Last night was the beginning of the televised coverage of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships which are, for the first time, taking place in Spokane, WA. The various events will be broadcast tonight, Saturday afternoon and evening and Sunday afternoon.
There must truly be something in the air or the water because the performances have been almost universally stellar.
In the absence of both Sasha Cohen and the legendary Michelle Kwan, this competition was wide open for the first time in about 15 years. World Champion Kimmie Meissner currently occupies first place after the short program, well ahead of one of my least favorite skaters, Emily Hughes who is in third place, behind the energetic, bubbling surprise Beatrisa Liang (who, by the way, has emerged from her teenage dorkiness, sans braces, and is suddenly a remarkably pretty young woman). The thing that made last night’s competition so enjoyable was the fact that all of the top women skated WELL. People are not placed in spite of their skating but because of it – thus making it a true competition. And much as I dislike Emily Hughes as a skater, even I must admit that she did a respectable job last night.
Three-time U.S. Champion and flake (that's my perception of him and I'm sticking to it) Johnny Weir skated a brilliant and, dare I say it, masculine short program last night that had me breaking into applause. When he concentrates on actual skating, Mr. Weir is quite simply brilliant. When he allows himself to be distracted by all his intellectual and artistic pretensions, he disappoints. Last night he was all business.
Mr. Weir’s extraordinary effort netted him 78.14 which was not enough to secure him first place after the short program. That honor went to Evan Lysacek who landed four clean triples, including a triple Lutz-triple toe combination and a triple Axel for a total score of 78.99 points. The only negatives were his spins, an area that most men tend to relegate to second consideration in favor of ever more spectacular jumps, leaving Mr. Lysacek in the unaccustomed position of being first after the short program.
The fun of the competition came courtesy of Ryan Bradley, 3rd after the short program, who staked his claim to a spot on the podium by smashing his personal best by more than four points with a score of 73.58. This is Bradley's 10th appearance at the U.S. Championships and his seventh as a senior, where his highest previous finish is sixth (2004). Bradley was dressed in a hideous outfit consisting of a bright yellow shirt, blue pants, orange suspenders and green tie with black polka dots and appeared to enjoy himself the most of all the competitors, smiling and playing to the crowd throughout his upbeat program. For those who are a little tired of men in sequins and lace, Bradley is your go-to guy!
Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto are in first going into the final phase of the competition and should win easily. I sense that they are experiencing a bit of a letdown after the intensity of the just-past Olympic year, which could explain the normally sure-footed Ben Agosto actually tripping during the Original Dance (a tango). Melissa Gregory & Denis Petukhov and Meryl Davis & Charlie White are likely to join them on the podium.
I couldn’t help but consider, while watching last night’s broadcast, that these athletes represent something that is too infrequently celebrated these days. The competitors at these championships have, on average, spent the majority of their free time since ages as young as 3 or 4, devoted utterly to the building of their skills on the ice and the emotional strength required to compete at this level.
This intensity and dedication is not something that can be forced upon a young person by a parent. As an aspiring skater “back in the day”, I watched parents attempt to intimidate, berate or shame their children into the kind of effort required to be a champion. It didn’t work. It cannot work. These young people come to this drive, this passion, this utter dedication on their own and they are mature enough to understand that their achievement is only possible due to the application of enormous quantities of work. Thus, the average skater spends most of their non-scholastic hours on the ice or in off-ice training (ballet, weight training, stretching exercises, psychological counseling to deal with performance anxiety, etc.). During the years that are supposed to be the most frivolous of their lives, they have time for 3 things: school, skating and sleep. And trust me, there are times when sleep takes a definite back seat to skating. Even someone as lacking in talent as myself found it impossible to sleep in on days when I had the opportunity to get some ice time at 6 a.m. so I could work on my school figures (Hey, I’m OLD – I did them and I think it was a mistake to jettison them).
What this sport (any sport pursued with some seriousness) builds in our young people is character and the ability to focus on a goal and work to achieve it. Skaters learn enormous self discipline. So to those elite media types who poopoo the idea of competition (because somebody has to lose and then they would feel BAD), let me just say one thing – you are wrong and you are stupid and shut the hell up! If a skater feels BAD because they’ve lost, they’ll do one of two things: quit the sport (in which case, they weren’t serious anyway) or work harder and working harder is the overwhelming choice. This is one of the ways worthwhile Americans are built and thank God for it.