SAN JOSE, Calif. — Jeremy Abbott was still savoring his monster score when one fan yelled out, "You're awesome!"
That he certainly was.
Abbott's easy, breezy performance to a swing medley scored a whopping 90.23 points at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday night, a personal best and a mark that puts him in world champion Patrick Chan's territory. The two-time national champion leads training partner Adam Rippon by a commanding 7.29 points going into Sunday's free skate. Armin Mahbanoozadeh was third.
Abbott is one of the most technically sound skaters in the world, with beautiful edges that carve the ice like a master craftsman and perfect body control. He's also one of the few skaters who has managed to maintain the balance between the performance quality that makes figure skating so entertaining and the tough physical tricks the system now demands.
The knock, though, is he didn't have the mental strength to go with his skills. He flopped at the 2009 world championships and again at the Vancouver Olympics. And with the title there for the taking last year after Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir stepped away, Abbott fell so flat he couldn't even make the world team.
But Abbott has had a major attitude adjustment, no longer caring what anyone else thinks and skating simply for his own enjoyment.
He took the ice with a rakish grin, popping his suspenders as he skated to center ice and fixing the audience with a wink. He opened up with a huge triple flip-triple toe loop combination that was silky smooth, and followed with a textbook triple axel. He was so light on his skates even Fred Astaire would have been jealous, and he oozed a playfulness that dazzled the audience.
The audience was on its feet before he finished, and Abbott couldn't have stopped grinning if he tried. When he heard his marks, he shook his head and said, "Unbelievable."
Abbott's performance would have been tough for anyone to top, and no one came close. In fact, most of the supposed contenders looked more like pretenders, with splats and spills galore. Richard Dornbush, last year's silver medalist, was a mess, botching every one of his jumps. Brandon Mroz, the runner-up in 2009, fell on a quad toe and also brushed the ice with his free leg on his triple lutz-double toe combination.
Rippon, however, lived up to the expectations.
Big things have been expected of Rippon since his spectacular junior career. He swept the major titles in 2008 — U.S., world and Grand Prix final — and followed it with another junior world title in 2009. But Rippon hasn't been able to duplicate that success as a senior, with fifth place his best finish at nationals.
"The expectations were hard to deal with at first," he said. "I felt like I was supposed to have the same success right away as a senior."
The struggles sent him bouncing from coach to coach in both Canada and the United States before he finally landed with Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen in Detroit last June. But it took a bit of a meltdown during the Grand Prix season before Rippon turned a corner.
"I didn't know who I was as a skater anymore," he said. "I put myself in their hands and just trusted them, and it's paid off."
For the first time in several seasons, Rippon looked like the budding star he was always supposed to be. His performance to Russian folk music was both refined and in perfect character. He opened with a huge triple flip-triple toe loop combination, and his triple axel was even more impressive. The jump has been his downfall — often literally — in the past, but he landed it with such solid edge quality and smoothness that kids learning how to skate should YouTube it.
He had the crowd oohing and aahing over his Rippon triple lutz, done with both hands above his head, and his Russian split jump brought down the house. Fans were on their feet before his music ended, and Rippon shook his fists. When he saw his score, a new personal best, Rippon threw his head back and threw a couple little roundhouse punches.
"I had felt a little defeated before the short program in years past and I said I wasn't going to do that today," he said. "I have to go out there and fight for my career. Not just against other skaters, but for myself. I need to do this to give myself confidence again and I'm just really proud of myself."
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