BOSTON — In sending 28-year-old Jeremy Abbott and 19-year-old Jason Brown to the Sochi Olympics, U.S. Figure Skating is banking on experience while investing in its future.
Neither American is expected to win a medal against a glorious generation of international men’s skaters headlined by Canada’s Patrick Chan and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Daisuke Takahashi, who make high-risk quadruple jumps look like playground whimsy. But both earned the right to try Sunday at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which served as the final step in a qualification process that was left wide open once the reigning Olympic champion, Evan Lysacek, announced a lingering hip injury prevented him from defending his title.
Despite his three previous U.S. championships, Abbott, an Aspen, Colo., native who trains in Detroit, wasn’t regarded as the man to beat when the competition got underway Friday at TD Garden. If he was known for anything, it was his implosion at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where he finished ninth, never fully recovering from a disastrous short program that put the podium out of reach.
And Brown, an excellent student and accomplished pianist only one year removed from figure skating junior ranks, was expected to charm the judges and audience with his palpable love of performance. But without a quadruple jump in his program, he was deemed a long shot for one of the two U.S men’s spots in Sochi, where any credible medal threat will be expected to reel off a flawless quad, if not multiple quads.
Both were thrilling Sunday in defying convention wisdom. Abbott opened with a quad toe, turning back the clock in what he has said will be his final competitive season, to win a fourth U.S. championship with an American-record score of 274.27 points. “Four-time national champion is just crazy,” Abbott told reporters. “I’m just a small-town boy. I never thought I’d be here.”
And Brown’s long program was so infectious, a Riverdance-style Irish reel that sent the Boston crowd into a hand-clapping frenzy, that no one seemed perturbed by the lack of a fourth revolution in his jumps — judges included. He was awarded the top marks for his free dance, which vaulted him to the silver medal.
Defending U.S. champion Max Aaron was the odd man out, relegated to bronze and learning three hours later he would be left off the Sochi Olympic team.
Aaron, 22, delivered by far the most technically difficult program, opening with a quad Salchow and double toe loop, but judges marked him harshly for what they deemed the coarse edges of the former hockey player’s artistry.
A risk-taker by nature, Aaron had only recently pared his long program from three quads to two with an eye toward earning an Olympic spot. His swing-for-the-fences approach to the sport wasn’t currying favor with international judges. And after a rocky Grand Prix season, he conceded he couldn’t consistently land three clean quads in the pressure cauldron of competition and chose instead to focus on the transitions, spins and interpretation.
But his crash-course in artistry didn’t convince judges or the Olympic selection committee. Instead of being sent to Sochi, he was named first alternate.
In naming Brown to the squad instead, U.S. Figure Skating made a statement about its faith in the teenager’s performance skill and its confidence in his potential.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” said Brown, who was still trembling nearly three hours after his silver-medal-winning free skate. “I’ve dreamed about going to the Olympics.”
Lysacek, a fellow Chicagoan who won Olympic gold in 2010 without a quad, is among those who’ll be rooting him on in Sochi. “Way to rep Chicago man!! Congrats!” Lysacek tweeted after Brown’s long program.
Earlier Sunday, the three Olympic spots for ice dance were awarded to Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the 2010 Olympic silver medalists and six-time U.S. champions; Madison Chock and Evan Bates; and siblings Alex and Maia Shibutani. Davis and White are seeking to become the first U.S. duo to win Olympic gold in ice dance. The country’s two pairs spots were awarded to Boston area natives Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, the recently crowned U.S. gold medalists, and silver medalists Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay.