Tuesday, January 13, 2009

2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships Preview-Men

It would be a lie to say that the ladies have not been the dominant discipline of skating in the United States for the last half-century. In every Olympic Games since 1956 (with the exception of 1964), there has been at least one U.S. lady on the Olympic podium, and a total of seven American ladies have had the honor of stepping atop the platform reserved for the gold medalist. Surprising it will be when come the World Championships and the 2010 Olympics, an American man will have the best chance at securing a podium finish for the United States, not an American woman. The men were the only skating discipline where an American scored a medal at the last world championships (bronze-Johnny Weir, 2008) and the only American to have won a Grand Prix Final since 2002 is Jeremy Abbott.

The last three national championships have been hijacked by the Evan Lysacek vs. Johnny Weir battle for the title. Though a far cry from the intense and often bitter rivalry between Russian Olympic champions Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko, there was quite a climax at last year's Nationals in St. Paul when Lysacek beat Weir in a tie-breaker by virtue of winning the free skate. To add to the tension, a chilling fluff piece was shown at the opening of NBC's broadcast of the men's free. The fluff was created especially for the two rivals in which Weir commented "Outside from skating, I don't really like Evan" and Lysacek called the rivalry "war" between the two skaters. However, in a compelling twist, a relative newcomer by the name of Jeremy Abbott looks to get the biggest slice of the pie in Cleveland. With a victory at the Grand Prix Final, an event where Weir settled for bronze and Lysacek failed to even qualify for, Abbott has established himself as an exceptionally creditable threat to both men, who have a combined total of five national titles between them, whereas Abbott has none.

While a compelling three-way fight for the title should no doubt be a thrilling event to witness, the story lines for the men's event at Nationals won't end there. The inconsistent but entertaining veteran Ryan Bradley, the reliable and steady Stephen Carriere, and newcomers Branden Mroz and Adam Rippon will be other faces to keep an eye on in Cleveland when the men's short program gets under way on January 23rd, 2009.

Skaters Featured in Post:

Jeremy Abbott
Ryan Bradley
Stephen Carriere
Evan Lysacek
Branden Mroz
Adam Rippon
Johnny Weir

Jeremy Abbott

Noteworthy Results: 2008 Grand Prix Final Champion, 2008 Cup of Russia-4th, 2008 Cup of China Champion, 2008 World Championships-11th, 2008 Four Continents Championships-5th, 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-4th, 2007 Four Continents Championships-3rd, 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-4th

Pros: Abbott's standing ovation from a thunderously approving crowd at this year's Grand Prix Final seemed to symbolize the transformation of Abbott's skating. Once a talented but notoriously inconsistent competitor, his victory in South Korea earned him a spot amongst the world's leading male figure skaters. Abbott, who has landed three clean quadruple toe loops in major international competition, has the three highest scores in the long program for any U.S. man this season, in addition to the two highest segment total scores (237.72 and 233.44). Lauded for his good musicality, first-rate jumping technique, and strong basic skating skills, on paper Jeremy has placed himself away from his competitors with the highest averages this season in the long program for both technical elements (79.98) and program components (74.87), the former of which being over nine points ahead of his closest rival, Johnny Weir.

Cons: Abbott has yet to even attempt the quadruple toe loop in either program this season, and did struggle at the recent Cup of Russia, singling his lutz in the short and doubling a triple toe in the long. Abbott's venture to do the quad in both programs at last year's nationals proved unsuccessful; stepping out of it on both attempts. While Abbott is not a full-fledged newcomer, having won the pewter medal at the last two nationals and participating at a world championship, this national championship will no doubt be Abbott's biggest test of his mettle in competition to date. Doing well at the Grand Prix isn't always a blessing, as proven by Matt Savoie winning the bronze (and having the highest U.S. finish) at the Grand Prix Final in 2001, and failing to make the world team. While the two scenarios aren't entirely comparable, as there were only two spots available for the world team in 2001 and Savoie would've otherwise gone (having finished with the bronze medal at nationals), it is an indication of just how slippery the ice really is, especially at nationals, considered the ultimate pressure competition of the year.

Outlook: Looking at the scores internationally this season, Abbott is the favorite to win his first U.S. national championship and is undoubtedly a shoo-in to be on his second world team. Inserting a quad into his already loaded bag of tricks could propel him to be in a position with quite a bit of breathing room to win. However, one must not forget that Abbott's quad has by no means been a walk in the park for him, and that Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir, who have also stated their plans to include the jump, have far more experience nationally and internationally than Jeremy can claim. Abbott's performances at the last two Nationals have been neither brilliant nor dreadful, but Abbott may be required to skate nothing less than brilliantly if Weir and Lysacek skate with greater intensity than they have for the entirety of this season.

Ryan Bradley

Noteworthy Results: 2008 Trophee Eric Bombard-7th, 2008 Skate Canada-2nd, 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-5th, 2007 Trophee Eric Bombard-5th, 2007 Skate America-6th, 2007 World Championships-15th, 2007 Four Continents Championships-4th, 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-2nd

Pros: The three-time U.S. Collegiate champion sets himself apart with his unique programs that are full of vitality. Bradley has beaten Abbott, Lysacek, and Weir at some point in his career, and Ryan's decision to return to his former long program to musical selections from "Mambo en Sax," "Historia De Un Amor," and "El Cumbanchero" appeared to be a wise one at this season's Skate Canada, where he finished with a silver medal with a performance that many argued was rightful of gold. He also scored personal bests at that meet in both programs, a 72.50 in the short and a 140.25 in the free.

Cons: Bradley's nervy showing at the 2007 World Figure Skating Championships, his only world championship to date, has not given U.S. Figure Skating any incentive to send him to Los Angeles this year, where assuring three Olympic spots will be a must. The same can also be said for Ryan's abysmal performance at this year's Trophee Eric Bombard, where he fell twice in the free and did two many jump combinations en route to finishing 10th in the free and 7th overall. While a crowd favorite, he has hardly been a judges favorite throughout his career, having the second-lowest PCS average in the long program among the men featured in this post this season. Bradley's TES scores are also the lowest among the top U.S. men, which is all thanks to his weak showing at Trophee Eric Bombard.

Outlook: Known for his vibrant character on the ice, one can hope that Bradley enjoyed his time in Tokyo, Japan, for his first world championships, because with Abbott's rapid improvement and Lysacek and Weir's experience, one is unlikely to be finding Bradley skating on a television set in March when worlds arrive. Although a mightily inconsistent skater, Bradley is known to be an opportunist when it comes to taking advantage of detrimental performances from his fellow rivals and stepping up to bat and delivering the goods, the most notable example being his shocking silver medal finish at the 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. With Abbott, Lysacek, and Weir predicted to lock up the world team spots, Bradley will still be motivated for a strong finish here to ensure him of Grand Prix assignments next season and a possible ticket to Four Continents if one of the top three opts out of being chosen to rest for Worlds. Currently 25 years of age, Bradley's quest to make a name for himself beyond 2010 could unfortunately prove to be too little, too late.

Stephen Carriere

Noteworthy Results: 2008 NHK Trophy-6th, 2008 Cup of China-2nd, 2008 World Championships-10th, 2008 Four Continents Championships-4th, 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-3rd, 2007 NHK Trophy-3rd, 2007 Skate America-4th, 2007 World Junior Champion, 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-9th, 2006 Junior Grand Prix Final Champion

Pros: Only 19 years of age and competing in his third senior national championship, the Wakefield, Massachusetts native is currently an impressive 9th on the seasons best list and among the cards that he brings to the table are his inordinate triple axels and his Tano-style double jumps for his combinations. Carriere has already been a proven commodity for the United States in his young career, placing 10th at last year's worlds which, combined with Johnny Weir's bronze medal, secured three spots for this year's World Championships. Carriere's seasons best in the long program, 145.25, is over three points higher than that of Evan Lysacek's 141.91. In addition to his great speed across the ice, Carriere is commended for his consistently cool head under pressure.

Cons: Carriere's hopes of making the Grand Prix Final after being an alternate last year descended with a poor showing at the NHK Trophy, where he singled both of his axel attempts in the long and under rotated his triple-triple in the short. His total at NHK regressed nearly 25 points from Cup of China, which is not a good sign for his preparation or political favor heading into nationals. While Carriere is immune to flutzing, Stephen has struggled with taking off of the correct edge for his flip, receiving "!" marks during both programs at Cup of China and an "e" deduction during the long at NHK. With a top-three finish being a must for Carriere to be named to the world team, his TES average this season in the long program is only 5th among the top U.S. men, and is 4th when it comes to average PCS marks in the long and seasons best totals. Unlike many of the other top men, Carriere does not compete a quadruple jump and while it is a legitimate argument to say that risking a jump isn't worth it, for Carriere it is a necessity because of his weaker artistic marks.

Outlook: Carriere, who once compared his skating to growing branches on a tree, may be forced to stop climbing up the standings when a top 3 finish and an additional trip to worlds look to be unlikely this year. Even if Carriere were to finish with a bronze medal and would thus knock one of Abbott, Weir, or Lysacek off the podium, all three of those men have more experience and reputation than that of Carriere and he could still feasibly be passed over anyway. While Carriere is an immensely talented skater, his skating is still considered by many to be fairly juniorish and his consistency is unfortunately too invaluable of a trinket to disguise his other weaknesses. However, Stephen can still get an assignment to the Four Continents Championships if one of the top three opts out of going, and Grand Prix assignments for next year should come his way barring a disastrous performance in Cleveland.

Evan Lysacek

Noteworthy Results: 2008 Skate Canada-3rd, 2008 Skate America-3rd, 2008 Four Continents Championships-3rd, 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Champion, 2007 Grand Prix Final-3rd, 2007 Cup of China-2nd, 2007 Skate America-2nd, 2007 World Figure Skating Championships-5th, 2007 Four Continents Championships Champion, 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Champion, 2006 Cup of China Champion, 2006 World Championships-3rd, 2006 Olympic Games-4th, 2005 World Championships-3rd

Pros: Every bit as experienced as the length of his 6'2'' frame, Lysacek will make his 10th trip to the national championship, and his eighth as a senior. Lysacek is decent in every area of his skating, and this event has historically been a kind one for Evan, with him being the champion for the last two years. A relentless competitor who is practically incapable of skating two sub-par programs in a competition, Lysacek has been credited with landing the quad in national and international competition, unlike Johnny Weir. Lysacek's personal best scores in the long program and overall are higher than that of Weir, and his personal best and seasons best in the short is the highest among any American skater. Lysacek is also known for his intelligence when handling the current code of points, maxing out his levels and points in non-jump elements and changing jump combinations during the program if he puts himself into a situation where such a task is necessary.

Cons: Evan received four downgrades and two wrong-edge "!" calls during the Grand Prix series, with that and more contributing to him failing to make the Grand Prix Final. Although Lysacek's PCS marks in the long at Skate America were very competitive (76.30), they regressed nearly six points to a 70.70 during his long at Skate Canada, which was a mostly clean performance. Lysacek hasn't successfully landed the quad since the Four Continents Championships in February 2008, and seems to have dropped it from his short program for good. Lysacek has been criticized in the past for his artificial artistry, arm-flailing footwork sequence extravaganzas, and, although irrelevant, his distasteful choices in costuming. Lysacek's failure to compete at worlds last year and making the Grand Prix Final this year may stunt his potential to do well at nationals, both in terms of confidence and how well he will be received from the judging panel.

Outlook: Lysacek may not be having the best season thus far, and people can complain all day long about his wonky technique on his triple axel, weaker basic skating skills, and hackneyed programs. However, one would be a fool to count the two-time world bronze medalist from the mix, and Evan has some very layered layers of breathing room to fall under before he will be unable to make the world team. As for winning the title, his forecast is fairly to partly cloudy with a definite chance of showers. To make the sun shine for him, he must get his quad consistent, start landing his triple axels without any ambiguity regarding whether the jump completed the required rotations, and to skate his programs with renewed life and intensity that has been missing this season. Having been away from competition since early November, Lysacek has surely worked vigorously to get back to the top. With reports saying how good his practice sessions have looked as of late, will practice make perfect in Cleveland?

Brandon Mroz

Noteworthy Results: 2008 Trophee Eric Bombard-5th, 2008 Skate Canada-7th, 2008 World Junior Championships-4th, 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-2nd (juniors), 2007 Junior Grand Prix Final-2nd, 2007 Junior World Championships-4th, 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-2nd (juniors), 2006 Junior Grand Prix Final-2nd

Pros: A fine technical skater, Mroz currently competes a quadruple toe-loop to open his long program. Having only received one downgrade this year, and one wrong-edge call ("!" for his triple flip), Mroz has the third highest TES average this season in the long (67.36), which is higher than that of Evan Lysacek or Stephen Carriere. Mroz generally receives level 3s and 4s for her non-jump elements, which create greater cushion for error when it comes to jumping. This championship is a perfect opportunity for Mroz to establish himself as a recognizable threat for the future while having little pressure on him to do well.

Cons: Mroz cannot hold a candle to the top U.S. men with it comes to program components, specifically when it comes choreography and interpretation. A rather mundane and juniorish skater when it comes to artistry, he is unlikely to be getting the marks in that department to land on the podium, which is evidenced by him having the lowest PCS average among the top U.S. men in the long this season (58.25). Mroz has had his fair share of errors throughout the Grand Prix, having not landed the quad successfully at either Skate Canada or Trophee Eric Bombard. Brandon has also struggled with landing his second triple axel in his long program, and throughout his junior career he has been forced to step under the shadow of Adam Rippon, who beat Mroz at the Junior Grand Prix Final, Nationals (junior level), and Junior Worlds last season.

Outlook: While Brandon has a ways to go before he becomes a top level skater, he is making definitive strides in the right direction. Having upgraded to a quad and placing a second triple axel after the half-way point of his long program (as a junior he placed both triple axels at the beginning of his long) this more ambitious jump composition will be a necessity for him beyond 2010. While Mroz is hardly in contention of making the world team, a ticket to Sofia, Bulgaria, for the junior world championships is easily realistic and he will be able to further hone his talents before potentially becoming a medal contender at nationals in the future.

Adam Rippon

Noteworthy Results: 2008 Cup of Russia-5th, 2008 Skate America-8th, 2008 World Junior Champion, 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Champion (Junior), 2007 Junior Grand Prix Final Champion, 2007 Junior Grand Prix Romania Champion

Pros: Blessed with an exceptionally malleable and compact body, the 19-year-old Rippon dominated the junior circuit last year, winning the Junior Grand Prix Final, U.S. Figure Skating Championships (junior level), and the Junior World Championship. At the 2008 U.S. Nationals, Paul Wylie commented during an NBC fluff that Rippon has all of the makings to be a future champion, and with airy jumps, blue-ribbon spins, and a flair for musicality, there is undoubtedly a good deal of validity to that statement. Rippon has added a triple axel to his jumping repertoire this season and has generally been a consistent skater in competition. Many have praised Adam's intelligent decision in making a coaching change mid-season from Nikolai Morozov to Brian Orser, as Orser has fewer students to devote his attention to than Morozov.

Cons: Although age-eligible to compete at worlds, Rippon will have a mightily tough act on his back if he hopes to qualify. Rippon has received negative GOEs on all five of his triple axel attempts this season, and fell on two of them. Rippon lost at least seven potential points when he was downgraded on three jumps in the long at Skate America, and his overall showing at that competition, his first senior showing, was an uncharacteristically poor one. Adam's averages this season in the long program for technical elements and program components are 2nd and 3rd lowest, respectively, among the men featured in this post. Rippon's personal best total score of 207.93, achieved at the recent Cup of Russia, is far lower than that of Abbott (237.72), Lysacek (233.11), Weir (231.78), Carriere (218.30), and Bradley (212.75).

Outlook: A diamond in the rough, Rippon will particularly need to focus on his content to out skate the big boys. Getting his triple axel consistent, and preferably putting two of them into his long program will he a big help to the Pennsylvania native, and learning a quad wouldn't hurt, either. Rippon is certainly improving, scoring personal bests in both phases of the competition at his most recent competition, Cup of Russia. Rippon has immaculate basic skating skills, including correct edge take-offs for both his flip and lutz, and Brian Orser's immense expertise of jumps like the triple axel should further fulfill the potential that Rippon has to offer. Although unlikely to be in contention for the world team, Rippon should use this competition to learn, grow, have fun, and take risks. With a former world champion as his coach, and two-time Grand Prix Final champion Yu-Na Kim as his training partner, Rippon will be able to witness the day-to-day happenings of the expectation and preparation of one of the top ladies figure skaters in the world, which should prove useful as soon as Rippon is ready to step into the spotlight and away from the shadows of other top skaters.

Johnny Weir

Noteworthy Results: 2008 Grand Prix Final-3rd, 2008 NHK Trophy-2nd, 2008 Skate America-3rd, 2008 World Figure Skating Championships-3rd, 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-2nd, 2007 Grand Prix Final-4th, 2007 Cup of Russia Champion, 2007 Cup of China Champion, 2007 World Figure Skating Championships-8th, 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships-3rd, 2006 World Figure Skating Championships-7th, 2006 Olympic Games-5th, 2006 U.S. Figure Skating Champion, 2005 World Figure Skating Championships-4th, 2005 U.S. Figure Skating Champion, 2004 World Figure Skating Championships-5th, 2004 U.S. Figure Skating Champion

Pros: The only skater since Brian Boitano to have won three consecutive (2004-2006) national titles in the United States, Weir is a distinctly unique skater, from his costume and music selections to the fact that he rotates clockwise as opposed to counter-clockwise. Blessed with heavenly deep knees, assertive presentation, and a renewed fight for the top, these are all desirable cards for Weir to emerge victorious in Cleveland. Weir has butter-smooth triple axels and triple+triple combinations, and is hoping to land his quad for the first time in a major competition. Outside of the jumping department, Weir has very strong spins and footwork that routinely get in the level three and four range, and typically is a recipient of very desirable PCS marks in the U.S. and abroad.

Cons: Weir's biggest opponent at nationals may not be Jeremy Abbott, or Evan Lysacek, but rather something far more subtle called the code of points. Weir got lucky when he did too many combinations during the long at the 2006 U.S. Nationals, where he still had enough breathing room from the short to win. However, karma for his poor decision making in programs greeted him at the 2006 Olympics, where he only did one jump combination in the long and that, among other things, kept him from stepping onto the medals stand. Johnny left out a possible combination again at the 2008 U.S. Nationals, which mathematically speaking cost him a 4th title. At the world championships, Weir once again did two combinations (neither being a three-jump combo), but this time was saved by Daisuke Takahashi being credited with too many combinations, thus forfeiting his spot on the podium to Weir. As far as his skating rivals are concerned, Weir's personal best is lower than that of Lysacek and his seasons average for both TES (especially) and PCS in the long program is lower than that of Abbott. Weir is also routinely given an "e" deduction for liping his triple flip.

Outlook: Despite the retirements of Jeffrey Buttle and Stephane Lambiel and the current absence of Takahashi, the international mens field is immensely deep and Weir cannot afford anything less than a victory here to ensure him of realistic medal prospects when the world championships roll around, and the same holds true for the Olympics next year. Weir's criticism of the code of points is not without its irony, as Johnny has actually been helped by COP for the fact that the quad doesn't have to be a do-or-die jump. The reality is that fighting for every point is necessary, and with close results being commonplace an extra double toe DOES MATTER. Abbott does have the momentum heading into nationals, but by no means is Weir going to let him take an idyllic path to victory. Weir obviously hasn't started working with Galina Zmievskaya, known to be an extremely demanding coach, for nothing. His experience could prove to be his biggest asset, but per the numbers of this season Weir is a slight underdog heading into nationals, an unfamiliar position for him.

Podium Prediction:

Gold: Jeremy Abbott-
Has had a phenomenal season thus far and as far as the data is concerned he shouldn't have a problem winning. However, his lack of experience compared to Weir and Lysacek and pressure from winning the Grand Prix Final will be obstacles to overcome. Seems to have the most momentum in terms of confidence and scoring favor, however.

Silver: Johnny Weir-Johnny has historically done well at nationals with a few exceptions (2003, 2007), and has enough experience to skate well despite all of the expectations surrounding him. However, his quad, and his inability to maximize his points in past programs could result in lower scores than what will be necessary to win the title.

Bronze: Evan Lysacek- Will likely look better than earlier in the season, but his quad is hit-or-miss, he has been getting more downgrades this season and his PCS have been regressing.

4th/Pewter: Stephen Carriere-Solid, consistent, and a great jumper, but isn't near to the level of the top three to have a good chance at going to worlds.

5th: Adam Rippon-Wise move to switch coaches; did extremely well at last year's nationals as a junior and it will be interesting to see if he will be intimidated or free-spirited when competing at the biggest event of his career thus far.

6th: Ryan Bradley-Has been a steady but unspectacular player at nationals for a number of years, and while his 2007 performance was a shock to all, the former statement is likely to wind up true in Cleveland.

7th: Brandon Mroz- A great opportunity for him to hold nothing back and gain feedback from judges for further improvement. With solid technical content, he should be right up there in the standings at nationals, although a podium finish is almost out of the question.

UPDATE: Kimmie Meissner has just announced her withdrawal from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, due to a currently unspecified injury. This likely means the end of her season, and will be lucky just to get one GP assignment next year. Many are speculating that Meissner's retirement may be imminent. My new ladies prediction will be (in order from 1st to 10th): Flatt, Wagner, Zhang, Czisny, Nagasu, Liang, Bereswill, Gilles, Hacker, and Forte.

That is all.

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