OMAHA — Considered an eye-popping achievement 20 years ago, a quadruple jump has become almost expected of Olympic-caliber men’s figure skaters today.
But any jump that demands four complete rotations carries tremendous risk.
And for the most part, more risk than reward was on display in the men’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday night, as one skater after another tried separating himself from the field with routines that either opened with a quad or included tricky triple combinations that flirted with the limit of his competence.
When it was over, three-time champion Jeremy Abbott held the lead after making a compelling case for percentages with a program that didn’t include a quad but was defined by precision and drenched in style. Among the few to remain upright throughout his 2-minute, 50-second program at Omaha’s Century Link Center, Abbott, 27, earned a high score of 84.10 points and a standing ovation.
Two-time U.S. bronze medalist Ross Miner, 21, of Boston, was second (80.99), wowing the crowd with a quadruple Salchow to open his program but giving judges other reasons to find minor fault.
And Joshua Farris, 18, of Renton, Wash., was third (79.78) after an elegant program set to Yo-Yo Ma’s Cello Suite in G major.
The men’s competition concludes Sunday with the longer free program.
Seven of the 20 competitors had planned to perform a quadruple jump in their short programs Friday.
Abbott, who has been battling tightness in his lower back in recent months, wasn’t among them, opting instead for a more conservative program that heightened his chances of delivering a clean performance.
Skating to a piece of music called “Spy,” Abbott played the role to its fullest with sleek choreography and stealthy, cat-like moves that connected a crisp triple toe-triple toe combination and nicely executed triple Lutz.
Abbott has said that he may add a quad for Sunday’s free program, although his 3.11-point lead over the second-place Miner hardly demands it. But there’s little doubt he’ll need to perform a quad at the world championships in March if he’s to impress the sport’s international judges.
Abbott is seeking to become the 11th man to claim four U.S. figure skating championships, having won the gold medal in 2009, 2010 and 2012. More importantly, he is seeking another chance to prove himself in the Olympics after finishing a disappointing ninth at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
To date, the U.S. Championships has provided Abbott’s best forum. He thrives in front of home crowds that root for each skater in turn and has twice beaten reigning Olympic champion Evan Lysacek for the national title.
Lysacek is missing nationals this year, recovering from surgery to repair a hernia in November. Also missing is three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir, who has been slow to return to form after a two-year hiatus from competition.
The first skater to perform Friday, 20-year-old Max Aaron of Scottsdale, Ariz., set a high bar early. The 2011 U.S. junior champion nailed a quadruple Salchow and triple toe loop combination to open his futuristic program set to music from “Tron” and earned a 79.13, which was immediately eclipsed by Farris.
Langley graduate Armin Mahbanoozadeh, 21, of Potomac Falls, had hoped to improve on his fourth-place finish at nationals last year. He opened with quadruple toe loop that he had nailed in practice the previous day. But in front of the judges, he fell hard.
“It’s very frustrating to make such a big mistake on it,” said Mahbanoozadeh, who finished 16th. “I’m really disappointed. I worked really hard for this.”
Adam Rippon, 23, last year’s U.S. silver medalist, fell on the second jump of a combination and earned a 76.65, which placed him sixth.
Earlier Friday, four-time U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White took a commanding lead in the ice-dance competition with a personal best 79.02 points in their short program. Madison Chock and Evan Bates were second (70.80); Maia and Alex Shibutani, third (69.63).
Ginna Hoptman, 23, of Vienna and Pavel Filchenkov, 26, of Nijniy Novgorod, Russia, placed 10th (47.03). And 19-year-old twins Danielle and Alexander Gamelin, Boston natives who relocated to Wheaton in February 2012, stand 11th (45.76) among the field of 15.
Also, three-time U.S. champion Rudy Galindo and choreographer Lori Nichol were inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame as its Class of 2013.
Notes: David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating, said Friday that he expects the United States to win gold in the new Olympic figure-skating team event, which will debut at the 2014 Sochi Games. Teams will consists of six skaters: one man, one woman, one pairs couple and one ice-dancing couple. It’s one of five new events approved by the International Olympic Committee for Sochi. The others: ski half-pipe (both men’s and women’s); women’s ski jumping; biathlon mixed relay; and luge team relay.
Also Friday, U.S. Figure Skating announced a four-year extension with NBC and the acquisition by icenetwork.com of all U.S. media rights for International Skating Union events through the 2017-18 season.