Never say never: Abbott seeks dream performanceU.S. champ tries to stay organized; Brown glad he decided to go senior
Jeremy Abbott hopes saying bye-bye to never-never land will lead to a big hello to consistency.
The four-time U.S. champion has had more-than-solid practices here, reeling off triple Axel-triple toe combinations and quadruple toe loops. His programs are polished and fully trained; his choreography intricate and interesting.
But when it came time to deliver in the team event short program, Abbott fizzled, scoring just 65.65 points, more than 30 points lower than at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston last month.
"I think it's all in the preparation in your day leading up to [the competition], and mine was a little scattered," the 28-year-old skater said at a press conference earlier this week. "And we all saw I was still a little scattered on the ice."
So he and his coaches, Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen, streamlined his daily schedule. He's temporarily moved out of the Olympic Village and into a hotel. Everything has been restructured so that these Games feel more like just another international competition.
"It's very easy to lose time, lose any structure in the village," he said. "When I first arrived, I was there with a handful of my best friends, all living the dream. It felt like summer camp instead of the Olympic Games. It was like Neverland. It's an amazing feeling, but it's not conducive to my competitive needs."
Now, he proclaimed his daily routine operates like "a Swiss watch."
"Everything is organized, together; no other thoughts are intruding," Abbott said. "For me, the biggest challenge is organization, making sure everything is together and on point."
"It's rare in life you get a second chance at something, so I'm happy and pleased and blessed," he added.
Abbott's mindset may need a reset button, but as he has shown in practices here that his jumps and programs do not. He arrived in Sochi in what he called the best shape of his life. His athletic trainer, Britta Ottoboni, sees him for regular sessions, using a series of day and guest passes to get where she needs to be.
"[Ottoboni] is like MacGyver; she's holding me together with rubber bands and paper clips," he laughed.
Physical preparation has not yet been enough to carry Abbott, who placed ninth at the 2010 Vancouver Games, to a dream Olympic performance. This time, he's not even going to try.
"You always dream of having that perfect Olympic performance," Abbott said. "For me, it's [more] about staying in the moment through the competition -- one element at a time -- [than] making some big expectation for myself. A successful Games for me would [be] just to do my job."
Jason Brown, the 19-year-old U.S. silver medalist, is at the other end of the spectrum. He and his coach, Kori Ade, plan no changes in the skater's programs or training, instead targeting better grades of execution (GOEs) for elements.
"The program I did at the U.S. championships was not surprising to me," Brown said of the Riverdance free skate that has garnered close to 4 million views on YouTube. "I've done that every day in practice. I feel there is so much more I can put out there.
"When I got off the ice [in Boston], Kori said, 'It was good but not your best. This was slow, this was two-footed.'"
Brown has come a long way in a few months, and he's not about to apply the brakes now.
"At the beginning of the year, there was some debate whether I should skate junior or senior," he said. "I still had one more year of junior eligibility. I did not have a quad, and there was huge talk at the beginning of the season that you couldn't medal on the Grand Prix without one."
"Eventually [that talk] got to me, but deep down in my heart, I knew I wanted to go senior," Brown added.
Brown's independent-minded coach scoffed at the idea of another year in the junior ranks and pushed her student forward.
"People at USFS (U.S. Figure Skating) suggested he stay junior; I don't think they wanted too many great guys on the leaderboard," she said. "They also, of course, want skaters to bring home medals. We were told if he had the junior world title, it would be important to his career. Once he was over the initial decision to go senior, he was able to put his mind to the task."
A bronze medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy in September helped build Brown's confidence, and it grew with a second-place short program at Skate America (where he finished fifth overall) and bronze medal at Trophée Eric Bompard.
"He saw he could put out programs that hold their own on the international scene," Ade said. "I had it in the gameplan all along; I felt he could be here in Sochi. I know how consistent he is and how well trained he is."
It's Chan versus the world
Patrick Chan, Canada's three-time and reigning world champion, should be a clear favorite for gold. A so-so performance in the team short program in Sochi, and blazing practice sessions from Japanese champion Yuzuru Hanyu -- who defeated Chan at the Grand Prix Final in December -- have many observers thinking twice.
"Many people talk about Hanyu and me because we've been first and second all season," Chan said at a press conference shortly after he arrived in Sochi. "I have to focus on myself. That's what I've been focusing on and not busying myself with thinking about how the others are training."
In the mixed zone after the men's team short, Chan shrugged off Hanyu's impressive 97.98-point program, saying it was nothing he hadn't seen before. But Chan also said he had to "be more aggressive going into his jumps, attack it more mentally."
Abbott, who trains alongside Chan at the Detroit Skating Club (DSC) and calls the Canadian a friend, offered some insight into Chan's conflicted competitive persona.
"I think it's probably the same with every athlete: Doubts drive us to succeed," Abbott said. "If we were all confident, we would all be complacent. There is always a chance of success, always a chance of failure. That's what drives every athlete to work harder for success."
Chan's list of rivals doesn't end with Hanyu. The Japanese teen's training partner in Toronto, two-time Spanish European champion Javier Fernández, has had an up-and-down season but is more than capable of pulling out three-quad free skates.
Brian Orser, who coaches Fernández and Hanyu in Toronto, said his 22-year-old Spanish pupil has recovered from the boot problems that plagued him earlier this season and is fit and ready to go in Sochi.
"He had an issue [with boots] during the Grand Prix," Orser said. "His events (NHK Trophy and Rostelecom Cup) were too close together, and he didn't get the chance to come home and fix the problem."
In new boots, Fernández placed fifth at NHK and third at Rostelecom.
"My skates weren't right; I wasn't training 100 percent because I couldn't do my jumps properly," the skater said. "I was really afraid about what was going on, whether it was something in my head."
Fernández and Orser returned to an old pair of boots, using packing tape for added support on the top. The Spaniard wore them in Budapest in January, when he won his second European title, and he's wearing them in Sochi.
"[Before] it would take me a lot of energy to do my quads," Fernández said. "I would do one quad out of five tries -- that's not me. When I changed to my old skates, I was landing five out of five."
Fernandez certainly doesn't have a perfect success rate on his quads in his sessions here, but the Spaniard is well known for competing far better than he practices.
"I am not concerned," Orser said. "Javi is where he needs to be. He has better balance now and trusts his feet. At Europeans, his skates were lost (by an airline), and he didn't do a quad all week. But when it comes down to it, he's pretty reliable."