Having devoted his life to figure skating, Evan Lysacek knew, at 28, there was a chance that his attempt to come back from yet another injury in time for the Sochi Olympics would fall short. But he steeled his mind against the possibility, just as he numbed himself to the searing pain in his left hip, pouring all of his energy into regaining the technical skills and artistic form that landed him atop the medal podium at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
But late last week, doctors told Lysacek what his body had been screaming for weeks: The aggressive treatment on his torn labrum wasn’t working and, in fact, was exacerbating the injury. Informed he was risking severe and permanent damage by persisting, Lysacek made the heart-rending decision to abandon his effort to defend his gold medal at the Sochi Games.
And on Tuesday, he began saying so out loud, first to NBC’s Matt Lauer on the Today program and later to journalists who have covered the career of the most decorated U.S. male skater of the past decade.
“This has been my whole life,” said Lysacek, who in 2010 became the first U.S. man to win Olympic figure skating gold in 22 years. “This has meant everything to me: representing my country, representing America, competing and training on the level I have. It has been sacrifice and discipline that I don’t think most people understand.”
Lysacek stopped short of announcing his retirement, reiterating his desire to return to the ice so he could bring an end to the only career he has known, and has loved at every turn, on a positive note.
The prospects for doing so are unclear. Surgery may be required, he acknowledged. Among the few certainties at the moment is that he must shut down his training, at least for a time, to give the labrum, which acts in part like a shock absorber in the socket of his hip, time to heal properly.
“It has been a blow for me, and I’m crushed,” Lysacek said.
The development wasn’t entirely unexpected, given that Lysacek hadn’t competed since his triumph in Vancouver nearly four years ago.
A comeback attempt last season was derailed by an abdominal tear. Then, while training for a possible return to competition this fall, he suffered the hip injury. Still, he and his coach, Frank Carroll, remained optimistic that he would be ready for Sochi.
But time worked against him. In order to qualify for consideration for the 2014 Olympics, Lysacek had to post a minimum qualifying score in an international meet leading up to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, where the country’s Sochi-bound team will be selected. Each time he increased the intensity of his training, the pain level increased, as well. And he was running out of competitions in which he could earn a qualifying score, with only the Dec. 18 Ukraine Open remaining.
Lysacek won Olympic gold at the 2010 Olympics, after finishing fourth at the 2006 Games, without performing a quadruple jump, compensating for the absence of the high-scoring feat by delivering beautifully choreographed programs that were virtually glitch-free. His performances showcased his interpretive gifts while making a personal statement about the primacy of artistry over acrobatics.
Not all of his rivals shared that philosophy. Looking to Sochi, it was an open question whether Lysacek could have been a viable medal contender without a quad.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Lysacek voiced unqualified support for pushing the boundaries of the sport’s technical limits and said he had devoted the last three years of training to “keeping up.”
“Unfortunately I wasn’t able to show that because I have had my obstacles and setbacks,” he said. “But I was able to get there, and it wasn’t easy.”
Figure-skating champions such as Michelle Kwan, Scott Hamilton and Johnny Weir voiced their empathy and admiration via Twitter moments after the decision was announced. Weir, a three-time U.S champion who retired from the sport in October and will serve as an NBC commentator in Sochi, was among the first to salute via social media, tweeting: “Very proud of a great champion, @EvanLysacek, and his graceful bow-out of the Sochi Olympics this morning on @TODAYshow.”
Based on past performance, the United States will send two male singles skaters to Sochi. With Lysacek officially out, the field for those two spots is wide open.
Reigning U.S. champion Max Aaron boasts the most technically difficult programs, chocked with quadruple jumps, but his go-for-broke style results in frequent spills. Others in the mix include Ross Miner, silver medalist at the 2013 U.S. Championships; three-time U.S. Champion Jeremy Abbott; Richard Dornbush; Adam Rippon, who impressed at Skate America in October; and 18-year-old Jason Brown of Chicago, a fast rising talent with a knack for energizing audiences and impressing judges with his panache and palpable love of performing.