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Iconic skaters highlight U.S. HOF Class of 2016

Former Olympic teammates to reunite for induction at U.S. championships
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Evan Lysacek, seen here celebrating after winning the Olympic gold medal in 2010, highlights the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame Class of 2016. -Getty Images

There is one thing you can say about the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame Class of 2016: It certainly has a lot of class.

The group, which will be inducted at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, in January, includes 2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek; 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohe;, Olympic silver medalist ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto; and Gustave "Gus" Lussi, the famed coach of two-time Olympic gold medalist Dick Button, who also laid the technical foundation for Olympic champions Hayes Jenkins, David Jenkins and Dorothy Hamill.

Aside from Lussi, who made his imprint on the sport in the post-World War II era and died in 1993 at the age of 95, the class is very young. Agosto is the elder statesman at 33. Belbin (now Belbin White) and Cohen, who is engaged to be married next August, are both 31. Lysacek is the youngest at 30.

"I think it's great to be going in with all of them," said Cohen, a political science major at Columbia. "I remember being at nationals when I was about 12 and Evan was in novice. We really were in this all together, and we will go out together."

Lysacek, Cohen, and Belbin and Agosto all represented Team USA at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy. Cohen won a silver medal, and Belbin and Agosto became the first U.S. dance team to win a medal -- also a silver -- since 1976. Lysacek finished fourth overall after rallying from a 10th-place finish in the short program.

Lysacek, and Belbin and Agosto were Olympic teammates again in Vancouver in 2010, when the former won gold and the latter placed fourth. Cohen came close to making the Olympic team that year but came in fourth at the U.S. championships.

Having the induction in Saint Paul holds some significance for this class: It is where Lysacek won his second of two consecutive U.S. championships and where Belbin and Agosto claimed their fifth U.S. title, both in 2008.

But Hall of Fame recognition is more about what these skaters brought to American skating. In Lysacek's case, he became the first American man to win an Olympic gold medal since Brian Boitano in 1988. One of the hardest workers in the sport, Lysacek and his coach, Frank Carroll, were able to craft a program that fit perfectly into the judging system and topped heavy favorite Evgeni Plushenko of Russia for the gold medal.

"When I heard that he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame, my immediate reaction was that nobody deserves it more," said Carroll, who is also a member of the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame and was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame and the Professional Skaters Association Coaches Hall of Fame.

"He is such a dedicated human being," Carroll added. "There was never a reason to correct him about doing more. It was never that way. It was always, 'Evan, that's enough. You're going to kill yourself.' To see someone with that dedication is really incredible for a coach."

Although he knew Lysacek had a good shot at winning the gold in Vancouver, when the skater first came to him, Carroll did not see an Olympic champion in waiting.

"No. I didn't make that decision right away," Carroll said. "What I saw in him was tremendous artistry when he won the junior world championship. He had a built-in sense of line and a strong interpretation of music. He was a young, tall man, and I knew it would be difficult for him to get that in control and to be consistent.

"I knew he had all of what it took to get there, but that really wasn't the story right away."

Cohen's main contribution to the sport came from her artistry. With unparalleled flexibility, Cohen's signature moves were her spirals and spins, in which she would contort her body into Cirque du Soleil positions.

"I was so honored just to be nominated for the Hall of Fame, and then I got the call that I made it into the Hall of Fame when I was literally stepping out of one final exam," Cohen said. "The call was almost a throwback to another era for me. It reminded me of so many moments in my skating career, and it was exciting to be included with so many of my skating idols."

In her heyday, Cohen shone brilliantly in the sport, but these days she has all but removed herself from the spotlight. The last time Cohen attended a skating competition herself was in 2013, when the U.S. championships were held in Omaha, Nebraska.

"I've really immersed myself with New York and student life," said Cohen, who is in her senior year of college. "I will watch skating at the Olympics, but right now I am taking a lot of classes and am busy with wedding planning."

Cohen made an imprint on skating from a very young age. Her longtime coach, John Nicks, who worked with her at two points in her career, said he first took notice of her when she was skating with another coach (Barbara Brown) at his rink in Costa Mesa, California.

"I was standing on the ice with my legs spread apart and she just went right through my legs," said Nicks, chuckling at the memory. "I think she was about 10 years old, but of course, she was small and looked a lot younger. That caught my attention. Later, Barbara needed some help coaching her and I started working with her.

"I don't think anyone was ever quite like her," Nicks added. "Even from when she was a little girl, I knew she was very, very special -- very, very different. Later, I found if she could get some discipline, she would be very good."

Cohen's main flaw was her inconsistency. She could be brilliant but was prone to making small mistakes that derailed her ultimate goals.

"I believe it was always justified criticism on her consistency," said Nicks, who is in the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame and World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. "With Sasha, you never knew what you were going to get. But when she was good, she was very good."

In Nicks' opinion, she was especially good when she skated her short program at the Torino Olympics.

"I think that was the finest short program I'd ever seen," Nicks said. "And then, on the other side of her career, when she was at one of her first nationals (at the senior level) and was a surprise in the field (topping Michelle Kwan in the short program) in Cleveland (in 2000)."

At the same time Cohen was dazzling the ladies field, Belbin and Agosto were becoming a breakthrough dance team for the United States. After decades of U.S. dance teams trying and (mostly) failing to earn the respect they felt they deserved, Belbin and Agosto were able to gain international acclaim with their combination of athleticism and artistry, paving the way for teams like Meryl Davis and Charlie White and growing the sport of ice dance as a whole in the United States.

Belbin and Agosto were in Japan for a tour when the news of their Hall of Fame induction became official.

"I'm so humbled by this incredible honor," Belbin wrote in a text message. "To have our names entered into the Hall of Fame among so many iconic and inspiring figures in the skating world is one of the proudest moments of my career."

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the class of 2016 is that it took so long for Lussi to be inducted. Lussi was part of the inaugural class of the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame when it was created in 1976 but had not been nominated for the U.S. Hall of Fame until now.

"I didn't know he wasn't in the Hall of Fame," Dorothy Hamill said. "Once in a while I would get a ballot and vote, but I just never knew. Holy moly, it's about time!"

Lussi, known by his students as "Mr. Lussi," was responsible for developing a strong groundwork for American skating following World War II. A former ski jumper, Lussi was not a competitive skater and only skated recreationally when he was growing up in his native Switzerland.

"Gustave Lussi always understood the mechanics of every move," Button said. "As a ski jumper, he understood flight patterns and never accepted what tradition had called for. He understood where the body should be at every point. He taught me everything I know in skating and in life in general."

Hayes Alan Jenkins, a native of Akron, Ohio, who trained at the Cleveland Skating Club, would trek to Lake Placid in the summers, along with David and his older sister, Nancy, because most rinks closed in the summer. Hayes qualified for his first world championships in 1949 and traveled with Lussi to Paris that year and for a few world championships afterward.

"He gave me my foundation," Hayes said. "He was a very technical coach. He didn't teach by tricks and gimmicks, and what he taught me with jumps and spinning lasted throughout my career.

"I was never intimidated by Mr. Lussi but he was an imposing figure and very intense," Hayes added. "There was not a lot of small talk during lessons."

Lussi also paved the way for a young Hamill. Although she worked with Carlo Fassi when she won Olympic gold in Innsbruck in 1976, she still credits Lussi as the coach who helped get her career off the ground.

"My first summer in Lake Placid, I saw him and wanted to take lessons from him," Hamill said. "I saw him from a distance and saw Gordie McKellan jumping off the charts. There was no Internet back then, so I really didn't know who he was or what kind of coach he was, but I was watching him work and I remember being very fascinated by him and the respect he had from everyone in the rink. He taught everyone to spin faster and jump higher.

"I loved the command that Mr. Lussi had," added Hamill, who worked wth Lussi until 1974. "For me, Mr. Lussi was sort of having a God-like person around. I hung on every word he said. His compliments were few and far between, but I tried so hard to get them. The greatest compliment I could get was when he would come up to me and say, 'Miss Hamill, will you try to do a sit spin and show this student how to do it?' If I did it right, he would say, 'Now you're talking.' That would be the seal of approval."

In fact, it was under Lussi's tutelage that she learned her famous Hamill camel spin.  

"He was describing the spin and was talking about reversing into a sit spin," Hamill said. "What I did was not what he wanted me to do. He kept saying, 'Try it this way.' I always wonder what he was really trying to get me to do. I never really understood exactly what I was doing, but that's how it turned out."

If that isn't a lasting impression on the sport, we don't know what is.