Denney-Barrett bring fun back to US pairs skating

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett are the new U.S. champions and all but certain to be on their way to the Vancouver Olympics.

Denney and Barrett overwhelmed the competition with a high-energy, action-packed program Saturday. They have tough tricks, power and a go-for-broke attitude that has brought the fun back to U.S. pairs skating.

Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig are second, followed by Rena Inoue and John Baldwin.

The old U.S. Whiz Kids, meanwhile, find themselves in a very unusual spot. Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, so much a lock for Vancouver that Coca-Cola made them part of its Olympic ad campaign, finished fifth. The United States can send only two pairs to Vancouver. The Olympic team is to be announced later Saturday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Hey, all you guys not named Jeremy Abbott, Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir. Better start packing your programs for Sunday’s free skate now. Because with the way those three are skating, you’re going to need every trick you’ve got.

Abbott, Lysacek and Weir put on one impressive performance after another at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday night, leaving little doubt they are the class of the American field. And with their superior performance skills, the rest of the world ought to keep an eye on them, too.

“It’s not a cakewalk,” said Abbott, who leads Lysacek and Weir by four points. “With such a deep field, there’s extra pressure. You have to be on.”

The Americans have what might be their deepest talent pool in years, but only three spots for the Vancouver Games. As the reigning world and Grand Prix champion, Lysacek is all but assured of one spot. That meant a half-dozen guys came to nationals knowing they’d better be ready for a street fight.

It’s not over yet. But with a 10-point gap between Weir and the next-closest skater, the Big Three have a little safety net.

Abbott scored 87.85 points for his short program. Lysacek has 83.69 points and Weir is at 83.51.

“The flight home is when you should be relaxing and being conservative,” Weir said. “I’m going to try and do the best free program I have this season.”

Abbott discovered Jeff Beck’s version of “A Day in the Life” when he was going through iTunes and fell in love with it. He actually wanted to skate to it last year, and it’s easy to see why.

“I feel like the program is just kind of an extension of myself. And more than myself,” he said.

The bluesy, breezy number is the perfect complement to his skating style, and it’s easy to forget he’s doing incredibly difficult tricks as he carries you along. His triple flip-triple toe was done with such calm and ease, it flowed like one seamless move. He picked up a couple of extra points by doing his triple axel out of steps and followed with an effortless triple lutz.

As soon as he landed his last required jump, a huge smile crossed his face.

“It was like an explosion inside and it just felt really, really good,” Abbott said. “The rest of the program was just a blast. I had so, so much fun.”

So did the audience, clapping and oohing and ahhing over his intricate footwork and beautiful spins. The audience was on its feet before the last notes of his music had died, and Abbott shook his hands up and down, slapped them together and then gave a roundhouse punch in the air.

“I’m way more excited about this than last year,” Abbott said, quite a statement considering he’s the reigning U.S. champ. “I’m not worried about defending my title. My goal is to be one of the top three men and represent the United States at the Vancouver Olympics.”

Artistry has been Lysacek’s strength in recent years — few can interpret music like he can — but he’s taken that to a new level since winning the world title in March. He skates with a command and confidence that brings his characters to life. When he did his footwork, his blades danced across the ice as if possessed by magic. The powerful beats of his “Firebird” music were perfectly punctuated by bold movements.

His only flaw was on his opening triple axel, with a stepout on the landing.

“I got too close to the wall,” Lysacek said. “That happens. I’m big.”

Weir would have seemed a lock for the Olympic team 18 months ago, the bronze medalist at the 2008 world championships and a fixture on the international scene. But he found himself shoved to the sidelines after his dismal performance at last year’s nationals in Cleveland, missing the world championships for the first time since 2003.

When they were in his home country no less.

Weir was so devastated he actually contemplated quitting, a thought that seemed incomprehensible after perhaps his best short program in two seasons.

“When you have the audience standing, screaming for every element, to have that kind of energy … it’s the most amazing sensation as a competitive sportsman,” he said afterward, still in awe. “It made me regret even thinking about not even trying.”

His “I Love You, I Hate You” program was a perfect blend of his soft elegance and his commanding presence, showcasing his considerable versatility.

The first half was all business — if you’re a fashion house in Milan, that is. The jumps were strong and secure, but done with long edges in lyrical style. But when the tempo of his music changed, so did his persona. His muse, Lady Gaga, would surely approve of his vamping, as he put one hand behind his head and flirted with people in the first rows. His footwork made the fans’ hearts race, and he finished with the perfect Johnny Weir flourish, spinning so quickly the pink tassel hanging off his left shoulder was a blur.

“This is right up there,” Weir said of where this performance ranked. “… It’s absolute revenge for me to come back and be strong.”