompted him to make a coaching change last May, a decision many questioned because it was coming so close to the Olympics. When he got off to a slow start this season, the doubters grew.
But the move was about more than skating. Abbott grew as a person, too, and his newfound confidence is what made all the difference Sunday.
"Everyone has doubt in themselves, but I used to believe it," Abbott said. "That little nagging voice in the back of my head that told me I couldn't do it, I'd believe it. I'm learning I can quiet that voice and tell it to shut up."
Lysacek didn't have his usual flair, looking more like he was doing a test run than a true performance. Which, in some ways, it was.
The United States' best hope for an Olympic gold medal since Brian Boitano won in '88, Lysacek made significant upgrades to his programs after winning last month's Grand Prix final in hopes of improving his technical score. All but assured a place in Vancouver, he was more concerned with seeing how those changes worked here than the final results.
"I have mixed feelings. I'm so, so honored to be a part of a second Olympic team, and I'm saving my Olympic skate for that night," Lysacek said.
Good thing. Lysacek fell on his quadruple toe, one of the jumps he just added, and did a very crooked double loop. He also had to fight to save the landing of his triple axel-double toe combination, and his footwork seemed to lack in energy.
Lysacek knew it wasn't his best -- certainly not the majestic performance he had here in 2007 to win his first national title -- sticking out his tongue in Mr. Yuk fashion when he finished. As he skated off the ice, he detoured to check the tracings of his quad attempt, slapping his hands together.
"He knows he's much better than that," coach Frank Carroll said.
"What happened here is absolutely no reflection of what I'm going to be like at the Olympics," he promised.
Weir said much the same thing after a tentative, one-dimensional performance. He was actually fifth in the free skate, but finished third overall because of the cushion he'd built in the short program.
"This was a performance I gave to make the Olympic team," he said. "That was my goal. My goal wasn't to be the national champion."
A fixture at the top of the national and international scene, Weir was considered a lock to be in Vancouver until his lackluster performance at last year's U.S. championships. He was so bad, he didn't make the world team, the first time since 2003 he was on the sidelines. With worlds in his own country, no less.
He was so devastated he actually considered quitting, only bouncing back after a pep talk from his mother, and it was clear Sunday just how much a second trip to the Olympics means to him. The colorful, quirky and always entertaining Weir was flat, popping his second triple axel into a single and stepping out of the landing of his triple-triple combination. Only his final footwork segment got the crowd going.
"I have very mixed feelings about my performance tonight. There's lots of things I can be proud of and, of course, mistakes I'm not so happy about," Weir said. "I'm saving that perfect, amazing clean performance [for Vancouver].
"My costume looked pretty," he added, "so I'm happy about that."
Weir redesigned his costume after the Grand Prix final, and it was disappointingly tame, with only sparkles and a touch of fur -- white fox, for you fashionistas -- to glam it up. His idol, Lady Gaga, would definitely not approve.
"It was fluffy," Weir said. "I looked very special. I looked like I dressed up for this event, which is what I wanted."
No, he wanted a shot at Olympic gold. And now he, Abbott and Lysacek will have it.
"I think the three of us will represent the United States extremely well," Abbott said, "and I think it's going to be very, very exciting."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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