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Olympics-Figure skating-It's looking rather dire for the U.S. - Weir

Reuters

By Pritha Sarkar

SOCHI, Russia, Feb 11 (Reuters) - If there was already a sense of foreboding in the American camp about the chances of their singles skaters climbing the Olympic podium in Sochi - the team competition will have done little to have settled Jeremy Abbott and his team mates' shattered nerves.

Four years after Evan Lysacek trumped a sulking Yevgeny Plushenko with a breathtaking free skate to win the gold in Vancouver, the fortunes of his 2014 colleagues seem to be in freefall as the United States face a shutout in men's and women's singles skating for the first time since 1936.

"From a numbers perspective, the Grand Prix final is the biggest pre-Olympic even where skaters from all over the world come together and are competing against one another... and before the Vancouver Olympics, there were three American men in those final six," three-times U.S. national champion Johnny Weir told Reuters in an interview.

"This season we weren't even that close to having a shot at going to the Grand Prix final for even one (male) skater. From a numbers standpoint, most likely this is the weakest team we've had in a long time at the Olympics."

The record books offer grim reading for U.S. fans as no American has won any of the 24 singles world championship medals that were up for grabs in the four years since the 2010 Olympics.

There has not been such a barren run stretching back to World War Two.

While the Americans might have skated away with the team bronze in Sochi, the event is unlikely to raise hopes of a miracle in the singles as that result was achieved mostly thanks to the dazzling display of ice dance couple Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

What Americans would not have missed is Abbott "falling on my butt" during a shocking short skate.

The four-times U.S. national champion fell and slammed into the boards following his opening quad, doubled a planned triple Lutz and fluffed his triple Axel.

It was little wonder Abbott skated off the ice holding his head in disappointment.

"I was a little scattered and so I was scattered on the ice," he said. "I'll make sure every hair is in place."

Having suffered numerous hairy moments during a season where his signature move appears to have become splat-crash-bang, and with a best score that is not even in the top seven among Sochi contenders, Abbott could be in for a rough ride.

His team mate Jason Brown has been introduced to the Iceberg Skating Palace as a "YouTube" sensation after his performance in the U.S. nationals went viral, but without a quad in his repertoire, he is also unlikely to be a challenger.

MISSING STARS

Among the women, new U.S. national champion Gracie Gold will also struggle to live up to her name. Despite a near flawless skate in the team event, she was blown away by Russian dynamo Julia Lipnitskaya in a field that did not even include world and Olympic champion Kim Yuna and Japan's Mao Asada.

Unfortunately for Abbott, Gold and company, the problems run deep in the U.S.

"Figure skating isn't popular in our country at the moment because we are missing stars in the ladies and men's events," said Weir, whose colourful analysis for American network NBC seems to be more of a ratings hit than what his compatriots are producing on the ice.

"While we have great ice dancers in Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and the possibility they can win this Olympics, ice dancing isn't really a sport that America has embraced.

"So they look to the ladies and men and right now, we don't have major medal hopes in either discipline. So that's why it's hard for the youth (to get into skating) as people don't want to get into something where Americans aren't winning."

Rather than dwelling on what might not happen in Russia, Weir said the skaters - including those who failed to make the Sochi cut - should use it as a learning curve so that they come back strongly in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

"I have a very positive feeling about some of the youth in my country," said the flamboyant Weir, who had hoped to compete in Russia before injury ended his career last year.

"Adam Rippon showed great stability in the grand prix series. He was attempting a quad Lutz which is the hardest jump anyone would have ever landed and he really has grown this year.

"Then we have young skaters like Max Aaron who's the (2013) national champion and Jason Brown who are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

"Jason is full of pizzazz and artistry and his jumps aren't his strongest assets whereas Max Aaron can land three quadruple jumps in his free programme which is rivalling (twice European champion) Javier Fernandez.

"That's just a whole another level of crazy jumping ability.

"America really has it all but we are missing a star, we're missing a person who is so well rounded - the artist, the athlete and somebody with a personality off the ice." (Editing by Ed Osmond)

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