It has been, he says, like a gripping reality show with “constant developments, new characters constantly entered into the mix.” Evan Lysacek never left figure skating, but he hasn’t yet come back. With the Sochi Games only three months away, the reigning Olympic men’s champion hasn’t competed since he won the gold medal in Vancouver in 2010, becoming the first US male to do it since Brian Boitano in 1988.
A gilded sabbatical that included “Dancing With the Stars,” charity work, and exhibitions was followed by one physical setback after another: a groin injury, surgery for a sports hernia, then, in August, an abdominal tear and a torn hip labrum from what he described as a violent practice fall.
“Personally, I’m extremely disappointed,” said Lysacek, who had to be scratched from the Skate America competition for the third year in a row. “Obviously this injury has been trying. It’s been an arduous journey for me back to competition.”
While he’s making his way, the countdown clock is ticking. Though he has an automatic ticket to the January national championships at TD Garden as Olympic champion, Lysacek has to be one of the top two to make the team. And either before or after, he’ll have to earn enough points at an international competition in Europe by Jan. 27 to qualify for the Games.
Were Lysacek healthy and honed, it likely wouldn’t be a problem. Kim Yu Na, his female counterpart, took a year off and easily regained her world crown last season.
“I really have to chalk up the last year and a half to bad luck,” said Lysacek, “and hope that the luck turns around.”
Lysacek is by far the most decorated of the American contenders: Olympic and global titles, two other world medals, two US crowns, and six straight appearances on the podium between 2005-10. Only five other American men have prevailed at the Games: Dick Button, Hayes Alan Jenkins, David Jenkins, Scott Hamilton, and Brian Boitano.
‘It’s been an arduous journey for me back to competition.’
“It was and remains extremely surreal for me to see my name posted on that list,” said Lysacek, who dethroned defending champion Evgeni Plushenko to achieve it.
If he wins the gold in Sochi, Lysacek will be the first male skater to post consecutive Olympic victories since Button in 1952. Most champions since then have chosen to move on, and those who didn’t (Viktor Petrenko and Plushenko) were beaten in their bid for a reprise.
Lysacek, who’d mastered the art and science of piling up points under the complex scoring system that was put in place after the 2002 Salt Lake City judging scandal, earned the gold without attempting a quadruple jump, which Plushenko found appalling.
“If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump a quad, I don’t know,” the Russian three-time world titlist said after Lysacek had outscored him. “Because it’s not men’s figure skating, it’s dancing.”
Had Plushenko landed a simple loop jump at the end of his quadruple-triple-double combination, he would have kept his crown.
“Go for a clean program,” said Lysacek, who submitted a flawless one that night. “That’s been drilled into me for the last 10 years. That is what competition’s all about. Do what you can do.”
All of the other American contenders — defending champion Max Aaron, three-time titlist Jeremy Abbott, world teamer Ross Miner of the Skating Club of Boston, and Adam Rippon — have quads in both their short and long programs. Aaron, a former hockey player, has three in his free skate. If he lands even two of them and performs the rest of his program solidly, he’s difficult to outpoint.
Yet none of the US males has been able to land the quad consistently.
“There’s a trend of guys that are saying, ‘Well, I can’t land a quad in practice, but why don’t I try three or four?’ ” said Lysacek. “They’ve never landed a quad in their life but they’ll try four of them in their program and go down on every one because they’ll get more points for that than for a triple.”
Indeed, in this season’s first four Grand Prix events, the American competitors landed only two of their 19 quads cleanly.
It isn’t that Lysacek is a skating Luddite. When he won his first domestic title in 2007, unseating Johnny Weir, he did it with a quad-triple combo that the three-time champion couldn’t match. But the number of practice quads necessary to perfect the jump takes a toll on hips, knees, and ankles.
“These are still extremely high-risk elements,” said Lysacek, who hurt himself on a quad toe last summer and hasn’t been trying them in practice.
Trying them with a torn labrum is a ticket to surgery.
“I’ve learned over the last year and a half that I must follow my doctor’s instructions to a T,” said Lysacek. “So that’s what I’m doing.”
Even getting back to Olympus for a third time, much less winning another gold, will be an iffy odyssey for a 28-year-old who’d be the oldest men’s champion since Sweden’s Gillis Grafstrom, who was 34 when he won his third title in 1928.
“I’ve had many questions posed to me as to why I’m putting myself through this,” said Lysacek, who’d be the first American male skater to compete in three Games since Todd Eldredge.
“It’s been extremely trying dealing with the injuries and the subsequent surgeries that I’ve had over the last year and a half, but the truth is, I love skating, I love competing.
“This is the lifestyle that I’ve chosen. I accepted a long time ago that injuries are part of the lifestyle of an elite athlete and the lifestyle that I want to have and that’s why I’m doing this.”
For an Olympic champion, that lifestyle includes lucrative endorsements and red-carpet invitations. But its essence is the pursuit of a goal that only a handful ever reach.
“There’s an aspect of it that people can’t understand,” Lysacek mused during his sabbatical. “A sense of purpose that’s really unparalleled.”
Injuries and illness, however inconvenient, are part of the journey. Lysacek twice has had to withdraw from Grand Prix Finals with hip problems.
He came down with a stomach virus after the Olympic short program in 2006, when he rallied to finish fourth, and then withstood a bacterial infection to win bronze at the World Championships.
He had to withdraw from the 2008 global event after a broken-skate fall on a triple axel trashed the left side of his body, and then won the next year despite a stress fracture in his left foot.
The way he sees it, he can find a way to get to Boston and, then, to Sochi.
“My strength is in my age and my experience,” said Lysacek. “I’ve been in every position — up, down, and otherwise. The ability to adapt as an athlete is what makes a great champion.
“With great certainty, I can say that this season will bring a lot of obstacles, challenges, and curveballs for every one of us — and our ability to adapt is ultimately what’s going to determine our success.”