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Defending champs get ready for Cleveland

2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships promises close contests

Evan Lysacek said he will change the costume for his free skate in Cleveland.
Evan Lysacek said he will change the costume for his free skate in Cleveland. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/16/2009) - Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir may not always agree, but they are in perfect accord about the International Judging System (IJS).

Neither skater likes its decimal-point precision or the system's counting how long they hold a spin position down to a tenth of a second. Both say they miss the days of Michelle Kwan gracefully gliding around the ice, racking up 6.0's with her elegant spirals and soft-kneed landings.

"The sport of figure skating and the art of figure skating have become a national math contest," Weir said. "IJS is killing the sport."

Lysacek was more diplomatic but equally certain.

"[6.0] became an everyday, commonly used phrase, a brand," he reasoned. "Anyone watching [the sport] could tell a 5.9 was pretty good, a 4.1 was not so good.

"Losing that brand has been very difficult, and the sport took a hit in the U.S."

IJS has been around since 2004 or so, but you would never have known it listening to reporters ask Lysacek and Weir questions during teleconferences earlier this week.

The two men have won the last five U.S. titles between them and figure to contend (along with Grand Prix Final champion Jeremy Abbott) for more gold at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland next week. But they're still not fully comfortable with the ins and outs of what may forever be called "the new judging system."

Lysacek said his concern is not with the judges but the technical panels, which are scrutinizing jump take-offs and rotations more closely than ever.

"The callers always seem to choose a few things to nitpick on, and this [season] it has been [my triple Axel]," said Lysacek, the two-time defending U.S. champion.

Lysacek's execution of the three-and-a-half revolution jump was downgraded at both Skate America and Skate Canada, likely costing him a trip to the GP Final. He placed third at both events.

The skater said he and his coaching team studied tapes and found the downgrades were at least partly due to the camera angle of the jump replays.

"We changed the angle [placement of the jump], worked on the height, worked on the rotations," he said. "I did as much as I could do with this one element.

"I've done my best at home to be prepared so that's there no gray area to scrutinize if I perform well."

Lysacek has also worked with his coach, Frank Carroll, and choreographer, Lori Nichol -- an expert in IJS -- to polish and perfect both his short and long programs, created by Tatiana Tarasova in Moscow last summer.

Although pleased with the overall effect of Tarasova's creations, the skater admitted a few of the footwork passages had gained "mixed reviews," as did his costume for his long program to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

"It's been changed," he said.

Lysacek is also working on his quadruple toe loop, a jump none of the top three Americans has landed cleanly this season.

"I'm training the quad at home in practice, and I will decide the day of the competition whether it's worth it to do it or not," he said.

So impassioned was the discussion of IJS during Weir's teleconference, that reporters never even got around to asking him about his quad.

Weir would like to be more artistic in his skating. "The free program is supposed to be free," the three-time (2004-06) U.S. champion, who won a bronze medal at the world championships last season, said. "Telling a story is almost impossible to do ... unless [you're skating to] 'Romeo and Juliet' and you write the story on your costume.

"Even my programs this year, I can't say they're huge artistic statements. ... In my opinion, the art of figure skating is lost."

Weir, who expressed disappointment with his performances this season despite winning silver medals at Skate America and the NHK Trophy and a bronze at the Grand Prix Final, said his biggest goal is to return from Cleveland with no regrets.

"I want to feel good about what I did, and not think [about] what else I could have done. ... Like always, I want to show people something beautiful."

Although the skater had an uncharacteristic fall on the triple Axel in his short program at the Grand Prix Final in December, he admitted his biggest problem has been smaller mistakes on simpler jump elements, something he will strive to avoid next week.

"At nationals, hopefully I'm [well trained] enough to go on the ice and not think about them as much," he said. "Hopefully, I can do them better than [I did] the rest of the season."

It wasn't all doom and gloom; Weir praised the depth of the U.S. men's field and added there were "at least 10 men" who could be on the podium in Cleveland, singling out Abbott, Lysacek, world junior champion Adam Rippon and former U.S. silver medalist Ryan Bradley.

McLaughlin, Brubaker want to stay in character

Defending pair champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker know they're the pair to beat in Cleveland and are confident in their "big tricks," including a huge triple twist lift and two solid throw triple jumps. This season, they've added side-by-side triple toe loops to the triple Salchows in their free skate.

But the young pair -- he is 22, she's just 16 -- said they are still working to add a little pizzazz.

"We've been training really hard, working mostly on [improving] the connection we have between each other," McLaughlin said. "We want to peak at nationals."

"We're focusing on the skating in between the elements, just kind of working on the small details," Brubaker added. "The biggest thing for us is our programs this year. We worked with [choreographer] Lea Ann Miller this spring, trying to get our skating to the next level."

Miller fashioned two sophisticated routines for the Colorado Springs-based couple, a short to "Malaguena" and a long to music from West Side Story.

Executing the difficult elements and step sequences -- all the while portraying characters on the ice -- has taken time for the athletic duo to perfect. Unlike last season, they did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final, losing a tiebreaker after winning silver at Skate America and bronze at Skate Canada.

"Of course, it was a little disappointing, but then again, it just made us work harder," McLaughlin said.

"Element-wise, we're pretty consistent," Brubaker said. "If you look at the performances [of the top pairs], not many are clean. It's more about not showing a break in the program, keeping in character."

Nagasu fights ankle injury, "age"

Defending ladies champion Mirai Nagasu said an injury to her right ankle is making her start to feel her age.

"I got this injury over the summer, a little bit due to careless training. It's made me realize I'm not as young as I was last year," Nagasu, who is all of 15, said.

The ankle troubled her at Skate America and the NHK Trophy this fall, where she placed fifth and eighth, respectively, and is especially nettlesome on two toe pick-assisted jumps, the flip and Lutz.

"I think definitely the injury could be related to my height difference, because two years ago I was only 4-foot, 11-inches, and now I'm 5-foot, 3-inches," Nagasu said. "My body muscles have not kept up with my height."

An MRI and X-rays revealed nothing wrong with the bone, so doctors think the trouble may be a pinched nerve.

"It was bothering me on my flip and Lutz, but this past week I've been practicing them and getting them back under control, because I really want to do well at nationals," she said.

Nagasu doesn't think her growth spurt has hurt her speed, but it's played havoc with her orientation on the ice.

"I didn't really think it would make a difference to me, but two years ago I couldn't see over the [boards], and now I can see way above, and that still feels weird," she explained. "I get confused about where I should look when I'm jumping, but it's getting a lot better. I'm getting used to the height difference."

Nagasu, who was not eligible for the U.S. World Team last season due to her young age, will likely compete at the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles this March if she places first or second in Cleveland. While she said she's not putting any added pressure on herself, she admitted she's not quite as carefree as she was a year ago.

"It was a lot easier being 14. ... I was always energetic, and my metabolism was on fire," she said. "Now, growing older, the teenage adolescence has hit me. It's really hard sometimes, but it's just been a great experience regardless."

Nagasu has a slew of challengers to contend with next week, led by world junior champion Rachael Flatt, who defeated her at Skate America, and 2007 world junior champion Caroline Zhang, who placed third at Skate Canada and fifth at the Trophée Eric Bompard. 2006 world champion Kimmie Meissner, 2008 U.S. bronze medalist Ashley Wagner and 2007 U.S. bronze medalist Alissa Czisny, among many others, could also be in the mix.