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Abbott Stays Ahead of Increased Competition, Wins First U.S. Crown

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 2009

CLEVELAND, Jan. 25 -- The men's free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships accomplished many things: It crowned a new U.S. champion, Jeremy Abbott, a man who will become an immediate gold medal favorite for the upcoming world championships. It revealed a deeper, more skilled field than any in recent memory, providing further evidence that the United States has shifted from a women's skating power to a force on the men's side.

It also directed a spotlight toward a rapidly rising training group in Colorado Springs, a figure skating center that produced Abbott, surprise second-place finisher Brandon Mroz, fourth-place finisher Ryan Bradley and a host of other big-time performers at this week's championships.

The biggest was Abbott, an elegant, dynamic, technically proficient skater who held on to his lead after Friday's short program to claim his first U.S. title with a free skate that was far from flawless but which drew huge marks for presentation.

Abbott, who earned 241.89 points overall with his victories in the short and long programs, topped Mroz (229.70) and Evan Lysacek, who had won two straight U.S. titles but finished third with 229.10. Bradley claimed 221.40 points for fourth place and three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir managed fifth with 203.99.

Annandale's Tommy Steenberg posted the seventh-best free skate of the competition to move from 14th to 10th.

The top three will head to Los Angeles for the March world championships, seeking to surpass the bronze medal finish by Weir last year.

"I felt awful leading up to this event, awful today and awful on the ice, but I was able to control myself and do what I needed to do," said Abbott, 23, who won the prestigious International Skating Union's Grand Prix Final in late December. "I wasn't really happy with my program, but I'm learning to compete and keep mistakes to a minimum."

The title is "certainly something I've been working for for a long time and I was very happy when it happened."

Mroz, a St. Louis native and high school senior, offered the day's most charming tale and biggest eye-opener, hitting a quadruple toe jump at the start of a lyrical, nearly mistake-free program that helped him jump from fourth place after the short program to second overall. He beat Abbott by nearly seven points in his technical score.

Mroz, 18, finished fourth at the last two world junior championships and wasn't expected to contend for a medal here in his first major senior event. He, Abbott and Bradley share the same coach, Tom Zakrajsek, who also trains women's silver medal winner Rachael Flatt. They share ice time with U.S. pairs champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, among a number of top pairs that call the Broadmoor Skating Club their home rink.

"To have two of the top four men, they must be doing something right there," Lysacek said.

Even Bradley, 25, wowed the fans -- and, to some extent, the judging panel -- with a thrilling program that featured a downgraded quadruple toe jump and two triple axels. Second at the 2007 U.S. championships, Bradley finished 15th at that year's world championships.

Said Zakrajsek, "I do a very conscious job of trying to create a culture of excellence."

Largely left out of the day's fun were Lysacek and Weir, both world medal winners. Lysacek expressed deep disappointment that he failed to defend his title with a free skate that included a fall on his opening jump, a quadruple toe attempt. Lysacek, who made several other mistakes, finished just fourth in the free skate, earning marks about 20 points below his personal best.

"I feel very weird about the program today," he said. "I didn't feel tense; I was just kind of wobbly, I guess. . . . The only reason why it's so difficult to defend this title is because it means so much to me."

From the start of competition here, Weir indicated he wasn't at his best thanks to an illness he developed while in South Korea around Christmas to perform in a charity skating event. He said he lost eight pounds in one day and was hospitalized, which so weakened him he couldn't get in peak shape for these championships.

After Sunday's unimpressive skate -- Weir fell once and made a number of errors -- he nonetheless made a pitch for an appointment to the world championship team. The lobbying, however, was ignored, and Weir will be forced to turn his energy to next season.

Challenged by a reporter about using the illness as an excuse, Weir grew defensive. While other athletes might often compete when sick, Weir said, most pros have teammates to rely on.

"I'm a single, skinny, sparkly boy standing in the middle of the ice all by myself," he said. "You should fight for your place on the team but at the same time, not to sound like I'm double dipping . . . [but] I rank fourth in the world right now."

On Sunday, he was neither fourth nor in the middle of anything. He was pushed to the side by an unexpectedly large group of more-prepared rivals.

"Overall," Lysacek said, "we're probably the strongest country in the entire world for men's skating."

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