Em Swift
Monday January 29th, 2007

The best performance, by far, by a skater at the U.S. Figure Skating championships this week was put on by the new men's champion, 21-year-old Evan Lysacek.

A two-time world bronze medalist, Lysacek, who finished fourth in last year's Olympics, had spent the last three years performing in the shadows of the flamboyant Johnny Weir at home. Weir had won the last three men's titles and in Spokane hoped to become the first American man since Brian Boitano to win four championships in a row. Lysacek, who'd beaten Weir the last three times they faced each other internationally, wanted to extend that dominance to the homefront.

It's a real rivalry, exacerbated by Weir's increasingly outlandish behavior. He recently did a photo shoot with a counterculture magazine called BlackBook in which Weir was photographed shirtless, wearing stiletto heels in one shot, and in another with a Marc Jacobs camisole half-draped across his chest. Men's skating has enough trouble with its image in this country without the three-time U.S. champion venturing into transvestite territory, but Weir poured gasoline on the fire by wearing silver loafers to his mid-week press conference and defending the photo shoot.

"It wasn't like I went into BlackBook and said, 'Oh my God, I want heels, I want fur, I want glitter, and I want to be made up totally like Amanda Lepore, he said. "I think the pictures are very interesting. They're not gaudy. They're not campy. They're just of me modeling clothes."

Actually, they were pretty campy. And they were women's clothes. But, hey, we're used to all types in the figure skating world, and scribes dutifully rushed to Google Amanda Lepore, who turns out to be the self-proclaimed No. 1 transsexual in America.

Lysacek, for some reason, seemed to take all this personally, and made it his mission to put the pants back on men's figure skating.

"If I have a chance to represent my sport, " he said, "I wouldn't take it lightly. I'd try to be the best athlete and representative I could be. What he does is his own business, and it's very different from the way I conduct myself. But I think our sport promotes individuality. We're free to be whoever we are."

Game on. Thursday's short program did little to separate the two top American men, as both Lysacek and Weir skated clean programs. Lysacek had better jumps, Weir had better footwork. When the judges scores were all tabulated Lysacek had a slim lead of .85. Still, it was a confidence-builder for the native of Naperville, Ill., since Lysacek had a history of falling so far behind in the short program that he couldn't catch up in the long.

On Saturday, because ABC/ESPN didn't want to show the men in prime time, Lysacek didn't take the ice until 9:30 local time, which was 12:30 a.m. in the East. Bad decision, that, because he put on a show for the ages, one of the most dynamic skating performances ever by an American man.

Skating to Carmen, Lysacek opened his program with a quad-toe, triple-toe combination that was, well, Evgeny Plushenko-like. It was the first time Lysacek had ever landed a quad in competition, never mind a quad-triple, and the thrill of it nearly fried his brain. "For a split second I was happy about it and then I realized I was only 15 seconds into my program and still had eight more triples to go," he said.

No problem. He reeled them off like a man skipping rope: triple-Axel, triple-toe; triple-flip-double toe-double loop ... you get the idea. He couldn't miss. The program built, the crowd clapped with growing enthusiasm, and Lysacek's straight-line step sequence brought down the house. When it was over he collapsed to his knees while the crowd leapt to its feet. This was an audience that all week long would have applauded the Zamboni driver. Now they truly had something to savor. The rafters literally shook.

Enter Johnny Weir. A hothouse flower in the best of times, he now had good reason to quake. The buzz Lysacek had left in the Spokane Arena might have given Brian Urlacher pause. "It was very, very difficult to go out there after Evan skated," he later said. "I heard 90-something for his first mark, and wondered, 'What the hell did he do?'"

91.13 to be exact. That was his element score. Lysacek's component score was 78.76, for a total of 169.89 -- a stunning 19.45 points higher than any American had ever scored at a free skate at Nationals.

Weir needed to be perfect -- better than he'd ever been. That dream died quickly as his first element, a planned triple Axel-triple toe-double toe was truncated into a plain triple Axel. It went downhill from there. He two-footed the landing on his lone quad, doubled a planned triple-triple, fell on a triple loop, and popped another triple Axel combination. Somewhere in there, Weir also gave up. He wound up finishing third, behind both Lysacek and 23-year-old Ryan Bradley from St. Joseph, Mo.

"Evan didn't just beat me," Weir later said, "He kicked my ass. I kept closing my eyes thinking everything would go away. It was the most difficult performance of my career."

For Lysacek it was the performance of a lifetime and evidence that he has the capability to win a world championship, something no American man has done since Todd Eldredge in 1996. "I was at the hotel earlier watching Tiger Woods, and I tried to be like him, all tunnel-vision and focus," Lysacek said.

The only negative to the evening was that, because of the lateness of the hour, so few Americans saw Lysacek's seminal performance live. "It does bother me that it went off so late," the newly crowned champion said. "I guess [ABC/ESPN executives] figure people want to watch the little girls skate."

At this competition, it was the U.S. men who stole the show.

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