Evan Lysacek is an expressive athlete who spent years perfecting polished and elegant body language. His ability to channel emotion and couple it with athleticism on the ice carried him to an Olympic figure skating gold medal in 2010. Conversely, Lysacek does not have much of a poker face, and he looked worried when he spoke to a room full of reporters at the Olympic media summit in early October.
Worried but resolute, which was natural for an elite competitor who had won the mind-over-matter tussle many times. Lysacek fell and injured himself while training in August, but he had recovered from injuries efficiently before. The world saw a shrinking time frame to qualify for Sochi. He saw a deadline he thought he could meet by following a rational plan. But the torn labrum in his left hip didn't mend and became a literal thorn in his side instead, putting him at risk of permanent damage if he continued to stress it.
"As the training intensified, so did the pain," Lysacek told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.
The call came hours after Lysacek had announced via an appearance on NBC's "Today" and elaborated on in an interview with Nancy Armour of the Associated Press what had appeared inevitable as the autumn went on and he couldn't compete: He would not be able to defend his title in Sochi, and hasn't plotted any course beyond that.
"I'm still processing what's going on with my health, and that devastation will take me quite a bit of time to get over, mentally," Lysacek said during Tuesday's call. "I haven't looked beyond that. I want to get back on the ice. In what capacity, I don't know yet."
Many counted him out long ago, but Lysacek refused to let go of the ladder until late last week, when it became obvious he couldn't enter an event in Ukraine, the last possible competition that would have enabled him to earn the minimum technical score required to be in the Olympic mix. "I never let myself think about the possibility of it not working out," he said.
And if it had? Lysacek's biggest risk in returning was not the competition with other, younger skaters with better hops. It was the comparison he would have provoked with his younger self. The image Lysacek left on the ice almost four years ago was a sublime, game-winning fadeaway jumper.
He defied the predictions that skating's modern scoring system would favor the steeplechase style of his Russian rival Evgeni Plushenko over a more complete program. As a bonus, Lysacek ended the Olympic championship shutout for his indomitable coach, Frank Carroll.
Lysacek has not competed since, first by choice, then because of a dispute with the U.S. federation, then because of injuries and lack of form. All his chips stacked up on this season, and he said in some ways he put more effort into it than he invested in the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver Games. He was insistent that he had been on pace to compete to his own high standard. Lysacek injured himself practicing a quadruple jump, the trick he had won without in Vancouver but knew he had to have in his pocket for Sochi.
"Neither of us would have gone through what we did with the intensity we did if we didn't think I had a chance to win," Lysacek said of himself and Carroll.
His absence means the United States will send two far less decorated male skaters to the Winter Games. It may not mean the end of Lysacek's career, but if it does, it should be some comfort to him that he closed it with a performance that was nothing but net.