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HELENE ELLIOTT

Men take a back skate to no one

Often overshadowed by the women, they wow the crowd during the men's short program competition at the World Figure Skating Championships.

March 26, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

For as long as sequins and spangles have been hot-glued to figure skating outfits, the women's competition has overshadowed the men.

The women routinely get national TV coverage -- their finale Saturday will be the only exposure NBC will provide from Staples Center this week -- while the men get consigned to late-night TV amid skin-care product infomercials.

The men shouldn't be considered second bananas anymore. These guys have some edge to them, and not just on their skate blades.

After a few days of sparring between France's Brian Joubert and Canada's Patrick Chan over whether 'tis wiser to quad or not to quad, the men took their act onto the ice Wednesday.

Joubert, better known for his powerful jumps than for his finesse, was saved by his spins and footwork in his short program. That unlikely turn put him in first place over Evan Lysacek of the U.S. by 1.7 points and Chan by 1.85 points.

Joubert botched his quad-triple combination by touching his hand to the ice on the quadruple toe loop and stumbling out of the triple toe loop. His edge was in the program component scores, generally called presentation marks.

Whether it was the result of judges liking him better or merely knowing him better -- "He's got much more experience at the world level," Chan said -- it threw another element of surprise into an event that began with no clear favorite.

Canada's Kurt Browning, a four-time world champion, questioned the judges' preference for Joubert over the fleet-footed Chan in their scores for skating skills and transitions but acknowledged Joubert's showmanship.

"Joubert went out there with a program that suited him and he sold it," Browning said. "Like he created his own moment out there, and that's part of what's so great about this sport. If we stop rewarding creating moments, then we kill the fans and kill the excitement."

Lysacek had his own moment, capably performing his "Bolero" short program with only a small deduction on the grade of execution for his triple flip because of a wrong edge takeoff.

The crowd loved this adopted son, who moved here from Chicago in 2003, lives in Hollywood and practices in El Segundo. Everyone loves a comeback story and he has lived one this season, losing his national title in January and dropping to third behind Jeremy Abbott and Brandon Mroz.

"I started sort of trying to rebuild since then," he said.

He put himself back together piece by piece, repairing the technique on his triple axel, adding agility to his footwork and freeing himself to enjoy his program instead of woodenly checking off elements one by one.

It was a solid performance, if not the great one that every skater hopes for. If he can produce a shining moment in the free skate tonight, the U.S. men will be all but assured of getting three berths at the Vancouver Olympics.

To qualify three skaters for the Games, the placements of the top two skaters (or duos) from each country must add up to 13 or lower. With Lysacek in the top three the pressure is easier for Abbott and Mroz, who need every bit of help they can get.

Abbott left the ice grimacing after a mistake-ridden performance that left him 10th and Mroz skated well except for an edge deduction on his triple flip and was a just-happy-to-be-here eighth in his first senior-level world championships.

For Abbott, the emotional baggage of winning the Grand Prix Final and U.S. titles were too heavy to handle. He said he was trying too hard to be perfect and lost the drive that had propelled him to this level.

"It was a blessing and a hindrance at the same time because I wanted that success and I wanted to have the same skates I had previously this season," he said.

"And I tried too hard for that instead of training to create a new moment and staying focused on what I needed to get done."

The U.S. men probably will accomplish their primary mission of earning those three Olympic spots. Their female counterparts will struggle to do the same.

Japan's Mao Asada and South Korea's Kim Yu-Na are the class of the women's competition, which starts Friday and could end with a third straight year of no American woman among the top three.

U.S. champion Alissa Czisny, prone to nerves, had a rocky practice Wednesday. That can't be a good omen after her poor performance at the Four Continents competition last month. Rachael Flatt of Del Mar, the other U.S. woman, remains a good jumper but is an incomplete performer and isn't likely to get high scores as a newcomer even if she deserves them (see Chan, above).

So the U.S. women could end up with two spots -- and wouldn't it be funny if those berths went to Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen, who are considering Olympic comebacks?

Now that would be interesting.

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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