Former Aspenite Jeremy Abbott claims figure skating national title |

Former Aspenite Jeremy Abbott claims figure skating national title

Juliet Macur
The New York Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jeremy Abbott performs during the men's free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009. Abbott won the 2009 national championship. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

CLEVELAND ” When it counted the most, with the crowd alternately cheering and hushed at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, two skaters in the men’s long program on Sunday moved with an equal measure of confidence and brilliance.

Just not the two skaters with the biggest names.

Either Evan Lysacek or Johnny Weir had won the men’s national title each of the last five years. But on Sunday, with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, about one year away, there came a seismic shift.

Jeremy Abbott, a late bloomer who started out skating at the Aspen Skating Club and who won the 2008 Grand Prix Final, continued his breakout season by winning the men’s title. Abbott, 23, scored a personal-best 241.89 points to win his first senior championship.

In second was Brandon Mroz, an 18-year-old high school senior still in braces. After landing one of the event’s few quadruple jumps, he received a final score of 229.70, a whopping 37.47 points better than his best previous score. Before Sunday, his greatest skating accomplishments were second-place finishes at the junior world championships the last two years.

Both skaters train under coach Tom Zakrajsek at the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs.

“I felt awful leading up to this event, I felt awful today, I felt awful on the ice,” said Abbott, who performed a routine filled with passion and fancy footwork. “But I was able to control myself and do what I needed to do. I’m really relieved that it is over.”

While Abbott and Mroz celebrated, those in the old guard were left to do nothing but remember when they were one-two on the leader board.

Somewhere inside Quicken Loans Arena was a disappointed Weir, a three-time national champion. He ended up in fifth place, two spots better than he had finished in the short program.

Lysacek fared better, finishing third, with 229.10 points. While standing on the podium to receive his bronze medal, he glanced up at Abbott. His face, still ruddy after he exerted so much energy during his performance, showed no emotion.

Lysacek, who had competed with Weir at the 2006 Olympics, said he felt great going into the free skate, and could not explain his shaky performance.

“I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t winded, I wasn’t tense,” he said. “I was just wobbly, I guess.”

The top three men’s finishers were named to the team that will compete at the world championships in March. So even though Weir won bronze at last year’s worlds, he will not return this year. It will be the first time since 2003 that he will stay home from that event.

Weir lost a tie breaker to Lysacek last year at nationals. This year his luck was worse. He went into the free skate in seventh after a marred short program. In the free skate, he again ran into problems, making several errors on jumps, including falling on a triple flip. He blamed his lack of preparation for his poor performance.

Over the holidays in December, he became ill during a trip to South Korea, where he had performed in a skating show. He said he ended up in the hospital receiving IV fluids and lost eight pounds in one day.

When he returned home, he spent the next few weeks trying to regain his strength by eating chicken cutlets his coach, Galina Zmievskaya, was feeding him.

On Sunday, Weir fought off criticism that he was not being tough enough, and that Michael Jordan ” known to play in important games, even when ill ” would not have made excuses.

“Michael Jordan had an entire team around him,” Weir said in his defense. “I’m just a single, skinny, sparkly boy standing in the middle of the ice by myself.”

He said he hoped the U.S. Figure Skating committee that chooses the team for the world championships would pick him to compete anyway, based on his past performances.

It did not.

U.S. Figure Skating on Sunday announced its team for the world championships. On the women’s side, Alissa Czisny, who won the national title on Saturday, and Rachael Flatt, the runner-up and reigning junior world champion, made the list. They must finish a combined 13th for the U.S. women to earn three spots at the Olympics.

That will make Zakrajsek one of the busiest coaches there. Already, he coaches three of the top four men at nationals ” Abbott, Mroz and Ryan Bradley, who finished fourth. He also coaches Flatt.

Zakrajsek juggled his duties on Sunday skillfully. To calm a jittery Abbott, he did something he often does to rally his skaters or to soothe them: recited a quote from the basketball coach John Wooden.

“If you have patience, you will have great success,” Zakrajsek, 45, said he told Abbott before the skate.

Still, Zakrajsek needed to heed some of that advice himself during the competition. In a conversation with Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist, the usually composed Zakrajsek became a bit unfurled. He said Boitano had told him that he could end up as coach of all the skaters on the world team.

“I was like: ‘Oh, get out of here! I don’t want to think about that,”‘ Zakrajsek recalled.

Boitano’s prediction, however, nearly came true.

After the medal ceremony, Abbott, Mroz and Bradley stood side by side on the rink’s floor to sign autographs. On their faces were smiles as frozen as the ice upon which they glided.

Later, Zakrajsek gathered them and thanked them.

“For me and my 20 years of coaching, this is a really special moment and probably may never be replicated ever,” he recalled saying, “even if I continue coaching for another 20 years.”

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