by Monica Friedlander
Tradition has it that female stars take center stage at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships. But in an unusual twist to the age-old plot, fan enthusiasm will trump protocol next week in Cleveland, as the men, not the ladies, will bring the championship to its climatic conclusion.
Dramatic rivalries have always captured fan's imagination more than anything, and the much-hyped Weir-Lysacek one is likely live up to its billing. Add to this the monkey wrench thrown in by Jeremy Abbott, who's winning nearly everything in sight this season, and the drama and star power of the menís competition will be hard to top.
That said, the depth of the ladies' field is nothing to sneeze at, with at least four precocious teenagers contending for the title in Cleveland. Any of them have the potential to rise to the very top internationally before the next Olympics. But for all their bubbling raw talent, so far none of them has filled the void left by Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan, leaving the ladiesí event without the star appeal of the menís competition. The very crowded womenís field, which includes the entire podium from Junior Worlds, will have the unenviable tasks of vying not only for the national title but for only two spots on the U.S. world team this year.
Pairs and dance will be far less of a nail biter. The pairs event could be couched as a showdown between three former U.S. pairs champs, but short of something unexpected (and what is slippery ice for?), the title should go again to the young shooting stars and defending champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, whose technical skill, speed and presentation, on a good day, are second to none. Too young to even compete at Worlds last year (Keauna was 15), they could well challenge for a world medal as soon as this March, when the championships will be held on home turn in Los Angeles.
Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, the 2004 and 2006 national champions and husband-and-wife team, are eager to prove that at thirty-something they can match rivals nearly half their age (or his) trick-by-trick. Their accomplishment and perseverance are truly inspiring, as is their throw triple axel, when landed. Unfortunately, the rest of their package has been found lacking by the judges, which leaves them with no room for error. Brook Castile and Benjamin Okolski, who won the title back in 2007, are back, fighting to regain their form after struggling with injuries, but will be challenged by other pairs rising quickly through the ranks.
The ice dance competition was blown open with the withdrawal of five-time national champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto following an injury he sustained during the Grand Prix Final in December. They are expected to receive a bye to compete at Worlds. "Ben is making steady progress," Belbin said recently. "While he recuperates, I am continuing to train hard on my own, so I am certain that we'll be in top shape before March."
The coast appears to be clear for exciting rising stars Meryl Davis, 22, and Charlie White, 21. Ranked sixth in the world, they won the bronze at the Grand Prix Final and deserve the limelight on their own merit. This will be their big chance to make a name for themselves in a discipline that's rarely kind to challengers.
But the spotlight will be on the fiercely-contested singles events. In the ladies, reigning national champion Mirai Nagasu, only 15, will have a tough time defending her title following a year marked by injury and growth spurt ó a big four inches added to her 4í11" frame of last year. Nagasu and 16-year-old Rachael Flatt finished 1-2 at the 2008 Nationals but were too young to qualify for Worlds. So was former junior champion Caroline Zhang, 16, who finished fourth last year. Theyíre all ready and eager to jump out of the gate.
Also gearing up for the challenge is Ashley Wagner, last yearís bronze medalist, who performed well internationally and has her eyes set on the top of the podium. "Iím not going to lie. I want to win," she said recently.
Kimmie Meissner, the 2006 world champion, just pulled out of Nationals with an injury. Despite a couple difficult seasons, she refused to be intimidated by the eternal changing of the guard in ladiesí figure skating. Now the teenage class will battle it out among themselves.
The menís competition was best summed up by Johnny Weir during a recent conference call: ""For the past several seasons it's been the Evan and Johnny Show, and now there are people ready to break into that. It's a very exciting time Ö to be a men's figure skater in America because we have so many strong athletes."
Foremost among them is the smooth and understated Jeremy Abbott who unexpectedly stole the show this season, earning some big scores as well. First he captured first place at Cup of China, and then, after a disappointing fourth place at the Cup of Russia, came back to win the whole shebang at the Grand Prix Final. Based on his performance this season, Abbot should be the man to beat. But Weir and Lysacek, who share five national titles between them, are conceding nothing.
Weir, the only U.S. skater to medal at the 2008 World Championships, performed consistently the entire season and came close to landing a quad at Skate America. Ironically, itís his presentation that the judges have found somewhat lacking recently. A classical, fluid skater, Weir is known for his style and effortless jumps, which made his run-of-the-mill component marks especially painful and baffling for him. Weir blames the judging system but is equally harsh on himself for not adapting to it better.
"This judging system is killing the sport," Weir said bluntly. "The free program is supposed to be free, to put an image out there and tell a story, and [thatís] next to impossible to do, unless you write the whole story on your costume." He added, however, that he was disappointed in his performances. "I didn't have a passion and a feeling for what I was actually putting out on the ice," he said. "You need to be totally in the program and let your mind go, and when you're thinking, thinking, thinking and adding up points in your head and being a human calculator, it can be hard to do that. At Nationals, I'm trained well enough that I can just go on the ice and do the elements and hopefully not think about them so much."
At first glance Evan Lysacek appears to face worse odds after a tough season in which he failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. He finished third at both Skate America and Skate Canada, where the judges punishing him severely for underrotating his triple axel. Lysacek took exception. "The callers always seem to choose a few things to nitpick on, and this [season] it has been [my triple axel], he said. But there's an upside to staying home: ample time to train, consider what went wrong, and regroup while others crisscrossed the world and sweated it out in competition. Most likely, weíll see a much improved defending champion in Cleveland. Moreover, Lysacek is a unflappable come-from-behind competitor. The setback in the fall will only serve to add fuel to the fire in his belly.
Close behind the favorites are a talented group that includes Adam Rippon, the 2008 world and national junior champion, Stephen Carriere and Brandon Mroz. With the judging system so unforgiving of errors, any one of them has a shot at the podium if one of the big guns slips.
If you give Weir the artistic edge, Abbott the consistency, and Lysacek the hunger for redemption, few of us would bet a dime on how this will shake out. All we can hope for, after last yearís controversy, is no more ties!
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