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Alissa Czisny's up-and-down career

Brilliant performances by the defending national champion too often have been followed by dismal flops.

January 20, 2010|By Philip Hersh

Reporting from Spokane, Wash. — From one point of view, Alissa Czisny's skating record over the past three years is more impressive than those of the other women seeking the two available places on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team.

Czisny, 22, is the only U.S. woman in the field at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships to have made more than one world championship team since 2007. In that time, she also won a U.S. title and was third in another nationals, when she won the free skate.

From another point of view, Czisny's record is so spotty many feel she has to win a second straight national title this week to make her first Olympics, because the selection criteria allow her inconsistent past to be the reason not to pick her.

She was an utter flop in both world championships, 15th in 2007 and 11th last year. And, after all, the latter finish primarily accounts for why the U.S. did not earn three women's spots in the 2010 Olympic field.

As she did at last year's nationals, Czisny often follows a performance of ethereal quality and technical mastery with one that leaves her painfully earth-bound, hitting the ice with all-too-regular falls and watching judges downgrade her jumps for under-rotation.

And then there is coach Linda Leaver's view of Czisny on the eve of Thursday's short program in the women's event, which ends with Saturday's free skate.

"She is on the cusp," Leaver said. "She wasn't on the cusp a year ago. When is she going to cross it? I don't know."

Leaver, who guided Brian Boitano to the 1988 Olympic gold medal, has been working with Czisny since a ninth-place finish at the 2008 nationals, when she skated with a cast on her hand. People told her to give up, and Czisny was ready to agree until realizing she loved the sport too much.

"Nobody believed in Brian, either," Leaver said. "People told me for years he wasn't going to make it.

"It's a long road, but Alissa is moving forward. She is going as fast as she can."

The competitive record still shows Czisny hit many bumps in that road.

In both her Grand Prix events this season, the Cup of Russia and Skate Canada, Czisny combined a strong short program with a messy free skate: one fall and three downgrades in Russia, two falls and three downgrades in Canada.

Her surpassing elegance goes only so far. There is nothing more graceless than picking your butt off the ice.

Czisny has been frustrated by her inability to do consecutive solid programs.

"I didn't know what it was that made me skate one really well and one not so well," she said. "When I decided I wanted to continue skating, I had to relearn how to compete. I think ever since then I have been able to put out much more consistent programs."

That too depends on standpoint. From Leaver's, there are other things than results. She sees Czisny doing many things consistently better.

"I'm into the details," Leaver said. "Her quality and technical difficulty are up, and she is able to do more of the harder content."

In last year's free skate at nationals, Czisny fell once and landed only three triple jumps, fewest by a U.S. champion in decades, winning the title by barely hanging onto a huge lead from the short program. This year, Czisny plans to try one more triple jump than the five in her program a year ago.

"She is a confident young woman now in ways she wasn't a year ago," Leaver said. "I used to think she was nervous, and it paralyzed her. Now I don't think she is a girl who freezes in the headlights."

Boitano, who delivered his finest performances when they counted most, at the 1988 Olympics, has been working with Czisny on her competitive mind-set.

"It is a work in progress, but we see progress," Boitano said. "It is still going to take time."

Czisny, of Bowling Green, Ohio, competed in her first senior nationals eight years ago. It took her six years to finish higher than seventh.

By then, she had embarked on a college career at Bowling Green that ended with a degree in liberal studies, summa cum laude.

"I love skating so much," she said, "it is something I want to do for the rest of my life."

No matter what happens this week, Boitano hopes Czisny keeps competing.

"There is no reason why she can't keep improving until her late 20s," he said.

And maybe taking the long view is what Czisny needs to succeed in the short term, with an Olympic berth on the near horizon.

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