It's not just a two-man race
Dark horses abound in men's field
|Ryan Bradley leads the 21-member field at Liberty after a rollicking short program set to a medley of Elvis Presley tunes. (Getty Images)|
Will they hit their quads? How about those triple-triple combos? And what will Johnny wear?
But it's far from a two-man race. In this deep field, reigning world junior champion Stephen Carriere; 2007 Four Continents bronze medalist Jeremy Abbott; and 2007 U.S. silver medalist Ryan Bradley, who defeated Weir at the U.S. Championships last season, are among those primed for the challenge again this year.
Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches both Abbott and Bradley at Colorado Springs' World Arena, said his skaters arrived here in great shape, with one exception.
"Ryan did have an accident over Thanksgiving when he went to visit family in Kansas City," he revealed. "He has a chipped bone in his left ankle, which doesn't allow him to flex and bend properly.
"We've had to take the quad out of his short [set to The Godfather], but he's still doing it in the 'Charlie Chaplin' free."
Bradley said the injury shouldn't impact his performances.
"I wish I had a great story to tell, but I just hurt myself stepping off a curb," he laughed. "It happened right after my second Grand Prix [Trophee Eric Bompard]. Sometimes it's painful, but I can skate through it."
Last season, the charismatic 24-year-old defeated three-time defending champion Weir with a stellar free skate that brought the crowd to its feet. Bradley's fall Grand Prix performances were a bit disappointing, but he's ready to turn things around.
"Ryan has really trained himself to a higher level for this event," Zakrajsek said. "We've worked on [improving the difficulty] of his spins, and we're shooting for Grades of Execution of plus-one or plus-two on the elements. He's in the best physical condition he's ever been in."
Even if Bradley does repeat his stunning success of last season, there's one move that will be missing.
"I think I'll get in big trouble if I celebrate with another back flip after my free skate in Saint Paul," he said. "Winning the silver last season was a new experience for me, but I think I've done a good job leaving last year where it was. If I did do [the back flip] again, it wouldn't be spontaneous."
While the irrepressible Bradley is a crowd favorite with his on-ice high jinx, his training mate, Abbott, is noted for his elegant, cerebral programs.
The 22-year-old skater, who hails from Aspen, Colo., had mixed results over the fall. His nemesis has been the short program; at Skate Canada, he placed 11th in that segment, and at the NHK Trophy, 12th. At both events, his free skate rated fourth best.
Abbott shrugged off his early-season setbacks, saying, "I feel much more confident here than at my Grand Prix events. My training is going well.
"I've really worked on what to say to myself during my short [to Carlos Santana's 'Treat']. The routine itself is so much fun for me, I tend to get too much into it and lose my focus. I'm trying to still perform it but pull back a little."
Part of the problem is an inconsistent quad toe-triple toe combination. Abbott executed the difficult element at two competitions last summer, but the move has eluded him since.
"I'm hoping the third time is the charm here," he said. "I feel great physically and have been working with a sports psychologist to get my mental game under control."
Aside from Lysacek and Weir, Carriere had the best results this fall -- a fourth-place finish at Skate America and bronze medal at NHK.
The 18-year-old Boston native was so impressive in his first senior season that he qualified for the Grand Prix Final as first alternate.
"Since NHK, Stephen has been on a mission," said Mark Mitchell, who coaches Carriere with Peter Johansson.
"He is very determined and trains hard. I've never seen anyone work like him. In fact, he works so hard that there are times when I have to tell him to take some time off and relax."
Unlike the other top contenders, Carriere will not include a quad in either of his programs. In his short, to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," he plans a triple flip-triple toe combination and a triple Axel. The most difficult element in his free skate, to the swinging "Zoot Suit," is a triple Axel-double toe combination.
"We've been working on the whole performance -- expression, power, being a senior man out there," Carriere said. "I want to skate two clean, great programs, with positive Grades of Execution. That's definitely a goal."
Like Bradley and Abbott, Carriere calls a top-three finish here "a definite possibility. Anyone can be on the podium; it's a very deep field.
"If I'm on the podium and get to go to worlds, wonderful. If not, OK. But if I do make it, I'll be ecstatic."