Lysacek deserving of Olympic crownEvan Lysacek of the United States celebrates after winning the gold medal
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Evan Lysacek ignored it all. The nagging doubts in the furthest reaches of his mind, the loaded comments from his fiercest rival and the predictions of doom from those who questioned his Olympic title credentials.
On Thursday night, Lysacek turned the Pacific Coliseum into the scene of his own personal coronation. Fulfilling the dream that began 18 years ago on a neighborhood ice rink in Naperville, Ill., Lysacek pulled off his own version of the "Miracle on Ice" to cut down a legend and seize a gold medal.
The men's figure skating competition seemed destined to end with Lysacek sitting tantalizingly on the outside and looking in at brilliant Russian Evgeni Plushenko, the defending Olympic champion. Experts predicted Plushenko's power and poise and raw ferocity would be too much despite the American being the reigning world champion and a proven high-pressure performer.
And as Plushenko skated from the ice to take his seat for the Winter Olympics' most interminable minute's wait, both the Russian and most of the crowd felt he had done enough to be awarded the ultimate prize by the judging panel.
"I felt it was a winning performance, a personal victory, regardless of what anyone else did," said Lysacek, the first American gold medalist in men's singles since Brian Boitano in 1988. "I will never forget this performance and this night."
Not everyone liked the choice of Lysacek as champion, but there is a dignity about the 24-year-old that is impossible not to respect.
All throughout Lysacek's Olympic journey, from a broken foot a year ago that stymied his ability to include the quad jump to a sub-standard effort at the U.S. Nationals last month, he blocked out every last scrap of negativity. That clarity of thought and steely focus culminated with him skating a clean program to kick off the final group of the all-important free skate.
All the mental torture and muscle-wracking repetition produced the ultimate reward for Lysacek. The toughest decision he will make over the next few weeks will be which sports car to gift himself – an Aston Martin or a Bentley Coupe – to cruise around his adopted hometown of Los Angeles.
I was on the same flight to Vancouver as Lysacek just over a week ago. Even at 6 a.m., he had a strength of stride, firmness of handshake and clarity of thought that suggested he was ready to perform as if his life depended. And he did.
Going first in the final group was always going to be tough, yet Lysacek dug deep and found reserves of fortitude from the precise and obsessively ordered way in which he lives his life.
"His apartment is spotless," said coach Frank Carroll, who had coached three previous Olympic medalists but none that emerged with gold. "His clothes are all lined up in order. There is not a magazine out of place. The fridge is perfectly arranged.
"His lives his life that way. He is not the most talented of athletes, but he is the most hard-working. He goes through the specific process needed to become a champion and no one deserves this more."
Some will speculate whether the Olympic champion should be a man who did not perform the quad jump, the hardest element in the sport. Lysacek played it safe, not trusting his gimpy foot to support the maneuver.
But don't blame Lysacek for the judges' decision. Indeed, he deserves praise for having the savvy to know what would work, an understanding of the sport that in this case overrode an ability to perfect a four-fold whirling dervish impersonation.
There will never be uniformity of opinion in any sport that requires judging, but Lysacek did all he could to put himself in position and is a worthy winner.
"I felt great on the ice," he said. "I have for the past week. I was nervous but my coach Frank told me what to think. I had to believe in myself. I had to go out and skate with confidence. It was such a special skate that I will always remember it."
He will remember it as the biggest night of his life. He will remember how he held his nerve with everything on the line.
And he will remember how he stared into the eyes of a giant and refused to be daunted.