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Abbott wins 2nd US title, Vancouver Games up next

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Most countries would be thrilled to send a world champion to the Olympics. Or a Grand Prix final winner. Heck, even a world medalist would be good.

The United States has all three, an abundance of talent not seen since Brian Boitano's days.

Jeremy Abbott earned a trip to the Olympics by winning his second national title Sunday and will be joined in Vancouver by world champion Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir.

"Very strong," Lysacek said when asked to assess the team. "I'm very honored to be part of this team and stand next to these two guys. Of the six, seven, eight, nine, 10 incredible men that competed tonight, we came out on top.

"We're going to work really hard, and we're going to do really well."

The United States has won only two medals since Scott Hamilton and Boitano's back-to-back golds, the last being Tim Goebel's bronze in 2002. But with the talent the Americans are sending, it won't be a surprise if one of these guys comes home with an extra souvenir.

The national title has belonged to Abbott, Lysacek or Weir since 2004, and each of them has won it more than once. Lysacek is the first U.S. man to be world champion since Todd Eldredge back in 1996, and he padded his resume with a win at the Grand Prix final last month. Abbott was the Grand Prix final champ last year, the first American man to win the title.

And Weir? He's got a bronze medal from the 2008 worlds.

"I think the three of us will represent the United States extremely well," Abbott said, "and I think it's going to be very, very exciting."

For all the build-up before nationals, where the battle for the three spots was expected to be as tough as a street fight, the competition wound up having little drama. Abbott, Lysacek and Weir are clearly the best skaters in the country, and they separated themselves from the rest of the pack quite decisively with Friday's short program.

It would have taken a total collapse to knock one of them off the podium, and that simply didn't happen.

Abbott's classical number may not have been as lively as his "A Day in the Life" short program, but his jumps were superb. He showed off his entire arsenal and did them with grace and ease. He opened up his program with a quadruple toe loop jump, landing it more easily than some guys do triples, and also did a triple axel-triple toe combination.

Fans were on their feet before he finished his final spin, and his score of 263.66 points was 25 more than Lysacek. For those still confused by skating's points-based judging system, that's a landslide.

"My goal was to be on the team and continue to peak at the right time and improve on each performance, and I feel I've stuck to that plan," Abbott said. "Winning is just the icing on the cake, and I'm so honored to represent the United States as the national champion."

His performance was a bit of redemption, too.

After winning the title last year, he imploded with dismal performances at Four Continents and the world championships. That prompted him to make a coaching change last May, a decision many questioned because it was coming so close to the Olympics. When he got off to a slow start this season, the doubters grew.

But the move was about more than skating. Abbott grew as a person, too, and his newfound confidence made all the difference Sunday.

"Everyone has doubt in themselves, but I used to believe it," Abbott said. "That little nagging voice in the back of my head that told me I couldn't do it, I'd believe it. I'm learning I can quiet that voice and tell it to shut up."

Lysacek didn't have his usual flair, looking more like he was doing a test run than a true performance. Which, in some ways, it was.

The United States' best hope for an Olympic gold medal since Boitano won in '88, Lysacek made significant upgrades to his programs after winning last month's Grand Prix final in hopes of improving his technical score. All but assured a place in Vancouver, he was more concerned with seeing how those changes worked here than the final results.

Good thing. Lysacek fell on his quadruple toe, one of the jumps he just added, and did a very crooked double loop. He also had to fight to save the landing of his triple axel-double toe combination, and his footwork seemed to lack energy.

Lysacek knew it wasn't his best -- certainly not the majestic performance he had here in 2007 to win his first national title. As he skated off the ice, he detoured to check the tracings of his quad attempt, slapping his hands together.

"I have mixed feelings," he said. "I'm so, so honored to be a part of a second Olympic team, and I'm saving my Olympic skate for that night."

Weir said much the same thing after a tentative, one-dimensional performance. He was actually fifth in the free skate, but finished third overall because of the cushion he'd built in the short program.

"This was a performance I gave to make the Olympic team," he said. "That was my goal. My goal wasn't to be the national champion."

A fixture at the top of the national and international scene, Weir was considered a lock to be in Vancouver until his lackluster performance at last year's U.S. championships. He was so bad, he didn't make the world team, the first time since 2003 he was on the sidelines. With worlds in his own country, no less.

He was so devastated he actually considered quitting, only bouncing back after a pep talk from his mother, and it was clear Sunday just how much a second trip to the Olympics means to him. The colorful, quirky and always entertaining Weir was flat, popping his second triple axel into a single and stepping out of the landing of his triple-triple combination. Only his final footwork segment got the crowd going.

"I have very mixed feelings about my performance tonight. There's lots of things I can be proud of and, of course, mistakes I'm not so happy about," Weir said. "I'm saving that perfect, amazing clean performance (for Vancouver).

"My costume looked pretty," he added, "so I'm happy about that."

Ehh.

Weir redesigned his costume after the Grand Prix final, and it was disappointingly tame, with only sparkles and a touch of fur -- white fox, for you fashionistas -- to glam it up. His idol, Lady Gaga, would definitely not approve.

"It was fluffy," Weir said. "I looked very special. I looked like I dressed up for this event, which is what I wanted."