The men’s event in Omaha was truly inspiring to watch as it unfolded, from the short programs all the way through the free skates. Certainly, there were the more obvious highlights. There was magic built on quadruple jumps; there were dreams come true in National-Title form. But, there were moments of a lifetime created long before the NBC broadcast kicked in.
Early in the afternoon, the first groups of men took to the ice. Now, these weren’t the medal contenders, per se. There wouldn’t be the same tension as would fill the building later, as Jeremy Abbott tried to fend off his challengers. But, no one told the skaters that.
See, once again the beauty of the U.S. Championships was on display, as one by one, men took to the ice with only one thing to prove: they could live up to their own childhood dreams. These guys may not have the international experience, or, in some cases, the technical difficulty to rank them near the top of the leader board. But, their dreams are just as big, their determination just as strong as any one else in the field.
And the crowd at the CenturyLink Center that had been admirably supportive all week was given a few more magical moments to tuck away in their memories from Omaha.
I had the privilege of seeing a number of practice sessions throughout the week. The interesting thing about attending practices is that you see these skaters in a very different light that you do on competition day. They’re in control. They’re in their element. Their triple jumps are routine, the footwork is simply muscle-memory. It’s easy to see the raw talent on a practice session, because even with people watching, this is the world they live in every day. Training. Repetition. Perfecting each moment. But, all too often, that comfort you see on the practice ice, stays on the practice ice.
Sometimes, though, the lights come on, the opening pose is struck, and the practice success is history, because magic happens in the moment.
Wesley Campbell, skating in his fourth U.S. Championships, stopped at center ice, took a breath, and for the next four and a half minutes, it was as if he was painting the perfect picture to compliment each note of Ave Maria as it filled the arena. It was as if no one dared breath, for fear of breaking the spell. No one dared blink, for fear of missing a second of the magic.
He checked off triple jumps like they were as natural as breathing. He drew on the years of training to move without thinking. Instead, he appeared to be thinking only of the story he was telling on the ice.
That’s when you know it’s good — when the technique kicks in and makes the physically exhausting look easy, so that the artistry, the unique element of the sport, can shine.
It was a moment so brilliant it brought the crowd to its feet. Everyone in the building knew they had witnessed the fulfilling of a dream. Medals and scores were irrelevant. The satisfaction of living up to the potential of the moment was more than enough.
Then, a few skaters later, Alexander Johnson stepped on the ice. With subtlety to match his understated, classic, black outfit, he did so much more than I’d seen in practice. Sure, he’d been hitting the jumps all week. I expected as much (ahem … why, yes, I did mention him as a Fantasy Skating favorite!). But, what you can’t ever predict is how the pressure might translate into perfection. I’m not just talking perfect jumps. As with Campbell, it was as if Johnson’s edges were creating the music, not simply skating to it as the background noise.
Sure, his triple lutz – half loop – triple flip combo was impressive (like, WAY impressive). But it was more in the way he wove one element to the next, never getting ahead of himself or the music, never missing an opportunity to highlight the intricacies of the Eleanor Rigby track. The jumps and footwork were just part of the whole package. The spins came at the perfect time, and were performed in positions that never lost character of the piece.
As he extended into his final pose, the audience was once again reminded what it looks like to see a dream unfold over the course of four and a half minutes and become the kind of reality that makes you forget that the rest of the world exists. The kind of magic the U.S. Championships are made of. It was so good, it prompted Sandra Bezic to tweet that it was one of the best free skates she’d ever seen.
Seriously. If you didn’t watch those two, go find a video and watch now. Because you will witness two more of our American National Treasures.