SAN JOSE, Calif. - Rust will no longer be Johnny Weir and Olympic champion Evan Lysacek's only worry if they come back.
Jeremy Abbott proved he's capable of contending with the best in the world — past and present — in winning his third title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Sunday. Needing only to stay on his feet to claim the title, he put on a sublime display of quiet elegance and superior skill that was simply bewitching.
"I skate to give a performance like that and so I felt really good," Abbott said. "I was really nervous when I started, I was shaking a little bit. But from the second I set for the quad I was like, 'I'm going to do this.' I just really took it into my hands and made sure that I did what I needed to do."
His final score of 273.58 was the highest ever at the U.S. championships, and puts him within striking distance of Canadian world champion Patrick Chan. It was about 12 points better than 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko scored in winning his seventh European title Saturday.
Adam Rippon, a two-time junior world champion, was second. Ross Miner finished third for a second straight year.
Earlier Sunday, Caydee Denney and John Coughlin won their first pairs title together after winning the previous two years with other partners.
The U.S. men have been in a bit of a funk without Lysacek and Weir the past two years. No one's come close to winning a medal at the world championships, and the Americans did so poorly last year they actually lost the third spot they've had since 2002.
Abbott is one of the most technically sound skaters in the world, with beautiful edges that carve the ice like a master craftsman and perfect body control. He's also one of the few skaters who has managed to maintain the balance between the performance quality that makes figure skating so entertaining and the tough physical tricks the system now demands. But he's never been commanded the international respect Lysacek and Weir did, flopping at the 2009 world championships and again at the Vancouver Olympics.
Even last year, when the U.S. title was there for his taking with Lysacek and Weir gone, Abbott struggled so mightily he failed to even make the world team.
But Abbott is a different man now, and the rest of the world — Lysacek and Weir included — would do well to take notice.
"When I was competing with (Lysacek and Weir), both had these larger-than-life personalities and took all the attention," Abbott said. "I really feel I've come into my own. I feel like, with them coming back, it would be just like any other competition. Personally I wouldn't feel any different with them than without them."
Abbott landed the only quadruple jump of the day, and his spins were so tight and perfectly centred that coaches will no doubt be asking for a DVD of them. But it was his presence that was truly spectacular. He picked the music for his free skate, a Muse song that he found on his iPod. He played a part in the choreography, too, resulting in perfect harmony between skater and song. It was as if he let the music wash over him and tell his skates what to do. The audience was so spellbound you could hear his blades carving the ice, and it wasn't until the final notes of his music faded that fans erupted in applause.
Abbott, meanwhile, was so caught up in his own moment that he stood at centre ice for a good 10 seconds, not moving a muscle.
"I really at that moment was just feeling the energy of the audience. It was a cool moment to see," Abbott said. "I've won this twice before but both times it was a little surreal and I didn't get the opportunity to take it all in. This time I was lucid and calm. I got to take in the moment and the energy.
"No tears were shed," he cracked. "I was just really enjoying the moment."
The only damper on his day was news that his stepfather, Allen Scott, had blacked out during his performance. The 64-year-old Scott was taken to a hospital, and Abbott said he was able to talk with him.
"His heart rate is down. His blood pressure is really high, but he's coherent," Abbott said. "He's OK and my whole family is with him."
If Abbott comes remotely close to this performance at the world championships in March, it will go a long way toward regaining that third spot. Abbott and Rippon will need to finish with a combined placement of 13 or better.
"It's very important to our federation and other skaters," Rippon said. "But going into worlds, it won't be my focus. This competition was about getting all the monkeys off my back and being able to move forward from that. I know I'm capable of a lot more than I did today and hope that I can show that (at worlds)."
Rippon will need a bit more energy than he had Sunday, when he skated tentative and flat, as if he was trying to hold onto his spot on the podium rather than move up.
He's lucky he didn't get a ticket for loitering as he geared up for a triple axel-step-double toe combination, holding his edge on the entry for what seemed like forever and leaving no doubts about what was coming. Not only did he not do his planned quadruple salchow, he only did a double. A well-done double but a double nonetheless, with nowhere near the point value of a quad or even a triple.
What saved Rippon was his artistry. He has the extension of a ballet dancer, and he used every part of his body, from the tips of his toes to the top of his head, to express his music.
"It wasn't completely perfect, but I'm very proud of what I did," Rippon said.
Armin Mahbanoozadeh, a distant third after the short program, needed a strong effort to have any chance of overtaking Rippon and making the world team. He went the opposite direction, instead, dropping off the podium after taking a big splat on his quadruple toe attempt and turning out on the landings of two other jumps.
Miner took advantage, moving up a spot with a strong program that had only one error, a fall on a triple axel.
Denney and Coughlin had won the last two U.S. titles, each with a different partner. They teamed up in May and, even in a sport where couples have all the stability of Jell-O, their matchup came just three weeks after Coughlin and Caitlin Yankowskas finished sixth at the world championships.
Clearly, though, Denney and Coughlin knew what they were doing. As good as each other was with someone else, they're that much better together. Their performance Sunday was one of the best of the entire week in any discipline, any event. The highlight was their carry lift. Coughlin carried Denney three-quarters of the way around the rink, and did it with such speed and strength she looked as light as a feather pillow. Midway through, she switched positions, turning in the opposite direction of the way he was skating.
You know how tough it is to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time? Try that, times 10.
"I've been dreaming all week about doing that carry after skating clean and that feeling from the audience," Coughlin said. "Oh, I had so much fun."
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