IT WASN'T until his final combination spin, with the audience already rising to its feet, that 23-year-old Evan Lysacek stepped out of character. Curled in a tight ball, whirring like a dime on a tabletop, he raised his fists from within the blur and began to pump the air in excitement. Skating before fans in his adopted hometown last Thursday at Los Angeles's Staples Center, Lysacek had landed eight clean triple jumps and performed a near-perfect long program, propelling him to his first world championship.
The win put the tall (6'2"), laid-back Lysacek in select company. In the last 30 years only Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and Todd Eldredge had won a men's world title for the U.S, and Lysacek's win ended a 13-year drought. Hamilton and Boitano went on to win Olympic gold, and Lysacek is now positioned as the man to beat in Vancouver in 2010. "It's been a slow build for me this season," he said. "But I love skating in this building, and when I got here I felt an aura of calm and confidence."
Time was when the women carried the torch of hope for the U.S. at every Olympics, but not anymore. Last week marked the third straight year that no American woman made it onto the podium at worlds, the first time that's happened since the three-year period following the 1961 plane crash in which the entire U.S. figure skating team perished. No one seems to be able to explain it—the best finish by an American woman in L.A. was 16-year-old Rachael Flatt's fifth—but the excellence of the Korean and the Japanese women has a lot to do with it. South Korea's Yu-na Kim, 18, who won the title on Saturday, became the first woman to score more than 200 points, with a 207.71 total. Her win ended the two-year Japanese reign of 2007 champion Miki Ando and the '08 champ, Mao Asada. Said Canada's Brian Orser, coach of the sublimely talented Kim, "Once in a while the American women have to let the rest of us take over for a bit."
In Vancouver the U.S. medal hopes will rest with ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who finished second in L.A., and with Lysacek. Few people thought the Chicago native was on the verge of a breakthrough after he'd finished third at U.S. nationals in January, but since then he'd worked on changing his long program, skated to Rhapsody in Blue. After finishing second to Canada's Patrick Chan in the Four Continents championship in February, Lysacek went to Toronto, where for six hours a day he trained with his choreographer, Lori Nichol. "Skating to Gershwin is supposed to look easy, and I was using staccato arm movements and making it look hard," Lysacek says. "I had to let go of the tension and capture the freedom of it."
The hours of extra work caused a stress fracture in his left foot, however, which meant he couldn't do the quadruple jump he'd landed flawlessly at Four Continents. To make up for those lost points, Lysacek knew every other element in his program had to be perfect. His practices, usually four hours a day, were cut to two 25-minute highly concentrated sessions in the last two weeks. Said Lysacek, "I credit my coach, Frank Carroll, for reminding me I wasn't the first athlete to compete with an injury, or to win with one, and to embrace the pain."
By Thursday night, if there was any pain left to embrace after his seamlessly fluid free skate, it didn't show on Lysacek's face.