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Road to Omaha: Abbott to play it conservative

Rejuvenated three-time U.S. champion seeks clean programs above all else

Jeremy Abbott's back feels a lot healthier than it did at Skate America.
Jeremy Abbott's back feels a lot healthier than it did at Skate America. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/15/2013) - These past few weeks, when Jeremy Abbott steps onto the ice at the Detroit Skating Club (DSC), he brings something different to his training sessions: belief.

It's an attitude his coach, Yuka Sato, didn't see earlier this season, when a compressed disk in Abbott's lower back affected his performances and limited the training of his quadruple toe loop. Sato knows her skater has the goods to compete with the best; she wants to make sure he knows it, too.

"I was at Japanese nationals [in December], and I don't know how to explain it, but it was amazing," Sato said in a telephone interview last Thursday. "Daisuke Takahashi skated probably one of the best programs of his life. I saw it before my own eyes, and I thought, 'Jeremy can do that. He can be just as competitive as the Japanese guys. He can be up there, too.'

"I'm trying to encourage him to get that belief back. He was not training the way I wanted, and it was eroding his confidence, but now he's picking up the pace. I want that to continue."

Abbott, who can win his fourth U.S. title at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Neb., had a disappointing Grand Prix Series. The 27-year-old, eighth in the world in 2012, got a late start choreographing new programs. Seeking greater consistency on his quad toe, he adopted a circular entrance in lieu of the straight-line entry he used for years.

Missing the quad in both his short program and free skate at Skate America contributed to a fifth-place finish there. Although he won a silver medal at Trophée Eric Bompard, he did not land a quad there either.

Now, skater and coach say Abbott is back on track heading into Omaha, after an appointment with a Team USA gymnastics physician in Lansing, Mich., helped put him back on course.

"[Back pain] affected me tremendously, especially at Skate America," Abbott said. "We got it kind of taken care of for Bompard ... I brought [Britta Ottoboni] with me to Paris. She kept me mobile and moving and feeling really good. It was really nice having her.

She is going to be at nationals, and I hope to bring her to worlds and, hopefully, everywhere next year as well."

Abbott incorporated additional stretching into his warm-up and cool-down routines, and has massage therapy with Ottobani, the off-ice training coordinator at the DSC, twice a week.

"We're trying to get a good balance in training," Sato said. "The back issue caused a lack of training of the quad toe. Now that his back has improved, he is able to train the quad, and it's taken a weight off of his shoulders."

Abbott has returned to his original quad entrance, which he used to land the jump in his free skate at the 2012 U.S. Championships and other competitions.

"I played around with that pattern a lot and tried different entrances, and in the end, we decided to give the original pattern a go, and it kind of clicked again," he said. "So, I'm not doing the circular pattern any more; I am back to the straight line."

Sato, who won the world ladies title for Japan in 1994, downplayed the skaters' tinkering with technique.

"We are always trying to get the quad to go up straight in the air and down straight," she said. "That's what we work on every day. I am finally starting to see him in the air like he used to be, with fast rotations. That was lacking for a while.

"I believe his technique is generally good, and as many times as he has jumped in his career, his injury record is pretty good.

"He has had some issues in the past," she continued. "Fear factor is one thing; it's a high-risk element. Any time something goes wrong, it hurts, and the older you are, the higher the impact. If you are a 19-year-old guy, fearless, you can take the pounding, but a 27-year-old is a different story."

Abbott will play it conservative in Omaha, leaving the quad out of his "Spy" short, choreographed by Benji Schwimmer. Last season, he and then training partner Adam Rippon earned two U.S. men's spots at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships, to be held in London, Ontario, in March.

Perhaps still smarting from his fourth-place finish at the 2011 U.S. Championships, Abbott doesn't want to take a chance on missing another world team.

"The quad is not going to be in the short for nationals; I'm just starting to get comfortable with it again," he said. "The push [was] to get my back healthy, and then it was to get the programs feeling solid and consistent. Now the quad is finally starting to come back, but for me, the most important thing is to skate two solid programs and make the world team, and then I can put a bigger push on the quad."

Last month, Sato saw 2011 world silver medalist Takahiko Kozuka, whom she coaches with her father, Nobuo Sato, get out-jumped by rivals, place fourth at his nationals and miss Japan's world team.

She doesn't think the same thing will happen to Abbott in Omaha.

"I think, of course, we have to put [the quad] in the short, ultimately, but if Jeremy is unsure about it, I think it will cause more problems," Sato said. "He knows he can put out a clean short with a triple flip-triple toe combination, as he always does. We hope to bring the quad back, but before we do that, we need to secure a spot at worlds.

"Jeremy is an amazing skater. He has a great triple Axel, and we hope to do the quad in the long, and he will still be a strong competitor on the U.S. men's circuit."

There have also been changes to Abbott's free skate, "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables, which he choreographed with Sato. In addition to modifying his step sequence and spins to help ensure the highest levels, Abbott has removed back-to-back triple Axels, a sequence he did not execute cleanly at either of his fall competitions.

"I still do two jumps in a row on the crescendos, but it's no longer the back-to-back Axels," he said. "I think, choreographically, the impact of that was extraordinary, and it's super-impressive to see back-to back triple Axels, but it's not worth it if I can't skate the program clean. And when it comes down to it at the end of the day, what everyone wants to see is a clean program."

Certainly, two clean programs are what Sato wants to see from Abbott in Omaha, and she thinks there is a good chance he will deliver.

"His mindset is in a good place; after [Trophée Bompard], I was starting to see a different person," she said. "There has been a major change. He is happy on the ice. It was like he thought, 'Hey, I think I'm going to be OK.'"