Drama surrounds U.S Figure Skating Championships

Monday January 13th, 2014

Jeremy Abbott's dramatic title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships earned him a second Olympic selection.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images/Getty Images

BOSTON - The up and down career of Jeremy Abbott is back up again, as the inconsistent figure skating talent won his fourth U.S. title and was later selected to his second Olympic team. Abbott, 28, skated a solid routine that almost didn't happen. After a lengthy consultation by the sideboards with his coach, Yuka Sato, Abbott glided back to center ice, but then passed it as a clock ticked down on him. Rules require skaters to begin their music and program with a minute. Seeing the seconds ticking away, the crowd began giving Abbott a frantic countdown as he rushed back to center ice. After a flawless short program earlier in the week gave him some wiggle room in the standings, Abbott completed a strong free skating routine to win the competition by ten points over his nearest foe, Jason Brown, who received the second berth for the U.S. men's team. Both turned in efforts that were a hit with the crowd that saved its most cluttered stuffed-animal littering of the ice for the top two skaters.

Abbott began the program with a sturdy quadruple toe jump and though he never fell during, he twice turned triple jumps in combination into double jumps three times. As he finished, he stood at center ice and stared into the crowd. "All I could say was thank you," he said. If not for the crowd, I wouldn't be on this team. My time was about to run out." Instead, with a new lease on life, his time may have come.

Abbott has struggled with obstacles both psychological and physical. In late 2012, he found that he was suffering from a compressed disc in his lower back that also affected the feelings in his legs and threatened the rest of his career. He is known for having spotty confidence and has often followed a good showing at nationals -- he has eight consecutive top-four finishes, including four national titles -- with a poor one at worlds, or Olympics, where his five finishes have ranged from fifth to 11th. During the 2005 junior nationals he eventually won, Abbott was asked about his chances of winning: "Stranger things could happen," he said. "Pigs could fly." When Abbott later created a charitable fund to assist skaters in need, he made a logo out of a pig with wings.

For Brown, 19, this result was quite a graduation from his bronze and silver medals at the World Junior Championships in 2012 and 2013. "When I think about going to the Olympics now," he said, "it's so surreal, I honestly can't stop shaking." He didn't shake much during his long program, nailing eight triple jumps without a hitch. With a career trajectory heading upward, he now faces a decision about whether to try a quadruple jump in Sochi he has been working on in training, but didn't use in Boston. "It's there," he says. "The question is will this be the right time to start risking it?"

The day's drama began earlier in the morning, when the U.S. Figure Skating Association named its Olympic teams in the women's, pairs and dance events. While the dance selections were predictable and matched the top-three performers in the standings on Saturday -- champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, runners-up Madison Chock and Evan Bates and third-place finishers Maia and Alex Shibutani -- the association's nine-person committee made some tough calls in the women's and pairs events, granting berths to singles skaters Paulina Edmunds and Ashley Wagner and leaving Mirai Nagasu as an alternate. They also chose Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir as one pair and Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay as another, leaving Caydee Denney and John Coughlin as the odd team out.

For the women, national champion Gracie Gold was a certainty. "It's s dream come true," Gold said after the selection, "one of the best nights of my life." After Gold, there were three skaters for two places, each with valid claims and worries.

At 15, Edmunds has never competed in an international event as a senior. Apart from additional elemeents of pressure and expectation, she also has to skate for an additional 30 seconds in her free skating program.

Nagasu was the only skater of the three with Olympic experience, and she also skated the strongest long program out of the trio. Over the last four years, however, she hasn't followed up on her young promise and she arrived in Boston without a fulltime coach to guide her or advocate for her with the selection committee. When Nagasu was introduced to a standing ovation during Sunday evening's exhibition, she began fighting tears before she actually started skating.

Wagner had the best resume over the last four years, but also performed so poorly in Saturday's free skate, she left the ice mouthing the words "I'm sorry" to the ice in front of her. On Sunday, she was able to say, "I'm happy my federation was able to see past one bad skate," she said. "I'm on cloud nine." With the team event making its Olympic debut in Sochi and the U.S. team among the few without a glaring weakness in one discipline, team officials may yet look to the veteran Wagner to deliver a safe performance that can guarantee a good score from the women's entry. "I'm not going to have two days like that," she insisted Sunday. "I admit it. This was the most nervous I've ever been at an event. I've been skating for most of my life and I was one skate away from going to the Olympics. All of that hit me over the head and I just didn't perform under pressure."

The panel also left off Denney and Coughlin, the 2012 national champs who finished with the highest score in the free skate on Saturday. But the U.S. pairs are not expected to contend for a medal, and this decision didn't draw nearly the same scrutiny as the call on the singles. As often happens with skating, the greatest tension often takes place off the ice.

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