Abbott makes last stand at nationals

BOSTON -- Jeremy Abbott does not have the fondest memories from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. And not just because he had tickets to both U.S.-Canada hockey games but was unable to attend them.

Abbott earned his spot on the Olympic team by winning the U.S. figure skating championship with a record-setting performance against fellow Olympians Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir. Things did not go so well at the Olympics, however, with such a bad performance in the short program that he said it left him feeling numb.

Then he had to face the media hordes in the mixed zone, where skaters walk their way through a long wave of TV rights-holders and reporters waiting in clusters somewhat divided by nation or language.

"I went through all the different countries and then I got to the final station, which was the U.S.," he said. "They started to interview me and, at that moment, it struck me. I had to leave the interview and walk to a corner. I collapsed on the floor and just started crying. This was the one thing I had dreamed of my whole life. I had skated that routine clean hundreds of times, countless times. Every day. And I just watched it disintegrate."

Abbott won the 2012 U.S. championship but finished third last year after dealing with a back injury. The 28-year-old three-time U.S. champ has decided this will be his final season of competition -- "I'm old," he said -- and hopes to go out with a fourth U.S. title and a trip to the Sochi Olympics.

"It would mean a lot. It would mean redemption for Vancouver, redemption for myself and the season I've had, and just kind of reassurance of all the work we've put in," Abbott said. "The last two seasons we've completely restructured my training, me and my support team, and we've seen the progress. I believe in the work we've put in and I believe it will pay off.

"I'm putting it all out there, for what it is, good or bad. I want to walk away from this sport with no regrets."

Will Abbott's last steps take him to Sochi? Unlike four years ago when there was Abbott, Weir and Lysacek, there are no clear favorites to make the Olympic team at these championships. There is also one less spot. The U.S. men have only two berths for Sochi, the fewest since the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.

The top competitors battling Abbott for those two spots are 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, Adam Rippon, Jason Brown, Richard Dornbush, Ross Miner and Joshua Farris.

Rippon was at the 2010 championships in Spokane, Wash., but finished fifth. He said he felt like "the baby" (he was 20) while trying to make that team but confidence is no longer an issue. He was second at both nationals in 2012 and Skate America this past fall, and believes this could be his time for the U.S. title.

"This time, I believe it in my very core that I belong there," Rippon said. "I belong being the front guy going into the Olympics. I try to train every day with that sort of confidence and that sort of demeanor, but without any arrogance about it. I try to set that out, like I mean business."

Aaron, meanwhile, won the U.S. title last year, but hasn't skated well since. "It's been a very poor year and I've expected more of myself," he said. "But it happened and you take what you've got and learn what you can from it."

One thing Aaron learned was that three quads is one too many, so he dropped back to two in his free program. He still sees the quad as being crucial, though.

"Any of the men we send to Sochi will have to have a quad," he said. "If any man doesn't have a quad, he can still be up there [on the podium], but you have to have another man miss a quad. It's super important now that everyone is starting to do the quads."

Don't tell that to Brown, a rising 19-year-old star who finished third at a Grand Prix event in Paris this past fall. He does not have a quad in his routine yet and takes comfort in the knowledge that Lysacek won gold in Vancouver without one.

"It's not always about that one jump," Brown said. "It can help, but I don't think it's the deciding factor all the time. [Lysacek] is a great role model for that scenario."

Abbott has the quad in both of his routines, but cited the jump when talking about his decision to retire this year.

"There are these 16-, 17- and 18-year-old kids who are doing like five, 10, 15 quads in their programs," he said. "And when you're young, you can put your body through that. Being 28 years old, I just can't. For me, having a quad in the short and a quad in the long is kind of my ceiling, because I physically hurt. I ache and I'm sore and I'm tired and I'm old.

"I know that I have a very small window and I want to seize the moment and walk away with what I have."

Rippon said he has always admired Abbott's skating and that he's had a great career, but added that he is going to beat him here. That's the attitude you want in a champion and Olympian -- whoever those will be after this weekend.

"There's so much talent -- the future of men's figure skating in the U.S. is very bright," Abbott said. "I know that we're kind of at a low point now, but everything is cyclical. Just because we didn't have a great Grand Prix season doesn't mean we won't be represented well at the Olympics or the world championships.

"Certainly watching the men coming up is phenomenal. Once I step away, I know I'm leaving it in good hands."