SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Jeremy Abbott took the ice with a rakish grin, popping his suspenders as he skated to center ice and fixing the audience with a wink.
"I said, 'Let's put on a show, let's have some fun," he said.
He certainly did.
Abbott's easy, breezy performance to a swing medley scored a whopping 90.23 points at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday night, a personal best and a mark that puts him in world champion Patrick Chan's territory. The two-time national champion leads training partner Adam Rippon by a commanding 7.29 points going into Sunday's free skate.
"It was a lot of fun," Abbott said. "I did the skate I wanted to do and I'm in the place I wanted to be."
Earlier Friday, Meryl Davis and Charlie White took a big step toward their fourth straight ice dance title, winning the short dance with a score of 76.89. That gave them a four-point lead over Maia and Alex Shibutani going into Saturday's free dance.
Abbott is one of the most technically sound skaters in the world, with beautiful edges that carve the ice like a master craftsman and perfect body control. He's also one of the few skaters who has managed to maintain the balance between the performance quality that makes figure skating so entertaining and the tough physical tricks the system now demands.
But he's had a tendency to fall apart on the big stage, flopping at the 2009 world championships and again at the Vancouver Olympics. When it happened again last year when a third U.S. title was his for the taking, Abbott decided he'd had enough.
He no longer cares what anyone thinks about him, much less any nasty things that are said. He's skating for himself and his own enjoyment, concerned only with achieving the goals he's set.
The attitude adjustment is clearly working.
Abbott opened with a huge triple flip-triple toe loop combination that was silky smooth, and followed with a triple axel that coaches might want to use as an example for their students. He seemed to be dancing he was so light on his feet, and even those sitting way up in the rafters could see his newfound confidence.
The audience was on its feet before he finished, and Abbott couldn't have stopped grinning if he tried. When he heard his marks, he shook his head and said, "Unbelievable." He was still savoring the score when a fan yelled out, "You're awesome!" prompting Abbott to grin and point back at him.
"They're not Patrick Chan points at Canadians, but they're Patrick Chan points in an international competition," Abbott said, referring to the generous marks Chan got at the Canadian championships earlier this month.
The performance is a good omen for Abbott, who won the short program both times he won the U.S. title. But while his spot in the standings is the same, this feels nothing like those other times.
"I feel much more mature and much more prepared for this championship than I did for the other two that I won," he said. "This time, my focus is just on skating the best I can skate. It hasn't been about winning. It's not to do anything but skate two programs I love to skate and secure a spot on the (world) team and continue my season so I can achieve the goals I've set."
Abbott's performance would have been tough for anyone to top, and no one came close. In fact, most of the supposed contenders looked more like pretenders, with splats and spills galore. Richard Dornbush, last year's silver medalist, was a mess, botching every one of his jumps. Brandon Mroz, the runner-up in 2009, fell on a quad toe and also brushed the ice with his free leg on his triple lutz-double toe combination.
Rippon and Armin Mahbanoozadeh, who was third, were the few bright spots.
Big things have been expected of Rippon since his spectacular junior career. He swept the major titles in 2008 — U.S., world and Grand Prix final — and followed it with another junior world title in 2009. But Rippon hasn't been able to duplicate that success as a senior, with fifth place his best finish at nationals.
"The expectations were hard to deal with at first," he said. "I felt like I was supposed to have the same success right away as a senior."
The struggles sent him bouncing from coach to coach in both Canada and the United States before he finally landed with Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen in Detroit last June. But it took a bit of a meltdown during the Grand Prix season before Rippon turned a corner.
"I didn't know who I was as a skater anymore," he said. "I put myself in their hands and just trusted them, and it's paid off."
For the first time in several seasons, Rippon looked like the budding star he was always supposed to be. His performance to Russian folk music was both refined and in perfect character. He opened with a huge triple flip-triple toe loop combination, and his triple axel was even more impressive. The jump has been his downfall — often literally — in the past, but he landed it with such solid edge quality and smoothness that kids learning how to skate should YouTube it.
He had the crowd oohing and aahing over his Rippon triple lutz, done with both hands above his head, and his Russian split jump brought down the house. Fans were on their feet before his music ended, and Rippon shook his fists. When he saw his score, a new personal best, Rippon threw his head back and threw a couple little roundhouse punches.
"I had felt a little defeated before the short program in years past and I said I wasn't going to do that today," he said. "I have to go out there and fight for my career. Not just against other skaters, but for myself. I need to do this to give myself confidence again and I'm just really proud of myself."
Mahbanoozadeh had the misfortune of skating right after Abbott, but it didn't faze him a bit. He skated cleanly, and is just two points behind Rippon.
Davis and White have been unbeatable since finishing second to Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir at the 2010 world championships. They won the United States' first world title in dance last spring, and edged the Canadians again last month in the Grand Prix finals.
And as talented as the Shibutanis are, they're no match for Davis and White. At least, not yet.
Though every team skates to the same type of music in the short dance — Latin is this year's choice — Davis and White don't look close to anyone else. Their program was so intoxicating you were afraid to take your eyes off of them for fear you'd miss something original and unusual. Their edge quality was simply superb, and their speed would put Usain Bolt to shame.
But it's their presence that is truly captivating. Davis and White wear the title of champions easily, oozing confidence and self-assuredness.
Follow Nancy Armour at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour