IN A sport rife with princesses and preciousness, once in a while good old-fashioned pluck and patience is rewarded. It happened twice last weekend in Cleveland at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, as 21-year-old Alissa Czisny and 23-year-old Jeremy Abbott—two shy, stylish skaters who've been stuck in neutral for several years—jump-shifted to the top of the podium, winning their first national titles. � Czisny's victory was the more surprising, since it reversed the trend of women's skating crowning younger and younger champions. (Defending champ Mirai Nagasu, who finished fifth in Cleveland, was 14 when she won last year.) A senior at Bowling Green, Czisny was the second-oldest competitor in the women's field. A fixture at nationals for the last seven years, she had finished higher than seventh only once—she was third in 2007—a whiff of stardom that was smothered when Czisny finished ninth in '08. That poor showing nearly led her to quit the sport. Among those who helped talk her into believing she could become a champion: 1988 Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano and his longtime coach, Linda Leaver. "We told her: 'It will happen, and we won't let you quit until it happens,'?" says Boitano.
Known for her elegance and fabulous spins, Czisny had always struggled with her jumps. So she spent a month last summer working with Leaver and Boitano. Czisny also exchanged the hinged boots she had been using the past three seasons for a traditional pair that provided more ankle support. And Leaver, who talks to Czisny's coach, Julie Berlin, nearly every day, changed her training regimen to get her in better condition.
The results were breathtakingly evident during last Thursday's short program, in which Czisny blew the young fillies away with a score of 65.75 points, five points clear of the eventual silver medalist, 16-year-old Rachael Flatt. Czisny had never led a major competition after the short program, and the pressure showed on Saturday in the free skate when she fell once and landed only three clean triples to Flatt's six. But Czisny's artistic marks carried the night.
Abbott, too, had received help from a skating icon: Paul Wylie, another late bloomer. Wylie was 27 when he won silver at the 1992 Olympics—his first major international medal—and in October he told Abbott to be more assertive about what sort of skater he really was. A native of Aspen, Colo., Abbott had been drawn to the sport after seeing the artistic Robin Cousins, a former training partner of Wylie's, perform. Wylie told Abbott, who'd finished fourth at the last two nationals, to stop focusing so much on the quad, a jump Abbott can land with some regularity, and instead think of the entire package. You're an artist. Be an artist.
The boyish Abbott also has the good fortune of training in Colorado Springs alongside Brandon Mroz, 18, and Ryan Bradley, 25, who finished second and fourth, respectively, in Cleveland. All three are coached by Tom Zakrajsek, who encourages a competitive practice atmosphere, often having one skater go through all of his jumps while the other two keep score of how many are landed cleanly.
Everything is clicking for Abbott, as he is finally living up to the expectations heaped on him after he won the 2005 U.S. junior title. In December in South Korea, Abbott became the first American male to win the prestigious Grand Prix final, sending a message to Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir, who between them had won the last five U.S. titles, that the Evan and Johnny Show was about to close. On Friday night Abbott skated a perfect short program that put him nearly three points ahead of Lysacek and 15.64 ahead of the struggling Weir. The weight of holding such a commanding lead nearly got to Abbott on Sunday, but he maintained his composure, landing seven of his eight triple jumps while racking up artistic points at every turn. He finished 12.19 points ahead of Mroz. Lysacek was third.
With the world championships set for Los Angeles in March and the Vancouver Olympics a little more than a year away, Abbott's timing couldn't be better.