Weir leads men in St. Paul

Johnny Weir, 23, performs to Yunona I Avo by Svetlana Pikous for his Short Program.

Tension was in the air at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as the championship men opened their chapter of these championships with their short programs.

The stage was set from the start with both the reigning champion Evan Lysacek (DuPage FSC) and three-time champion Johnny Weir (SC of New York) drawing to skate in the first warm-up group of the event. Weir would skate second, his favorite place to skate in a competition, while Lysacek was the fifth skater to take the ice. Both men seemed so into their own warm-up that they barely noticed that anyone else was on the ice with them.

Weir got the competition off to a great start, skating an elegant program to Yunona I Avos by Svetlana Pikous. The 2007-08 Grand Prix finalist used his hypnotic presentation style to put a trance over the audience, who watched with baited breath as he effortlessly ticked off the required elements of the short program.

Lysacek conversely, took the opposite approach to his Zorro program, showing a passion in his larger-than-life choreography that inspired the audience to their feet when he took his final pose.

Instead of a planned quad combination, Weir opted to open with a safer triple Lutz-triple toe combination that earned him 11.86 points. The 23-year-old then skated into a triple Axel that showcased his textbook air position and easy ride out. Weir got his jumps out of the way immediately as he then landed a sold triple flip to throw down the gauntlet at the rest of the field.

“I was pleased that I could turn in a clean performance and get the monkey off my back,” said a relieved Weir. “I just floated through the program today, and I was very happy that it went smoothly.”

Weir is philosophical heading into the long program, opting to focus on nothing other than himself and trust that he can get the job done.

“It’s always so relaxing to do a long program,” Weir said with a devilish smirk. “And to do it on television and in front of an audience is even more relaxing. But having the short program out of the way is a big hurdle, and I am excited to do the long program. I want to be happy with skating at a national championship, and be in the hunt for another title.”

Weir takes a lead of 1.35 points into the freeskate, and was pleased with scoring a personal best of 83.40 points for his efforts.

“Getting a personal best is great,” Weir announced. “It’s always great to get rewarded when you skate well.”

Lysacek admitted to being terribly nervous as he took the ice, and felt the pressure of being a defending champion throughout the day.

“I don’t even know how to explain it,” said the unusually vulnerable Lysacek. “I was shaking. I was nervous. I owe everything to Frank (Carroll) because he sort of like slapped me in the face and said, ‘Let’s go.’”

The Grand Prix Final bronze medalist opened with a two-footed quadruple toe-double toe combination that earned him fewer points than Weir’s jump combination.

“I struggled a little but with the quad today,” the defending champ admitted, “but I was happy to stay on my feet throughout my performance. It was not my best, but considering the circumstances, I will definitely take it.”

Like Weir, Lysacek chose to execute his triple Axel as the second element in his program, but his landing was not as solid as the leader’s. Lysacek regrouped and then completed a nice triple Lutz. The highlight of the program was the Los Angeles-based skater’s level 4 straightline steps, a rarity in figure skating, that drew the crowd deeper into Lysacek’s performance.

Lysacek earned 82.05 points for his short program, and outscored Weir on program components to stay close to his rival heading into the freeskate.

“I love my freeskate, and I love the music,” Lysacek announced. “I am actually looking forward to it, and hopefully I feel the same way on Sunday.”

Finishing in third place with an inspired performance to an instrumental version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, was Stephen Carriere (SC of Boston), who placed eight in his first appearance in this competition last season.

“I feel like have another loop hole on my belt now,” said the current Junior World champion. “It helps me to be really sure of myself to get out there and do it again. So that gives me confidence.”

Carriere earned high marks for each of his spins, and was rewarded with positive Grades of Execution (GOE) on both of his level 3 step sequences. The 18-year-old was satisfied with how he performed his program.

“I always like to rely on my training, and it has been really good,” admitted the 2007 NHK Trophy bronze medalist. “The jumps felt good, and I was really happy to do the triple-triple because the whole season I have been doing triple-double or double-triple.”

Carriere executed a triple Axel with a slightly flawed landing, as well as a textbook triple flip-triple toe combination. The young college student rounded out his jumping requirements by landing a beautiful triple Lutz, and was rewarded with a person best 76.66 points for his short program.

Crowd favorite Ryan Bradley (Broadmoor SC) also skated a great short program en route to a fourth place finish, using his trademark flirtatious style to have the audience eating out of the palm of his hand.

“I knew I needed to go out there and do something great,” Bradley said confidently. “I just really tried to have fun and let my personality come out in this program more than it has earlier in the season.”

The reigning silver medalist portrayed Mafioso Michael Corleone to the soundtrack from The Godfather with a verve that only he can get away with.

“The whole focus on this program was about the internal struggle that (Corleone) is having between being in love with Kay and being a top mafia leader,” explained Bradley. “This is one of my favorite movies.”

The 24-year-old opened with a controlled triple Axel, and followed it up with an impressive triple flip-triple toe loop combination. He didn’t earn the high levels for his other elements that the leaders did, but he was happy with his performance nonetheless.

“Doing a clean program with a quad would have been greater,” Bradley lamented. “But this is also an achievement in itself. I’m pretty excited about that.”

Bradley’s rink mate Jeremy Abbott (Broadmoor SC) skated a flawed short program with two minor jumping errors, but used his superior skating skills to finish in fifth place.

Abbott opened his Treat routine with a quadruple toe attempt, but he stepped out of the landing, which prevented him from completing a planned combination. On his next element, a triple Axel, Abbott again stepped out of the landing, and it looked as if his chances of placing well were all but gone.

But the 22-year-old had a back-up plan. After entertaining the audience with a high scoring camel spin and step sequence, Abbott changed his program to add a triple toe on the end of his planned triple Lutz. The quick thinking earned the 2005 Junior champion 10.43 points, over four points more then he would have scored for a solo triple Lutz.

“It was a planned back up plan,” admitted Abbott. “You always want to execute your first plan, but I stepped out of the quad, so I wasn’t able to get the combination. I knew that I had a chance to do it on the end of the Lutz, and I fought tooth and nail for it.”

Abbott is a tall, lean skater who uses his long limbs to his advantage, and has an innate talent for interpreting music. In addition, the 2007 Four Continents Championships bronze medalist skates with a lot of speed and has command of his blade in most of his moves. As a result, he was rewarded with high program component scores that boosted his lead over sixth place finisher Scott Smith. Abbott also scored a personal best in this competition, and heads into the freeskate with 73.28 points.

Smith (SC of Boston) skated the most technically watered down program of the night, but was able to complete each element cleanly when others failed to do the same. Though he opened with a nice triple Axel, the 26-year-old completed an easy triple toe-triple toe as his combination instead of a planned quad-triple. Last year’s fifth place finisher also only managed a triple Salchow out of footwork as his solo jump.

However, Smith did perform with a new panache that has been long missing from his programs, and his mid-season coaching change seems to be agreeing with him. After training in Boston for the past several years, he moved to Utah to train with Stephanie Grosscup.

Smith earned 66.34 points for his Night Train short program; less than a point off of his personal best.

The elder statesman of the competition, 29 year-old Derrick Delmore (Washington FSC) is competing in his 13th senior nationals, and is currently in seventh place.

Delmore skated to Malaguena, landing a triple Axel to open the program. The Stanford graduate then landed a clean triple Lutz, but could only manage a triple flip-double toe as his combination. The former Junior World champion scored 65.67 points in this phase of the competition.

“I’m fairly satisfied with my performance,” confessed Delmore, “but I wish I had placed just one spot higher so that I could be in the final warm-up group. But last year I made a big pull when I was in the penultimate warm-up group, and I am hoping to do the same.”

Delmore planned to stop skating singles after last season, but decided to compete again when he couldn’t find a pairs partner to skate with this season.

Wesley Campbell (Nashville FSC) returned to the U.S. Championships this year after a two-year break, and is currently in eighth place. Campbell was pleased with his comeback performance, and says that he is now happy in his own skin.

“I’m just so happy with my life right now,” said Campbell with a smile. “I’m teaching and I’m skating, and just being back here is the icing on the cake, honestly. Of course I want to improve more and work my way up the rankings, but I have a fresh attitude and am really enjoying myself.”

The 22 year-old heads into the freeskate with 65.53 points.

Geoffry Varner (Peninsula SC) and Parker Pennington (Washington FSC) round out the top ten placing ninth and 10th, respectively.

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