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Skaters return to one of their favorite venues

When the 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championships were here, Spokane became as much a part of the story as the electrifying battle for the Senior Men’s title and the lack of electricity in the Senior Ladies’ competition.

Spokane hospitality thrilled the fans, who bought a record 154,893 tickets to fill the Arena and the Convention Center even though it was a post-Olympic year. Their enthusiasm, in turn, thrilled the skaters.

The national championships, featuring 270 skaters at the Senior, Junior and Novice levels, return to Spokane for 10 days of competition beginning Friday.

“Even though I didn’t skate well, I have the most beautiful memories,” Johnny Weir said, recalling his third-place finish in 2007 after three straight national titles. “It’s the most beautiful little city and the greatest venue.”

SportsTravel magazine recognized the championships as the Sports Event of the Year for 2007.

“I can’t wait to get back there and feel that excitement again,” said Ryan Bradley, who was the last skater of the competition and brought the house down with a performance of a lifetime to win the Senior Men’s silver medal.

“It’s exciting, because it’s where it started for Keauna and I,” said Rockne Brubaker, who won Junior Pairs gold with Keauna McLaughlin. “We won our first national title together. I remember talking after the short program, there were 4,000- or 5,000 fans for short program (at the Convention Center) on like a Thursday afternoon. We like to feed off the audience.”

Senior level competition begins Friday with short programs for Pairs and Men. Pairs wrap up Saturday, men on Sunday. Ladies and Dance are next weekend. Tickets remain for all events, even though advanced sales of more than 140,000 tickets rank second to 2007. NBC is devoting more than 10 hours of weekend coverage to the finals.

It will be different this year, though, and not just because all competition will be at the Arena. No matter how wonderful the crowds are, the focus is on qualifying for the Winter Olympics next month in Vancouver.

“It’s no secret there’s more pressure in an Olympic year,” ice dancer Meryl Davis said. “Competing two to three weeks before the Olympics is definitely a little different than any other year.”

Although only the champions are guaranteed a spot on the Olympic team, this is the last competition in the process of selecting the team. The United States has three Olympic spots in Men and Ice Dance, two in Women and Pairs.

“It’s been difficult the last six months, everybody’s talking about the Olympics and Vancouver,” Brubaker said. “We went along with it, but part of what being an athlete is (not looking ahead).”

The main story lines haven’t changed.

Evan Lysacek and Weir are still doing battle in the Senior Men’s competition; the Senior Women are an even more unknown group than in 2006, unless, of course, Sasha Cohen makes an impressive comeback since her last appearance, which was a silver medal skate at the 2006 Winter Olympics; Brubaker and McLaughlin are now two-time defending Senior Pairs champions; and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are still the darlings of Dance, even though Davis and Charlie White are the defending champions.

The buzz three years ago was whether Lysacek could dethrone Weir, which he did with Ryan Bradley quietly sneaking past Weir for second. Expect their rivalry to continue, but Jeremy Abbott comes in as the defending champion – although Lysacek is the reigning World Champion. Brandon Mroz was second last year while Lysacek and Weir were third and fifth, with Bradley between them.

Weir vowed to make his presence known.

“Going back and performing for the fans in Spokane, I want to give them a treat,” he said. “I want to give them something beautiful and wonderful and great from Johnny Weir. I want to thank them for supporting me no matter what.”

More than the Lysacek-Weir rivalry has made the men’s competition more interesting.

“When people think of figure skating they think of Michelle Kwan … and pretty young girls doing beautiful spirals,” Bradley said. “The men’s part of the sport, I think, is definitely more athletic. We skate a lot faster, we jump a lot higher, we throw a lot more risk into our routines, and it’s just cool to watch.

“The guys, we’re going all out and trying things that maybe we shouldn’t be trying, but we’re going to try them anyway because we’re athletes. I think maybe that’s kind of caught the attention of the public.”

The drama among the Ladies is who is going to emerge and if that person has staying power. Erratic Alissa Czisny is the defending champion but was ninth in 2008 after finishing third behind Kimberly Meissner and Emily Hughes in Spokane.

Cohen’s presence changes that, although many are skeptical about her first competition since the last Olympics.

“I’m skeptical, I don’t know about anyone else,” Ashley Wagner, who was third as a Junior in 2007 and fourth in Seniors last year, said recently. “If she’s there, she’s there, if she’s not, she’s not. But I’m definitely not counting her out.”

“I think it would be really neat if (Cohen) came back,” Czisny said. “For me, it would difficult to come back after four years. I took a spring and summer off from competing … to take four years off is pretty impressive. It will certainly make it more exciting, more interesting.”

Belbin and Agosto had four straight Ice Dancing national titles and Olympic silver in ’06 but ceded their throne to Davis and White, who were third in 2007, by withdrawing last year because Agosto had a back injury.

“It’s very different going in not as underdogs,” Davis said. “We’ve always seen ourselves as underdogs. That’s not necessarily the case this year.”

It’s hard to imagine Belbin and Agosto as underdogs. Despite missing nationals, they were second in the last World Championships and won Skate America and Cup of China this season. Davis and White became the first American couple to win the Grand Prix Final (in December).

“I think it’s great, we can feel like the underdogs and fight for the top spot,” Belbin said. “We’re very proud of them … and very anxious to go up against them. That’s what we need to go into the Olympic Games.”

In recent years the same names have been on the podium for Pairs, though the order has been fluid.

Brooke Castile and Benjamin Okolski were the Spokane champions in 2007 when McLaughlin and Rockne were Junior champs.

In the two seasons since McLaughlin and Brubaker have ruled the Seniors, Castile and Okolski were third and fifth.

Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig were fourth in Spokane and again last year. Caydee Dennney and Jeremy Barrett became a factor last year, their first together, finishing second.

And then there are Rene Inoue and John Baldwin, who have been in the top three the past seven years with titles in 2004 and 2006, when they were fourth at the World Championships and seventh in the Olympics.

Though favored to make the Olympic team, McLaughlin and Brubaker have tried to remain focused on the task at hand.

“Training is training,” McLaughlin said. “You have to train the same way for every competition. We’re trying to take it one step at a time. We know if we prepare ourselves right mentally and physically we’re going to be OK.”