ST. LOUIS -- Timothy Goebel entered these U.S. Championships knowing they'd be his last.
Now, he's hoping it's not his competitive farewell.
Goebel, the 2002 Olympic bronze medalist, will skate Saturday afternoon in an effort to earn a trip to his second Winter Games. But he finds himself in the difficult position of having to rebound from a fifth-place showing in the short program Thursday.
"The Olympics are just an awesome experience," Goebel said. "I've really stayed in these last four years to hopefully get a spot on the team. Hopefully, I'll get it done this week."
Goebel trails leader Johnny Weir by 13.01 points, but he's only about four points out of medal contention.
"Four points is nothing in the long program," Goebel said.
To get an idea of how small a margin four points is in the big scheme of things, consider this: Goebel will attempt a quadruple toe loop in the opening moments of his routine, and that's worth nine points itself. Of the four men ahead of him in the standings, only Weiss has a quad planned in his long program and Weiss has never executed a clean one at nationals.
Three men will earn a spot on the team in Torino largely based on their performances in the finals Saturday. The champion automatically gets one of those spots.
And, as skating fans witnessed Friday evening in the pairs competition, it's possible under this new system for a fourth-place team to vault into first.
"I've stayed around the last four years to try to make it back to the Olympics, not necessarily to get a medal," Goebel said. "Medaling at the last Olympics was a huge honor. The Olympic experience as a whole is something I want to experience again, everything from opening ceremonies to the closing ceremonies, being part of a wonderful team. We were the most successful winter team ever. To be part of that was such an awesome experience and a huge honor.
"I put the work in. I hope I get it done this week."
Some of his fondest memories from Salt Lake City have nothing to do with skating. He got a chance to meet U.S. gold medalist Tristan Gale, and they have maintained their friendship since. He also got to enjoy the Games as a spectator, attending short-track speedskating events and hockey games. After winning the bronze, he was flown via a private jet along with U.S. snowboarder Chris Klug to appear on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
"You can get used to that kind of travel real fast," Goebel said.
If Goebel plans on jet setting again, he's going to have be high flying on the ice.
Goebel knew the competition for those three spots was going to be fierce with Weir, world bronze medalist Evan Lysacek and two-time Olympian Weiss in the field.
But he probably didn't realize his toughest competitor was going to be himself.
Goebel, who was nicknamed the "Quad King" early in his career for performing seemingly effortless quadruple jumps, landed three in one program in Salt Lake City. With the new scoring system, it's not worth the risk for skaters to try so many quads now, but Goebel would have been happy to land the only one he had planned in his short program. Goebel also stumbled out of the landing on a triple axel.
As much as Goebel has Torino on his mind at these nationals, he's trying to soak in the experience, as well. He made his debut at the U.S. Championships in 1994, winning the novice men's title. Five years later, he earned his first trip to the world championships.
At the 2000 nationals in Cleveland, where he was the hometown hero (he was training there with Carol Heiss Jenkins and Glyn Watts at the time), he became the first skater to land three quads in one program there. The next year, he captured his first and only national title.
"I've learned a lot about myself," Goebel said. "It's been a wild ride with some ups and downs."
Four years ago, Goebel became the first American man to win an Olympic medal since Brian Boitano captured the gold in 1988. Goebel landed three quadruple jumps in his free skate to land on the Olympic podium. He followed up his Olympic experience by winning the world silver medal.
He continued to have success the following season, but then he began to battle endless boot problems and injuries. In the 2004 nationals, he skated so poorly that he finished 10th in the short program. He wound up withdrawing from the championships, but problems persisted. Goebel and coach Frank Carroll had so much conflict that Carroll wound up firing his prized pupil.
So, Goebel left California and headed to Fairfax, Va., to train with Audrey Weisiger. This season, he also made another significant change: he decided to have Tatiana Tarasova design his programs instead of working with his longtime choreographer and confidant Lori Nichol.
Goebel, who has taken some college courses over the last few years, is hoping to resume his academic career once he hangs up his competitive skates. He said he plans on taking some time off and probably won't return to college until the fall of 2007, but said it is definitely a priority.
"I'm going to miss it, but at the same time, I'm happy to be done with this part of my career," Goebel said.
Just because he's heading in a new direction in his life doesn't mean he'll stay away from the sport. He hopes to remain involved in skating, possibly as a technical specialist -- a person who works on the judging panel.
"I've competed under the [new] system," Goebel said. "None of the other current callers have done that."
At the moment, he's more concerned about how he'll fare on the ice.
Said Goebel: "It's not over yet."
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.