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John Blanchette: At least in Spokane, pigs fly

Sun., Jan. 17, 2010, 9:47 p.m.

Abbott hits another high point

Perhaps it’s time for a seat upgrade on Jeremy Abbott’s flying pig.

That familiar take on limitless possibilities has been the 24-year-old skater’s inspiration since before he won his first national title as a junior in 2005, to say nothing of a motif for his fan club. And given that he eventually ascended to a Senior Men’s championship a year ago, it’s reasonable to say that the pig has flown – at least intermittently.

On Sunday, it soared.

So accomplished, deep and competitive was the men’s field assembled for the afternoon free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that it didn’t seem at all ridiculous to imagine paper-scissors-rock being used to break ties and settle the medals – and the berths to the Olympic Games.

Instead, they could have used a mercy rule.

Starting with a flawless quadruple toe loop, Abbott blew away the likes of reigning world champion Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir, winner of the “What Not to Wear” Grand Prix. He even managed to upstage a passionate, powerful and charmingly comic skate by nothing-to-lose Ryan Bradley that first brought the Spokane Arena crowd to its feet. Abbott routed the rest by more than 25 points – about four touchdowns in figure skating’s mostly inscrutable scoring structure, or Bush-over-Dukakis territory.

And it’s possible he changed the dynamic of the competition in Vancouver next month.

Possible. Abbott has been down this patch of ice before.

Just a year ago, after his first national title, Abbott staggered through an indifferent performance at the Four Continents meet and suffered a complete meltdown at the world championships, placing 11th. Explaining that Sunday – clad in a T-shirt decorated with a cartoon pig not airborne, but snapping pictures – he recalled a 2009 season that he’d started too early, a mind and body in need of a vacation and made assurances “that won’t happen again.”

And if something seems different about Abbott now, there is.

New coaches – after nearly a decade with Tom Zakrajsek, he signed on last May with husband-and-wife team Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen, their first pupil with world-class chops. A new home – he uprooted himself from Colorado to suburban Detroit. Even new tunes – barely a month before the start of the current season he dumped his free skate music for Saint-Saens’ “Symphony No. 3.”

All radical, even last-minute shifts with so much at stake – or perhaps necessary because so much is at stake.

“He has mentally grown up,” Sato said. “Making a decision like that, a hard decision, changing where you live, going into an Olympic season – that’s gutsy.”

But Abbott has navigated other crossroads. After winning that junior title in 2005, he did not qualify for nationals the following year, a failure that “made me realize how bad I actually wanted it, and I went back into the rink and worked five times harder than I ever have.

“Everyone has doubt in themselves, but I used to believe it. That little nagging voice in the back of my head that told me I couldn’t do it – I’d believe it. I’m learning I can quiet that voice and tell it to shut up.”

He certainly put a sock in it Sunday. Though he looks like Richie Cunningham representing the Happy Days Skating Club, his free skate gave off a veteran’s vibe – brisk, clean, precise and with jumps that set him apart from Olympians Lysacek and Weir. Now it’s a matter of duplicating it on an international stage – or improving it, which Abbott will try by adding a triple axel in Vancouver.

And yet even as a runaway national champion, it’s as if he’s being overlooked. While Lysacek and Weir engaged in some playful – and pointed – repartee in the post-skate, both turned their attention to text messaging while Abbott was quizzed. And when asked for gold medal prospects, Lysacek assessed the unretired Russian, Evgeny Plushenko, plus Canadian Patrick Chan and Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi.

But not Jeremy Abbott.

“I feel I have to prove myself every time I go out on the ice,” he said. “There’s always a new (judging) panel, new people, a new audience and I have to create something new and different than anything previously. But it’s not that I have to prove anything to the world that I’m a great skater.”

Well, actually, he does.

“Can he win it?” said Sato, twice an Olympian herself. “Sure, I think it’s possible.”

Anything is, aboard the flying pig.

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