He was odd man out last year, the third guy in line for two tickets to the world championships. Another weekend like that and Jeremy Abbott would be watching the Olympics from a sofa this time and he knew it.
“I said my goal here this week was to keep it business and get the job done,” the three-time men’s champion said Friday night after he’d done exactly that to win the short program at the US Figure Skating Championships by nearly 8 points with a 99.86 effort.
On a night when a number of other contenders didn’t skate up to the mark, Abbott’s clean skate, highlighted by a flawless quadruple toe-triple toe combination, put him in ideal position to earn one of the two spots for the Sochi Games. Given the volatile mix of candidates, few of whom performed well during the Grand Prix season, anyone who can put two decent outings together has a chance to spend February in an ice house by the Black Sea.
The other two men who managed it Friday were Richard Dornbush, the 2011 runner-up who hadn’t done much since, and Jason Brown, who was eighth last year. Dornbush opened with a clean quadruple salchow and triple axel and stayed airborne, tacking on a later triple lutz-triple toe combination that earned him more points than the quad. “To say that I’m happy is an understatement,” said Dornbush, who posted a 92.04 score.
Brown didn’t try a quad but he hit everything else, most notably his opening triple axel and triple flip-triple toe. “Before I skated my coach told me, ‘This is the Olympic year,’ ” Brown said. “ ‘This is the time where you fight. You fight for whatever you can.’ ”
That will be the challenge for defending champion Max Aaron, in fourth place after doubling the back-end triple toe on his opening quad salchow combination. “The long program separates the men from the boys,” said the former hockey player, who came out of fourth last year to blow away the field. “I have the arsenal in the jump content.”
Aaron will try two quads in his free skate, while Abbott only will go for one. And anyone without a quad, like Ross Miner of the Skating Club of Boston, will find it difficult to make up ground. Miner, whose fall season was undone by an ankle sprain, shelved the quad out of pragmatism. But it was a popped triple axel that brought him to grief in the short despite a fine triple lutz-triple toe combo that subsequently earned him more than a dozen points.
“I wish I had skated a clean program, obviously,” said Miner, the only man who has made the podium in each of the last three years but who’s sitting now in eighth place. “The axel hurt me quite a bit. But I felt like I performed the program. It was exciting to skate in front of a home crowd.”
Miner will get another chance but he’s so far behind — more than 20 points astern of Dornbush — that he’d need a supernatural skate to get to Sochi. “Now, no matter what, I just have to skate for myself,” he concluded. “There’s really nothing to lose.”
Playing it safe for anybody won’t work in the long program, which is why Aaron plans to go for broke, as is his wont. “I just want to see the best of the best and whoever’s the best, let’s send them,” he said. “If it’s not me, great. If it is, awesome. I want to send the best men and that’s what I’m here for.”
Abbott was the best man four years ago when he knocked off world titlist Evan Lysacek, who went on to win gold in Vancouver while Abbott faltered. He won again in 2012 before Aaron and Miner outpointed him last year. This was Abbott’s last hurrah and he came here determined to display the fruit of what he said was a steady and methodical buildup. “Today you all finally got to see what we were working on,” said Abbott, who’d be the first man to win four titles since Todd Eldredge.
This was Abbott’s top-of-the-podium stuff, crisp and confident, and when the music stopped he exulted in a skating version of an end zone celebration. “I’m pretty damn happy,” he said. “I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.” If Abbott wants to stay top dog here, he has to do it one more time to earn best-in-show. But the beauty of the Olympic year is that the second-place ribbon is just fine. Lysacek proved that.