Monday, February 15, 2010

Wylie helping Abbott navigate Olympic minefield

At a U.S. men's press conference late last week, Evan Lysacek held court to the right, talking about his chances for gold despite a nagging left foot injury that isn't letting him train his quad. On the left, Johnny Weir dealt with reporters clamoring to hear about the pink bath mat he bought Olympic roomie Tanith Belbin.

In the middle, quietly fielding a smaller group, sat Jeremy Abbott, the man who has defeated both Lysacek and Weir at the last two U.S. Championships, the latter by more than 25 points.

The 25-year-old Aspen native is still operating a bit under the radar despite the quad toe he plans for his free skate and what some think are the best in-between moves and transitions in the business.

And Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist who knows a bit about exceeding expectations, thinks that's just fine.

"He feels good," Wylie, who has mentored Abbott for the past year, said. "He loves the village. He seems like he has a plan. He sounds really good, really balanced, which is hard to be at your first Olympics."

Wylie's road to the '92 Albertville Games, his second Olympics, was far different from Abbott's. The younger American is a past Grand Prix Final champion; Wylie was a controversial second at the 1992 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and many thought at age 27 his time had passed.

"I hadn't even been in the New York Times advance, because [veteran correspondent] Mike Janofsky didn't want to put my name in there and things like that," Wylie remembered. "I was overcoming a sense of outrage that I had made the team."

Wylie, who is in Vancouver providing commentary for NBC Universal Sports and Westwood One radio, is using the sum of his experiences in both Albertville and the 1988 Calgary Games to help Abbott navigate the Olympic minefield of pressure, nerves and excitement. So far, Abbott sounds like he's right on track.

"I've just been preparing for the Olympics the way I prepared for nationals," the skater said. "We made a few small changes to my free program [choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo to Saint-Saens' "Symphony No. 3"], added a second triple Axel.

"I love the ice here. I wasn't in love with it at Four Continents [last season] but they've done a great job with it. I love the color, and I'm happy with my practices. Earlier this week, at a short program practice, I marked through my short and did an entire free program with no music, clean, with both triple Axels."

The short was where Wylie made his mark in Albertville, skating clean while better-known skaters including Kurt Browning and Christopher Bowman faltered.

"That day was funny; I was really in a fog," he remembered. "I sat down with the American ski jumpers, one of whom lived in the neighborhood next to my neighborhood when I was growing up in Denver, and many of them were talking about their injuries that day - they'd fallen, they'd broken their collar bones, whatever. So at some point I thought life is good, I'm pretty safe doing what I'm doing.

"There was some genuine energy about me as a skater, and being at the Olympics, that you just sort of caught in the village. I went to the building and thought, I'm all right. I skated clean that night, and all of a sudden, dark horse that I was, people started to talk to me."

Wylie competed at the 1988 Calgary Games, placing tenth. That experience also helped him advise Abbott on how to compete in sports-crazed Canada.

"The electricity of the building, that's one thing I'm not sure these guys are expecting," he said. "Canada is probably the world's best skating audience. I think they're just going to rip the roof off.

"What I think about Jeremy is, as long as he expects it, he can be in his world. He has the points to beat [Evgeni] Plushenko; he was breathtaking [at the U.S. Championships] in Spokane. How do you train for this very moment? He's done it and he's doing it. You trust the process."

Abbott sounded like he was doing just that, sticking with the blueprint he and coaches Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen created when the skater moved to Detroit Skating Club to train last spring.

"We set goals early in the season," he said. "The plan was always to do two Axels. I'm sticking with the plan, sticking with the goal.

"For me, I don't feel any pressure to do the quad. I do it because I can do it and I want to do it. It gets so much attention, I suppose, because it's incredibly difficult and a lot of guys can't do it. I mean, rotating four times in the air and landing backwards on an eighth of an inch of steel is kind of impressive."

In Wylie's day, many skaters had two triple Axels in their free skate, but quads were rare and spins, steps and "in-betweens" were not as valued as they are under the International Judging System (IJS), in use since 2004.

Doing a quad, plus two triple Axels; a triple-triple combination; Level 4 contortionist spins and everything else demanded, all under the Olympic spotlight, is a tall order, but something Wylie thinks his protégée can accomplish.

"You have to be ambitious," he said. "Jeremy did the clean [long] program at nationals. I think the second Axel gives him something extra to shoot for.

"If you do a clean program, just doing another clean program is hard to do, but when you're reaching for something that's been a goal for a long, long time, it gets easier. That very program has been his goal for the last three years; he has the tools and he's building towards that."

Wylie then caught himself, realizing he was getting ahead of the game.

"First things first, the short program," he said. "It's a crowded field. Nine guys really can do it, and Jeremy is definitely one of them."

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