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Abbott out of shadows, but only briefly

January 28, 2011 |  8:38 pm

AbbottFor seven years, two names had been fixtures on the awards stand at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Either Johnny Weir (three titles, six podium finishes) or Evan Lysacek (two titles, six podiums) or both (five times) were medalists at every nationals since 2003.  Their rivalry became a highlight.

Both will be in Greensboro, N.C., this weekend -- Weir to get Skating magazine’s "Reader’s Choice" award Saturday, Olympic champion Lysacek to skate in an exhibition Sunday.

Neither is competing, and their absence from the field makes the men’s event as wide open as it has been in two decades, even if Jeremy Abbott is back seeking a third consecutive title.

After skating well enough Friday to take second in the short program despite low grades for the difficulty of his spins and footwork, Abbott made it clear he is glad to be out of the shadow that Weir and Lysacek cast.

It was a shadow he apparently resented since it kept people from noticing he had beaten them the last two years and skated brilliantly at nationals last year.

"They were never really a thought for me," Abbott said.  "They were just more people that I competed against and two people that got a ton of more attention than the rest of the field, and they are still getting attention.

"So it's nice to be here on my own and get all that attention to myself."

Ironically, Abbott was utterly upstaged later Friday by his one-time training partner, Ryan Bradley, who decided only three months ago to return to competition and won the short program by two points.  The free skate final is Sunday.

Abbott could regain the spotlight with a win Sunday and join Weir as the only men to win three straight national titles since the 1990 end of compulsory figures made outcomes far less predictable.  But he understands that won’t mean much until he improves on a dismal record in international championships –- ninth at the Olympics and both the 2008 and 2009 worlds, fifth against a watered-down field after the 2010 Olympics.

"Winning three in a row would be great," he said.  "For me, it would be better if I could carry it in the international season past nationals for the first time."

In the transformed ice dance event, which no longer includes compulsories and begins with a short dance, Maia and Alex Shibutani made a striking debut on the senior level.

The Michigan-based siblings, junior champions last year, executed three series of high-speed pirouettes, known as twizzles, and earned the highest possible levels for every element as they finished a strong second to Olympic silver medalists and training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

"A lot (of people who had not seen the Shibutanis before today) are thinking, 'Look at them, they are so wonderful,' " Davis said.  "For everyone who has been watching them the last couple years, it’s no surprise."

--Philip Hersh

Photo: Jeremy Abbott in Friday's short program.  Credit: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

For the record: An earlier version of this post said Jeremy Abbott finished 11th at the Olympics. He finished ninth.