SPOKANE, Wash. -- Coming into nationals, all the talk was about how tough the men's competition was going to be, how guys were really going to have to step it up.
They weren't kidding.
Jeremy Abbott, world champion Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir put on quite the show Friday night, letting the world know they'd better keep an eye on all the Americans in Vancouver. They may not do the big tricks like some of the other guys -- yet -- but their choreography and performance quality is, without a doubt, world class.
"It's not a cakewalk," Abbott said. "With such a deep field, there's extra pressure. You have to be on."
The Big Three most definitely were.
Abbott, last year's national champion, was in first with 87.85 points, four points ahead of Lysacek. Weir, a three-time national champion, had 83.51 points.
"It's a prestigious competition," said Lysacek, who won the U.S. title in 2007 and '08. "And it comes with some serious bragging rights."
Lysacek is all but assured of going to Vancouver, having won not just worlds, but last month's Grand Prix finals. But seven other skaters came to nationals with a legitimate shot at making the Vancouver team, and it was going to come down to whoever put it all out there when it mattered most.
There's still the free skate Sunday, but there's little doubt who the top guys are now.
Abbott discovered Jeff Beck's version of "A Day in the Life" when he was scrolling through iTunes and fell in love with it. He actually wanted to skate to it last year, and it's easy to see why.
"I feel like the program is just kind of an extension of myself. And more than myself," he said.
The bluesy, breezy number is the perfect complement to his fine edge quality and skating style, and it's easy to forget he's doing incredibly difficult tricks as he carries you along. His triple flip-triple toe was done with such calm and ease, it flowed like one seamless move. He picked up a couple of extra points by doing his triple axel out of steps and followed with an effortless triple lutz.
As soon as he landed his last required jump, a huge smile crossed his face.
"It was like an explosion inside and it just felt really, really good," Abbott said. "The rest of the program was just a blast. I had so, so much fun."
So did the audience, clapping along and oohing and ahhing over his intricate footwork and beautiful spins that had a little bit of everything: multiple positions and change of edges. The audience was on its feet before the last notes of his music had died, and Abbott shook his hands up and down, slapped them together and then gave a roundhouse punch in the air.
"I'm way more excited about this than last year," Abbott said, quite a statement considering he's the reigning U.S. champ. "I'm not worried about defending my title. My goal is to be one of the top three men and represent the United States at the Vancouver Olympics."
Artistry has been Lysacek's strength in recent years -- few can interpret music like he can -- but he's taken that to a new level since winning the world title in March. He skates with a command and confidence that brings his characters to life. When he did his footwork, his blades danced across the ice as if possessed by magic. The powerful beats of his "Firebird" music were punctuated by bold movements, everything he did was one with the notes.
His only flaw was on his opening triple axel. The rink isn't as wide as the one he practices on at home, and he stepped out of his landing as he came dangerously close to the boards.
"That happens," he said. "I'm big."
Weir would have seemed a lock for the Olympic team 18 months ago, the bronze medalist at the 2008 world championships and a fixture on the international scene. But he found himself shoved to the sidelines after his dismal performance at last year's nationals in Cleveland, missing the world championships for the first time since 2003.
When they were in his home country no less.
Weir was so devastated he actually contemplated quitting, a thought that seemed incomprehensible Friday night after perhaps his best short program in two seasons.
"When you have the audience standing, screaming for every element, to have that kind of energy ... it's the most amazing sensation as a competitive sportsmen," he said afterward, still in awe. "It made me regret even thinking about not even trying."
His "I Love You, I Hate You" program was a perfect blend of his soft elegance and his commanding presence, showcasing his considerable versatility.
The first half was all business -- if you're a fashion house in Milan. The jumps were strong and secure, but done with long edges in lyrical style. But when the tempo of his music changed, so did his persona. His muse, Lady Gaga, would surely approve of his vamping, as he put one hand behind his head and flirted with people in the first rows. His footwork made the fans' hearts race, and he finished with the perfect Johnny Weir flourish, spinning so quickly the pink tassel hanging off his left shoulder was a blur.
"This is right up there," Weir said of where this performance ranked. "... It's absolute revenge for me to come back and be strong."
Earlier Friday, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett were by far the class in a messy pairs competition. Two-time champs Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker are in seventh after two major errors and a couple of minor bobbles.
Last year's surprise silver medalists, Denney and Barrett attacked their short program with confidence and attitude Friday, something the rest of the field might want to try. Two-time defending champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker were disastrous, making two major errors and a couple of smaller bobbles and tumbling all the way to seventh place heading into Saturday's free skate. 2006 Olympians Rena Inoue and John Baldwin weren't much better.
Safe to say the Chinese and Germans won't be losing sleep over this stumblefest.
Denney and Barrett have 63.01 points, about a point in front of Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, whose best finish at nationals was sixth two years ago. Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, fourth last year, are third heading into Saturday's free skate. Inoue and Baldwin are fourth, while McLaughlin and Brubaker are a whopping 10-plus points behind Denney and Barrett.
Who says skating results are predictable?
"I'm not going to lie, I'm upset," said McLaughlin, who fell on their side-by-side triple salchows and fell on their death spiral. "I've got a fire lit inside of me. I'm going to go out and be aggressive, and I'm not going out without a fight."
She'd better if she and Brubaker want to make it to Vancouver next month. The United States can send only two pairs to the Olympics, though selection is based on several events, not just results at nationals.
"I was disappointed," coach John Nicks said. "It did not go as well as hoped; it did not go as well as planned."
Denney and Barrett, meanwhile, have the look of a team on a mission -- right down to those flame-red extensions in her hair.
The duo pulled off a major upset last season, winning the silver medal after all of six months together. That's a stunning ascent in a sport where it usually takes years to develop the seamless unison and chemistry of a champion pair, and they continued to soar Friday.
"We felt pretty comfortable out there. And surprisingly very calm," Barrett said. "So we're looking forward to tomorrow."
They look as if they've been together for a decade, landing their side-by-side triple toe loop jumps in perfect sync and right on the beat of the music. They were a little out-of-unison at the beginning of their side-by-side spins, yet looked like mirror images after only two revolutions.
But what really sets Denney and Barrett apart is their power, strength and go-for-broke attitude. There are plenty of skaters who would back off and play it safe in an Olympic year. Not these two. They're still doing a throw triple flip, a jump few couples try because it's so hard to get the hang time that makes it look cool.
And Denney must be part cat. She was crooked in the air of the flip, yet landed it with textbook ease.
"Caydee doesn't really miss too many throws, even if she's in a lean," Barrett said. "She's just so used to landing them."
The tough tricks don't slow them down, either. They flew around the rink like that mythical Firebird, the music they skated to.
"I love doing pairs so much, I want to show everyone what we can do," Denney said. "It's fun."
Yankowskas and Coughlin had a ball, too. They landed all of their elements, their only noticeable error an out-of-sync side-by-side combination spin. Evora stepped out of their side-by-side triple toe loops and had to take a step forward when she couldn't hold the landing on the throw triple loop.
Asked how the two relatively unknown couples will fare against the veterans behind them, Ladwig answered for him and Evora and Yankowskas and Coughlin.
"We are veterans," Ladwig said.
Indeed, they were able to handle the pressure, unlike McLaughlin-Brubaker and Inoue-Baldwin.
McLaughlin and Brubaker started strong, doing a gorgeous split triple twist that sent her soaring high above the ice. But that was their lone highlight. In addition to her falls, he had a slight misstep on their footwork, and they were going in completely different directions as they came out of their side-by-side spins.
"We've been practicing really well all week. But after the mistake on the salchows, we got a little tentative," Brubaker said. "You can't skate afraid."
Inoue and Baldwin broke out their throw triple axel for the first time in two seasons, but Inoue slipped off her edge as she landed, sending her tumbling to the ice. And Baldwin found a new way to mess up in his 24th appearance at the national championships -- counting his singles career, he's been coming since 1986 -- stepping out of their side-by-side combination spin.