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Abbott reaches new level as U.S. men's champion

Mroz surges to silver medal; Lysacek takes bronze; Weir finishes fifth

Jeremy Abbott is the reigning U.S. men's champion.
Jeremy Abbott is the reigning U.S. men's champion. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/25/2009) - Even in victory, Jeremy Abbott thinks he can do a lot better.

The skater from Colorado Springs, Colo., delivered a solid performance Sunday at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships to win the free skate and his first U.S. title with 241.89 points.

Though happy, he wasn't entirely satisfied.

"I was not extremely pleased with how I did today," Abbott, 23, said. "I had a big mistake on the triple loop, and I really had to fight for some landings. Nothing felt smooth and easy. It wasn't quite up to par with my personal best; it wasn't even close."

All week, Abbott, whose breakout 2008 Grand Prix season included winning the GP Final in December, battled nerves and the pressure of the unaccustomed role of pre-event favorite.

"I felt awful leading up to this event. I felt awful today. I felt awful on the ice," he said. "I was able to control myself and do what I had to do. I wasn't happy with my performance, but I'm learning to compete and keep mistakes to a minimum."

The stylish Abbott, who has not attempted a quad in competition since last summer, popped an intended triple loop into a single and failed to complete a triple-triple combination. His spins and step sequences gained high levels, though, and his innate elegance shone through the intricate choreography of his program to Piazzolla's "Eight Seasons," giving him the highest program components of the event by over seven points.

"I don't think the new [judging] system is a hindrance to artistry at all," Abbott said. "You really have to find what drives you as your art and stick to that and be true to that."

Two of Abbott's training mates, Brandon Mroz and Ryan Bradley, placed second and third in the free skate. Mroz captured the silver medal, and Bradley was fourth overall.

Defending champion Evan Lysacek was third, with three-time champion Johnny Weir fifth. It is the first time since 2003 that neither skater won the U.S. title.

"Overall, [the U.S.] is probably the strongest country in the entire world for men's skating," Lysacek, 23, said. "A lot [of that] has to do with Johnny and I, with that rivalry being so publicized the last few years. It's pushed not just him and me but a lot of other competitors to come up and try to steal one of the spots."

A youngster in the senior field at just 18, Mroz outshone his elders technically, opening with a gorgeous quadruple toe loop worth 10.51 points. He gained the highest technical scores but lagged far behind Abbott in the program components and ended the event with 229.70 points.

"Over the season, we took a big leap and put a lot of technically hard things in the program -- the quad, two [triple] Axels and a triple-triple in the second half. It's very demanding," Mroz said.

Abbott, Mroz and Bradley all train under the direction of Tom Zakrajsek at Colorado Springs' World Arena.

"It certainly creates a competitive atmosphere," Abbott said. "We're all really good friends; we root for each other and try to best each other regularly. I think it's a really good atmosphere, and it's helped all three of us be on the podium."

A failed quad toe, which he did not include in his programs earlier this season, helped cost Lysacek a shot at a third U.S. title.

The two-time world bronze medalist got hit by a double whammy: not only did he fall on the jump, but it was downgraded by the technical panel. Factoring in the one-point deduction for the fall, it ended up having no value.

"I think it was important to go for it," he said. "I said I would go all out for it, and I did."

Skating after the popular Bradley, Lysacek was thrown off stride by a shower of gifts that covered the ice as he prepared to start his program. He made an uncharacteristic error on a triple Salchow and faltered on his triple Axel-triple toe combination.

"It was a strange night," he said. "Balls were bouncing everywhere. I got a little out of my rhythm."

Bradley, the 2007 U.S. silver medalist, popped a triple Salchow in an otherwise solid program. He ended with 221.40 points.

"I did the hard stuff and let my mind slip on a simple element," he said.

As usual, the 25-year-old brought the crowd to its feet with an entertaining program to Latin rhythms.

"[The crowd] is what brings me back year after year," he said. "It's an adrenaline rush, and I'm kind of an addict. I love the crowd so much, and hopefully they feel that."

Weir opened his free skate by popping a triple Axel into a single, just as he did in the short program, and reducing an intended triple loop to a double.

His fifth-place finish was his lowest since 2003, when he withdrew from the event after falling and hitting the wall during his free skate.

"It was a difficult preparation for me coming into this event," the 24-year-old said. "I was sick over Christmas, and then it was New Year's, and then all of a sudden I was on a plane to Cleveland."

During the Christmas holiday, Weir traveled from his skating base in New Jersey to South Korea, to perform with Yu-Na Kim in an exhibition to benefit children's charities. The commitment cost him dearly when he came down with a bad case of gastrointitis.

"I lost eight pounds in one day, but I showed up here," he said. "I didn't skate well, but I didn't embarrass myself. I did land some jumps."

Reminded that Michael Jordan famously led the Chicago Bulls to a playoff victory weakened by the flu, Weir had a memorable riposte: "It may sound like an excuse, but Michael Jordan has a whole team behind him, and I'm a single, skinny, sparkly boy standing in the middle of the ice."

The world bronze medalist made a clear pitch to be selected for one of the three spots available to U.S. men at the upcoming 2009 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles.

"You should fight for your place on the world team," he said. "At the same time, I'm the only American man to win three medals on the Grand Prix this season; I'm ranked fourth in the world. I hope the [selection] committee understands my circumstances coming into this championship."

They may have understood, but they did not name Weir to the team. Barring injury, Abbott, Mroz and Lysacek will go to Los Angeles, with Weir as the first alternate.

Parker Pennington, who was one of the feel-good stories on Friday after finishing third in the short program in front of a home crowd in Cleveland, had an unfortunate free skate that included two falls. The skater fell on a triple Axel in the six-minute warm-up and rolled his right ankle, requiring medical attention. He wound up placing eighth overall.