Tuesday January 19th, 2010

The U.S. men's figure skating field is set for Vancouver, with Jeremy Abbott, Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir heading to the Games, as expected.

Abbott's victory at the U.S. figure skating championships last weekend was a bit of an upset, given Lysacek's world title in 2009. But even though Lysacek wasn't at his best, don't count him out of the hunt for an Olympic title just yet. Neither Tara Lipinski nor Sarah Hughes won Nationals in the year they won the Olympic Games. Kimmie Meissner won the world title in 2006 without winning Nationals. Then she won the U.S. title the following year and didn't get a medal at all at worlds.

There are some who feel that judges won't award a major international title to a skater who can't win his or her own national crown, but there is ample precedent to counter that. Oh, and Lysacek's medal at the 2009 Nationals, shortly before he won the world title? Bronze, behind Abbott and Brandon Mroz.

When he won the world championship in Los Angeles last year, Lysacek didn't attempt a quad, simply because his program didn't need it. Yes, a quad gives the skater a technical boost (a quad toe loop is worth 9.8 points), but it can be risky. If a skater fails to complete the rotations, the jump gets downgraded to a triple and he gets no credit for it. A triple Axel-double toe loop is actually worth 10.45 and doesn't carry with it nearly as much chance of failure. A quad-triple, the combination Russian Evgeni Plushenko may try to pull off in Vancouver, is worth 15.20. Gone are the days of the 6.0 system in which skaters left less defined impression of technical mastery by landing the complex jump.

There are also enough elements to Lysacek's program that have some point-amassing zip to them. His step sequences are intricate and complicated. There are enough changes of direction that a skater of lesser aerobic threshold would want to call time out and break for commercial about three minutes into the program.

As for Abbott, who now stands as a two-time U.S. champion, he has a good ally in his corner. Before Paul Wylie won the silver medal at the 1992 Albertville Olympics, he was known as a excellent performer and a poor competitor, the kind who seemed to enter a world championship or Olympics with great promise and then see it blow up in front of him.

Wylie's problem? He may have been too smart for his own good. The Harvard man would sometimes overthink his routines instead of just executing them. He had never placed higher than ninth at a world championship before heading to France for the Games. Still, he learned to, as he said at the time, "think about nothing" during the most important competition of his life and acquitted himself admirably.

That's the attribute Wylie may pass along to Abbott, who is, by his own admission, a nervous competitor, too. He went to worlds last year with great expectations, but finished 11th, repeating his exact finish from one year earlier. In Spokane, he admitted to fighting "that little nagging voice in the back of my head that told me I couldn't do it. I'm learning I can quiet that voice and tell it to shut up." For now, he has.

Nearly three weeks after Kevin Pearce suffered a life-threatening accident on the halfpipe, U.S. Snowboarding was rocked by more devastating news on Sunday to another of its top athletes. Pearce's pal Danny Davis drove his four-wheeler into a gate in Park City, Utah, and sustained a back injury that will end his season and his Olympic prospects for 2010. Davis had just won another halfpipe event on the Dew tour, a victory that was another step in the 21-year-olds' ascent through the sport that mirrored Pearce's.

When Davis captured a Grand Prix event in Mammoth, Calif., recently, it virtually assured him a ticket to Vancouver. With Olympic champion Shaun White still amping up his game and throwing down great tricks, Davis nailed three double corks (two twisting backflips) during the same run. After that event, Davis invoked Pearce's inspiration as motivation for his performance. Pearce sustained a traumatic brain injury when he attempted a double cork in training and caught his edge on the lip of the pipe.

The latest word on Tuesday morning was that Davis would make a full recovery. Pearce, meanwhile, had been upgraded from critical condition to serious since his injury. The sport that prides itself on flights that challenge gravity and expand fantasy has been jolted anew by reality.

Hold everything. Remember all those world swimming records from the FINA World Championships in Rome over the summer? There were 43 of them, to be exact. Well, the governing body for the sport quietly decided this week to re-test some of the doping samples for so-called plasticizers, residue of plastic particles that are left over from blood that is stored and frozen in blood bags. The storage method is the best way to keep packed blood from being contaminated before it gets re-injected into the bloodstream. Even an infusion of un-altered blood can boost an athlete's oxygen capacity before a strenuous activity.

In September, FINA announced that all 391 tests taken from the championships came back negative. Nearly half of those were also screened for signs of EPO, the blood-boosting hormone. The capacity of testers to store and maintain the integrity of samples for up to eight years has greatly enhanced the ability of the World Anti-Doping Agency and the related sports governing bodies to test samples after the fact for something that may become suspicious years an initial test. Neither FINA, nor WADA, indicated how many of the samples from Rome would be re-tested. Stay tuned.

The U.S. bobsled rosters are now set for Vancouver. Last weekend, Mike Kohn qualified as the third U.S. driver for the Games, joining Steve Holcomb and John Napier. Kohn has been close before, but at 37 had nearly resigned himself to finishing his bobsled career without driving at the Olympics. (He was a bronze medalist as a push athlete in 2002.) That all changed when Olympic veteran Todd Hays, slated as the team's third driver this year, was forced into retirement on doctors' advice because of a concussion.

Hays called Kohn directly to tell him the news, and he has supported Kohn in his diligent quest. Kohn has been at this since his first Olympic trials before the 1992 Albertville Games. The World-Class-Athlete-Program member who trained with the Virginia National Guard wasn't sure if he'd be sent to the Middle East someday. In fact, Kohn's appearance went down to the wire. He needed a strong showing at his most recent world cup in St. Moritz, Switzerland, to make sure the U.S. would be one of three teams to be able to send three sleds in the four-man competition. By finishing sixth, Kohn punched his ticket, which was a long time in the making.

The women's sleds teams are also set, and keeping people happy hasn't been easy. Perhaps it was an outgrowth of discontent when Jean Racine dumped her longtime brakeman Jen Davidson before the 2002 Games, but developing criteria for pairing drivers with brakemen has been very difficult.

Last year, driver Shauna Rohbock was steaming along with Valerie Fleming when coaches decreed that Fleming would have to have a push-off against Elana Meyers to see who would compete with Rohbock at the world championships. Meyers won the push-off and she and Rohbock rode to silver at the worlds. Rohbock wasn't satisfied and claimed afterwards that team officials had lied to her and prevented her from chasing gold with a brakeman who made her most comfortable.

This year, Fleming injured her hamstring. Rohbock will slide with Michelle Rzepka and Meyers will team with Erin Pac.

Welcome back to the Olympic medal hunt/podium, Bode Miller. You are Bodacious again. Careful you don't hurt yourself. On Friday, the man who won the overall world cup alpine crowns in 2005 and 2008 captured the super-combined event in Wengen, Switzerland, the 32nd world cup victory in his storied career and the most ever by a U.S. skier. Then in his next race, he skied off course in the top half of Wengen's slalom race.

That's Bode: extreme in every sense. One year he is the best skier on the planet, taking lines on the course nobody else would dare try, defying calamity with an in-your-face defiance on the slopes. The next year he's flaming out at the Turin Olympics and telling people how he partied like a gold medalist.

Don't tell Bode what to think, how to behave or what he should believe in. He grew up in a cabin, was encouraged to independence by his parents and he comports himself on and off skis the way he chooses.

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