SOCHI, Russia – Jeremy Abbott has long tried to hide the hurt behind his forever-sunny personality. He's an optimist. He looks for the good. The 28-year-old clearly craves being liked.
Abbott went down in spectacular fashion here Thursday in the men's figure skating short program. You probably saw it. He took the kind of header that didn't just bruise his body from hip to ribs and also his elbow but became one of those instant jokes across social media.
Let's laugh at the male figure skater slamming into the boards.
It also reignited the old story about Abbott. He's great in U.S. championships only to fall apart in world and Olympic championships. In short, the critics say, he chokes. And that was on the Internet plenty, too.
He responded Friday in two ways. First, he skated through pain, putting together a beautiful free skate for a score of 160.12, a personal best in international competition. He pulled some bigger tricks out, but he was strong and upright and finished by shouting, "Yes." That was the redemption. He finished with a total of 232.70.
Then, he responded to the critics. And this was the revenge.
Asked what he had to say to those who say he chokes, he first exhaled loudly, put his head back and said, "Ahhhh … I would just love…"
He turned to Barb Reichert of U.S. Figure Skating public relations.
"Sorry Barb, you're going to kill me," he said.
"No," she said. "I'm not. Bring it. Bring it."
Abbott brought it.
"I would just hold my middle finger in the air and say a big 'F you' to everyone who has ever said that to me because they have never stood in my shoes," he said, the kind of direct language not commonly found in the skating hall.
"They've never had to do what I had to do. Nobody has to stand center ice before a million people and put an entire career on the line for eight minutes of their life when they've been doing it for 20-some years. And if you don't think that that's not hard, you're a damn idiot.
"So some people can handle it better than others, but everyone has that mental struggle, everyone goes through the same doubts. I am not alone. They just come at different times and different moments. Some people have their moment at the Olympics, and some have theirs at the national championships.
"I'm proud to be standing here. I'm a four-time national champion and a two-time Olympian, and no one can take that away from me. So whatever people have to say about me, that's their own problem because I'm freaking proud of what I've done and I'm not going to apologize for any of it."
Figure skating is a cruel world, this lonely pursuit of essentially unattainable perfection, where the mental often overwhelms the physical and failure, big or small, is yours and yours alone, exposed for everyone to see on big ice in front of global cameras.
In the end of these competitions, there are usually just two or three competitors in the entire world who can get through their routines at a high level. Everyone else fails. That's reality.
Yet the rips come anyway, and no matter how much Abbott tried to ignore them, they stung. He doesn't take himself too seriously. At least, he tries not to. He said he looks up his falls on YouTube and tries to laugh it off, too.
"I saw a picture on Instagram yesterday [of Thursday's wreck], and it looked like I was diving into the ice," he said. "It gave me a chuckle, a painful chuckle but a chuckle."
That's probably a coping mechanism, though. And that's why Friday meant so much. He said he fell because of "personal pressure … It wasn't the Olympics or anything else. I just wanted it so bad. It's a very fine line, when you want something so bad it's a matter of squeezing something so hard rather than holding it and taking it. I kind of strangled it yesterday."
He came here to reach the podium, and while that didn't happen, he got up after a painful fall and left everything on the ice. No regrets. No excuses. If that's choking, then deal with it.
"This is a difficult sport," Abbott said. "And if I was to give up every time I fell down I would have been sitting at home watching these Games on television rather than being here."
When his clean skate was over, his two coaches from the Detroit Skating Club, Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen (who double as close friends), banged on the boards and jumped with pride. Sometimes they take the comments harder than Abbott.
"You know, it's hard," Dungjen said of the criticism. "It [hurts]. We take it personally and he takes it personally. … Let's not forget, he's a four-time champion. Sometimes I question people who say he chokes. How do you choke if you win four times?"
Abbott should leave Sochi with his head held high. First, he'll spend the week healing up and trying to take in every event left as a spectator. He knows this is it for the Olympics. He hasn't decided whether to enter the world championships later this winter. Retirement is coming soon.
But those decisions can wait. On Friday, he proved he could maximize his performance on the biggest stage imaginable. He proved he could shake off the physical and emotional toll of failing and falling.
He didn't reach the podium. He did prove more resilient than his critics have always contended.
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