Heated competition expected among men's field

January, 12, 2010

The U.S. Figure Skating Championships begin Friday in Spokane, Wash., and if the focus isn't on the men instead of the women, it should be.

Although only two U.S. women figure skaters will compete at the Olympics next month (and may not medal for the first time in a half century), the men will send three skaters with what may be the Americans' deepest team in recent memory. There are no U.S. women ranked in the top eight in the world, but there are three American men in the top eight -- reigning world champion Evan Lysacek is No. 1, Jeremy Abbott is third and Johnny Weir is eighth. There also are several strong skaters below them.

"In my memory, the men have always been the most exciting event for the national championships," Weir said. "Of course, we had Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen, but that's two ladies. ... It always seemed to be someone versus Michelle Kwan. But with the men, the top six men could all win, and to me, that's what makes a great event.

"No disrespect to Michelle Kwan -- she did an amazing thing, and she was always better prepared and skated better than everyone else, but it kind of got a little boring for the people sitting at home watching. For the men, it was always a catfight. That's what always drew me to the men, and thank God I'm competing with them. It's so intense and so exciting, and everyone is trying to outdo each other. It should always have been in the spotlight."

"When people think of figure skating, they think of Michelle Kwan and they think of that ladies event and pretty young girls doing beautiful spirals," said Ryan Bradley, who finished fourth at nationals last year. "So it's really cool because the men's part of the sport is a lot more athletic. We skate a lot faster; we jump a lot higher; we throw a lot more risks into our routines. It's just cool to watch. When you see the girls skate, you'll see a lot more clean programs because they're doing what's more in their comfort zone. With the guys, we're going all out and we're trying things that maybe we shouldn't be trying, but we try anyway because we're athletes."

Weir said all the competition is making the men better.

"Everyone is trying to outdo the other competitors no matter what country we're from," he said. "The fact that we're all from the same nation, it pushes us to be better, it pushes us to think during practice, 'Maybe Evan is doing something in practice, maybe I'm slacking off and maybe I need to grab my game back and grit my teeth.'"

The championships are being stretched out over two weekends, with the men's short program Friday and free program Sunday. The pairs skating is Friday and Saturday. The women's and ice dancing finals are next weekend.

Lysacek and Weir finished fourth and fifth, respectively, at the 2006 Olympics, but Lysacek has been more successful recently. It was Lysacek who guaranteed the men three spots in the Olympics by winning the world championship in the spring. Weir didn't compete at worlds last year and briefly considered quitting the sport before rededicating himself to it. Asked whether he's slipped out of the spotlight, Weir replied, "In no way do I think I stopped commanding a spotlight; I think I travel with one."

By the way, I'll have a big and hopefully fun feature (including video) about Weir later this week. I've cycled with Floyd Landis, batted off a major league pitcher, competed through the cold, mud, freezing waters, flame and electrical wires of the Tough Guy competition, but the most intimidating challenge yet was getting a pedicure and manicure with Johnny at a Fifth Avenue salon in Manhattan. Be sure to look for it Thursday.

Jim Caple | email

ESPN Senior Writer
Author of "The Devil Wears Pinstripes" and winner of a Sports Emmy. Reported from 17 World Series, 9 Olympics, 6 continents.


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