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HELENE ELLIOTT

Alissa Czisny hopes to conquer the worlds and her nerves

The reigning U.S. figure skating champion has all the skills but has had to work hard on improving her mental toughness.

March 27, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

Should Alissa Czisny's nerves take over during her short program today at the World Figure Skating Championships, should her mind again blank out the mechanics of jumps she has nailed thousands of times, she should know this:

The reigning U.S. champion must become stronger for this experience, whether she lands on one narrow blade with her trademark ethereal grace, as she did during her practice Thursday at the Convention Center, or if she falls in an inglorious heap as she did several times Wednesday.

The 21-year-old from Sylvania, Ohio, has battled jitters for years, conquering them often enough to provide tantalizing glimpses of swift spins and a mature, regal calm.

Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist who is part of her coaching team, was entranced when he first saw her.

"Oh my God, I thought she was gorgeous and had so much potential," he said. "It made me angry that she wasn't able to, as many times as she should, be able to pull it out."

Her third-place finish at the 2007 national championships was one of those wondrous moments, but she dropped to ninth in 2008 and seemed destined to be an almost-was.

She had no pressure at the U.S. championships in January when she presented a stunning short program to "The Swan" by Camille Saint-Saens. Her long program, however, was something less. So were her routines a few weeks later at the Four Continents event at the Vancouver Olympic rink, where she finished behind teammates Caroline Zhang and Rachael Flatt.

That made it entirely reasonable to wonder if her triumph at the U.S. competition had been real or a tease.

Her primary coach, Julie Berlin, attributed the Vancouver disappointment to physical and emotional fatigue.

"Her mental strength has been improving all year," Berlin said, "and we are hopeful that with good pacing and more experience that she will be able to skate to her potential at worlds."

Maybe she will.

"It's a growing time, but this is also the time to shine," said Boitano, who called her practice Wednesday her worst in years. "So it's hard."

But not impossible.

"She is mentally tough, but she needs to learn that she is mentally tough," Boitano said Thursday. "That's what we're trying to teach her how to do."

Nerves are her constant companion.

Now that her success has created high expectations -- Boitano likened it to being "all of a sudden thrown into water with piranhas" -- she's struggling to achieve a level of confidence and consistency.

"When you're younger, things just happen in competition and you don't really think about it," she said.

"Then you get to a point in your career where as you grow up you start thinking about the jumps and then you get more nervous for competitions."

As important as it is for her and Flatt to do well here and earn three berths for U.S. women in next year's Olympics, it's equally vital for Czisny to see this as a key step on the journey that separates good athletes from great ones.

Elizabeth Manley, the 1988 Calgary silver medalist, traveled the same road.

At 16, she finished a promising 13th in her worlds debut in 1982 but soon became so stressed that she abandoned the sport for a year.

She didn't win an Olympic or world medal from 1984 to '87 and fell six times in her long program at the 1987 World Championships.

"I couldn't get off the ice fast enough," Manley said.

She returned with a flourish, finishing second at the Calgary Games with a fearless performance that should have won gold.

So it can be done, and Manley hopes that Czisny realizes that a stumble now can forestall a misstep at the Olympics.

"I love her," said Manley, who's a commentator for the CTV network in Canada and saw Czisny compete at Skate Canada in October. "I understand how hard it is to come up in an expensive sport. I know her background and how tough it was for her to be able to get the ice time.

"I could see how much she wanted it and the love for the sport. It's from the heart with her. I've seen a lot of skaters rest on their laurels. But every time she steps on the ice she's got it in the heart. She's got the perfect attitude, the perfect personality."

All she's missing is the solution to her anxiety. Manley found hers and believes Czisny can too.

"I disappeared for a year and came back with a whole new outlook on the sport. There's a side of me that looks at her right now and makes me wonder if she's playing out the same thing that happened to me," Manley said.

"She's come back with a whole new outlook on the sport and how she handles things."

Czisny's performance here will define her career, for better or for nervous worse.

"I think she's setting herself up perfectly," Manley said.

The ideal result being not a perfect storm but a perfect calm.

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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