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It's Johnny by a hair in the short

Weir edges Lysacek by 1.35 points in war of nerves

Fans at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul are not shy about their love for Johnny Weir.
Fans at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul are not shy about their love for Johnny Weir. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/25/2008) - Redemption is one skate away for Johnny Weir.

Regaining the U.S. title on Sunday from Evan Lysacek would be sweet revenge for Weir, who collapsed in last year's free skate, relinquishing the title he had dominated for three consecutive years.

"This year I've changed so much in my life," said Weir, who won from 2004-2006.

"No matter how nervous I was, I didn't want to waste all that. I don't want to be the fluke kid. I don't want to be the kid who chokes under pressure. The second you fall down; they tear you down. I wanted to prove that the changes I made this season were the right ones."

There was little to criticize from Weir in his performance to music from Juno and Avos, a Russian rock opera. The 23-year-old skater opened with a fast and fluid triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, followed by an equally solid triple Axel and triple flip.

All three of his spin elements rated Level 4, and his two step sequences were elegant and relaxed.

Weir earned 83.40 points, the highest-ever total for a U.S. man's short program in national or international competition.

After losing the U.S. title last season and placing a disappointing eighth at 2007 worlds, Weir ended a decade-long relationship with his coach, Priscilla Hill, uprooted himself from the comforts of home and moved to Wayne, N.J., to train under Galina Zmievskaya, best known as the coach of Olympic champions Viktor Petrenko and Oksana Baiul.

"Last season, I was not prepared [for the U.S. Championships] at all; I wasn't training properly," Weir said.

"It was a very tough time for me after the Olympics. There was bad media. It was difficult mentally to tour the entire summer of '06, away from family and friends. There was a lot of personal stuff that went down, and I just never caught up.

"There was a lot of pressure on me to come back and skate well. My mojo was hurt."

After he nailed his short program, reporters asked Weir, who skated second in the first group, to stick around and watch Lysacek's performance.

"Uh, no thanks," he responded. "But from the bottom of my heart, no B.S., I hope he skates well. I hope he can get over the nerves of being the champion, trying to repeat. Let's make it interesting and throw all of the cards on the table."

Lysacek managed to stay close, but just barely.

The 22-year-old, who trains in California under respected veteran Frank Carroll, was a self-admitted "wreck" when he took the ice.

Like Weir, Lysacek was in the first group. Unlike his rival, he fell twice in the six-minute warm-up, including a crash into the boards.

"Today was so nerve-wracking, especially waiting all morning for the competition," Lysacek said.

"I give amazing props to Johnny. He's gone through this three times, and this is obviously my first. I was shaking. I owe everything to Frank; he sort of socked me in the face and said, 'Go!'"

Performing to music from the Zorro soundtracks, Lysacek's nerves showed in his first two elements. He two-footed the landing of his quadruple toe loop, and then doubled the second jump of the combination, an intended triple toe. His triple Axel landed slightly forward, and he had to fight to save the jump.

The defending champion redeemed himself in the later section of his program. Cutting loose and emoting at least as powerfully as Antonio Banderas, the leading man of the Zorro movies, Lysacek brought the crowd to cheers with his steps, gaining a rare Level 4 for his straight-line sequence.

He earned 82.05 points, including a technical elements mark of 43.38 and program components score of 38.67. In contrast, Weir gained 45.55 points in technical elements and had a 37.85-point program components score for his more subdued program.

"Hey, I stayed on my feet, and I got some good program components; I'll take it," Lysacek said. "I'll really have to make it happen in my long program now."

It is still either skater's title for the taking. Lysacek enters the free with a deficit of just 1.35 points -- about the value of a double toe loop.

Stephen Carriere will try to crash the party. The 2007 world junior champion, who trains in Boston under Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson, had a solid short to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," featuring a triple flip-triple toe combination.

"I did feel pretty confident," the 18-year-old skater said. "My training at home has been consistently good. I'm so happy I did the triple-triple; it's been a triple-double all season, and I've been kicking myself.

"My triple Axel was a little hesitant, so that's something to work on for Sunday."

Carriere earned 76.66 points, good enough for third place. He is 6.74 points behind Weir.

Two skaters who train in Colorado Springs under Tom Zakrajsek placed fourth and fifth.

Ryan Bradley, last year's surprise silver medalist, was fourth with a clean skate to music from The Godfather. He takes 74.20 points into the free skate.

"I had done 16 or 17 straight clean shorts at home, so I felt pretty good," the 24-year-old skater said.

"I didn't do a quad [toe loop] tonight, but I really want to go for it in my long on Sunday. I feel really trained; I wasn't tired at all after my program."

Jeremy Abbott fell out of both a quad toe loop and triple Axel in his program to Santana's "Treat," but he rebounded with a lovely triple Lutz-triple toe combination.

"I had planned a quad combination, and [the triple-triple] was my back-up plan," said the 22-year-old Abbott, who earned 73.28 points. "I fought tooth and nail for it."