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Lysacek Out of Skate America, Believes He is Still Competitive

Is this a pie in the sky illusion?
Gold in Sochi for the 27-year old may be an impossible dream.

by Alexandra Stevenson

(15 October 2012)  “I feel strong now. I’m training smarter than before. I’m doing a lot of calisthenics. I lift  weights. I’m building up my strength off the ice. I’m in the gym four days a week. We didn’t used to do that. But now I feel prepared and, dare I say it, even better than in Vancouver," the 2010 Olympic champion, Evan Lysacek said recently. But things don’t always go as planned.

Last week, he was forced to withdraw from his only Grand Prix, the 2012 HHilton Skate America at the Showare Arena in Kent, in Washington State, October 19-21. He has been replaced by Armin Mahbanoozedeh, who was fourth in the last U.S. championship.

In July, he had announced on NBC, that he would be returning to eligible competition this season, which he had also made last season. Then, contractual issues arose and he did not compete in either Skate America or the French Grand Prix. This time, he was only assigned one international, and that had to be abandoned when he pulled a muscle in his right groin in August. He recovered, but, just a week or so before Skate America, he re-aggravated the injury while doing lunges, exercising outside the Lake Arrowhead rink on gravel!

In hindsight, since gravel moves when stepped on, it does seem like a foolish risk. He downplayed the injury as “not that serious”, promising he would be back practicing in ten days. His coach, Frank Carroll, has always said how hard Lysacek works and how hard it is to get him to stop and get off the ice. The reason Lysacek was forced to take the quad out of his routine prior to the Olympics, was due to an injury which might have been prevented if he had been a less determined and ambitious skater.

Olympic champion or not, now, he must go to one of the Senior B events to earn the International Skating Union’s required technical point totals necessary to be allowed by the ISU to enter the world championship if his association decides to enter him. There is the NRW Trophy in Dortmund, Germany, December 5-9; the Golden Spin in Zagreb December 13-16, and the 2013 Challenge Cup in the Netherlands, February 21-24.

Certainly, Lysacek seems confident that this is what he wants. You must really believe you can fly around the rink, do incredible feats of physical prowess and end your four minutes and forty seconds smiling, to waves of applause, to keep up your motivation to go through so much training necessary at this level.

For Lysacek, who is of Czech and Italian back-ground, hard work increased exponentially after he won the 1999 US Novice title. There was another big surge forward in his work level and results, when he left his hometown of Naperville, Illinois, to move California in 2003 following his graduation from high school.

He went to the Pacific Coast to work with Frank Carroll. Lysacek’s very goal-oriented work ethic seemed to gel under Carroll’s leadership. Carroll, of course, has an enormous amount of experience with Olympians, having guided Michelle Kwan from an also-ran junior, throughout her career until the very strange business of her going coach-less for the few months before the 2002 Games.

Nowadays, there are extremely complicated printouts available after a competition, explaining in minute detail, why Lysacek won and Evgeni Plushenko was second. Nevertheless, that did not stymie Plushenko and Russia’s top politician, Vladimir Putin, claiming this was the wrong decision. They propounded the statement that Plushenko was clearly the better athlete, based on his presentation of quad jumps. They sneered at the American’s victory and spat out, “Without quads, it’s not a sport, it’s men's ice dance!”

What Lysacek and his coach Frank Carroll were guilty of, was reading the rule book. Lysacek beat the Russian by paying exact attention to the rules, squeezing from them every ten of a point possible. In particular, Lysacek, set a greater portion of his jumps in the second half, when they earned the 10% bonus. Plushenko’s jumps were front loaded, when they are easier to accomplish because muscle oxygenation is better.

The International Skating Union, listening to the Russians, almost immediately put in place new increased base values for quads. No one will win in Sochi in 2014 without these jumps, regardless of how artistically they perform. It ain’t gonna happen! The winner, probably, will NOT be one of the favorites. It is far more likely that gold will be claimed in a surprise by the one skater who has the performance of his career, and possibly goes on to have a disaster in the following Worlds a short time later.

Lysacek was only third in the US championship a short time before the Olympics. Certainly his coach knew that it was possibility that he could earn a medal. But he certainly was NOT the clear favorite for the Olympic gold.

Because there is so much more risk now than there was just a few years ago, everyone is currently trying much more than they normally can bring off. If only they can get credit for the rotation on a jump, then sometimes it is worth having a flawed landing.

It is also necessary to have Plan A and Plan B and sometimes Plan C. Improvising can be a disaster but planned changes, to compensate for various omitted moves, is essential. That “thinking while skating” is a skill that must be learned. But even very experienced competitors, like Kiira Korpi, got confused after making a mistake in the recent Finlandia Trophy. “I couldn’t even remember how many combinations I had done. I knew I couldn’t do more than three, but we are so used to thinking in the moment, that trying to strategize while actually competing was beyond me.”

That sort of skill is learned from continual experience. Coming back just for a few competitions, is not conducive to this kind of skill building. Johnny Weir, in his comeback in that event in Finland, did not utilize all his possibilities and was left off the podium.

The coming season will be Plushenko’s second comeback. He won Olympic silver in 2002 and stayed on to win gold in 2006. Shortly before that victory, he got married. He retired to pursue various activities including politics but that was short lived. “There were too many meetings,” he said later when asked why he had dropped out of that field.

He and his wife had a son but got divorced soon afterwards and he found another wife. (His second son is expected in early in 2013.) Sometime in 2009, he decided, “What the heck, I can return to skating and get another medal, maybe the gold.” And he very nearly did win in 2010!!

Now, he has been encouraged to keep going because Russia has no immediate talent ready to step into his skates. Earlier this past season, Plushenko made an incredible leap jumping back into the fray. Few believed he could actually do it but, by winning the 2012 European championship, despite great pain in his landing knee, he showed what an incredible athlete he is. After the European championships he did not continue to Worlds in order to have another round of knee operations.

Since 1998, Plushenko has entered the European championship 10 times and has never finished lower than second. He has accumulated three silvers and seven golds. (In 2002 and 2011, he did not compete.) In Sheffield, while overjoyed at his gold, he readily admitted, “I think these guys gave it to me. No one seemed to step up.”

It was an acknowledgment that, indeed, no one skated their best, even very experienced competitors. Why?

Were they overawed by Plushenko’s presence. Surely not! They saw, as did everyone the pain Plushenko was skating through. After landing a quad, in practice, he had to rest the knee for several minutes, and he didn’t present everything he had planned in the competition. He was second in the Short Program to his teammate Artur Gachinski, but no one was close in the Free.

Why would Lysacek want to come back? After he won gold all sorts of opportunities were presented to him, and he became known to far more people through his appearance on the television program, Dancing With the Stars.

Lysacek may want to remember what Brian Boitano went through. Boitano was the last American man prior to Lysacek to win an Olympic gold, which he did gloriously in 1988, in his second Games, when he was 24. (He had placed fifth in his first Olympics in 1984 when Scott Hamilton won.

Boitano was probably one of the finest technicians ever. Quads were not a factor then, and results were more predictable. He was most famous for his “Boitano” triple Lutz, in which he threw one arm over his head during the revolutions. It was quite a radical move. Five years after his Olympic win, a motion was passed and the International Olympic Committee allowed some professionals back into competition with certain restrictions. Boitano decided he would like to compete in Hamar in Norway in 1994, when he would be 30.

It wasn’t an easy just comeback. Also coming back was the reigning Olympic champion, Viktor Petrenko. The IOC had decided the Winter Olympics should not be held in the same year as the Summer Games, and so the 1994 Winter Olympics took place just two years after Petrenko had won his gold and briefly turned professional.

It was not an easy task for Boitano. He competed in Skate America in 1993 and lost to Petrenko. Then he lost to the defending champion, Scott Davis, at Nationals. When he got to Norway, he discovered he and Petrenko had to draw in the lower half for the Short Program because they had no standings from the previous season. They drew to skate first (Boitano) and second among the 25 competitors.

The Northern Lights Arena in Hamar was still filling up when they skated. (The non-skating “important” people, like sponsors, at an Olympics rarely sit through a whole event, assuming only the ‘riff-raff’ appear at the beginning.)

Boitano, the 1984-84 US champion, and 1983 & ’86 Skate America Champion, skated his short to "Carousel Waltz" and did all his elements cleanly in the warm-up. But, during the routine his triple Axel was not straight and he stepped out of the jump, put one hand on the ice, turned and put the other hand on the ice and so did not complete the second jump of the combination, a double toe.

He automatically lost 0.5 and was 8th in this section. He subsequently rose to finish sixth overall.

It was a devastating experience.

In that competition Petrenko finished fourth. Alexei Urmanov, Russia, won; Elvis Stojko, Canada, was second and Phillipe Candeloro of France third. Kurt Browning of Canada was fifth, Eric Millot of France, 7th and Scott Davis eighth.

Was it worth it? “We make decisions and we have to live by them,” Boitano said much later. Would he do that again, if he could turn time back? He just laughed and wouldn’t answer that. What will Lysacek be saying after Sochi, presuming he makes the team?

Lysacek won his first national title in 2007, showing off his first clean quad toe loop in competition, which he combined with a triple toe loop jump, in the long program. He retained that national title in 2008 but in a very tight decision over Johnny Weir. The result was quite controversial.

Then he lost the title in 2009 to Jeremy Abbott. He was 2.81 behind after the short, and skated the free, as he later explained, “too cautiously.” That changed in Los Angeles where, only two months later, he became the 2009 World Champion.

“After that nationals defeat, Frank made me spend a week with my choreographer (Lori Nichol) and she turned me back to the path where I showed my love of the sport. She reminded me to let loose and skate with joy and abandon, and not even think about marks, just project the routine (set to “Rhapsody in Blue”) to the audience.

“That taught me a lot. I focused on that, and that, in the audience, were my friends. They wanted me to do well. If I couldn’t it was still OK as long as I tried.” He did not try a quad because of his left foot fracture, and from then on he didn’t present a quad in competition, a situation which the Russians took every opportunity to criticize.

One problem this writer has with Lysacek, is that he refuses to be a baby. At that time in Los Angeles, in 2009, only after he won did he reveal the injury. He said, “It sounds so bad but it’s really not.” On Thursday, in a telephone press conference, he also appeared to downplay his current re-injury.

There is no doubt there is a lot of sentiment and support for Lysacek. People would like him to win. This writer would definitely like to see him win. But she’d like to see Plushenko win, too. Heck, she’d even like to see an outsider, a no-hoper, or a skater like John Curry who was discriminated against, and dismissed as “too” balletic, when that connotation meant something else which we discuss freely nowadays, win.

Lysacek's life has definitely been a whirlwind following his gold in Vancouver. He even got an appointment with the State Department as a sports envoy. They sent him to Sweden and Belarus. Is he afraid that, if he’s not competing this time around, he will be forgotten?

He does admit he likes to train and sometimes pushes himself too hard. "All athletes are looking for their limits and trying to see how far they can push their bodies. I tried to get things healed, and when I came back to the ice, I think my eagerness to get ready for Skate America was high.

"But we're only athletes. We're not gladiators, or warriors or robots. We're flesh and bone, and all of this pounding takes its toll on our bodies. Figure skating is just a tough sport. I have to take a little of the fault for my injury. Maybe I pushed a little too hard, too soon after being injured. But, at the first sign of pain this time, I went straight to the doctor and asked what I should do.

"Every little postponement makes me that much more excited for when I do get back and compete.

"I'm kind of devastated right now. The timing isn't good, but it could be worse.”

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