The skate gods were shining down on U.S. Figure Skating this week at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. In recent years, the sport has taken a hit in popularity as interest wanes for a variety of reasons.
Fourteen years removed from the whack heard around the world, the casual fan has been losing interest as the soap opera known as competitive figure skating has become stale. Michelle Kwan has not competed in almost three years, a cheating scandal was exposed at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, and a new judging system has been introduced that has left even the most devoted fans sometimes shaking their heads in confusion.
But what a difference a week of great skating, compelling stories, and heated rivalries makes to a sport that desperately needed a shot of adrenaline in the arm.
In the pairs competition, the United States struck pay dirt in the young partnership of newly-crowned champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker. The reigning Junior World Champions made the jump up to the championship level this season, and have already shown great promise as international competitors in only their second season together.
Success at the World Championships will have to wait until next season, however, as McLaughlin fails to meet the ISU-mandated minimum age requirements to compete at that level. Next year’s World Championships will be held in McLaughlin’s hometown of Los Angeles, and the team could set themselves up nicely for the following season’s Olympic Games.
Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto earned their fifth consecutive ice dance title to equal the most titles by any team at these championships, and continue to improve with each passing season. Belbin and Agosto are strong contenders to bring home the first gold medal by a U.S. dance team at the World Championships in March, and have Hollywood looks that could make them front page news in the National Enquirer.
The new ladies champion is the second youngest in history, and like McLaughlin, cannot attend the World Championships due to age restrictions. But gold medalist Mirai Nagasu will compete at the Junior World Championships, and will face tough competition from teammates Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang. Flatt won the silver medal here, but won the freeskate with perhaps the most difficult ladies program ever skated at the U.S. Championships. While Zhang, last year’s Junior World Champion and 4th place finisher in Saint Paul, will try to stand on top of the podium once again in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Among the ladies who stood on this year’s podium, only 16 year-old bronze medalist Ashley Wagner is age eligible to travel to Sweden. The fifth place finisher, Beatrisa Liang was named to her first World Team, while 2006 World Champion Kimmie Meissner was controversially selected over sixth place finisher Katrina Hacker after finishing in a dismal seventh place this week.
And then the men had to wait until Sunday for the first time in recent memory to finish their competition at the request of NBC, who purchased the rights to the championships after a long and prosperous relationship with ABC.
The much anticipated men’s final resulted in perhaps the most bizarre result at the U.S. Championships in history, as the celebrated rivalry between defending champion Evan Lysacek (DuPage FSC) and three-time champion Johnny Weir (The SC of New York) ended in a tie.
Though each skater ended with a competition total of 244.77 points, under the rules the tiebreaker is the total score in the freeskate segment of competition. With a margin of victory in the freeskate of 1.35 points, Lysacek was given the nod and won his second national championship in as many years.
You just can’t ask more of the skate gods.
Lysacek skated fifth in the final warm-up group, and headed into his performance trailing Weir by, you guessed it, 1.35 points.
Lysacek appeared nervous as he struck his opening pose, and showed technical vulnerability on his first element, a quadruple toe-triple toe combination. The defending champion landed the quad with a slight two-foot and had to do a three-turn between the jumps in order to complete the combination.
“I was a little stiff,” said the champion as he came off of the ice,” but I am happy to have gotten through the performance. I stopped breathing after a while out there, but I wasn’t really nervous.”
The 2007-08 Grand Prix Final bronze medalist looked tight throughout his program, having difficulty in checking out of his jumps with clean landings, but fought for everything that he could muster.
“I performed with every ounce of energy that I had inside of me this evening,” Lysacek declared, “so I am proud of that. It’s a program that I really like, and worked very hard on having difficult entrances and exits to all of the jumps. So, to be able to perform it well is great, but I think that it might have been a bit better at Grand Prix Final.”
The 22-year-old was scored as landing seven triple jumps and a quad, but only earned full credit on three of them. However, Lysacek picked up his performance level at the end of his Tosca program, throwing his body and his heart into his signature level 4 straightline step sequence that brought raucous cheers from the large crowd in the Xcel Energy Center.
The margin of victory came down to such a small detail, that any of the nine judges giving a plus on a Grade of Execution (GOE) to Weir, could have changed the final result in his favor.
“I have had to become very conscious of not just doing the same triple Sal(chow) for the past eight years,” confessed Lysacek. “It has stuff leading into it and out of it, so that’s the name of the game now; fighting for every point that you can, and that’s actually a good thing.”
As Lysacek’s scores were announced, Weir was preparing to skate to erase the memories of last year’s meltdown. As he took center ice, a hush fell over the audience, and Weir focused to start the most important freeskate of his career.
Opening with a quadruple toe attempt on which he two-footed the landing, Weir quickly refocused and landed a triple Axel-triple toe loop that featured his signature ride-out on the landing. Weir skated with technical proficiency absent from his freeskate last season, checking off five more triple jumps before he struggled on the landing of his final triple attempt, a flip.
“I feel fantastic; first place, second place, or last place,” admitted Weir after he learned he won the silver medal. “I am just happy with the way that I skated. I was so nervous back stage, and I am glad that I got through it.”
Skating to Yoav Goren’s Love and War, Weir was dressed in black and white with a fractured red heart over his chest. In this performance, however, Weir’s heart was worn on his sleeve, as he floated across the ice bearing his soul in dramatic fashion to his passionate music.
Although he knew that he finished in second place, Weir was confused when he saw his placement flash up on the screen, and thought that there was a technical glitch in the computer system.
“I didn’t understand,” confessed the 23-year-old. “There is a screen that usually gives you your placement and tells you how far behind you are. My named popped up and I was second, but there was no number next to it to tell me how far behind I was. I didn’t know if there was a glitch or something, but I did know that I was second.”
Nevertheless, Weir was pleased with his performance, and took solace in the fact that he was as close as he could get to the championship without actually winning.
“I live my life on an ice rink,” Weir stated. “So for me, at times first or second place just isn’t important. If I’m happy with my performance, then that is it. It is a judged event, and I can’t change however many (judges) think about me. For me, to skate well and feel like a winner is all that matters in the end.”
Weir was later told that the real variant between his and Lysacek’s score was his upright spin during the middle of the program.
“It wasn’t clear (to the Technical Specialist) that there was a change of edge,” explained Weir with a chuckle, “so I lost by an inside edge.”
After finishing in ninth place last season, Steven Carriere (SC of Boston) took a huge step forward and earned the bronze medal in just his second trip to the national championships on the senior level.
“I skated a technically conservative program tonight,” said the reigning Junior World Champion. “My coaches and I thought that it was important for me to make an impression with as clean of a program as possible. So, I did not attempt a quad here.”
Carriere, 18, said that he wanted to make a statement about his skating. “Now that I have made the World Team, I can focus on convincing the international judges how committed I am to improving. I am so excited to be heading to Sweden, and I can’t wait to compete.”
In third place after the short program, Carriere skated a jazzy program to Hollywood Nocturne, and was credited with landing seven clean triple jumps to hold off two other skaters for a spot on the podium.
Finishing with a competition total of 228.06, Carriere, like Lysacek and Weir, will compete at next month’s Four Continents Championships in Seoul, South Korea.
Last year’s pewter medalist Jeremy Abbott (Broadmoor SC) skated an emotionally dark program to Masquerade Waltz, and maintained his position this season with a credible performance.
“I thought that I did a good controlled performance; perhaps the best one I have done this season,” Abbott said, with a hint of disappointment in his voice as he left the ice.
The 2007 Four Continents bronze medalist opened with a quadruple toe loop attempt, and was pleased to stand up on it for the first time in competition this season. But he made two costly mistakes in this very tight competition.
“I felt that on the two elements that I popped, that I could have given a little more, and I think that might have cost me a spot on the world team,” said Abbott.
It turned out that his assessment was correct. The 22-year-old earned 221.85 points for his efforts in this competition, and he was close enough to Carriere in the final standings that those two elements would have been enough to propel him into third place.
Last year’s surprise silver medalist, Ryan Bradley, finished a disappointing fifth place after falling on his opening quadruple toe loop attempt. Bradley (Broadmoor SC) also doubled his second try at a triple Axel, but still managed six triple jumps in his Chaplin program. His competition total was 221.21 points.
“I was definitely disappointed,” said Bradley with a sigh. “I did a lot of good things, but there were also a lot of things that obviously should have been a lot better that have been better in practice.”
“The quad and the second triple Axel have been going very well,” continued the 24-year-old, “but I was just tired. I was not too tired to make those mistakes, though, but it just didn’t click for me tonight.”
Scott Smith (SC of Boston) retained his placement after the short program, but slipped one spot from last season as he finished in sixth place with a performance that included five different Axel jumps (two triples and three doubles).
“I’m thrilled with that program because I did every jump about as well as I could do it,” Smith admitted. “The Axel was the hardest jump for me to get, but ever since I got it, I have loved it.”
Smith just recently changed training bases from Boston to Salt Lake City, and was please with his clean skate. Smith finished with a competition total of 210.55 points.
“I had a really tough fall season,” added the 26-year-old. “After the Grand Prix, I knew that I had to do something drastic to pull this season together and in a short amount of time. It was really a difficult decision, but it worked out well.”
Wesley Campbell (Nashville FSC), the Midwestern Sectional Champion, finished in seventh place with a fine performance, while Shaun Rogers(University of Delaware FSC) finished in eighth place for the second year in a row. Rounding out the top 10 were Tommy Steenberg (SC of Northern Virginia) and Dennis Phan (All Year FSC).
Steenberg was selected to represent the United States at the Junior World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, along with the junior gold and silver medalists Adam Rippon and Brandon Mroz.