LOS ANGELES – Evan Lysacek's first step toward mainstream stardom might not be a step at all.
It is more likely to be a ferocious yet graceful vertical leap, after which the American figure skater will hope to rotate four times in mid-air before making a seamless return to the ice along the thin edge of a single skate.
The quad jump is the most dangerous yet rewarding of all figure-skating maneuvers and a necessity for any man with designs on international hardware.
After the short program at the World Figure Skating Championships – Phase 1 in the two-step men's competition – Lysacek sits in second place following a dramatic routine that thrilled the Staples Center crowd.
On Thursday night, in the free program, he will bid to become the first U.S. men's figure skater since Todd Eldredge in 1996 to take home gold.
In terms of popularity and emotion, Lysacek tops the field, yet his score of 82.70 put him 1.7 behind opening-round leader Brian Joubert, primarily because of the Frenchman's implementation of a quad into his routine, even though it was not landed perfectly.
While Lysacek has the ability to perform the quad, an ankle injury and a lack of consistency make it fraught with danger. Yet without it, the best he can hope for might be silver.
With the Winter Olympics in Vancouver 11 months away, there is a growing sense within the sport that Lysacek could be poised for something special.
The ice performance events are hungry for domestic stars who can break out and foist themselves upon the national consciousness. If Lysacek can overhaul Joubert and claim worlds gold, it would establish him as the man to beat in Vancouver.
There won't be the same home advantage in Canada but the U.S. eyes will be far more keenly trained on Lysacek beneath the Olympic rings than they have been here this week, in the city the Illinois skater now calls home.
Like many sports in the summer and winter Games, public focus comes around once every four years, although competing in the familiar environment of the Staples Center has lifted Lysacek's spirits.
"I feel very comfortable here and I come here a lot to watch the Lakers," he said. "I feel good energy from this building and being able to compete at home is something special."
Even since Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan's shenanigans thrust the sport into a spotlight laced with notoriety in 1994, it has primarily been the women's events that have generated the greatest publicity.
However, U.S. hopes at worlds may rest with Lysacek as the women's squad is not expected to provide a medal challenge.
Lysacek has marketability and a flair for the flamboyant. He has engaged in a public war of words with fierce U.S. rival Johnny Weir over the past year, although hostilities between the pair had to be put on hold when Weir failed to qualify for worlds. And while Lysacek might not be a sporting bad boy in the traditional sense, he has an edge to him that could resonate in a broader market.
Another manner in which Lysacek has gathered attention is with his eye-catching outfits – despite not having fully embraced men's skating's significant lean toward the dramatic in recent years.
His outfits lack some of the sequined glitter and outrageousness of his rivals', yet his preference for glamour over glitz is somewhat refreshing. The 23-year-old gives his sport a tougher, slightly more rugged edge.
Maybe he is the right man at the wrong time. In past times, competitors could be penalized for wearing garb that was deemed to be too outlandish. Nowadays, sequins, Lycra and spandex are all the rage.
"With a simple costume, you can't hide behind much," Lysacek told the L.A. Times. "You have to dress up and have respect for the judges. You can't just skate in sweats and a cap. But who said anything about spandex and sequins?"
Lysacek's tall and lean frame is rumored to have led to interest from fashion houses, although he has yet to venture down the catwalk. Instead, he prefers to use the fashion world to create a performance wardrobe that stands out through style and substance rather than theatrical excess.
He has worn items from designers Gianfranco Ferre, Alexander McQueen and Christian Dior in competition but is adamant that the clothing aspect is, for him at least, merely a means to an end. The only name he will be concerned with Thursday night is that of Joubert, above his on the leaderboard.
"A lot is made of the outfits and the different ways to get attention," Lysacek said. "It definitely has its place, and it is important to put on a show. But the best way to get noticed is by being the best – and winning when it counts."